If you are a prince, why would you leave the palace of comfort and seek to become a hermit? Leaving the palace would probably be the last thing on your mind, but based on a true story that happened around 2,600 years ago, it happened. A prince named Siddhartha (meaning “every wish fulfilled”) decided to leave the palace to seek the meaning of life. He wanted to find a way out of suffering – suffering from sickness, old age, and death; suffering from the constant changes in life we don’t know how to deal with; suffering from our negative emotions.
At the age of 29, after Prince Siddhartha got married, he witnessed four sights that forever changed his life. He saw an old man lying on the street, begging for food. He saw the sick man’s face, covered with ugly sores, and could hardly breathe. This was the first time Prince Siddhartha had seen an old and sick person, as he was well protected by the King. There had been a prediction when he was born that Siddhartha would only become a king if he was not confronted with the less pleasant aspects of life, such as death, disease, and old age. So the king made sure that Siddhartha lived in luxury; disease, old age, and death were unknown to him.
After a few days, Siddhartha and his servant, Channa, dressed up as common folk and wandered through the city. It was much different than when they’d visited before. Rather than dancing and celebrating, the people were all very busy. Many were working hard at whatever their trade was – and doing so quite happily.
During this journey, they saw a small group of people carrying a flat board holding the body of a man. The body was still as a stone as they lowered it onto a burning pyre. The man on the board remained motionless as the flames swallowed him.
Siddhartha watched all this in disbelief – he had never witnessed death before. He turned to Channa and asked, “Why is that man lying there while the flames burn him up?”
“He is dead my prince. No life flows through him – it has left the body. Flames cannot hurt him now.”
“Do we all die, Channa?”
“Yes, my prince. We all do.”
When they returned to the palace, Prince Siddhartha was shocked and dismayed by this new concept of death. He stayed up all night thinking about old age, illness, and death.
Many days later, Siddhartha revisited the city. Channa, his servant, drove the carriage through the streets where Siddhartha saw a man in an orange robe who seemed at peace. “Who is that man in the orange robe, Channa? Why does he look so peaceful?”
“That is a hermit, my prince. He asks for offerings of food and walks around telling people how to live their lives in peace and harmony.” Just when he decided to become a hermit, he was informed that his wife, Yaśodharā, had
just given birth to a baby boy. His father had prepared a great feast in celebration of his newborn. Siddhartha attended the feast and saw many people happily dancing and drinking. They didn’t realize that one day they would grow old, get sick, and die. Prince Siddhartha sat with deep reflection on what he encountered throughout the dancing, singing, and feasting, and fell asleep in the middle of it all. He woke up surrounded by drunken patrons. He was displeased by their presence and the surroundings. He left and went to his sleeping wife and newborn son. He watched them sleep for a long time, then made a decision.
“I must leave this place and live the life of a hermit. I have to find a way to defeat old age, illness, and death.” The palace where he had lived his whole life had now become a prison to him. Knowing the king would try to stop him, Siddhartha left the palace in the dead of night to become a hermit. Old age, sickness, and death are situations that all of us must endure, but how could he finally confront the mental tortures of impermanence? The greatest departure is about sacrifice; it’s about leaving your comfort behind because you believe there is a higher purpose beyond what you seek. The prince set aside his personal needs and desires to serve mankind for all time.
This prince who left the palace later became the Shakyamuni Buddha, the wisest teacher who influenced the world for centuries with his teachings on how to overcome the greatest enemy – your own self/mind.
I tried to put myself in his shoes the night he left the palace. It must have taken a lot of courage to leave everything behind, seeking the unknown with foreign ideas of what life should be. He must have been confident that he could find the answer to his troubled mind. What was his main motivation? What drove him to leave the comfort of the palace? Many of us will remain living in a bubble for as long as it doesn’t burst. Little did Prince Siddhartha know, he already understood the first noble truth that would become his first teaching: all life is subjected to sufferings or satisfactoriness. He just hadn’t realized the cause and the way out of suffering.
I don’t think the hardest night is the night before he gained enlightenment – the hardest night in Siddhartha Gautama’s life was the night he left his palace, the night he left everyone and everything behind to seek something that no one else could comprehend. He was only 29 then; he’d been raised in privilege and luxury, and he had never suffered for a moment. But he’d seen how others suffered, and it shocked him. He resolved to live as a homeless hermit to seek liberation from the cycle of life and death so everyone could be liberated from this kind of suffering.
I think Siddhartha had made up his mind to leave his luxurious life behind, but leaving his wife and son was almost too hard to bear. I read somewhere that his wife, Yasodhara, only pretended to sleep. She knew Siddhartha’s plan to escape the palace and seek the path of liberation, and she wanted him to accomplish it. Maybe she lay still when she heard him lift the curtain because she thought that if she looked into his eyes, he might lose his courage and stay. But what if Siddhartha had turned back? Maybe it would have been a story about a great king who served his people. Had he remained in the royal palace, his service would have been confined to his own family or his kingdom. He would have gone through life and death like everyone else without awakening.
I’m always inspired by the Buddha’s courage and persistence. The way he seeks enlightenment makes me work harder no matter what I face or how mentally disturbed I am. Don’t give up searching or seeking what you believe in, especially if it’s best for all sentient beings. We keep searching for happiness, but in this case, Buddha saw that happiness comes with sorrow and pain. He searched beyond happiness, for liberation, even though many wouldn’t comprehend this intricate teaching or how to be liberated.
However, without his departure 2,600 years ago, we might not understand the true nature of our existence. It’s about how he handled his disturbed mind – maybe being a hermit was not the solution, but he saw the best approach during his troubled times. He didn’t let go or give up; he tries to find a way to seek liberation for others. We might not be the Buddha – some of you might not even be Buddhist – but we can always feel inspired by the teachings of Buddha.
For Prince Siddhartha, changes needed to be made to find the true meaning of life’s existence and purpose. He chose something beyond his own agenda for the sake of all humankind who was suffering. Life is not easy – it’s not black and white – but even through suffering, we can learn something. It’s incredible when we have the courage, discipline, and determination to reflect on everything we experienced and find a way to move on.