BY JOSEPH CAMPBELL
The story of the Buddha’s childhood is that he was born as a prince and that, at the time of his birth, a prophet told his father that the infant would grow up to be either a world ruler or a world teacher. The good king was interested in his own profession, and the last thing he wanted was that his son should become a teacher of any kind. So he arranged to have the child brought up in an especially beautiful palace where he should experience nothing the least bit ugly or unpleasant that might turn his mind to serious thoughts. Beautiful young women played music and took care of the child. And there were beautiful gardens, lotus ponds, and all.
But then one day the young prince said to his chariot driver, his closest friend, “I’d like to go out and see what life is like in the town.” His father, on hearing this, tried to make everything nice so that his son, the young prince, should see nothing of the pain and misery of life in this world. The gods, however, saw to it that the father’s program for his son should be frustrated.
So, as the royal chariot was rolling along through the town, which had been swept clean, with everything ugly kept out of sight, one of the gods assumed the form of a decrepit old man and was standing there, within view. “What’s that?” the young prince asked his charioteer, and the reply he received was, “That’s an old man. That’s age.”
“Are all men then to grow old?” asked the prince.
“Ah, yes,” the charioteer replied.
“Then shame on life,” said the traumatized young prince, and he begged, sick at heart, to be driven home.
On a second trip, he saw a sick man, thin and weak and tottering, and again, on learning the meaning of this sight, his heart failed him, and the chariot returned to the palace.
On the third trip, the prince saw a corpse followed by mourners. “That,” said the charioteer, “is death.”
“Turn back,” said the prince, “that I may somehow find deliverance from these destroyers of life — old age, sickness, and death.”
Just one trip more — and what he sees this time is a mendicant monk; “What sort of man is that?” he asks.
“That is a holy man,” the driver replies, “one who has abandoned the goods of this world and lives without desire or fear.” Whereupon the young prince, on returning to his palace, resolved to leave his father’s house and to seek a way of release from life’s sorrows.