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The Four Signs

In spite of having everything he wanted, Siddhartha became bored and restless. One day, when he was 29, he asked his coachman, Channa, to take him for a drive in to the city. They had not gone far before they saw a hunched-up, weary-looking old man. At last the King's precautions had failed.

Siddhartha asked Channa to stop. 'What is that? It looks like a man but his hair is white, he has no teeth, his skin is wrinkled, and his back so bent that he has to lean on a stick. What kind of man is he?'

'He is an old man,' said Channa, 'bowed down by years.'

'Does this happen to everyone, Channa? Or is it only this man who grows old?'

'Time lets no man escape old age, my lord. He was once a young man and full of energy as yourself.'

Siddhartha returned home full of thought, too troubled to speak. The next day he ordered Channa to take him out again. This time they saw a sick man who was so ill that he rolled and writhed on the ground. His mouth foamed and his eyes were bloodshot. Once more the prince asked if any person could become ill. When Channa said yes, he returned home full of heaviness and doubt.

A third time they went out and came upon a funeral procession. The body lay still and lifeless and the mourners were weeping and wailing. Channa told the prince, 'Death is the end of life. You body dies when it can go on no longer. But there is nothing strange about it, for everyone who is born must sooner or later die.'

Siddhartha and Channa drove out a forth time and, as before, an unusual sight awaited them. This time it was not a sad scene. It was a man with a shaven head, dressed in a yellow robe, standing barefoot, and holding a bowl in his hands. His face was calm and peaceful.

'Who is this?' asked Siddhartha. 'Can it be a god who stands there, so serene and happy? He looks as if the sorrows of life do not touch him.'

'He is a wandering monk. He has no home, but shelters in caves and woods. He begs for his food. He tries to be pure-hearted and seeks the truth of life.'

'How I would like to follow such a way as that,' said Siddhartha. 'That way will be my way, the forests will be my shelter, my only home. I will leave the palace tonight, Channa. Have my horse saddled and ready.'

The Departure

That night there was a great feast and the dancing girls performed before the prince. But he was weary of such sights and he fell asleep. When the lamps of scented oil were nearly out and the rest of the palace slept, Siddhartha awoke. He went to look on his sleeping wife and baby for the last time. He then rode out of the palace on his horse with Channa riding by his side. They crossed a river. At the other side Siddhartha took off his rich silk robes and put on humble yellow cotton ones. He gave his jewels to Channa. Then he took out his sword and cut off his long flowing hair.

'Take my clothes, jewels and sword back to my father, Channa. Tell him that I am going away to find the real meaning of life and death. When I have found it, I will come back to see him and my wife and son.'

Loneliness and Starvation

For the next six years Siddhartha wandered through the plains and forests of northern India. Sometimes he was afraid of the great woods, where tigers roamed: 'How hard it is to be a lonely forest-dweller. The silent trees bear heavily on the man who has not yet found his true self.'

But yet he went on, for he knew he must find out the truth about his own existence. He found two religious teachers, who taught him yoga, concentration and meditation, but he did not find enlightenment there. Then he joined a group of five other wanderers like himself. They told him he should fast - eat very little food - and then he would find the truth. So Siddhartha ate just one bean a day, or one grain of rice.

He became very weak and ill. One day a milkmaid went past and offered him a bowl of milk. He drank it. Then he ate some food and began to feel strong again. 'From now on I will take the middle way. I shall neither starve my body nor feed it too richly, but will eat just what is needed and no more.' The five wanderers could not believe that Siddhartha had broken his fast and left him.

The Bodhi Tree

He went on alone. He thought of the six years that had passed since he left his father's palace. He had still found no answer to all the suffering in life, why it is there and how it can be overcome. At last he came to a great tree, later to be called the bo-tree (from 'bodhi' which means wisdom). 'I shall sit beneath this tree and though my flesh and bones should waste away and my life-blood dry up, I shall not move again until I have found the truth.'

He sat and meditated. Day turned to night and the full moon of May came up. Now Mara, the evil one, came to him. According to legend, Mara tempted him with many things of the world including a great longing to go back to his wife and child and give up his long search. But, although Siddhartha was tired and discouraged, his will to find enlightenment was stronger.

Then, it is said, Mara hurled thunderbolts at him but they turned to sweet-scented petals as they neared him. And Mara caused huge jagged lighting flashes which turned to soft sounds of music in his ears.

Last of all, Mara shouted, 'Even if you find out the truth, who do you think will ever believe you? What right do you have to claim the throne of enlightenment?.

Siddhartha touched the ground with his hand and replied, 'The earth will bear witness, to all my past action of purity.' Mother earth rose from the ground and brought forth a great flood which swept Mara and his hosts away.

Early life | Four signs | Bodhi tree | Enlightenment | Noble Truths | Life & Death | Asoka | Books | Buildings | Festivals | Practices | Rites | Glossary