The First Sight: Old Age
For this rare and important outing, Prince Siddhartha had a faithful charioteer, Chandaka, to accompany him. As he was riding through the city, he saw before him, in the middle of the road, a grey-haired man with wrinkled skin, who was dressed in rags and was almost blind. He looked very weak as his legs could hardly support his body. Prince Siddhartha was stunned for he had never seen a very old man before. At once, he asked Chandaka for an explanation. “What has happened to this man? Why can’t he walk upright? Why is his hair grey? Why isn’t it black like ours? Why has he no teeth? Tell me, Chandaka,” said the prince.
“He is a man — an old man! Once he was young and strong, with black hair and strong white teeth. Now he is old. One day, we will be like him too!” answered Chandaka.
“Is there no way to stop old age?” asked the prince.
“No, everyone, even the beautiful, the strong and the courageous, will become old one day,” came Chandaka’s reply.
“So old age destroys memory, beauty and courage, and yet with such a sight before their eyes, people are not disturbed!” the prince exclaimed. Deeply moved by such a sight of suffering, he ordered that they return to the palace immediately for he was full of sorrow after discovering the nature of old age.
The Second Sight: Sickness
On another occasion, Prince Siddhartha wanted to visit the park again. The king reluctantly agreed to let him go. However, this time there were no special decorations and no crowds to welcome him. The city was to be seen as it was, with the common people carrying out their daily routine. On this trip, the prince found the scene vastly different from that in the royal palace. Suddenly, the moan of a man lying on the ground attracted his attention. The prince just could not understand what was happening and so he turned to Chandaka for an explanation,“What’s wrong with him, Chandaka? He is crying; he is panting; he can hardly talk!”
“This is a sick man. He is groaning in pain. He cannot even speak,” explained Chandaka.
“Why is he sick?” the prince asked.
“Sickness comes to any man at any time. We too can become sick. No one is continuously in good health. It is natural to be sick,” replied Chandaka.
“Is there no cure?”
“A cure is possible, but a man may become sick again and again,”
“This is the suffering of sickness before their eyes and yet people are not disturbed. How ignorant are men who can enjoy themselves in the shadow of sickness!” the prince exclaimed in despair. He had never known before that man could get so seriously ill. He himself was strong and healthy, and so were those around him in the palace. This was the first time he saw what sickness was like, Deeply moved, he discontinued his journey to the park and returned to the palace in a confused and unhappy state of mind.
The Third and the Fourth Sights: Death and Renunciation
All this did not deter the prince from wanting to visit the park again. For the third time, he sought permission from the king to go out of the palace. The king agreed and arranged for some entertainment in the park. On the way, the prince saw a funeral procession in the city. The people were crying as they followed the men who were carrying the body of a man that laid stiff on a plank.
It was a sight which left the prince puzzled. Again he turned to Chandaka for an answer, “Those men, Chandaka, what are they doing? Why is that man lying on the plank so stiff and unmoving?”
“That man cannot move. He cannot speak, nor cry, nor breathe. He is dead.“
“Is this death? Can it also happen to everyone?” asked the very perplexed prince.
“Yes, my lord, everyone must die one day. We will die too!” replied Chandaka.
Prince Siddhartha was surprised, confused and sad. He had never known that death could happen to everyone. “Can we stop death?” asked the prince.
“No,” was the reply from Chandaka.
“This is the end for all men, and yet people are not afraid and take no notice of death!” exclaimed the prince.
The prince, filled with deep sorrow, ordered Chandaka to turn back as before. However, the charioteer continued the journey to the park because the king had already arranged for music and dance to be performed. At the park, the prince was unimpressed by the performance for his mind was occupied with the problems of old age, sickness and death.
While absorbed in thought, he suddenly saw an ascetic in a yellow robe, who appeared very serene and happy. “Who are you?” the prince asked the man.
“I am an ascetic who has left home in search of the solution to the problems of old age, sickness and death. Now I have no permanent home. I take shelter under a tree or in a deserted temple. I live on food given by the people,” the ascetic replied.
The prince remained quiet but in his mind was the wish to be like this happy ascetic. Prince Siddhartha had seen the unavoidable sufferings of life, that is, old age, sickness and death. He had also seen a happy man with a calm mind, that is, an ascetic who led a free life without being confined in any place. These four sights had given him a new insight into the meaning of life. He thought, “The luxuries of the palace, this healthy body, this rejoicing youth! What do they mean to me? Someday, we may be sick; we shall become old; from death there is no escape. Pride of youth, pride of life, all thoughtful people should cast them aside.”
“A man searching for the true meaning of life should look for a solution. There are two ways of trying to solve the problems of life. One way is to see the problems of old age, sickness and death and to forget them by indulging in pleasures which are not lasting. This is the wrong way. The right way is to recognise that old age, sickness and death are unavoidable and look for a means of overcoming them permanently. By living a life of pleasure in the palace, I seem to be following the wrong way. ”
The luxuries of the palace did not attract him anymore. He knew that he would have to leave the palace in order to find the Truth.