One fine day about twenty-six centuries ago, a son was born to King Suddhodhana and Queen Mahamaya of the country of the Sakyas in northern India. The child was named Siddhartha, Queen Mahamaya died.
A hermit was called to the palace to predict the prince’s future. This sage foretold that Prince Siddhartha would become either a Buddha or else a ruler of the world. The hermit foretold that if the prince saw four certain sights he would renounce the world and become a Buddha. These four sights were declared to be an old man bent with age, a sick man in great pain, a dead man and a wandering beggar. The king desired his son to grow up to be a ruler of the world and decided to keep all knowledge of pain and sorrow from him. The Gautama family, into which Siddhartha was born, was very ambitious for the young prince.
Siddhartha’s education began early in life and he was taught all the leading arts of that time. He became a skilful archer, a clever swordsman and a good rider. Soon his knowledge became greater than that of his teachers. His father gave him everything the heart could desire and the young prince did not know there was sorrow anywhere in the world. At an early age he was married to the beautiful Princess Yasodhara. The king built for him three large and beautiful palaces, one for each of the three seasons of India, and he and his wife lived happily in all this luxury.
One day Siddhartha sent for Channa, his charioteer, and they drove to the royal pleasure grounds. On their way they came across an old man bent with his advanced age, just as had been predicted at Siddhartha’s birth. At this sight, Siddhartha asked Channa why the man was in such a condition. Channa told him that all men became like that if they lived to great age. This news made the prince very unhappy and he told Channa to drive back to the palace. When the king heard that the first prediction had been fulfilled, he was very disturbed and ordered that all sorrowful sights be kept away from his son.
Soon the prince forgot all about the incident and, once again, Channa drove his master to the royal pleasure gardens. On their way they met with the second of the predictions, a man suffering from great pain. The poor man’s legs and body were swollen. Siddhartha, filled with great pity, jumped down from his chariot to help the suffering man. He asked Channa to tell him why this man acted so strangely. Thus the prince learned about sickness and pain and the second prediction was fulfilled. The prince returned sadly to his palace. When the king heard of this occurrence he was greatly disturbed, because his son had now seen two of the predictions.
After some days, the prince drove out in his chariot once more. This time they saw a dead body lying by the roadside. Prince Siddhartha then asked what this sight meant and Channa told him of the death and how it comes to all living beings. Once more the prince returned to his palace with a heavy heart, wondering why these sad things happened. When the king heard that the third prediction had been fulfilled, he was more distressed than ever. The king did not wish his son to become a Buddha. The warlike Sakyas preferred to be rulers of the world.
After some days had passed, the prince once more asked Channa to drive him about the city and into the great parks. On this drive they passed a man with shaven head, dressed in yellow robes and carrying a bowl in his hands. This man seemed to be peaceful and happy as he walked quietly along. Siddhartha saw people come out from their houses and place food in the bowl carried by the man in yellow robes. The prince asked Channa who the man was and why he wore such strange clothing and carried a bowl in his hands. Channa told his master that the man with shaven head was a religious mendicant, a monk, who got his food by begging, after having renounced the world. Thus was the fourth prediction fulfilled.
When Channa drove the prince back home he saw that his master was very thoughtful. This was because Siddhartha had decided that he, too, wished to renounce the world and its pleasure and seek for the cause of sorrow and sickness, old age and death. After he made this decision he felt calm and peaceful. But, just at this moment, a messenger arrived to tell him that a son was born to him. The baby prince was given the name of Rahula. There were great celebrations of joy over the birth of the little prince, but Siddhartha did not join in the merry-making. He had made up his mind to go away and become a wandering, homeless monk.
At midnight, when the merry-making was still going on, the prince called Channa and told him to saddle Kanthaka, the prince’s horse. Siddhartha told Channa that he was going to go away from home and become a wanderer seeking the cause of human misery. While Channa was putting the saddle on Kanthaka, the prince went to his wife’s room and took a last look at Yasodhara and the little prince, his son. Both were sleeping peacefully. Siddhartha turned and swiftly went down to the courtyard and mounted his horse. His mind was made up. He and Channa rode a great distance and, finally, they came to a place where Siddhartha removed his royal robes, cut off his long hair and put on yellow robes. Then he ordered Channa to take the horse and return to Kapilavastu, the capital city of the Sakyas. Channa’s heart was very sad to receive this command, but he obeyed his master and went away. This act on Prince Siddhartha’s part is known as “the Great Renunciation.”
Siddhartha then became a common poor wanderer, begging for his food and having no home he could call his own. At first he found this life very hard to bear, after having lived for so long in princely fashion, but he soon got used to the hardship. He slept in forests and caves and constantly was looking for a holy teacher who could tell him why there is always sorrow in life. But this was like looking for a needle in a haystack and, no matter how much patience he had, he never succeeded in getting the answer to the riddle of life.
For six years Siddhartha almost starved himself, hoping that by this extreme way of life he might obtain enlightenment. Because he led such a strict life he became known as a very holy man and some followers were attracted to him. Five became his disciples and followed him everywhere. But one day Siddhartha was almost dead from hunger and thirst and the effects of having lived such a hard life. He saw he was no nearer to enlightenment than when he had started his search. So he decided to follow a middle way that would avoid all extremes. When he began to take sufficient food and to live normally, his followers left him because they thought Siddhartha was no longer holy.
Finally Siddhartha saw clearly that the only way he could ever find the truth would be to find it for himself. He seated himself under the spreading boughs of a giant tree and vowed he would never leave the spot until he had attained enlightenment. For forty nine days and nights he sat in meditation and, as the morning star of Vaisakha came into view, he gained final, complete and perfect enlightenment and knew the cause and cure of all human sorrow. The tree has ever since been known as “the Bodhi Tree” – the tree of enlightenment. After the enlightenment, Prince Siddhartha was known only as the Buddha, which means “He who knows.”
The enlightenment took place when the Buddha was thirty-five years old. He took pity on the world and decided to teach the Dharma (the system that leads to freedom from sorrow) to all who would listen. For forty-five years he wandered over much of India and taught. Many, many thousand listened reverently to Him and there was great sorrow when he finally passed away at the age of eighty. But Lord Buddha said that he would live in his teachings. Therefore, if we really wish to know Lord Buddha and honour him, the best way to do that is to study the Dharma and then try to practise it in our lives. That is the main reason why we are studying these lessons about the Buddha’s teachings. If we really learn these lessons and use them in our daily lives then we shall be making a good start on the road to happiness.