“If you had your way, if you were omnipotent, you would create an ideal situation for your children, an ideal environment. Everything would be right: they go to school, do well there, then go to university, become brilliant minds, meet a beautiful partner, have beautiful children, buy a nice house. Everything would work so well. They would make no mistakes, experience no suffering. What would the end result be? It would be a very superficial family, to say the least. They would be happy doing their shopping… No suffering has ever crossed their path. They hadn’t made any mistakes. And yet, it’s every human’s destiny.” — Eckhart Tolle.1
He lived under the wing of his overprotective father well into his late twenties, not knowing anything about the outside world. There was nothing that his father wouldn’t do to keep him distracted and entertained: castles for every season of the year, private hunting grounds, and lush green parks.
He had dozens of servants attending to his every need. Surrounded by unimaginable luxury, every day was like a feast to him. But he was still unhappy.
Even marrying the most beautiful girl in the entire kingdom didn’t satisfy him for long. And so one day, against the wishes of his father, he decided to go outside for the first time.
If you’ve read so far, you’ve probably guessed that the young man I was referring to was Siddharta Gautama, the name Buddha had before his enlightenment.
As you can see, his father almost succeeded in creating ideal conditions for his only son to protect him from the outside world. But in the end, he did go out, made mistakes, suffered, and in the end obtained enlightenment.
At first, this might not be obvious, but the four sights the prince saw after leaving the castle play a crucial role in understanding the first noble truth of Buddhism — Dukkha.
Because as you’ll see after reading the article, the experiences Buddha had outside the castle can clearly illustrate the essence of Dukkha.
Even though Siddharta gained permission to venture outside the castle, his father did not give up on shielding his son from the horrors of the world.
He ordered that on the day his son visits the city, streets should be clean, everyone should wear festive clothes, be cheerful and happy.
But as the young prince was going through the streets, he saw a strange man. He was thin as a stick, and it seemed like every ounce of strength he had was used to keep him on his feet. He was wearing very old and dirty rags which blended with his dry and wrinkled skin. His eyes were dim and devoid of life. He dragged himself along the streets mumbling and begging people for food, but no one understood a word that came from his toothless mouth.
The prince was shocked. Never before he saw a man like that. “Who is that man? he asked his driver Channa. “That can’t be a man! Why is he all bent? Why is he trembling? What’s wrong with his eyes? Where are his teeth? Why his hair is silver and not black as mine? Was he born like that?”
“That is an old man,” replied Channa. “He was not born like that. When he was young, he was just like us, strong and beautiful, but now due to his old age, he became like this. Everyone who lives long enough in this world become like this old man. This process can’t be stopped.
The prince ordered Channa to go back because he was very distressed by the sight of the old man and wanted to think everything over.
On the third day, he went out again and walked around the city to learn more about the lives of ordinary people.
It was getting dark when they came across a strange weeping crowd. They were coming along the street followed by four men carrying a plank with a still figure laying on top.
The prince and his driver followed the crowd to the bank of the river where they finally stopped. The plank bearers took the person and rested him on a pile of wood and set it on fire. The man was quiet and not moving while flames engulfed his body.
“What is this Channa?” asked the prince. “Why is he laying still and let these men burn him up? Doesn’t he feel any pain?
“He is dead,” replied Channa.
“Dead? Does everybody die?”
“Yes, all living things must die eventually, it’s a natural process that can’t be stopped.”
The prince was so shocked that he didn’t say a word on the way back to the palace. He went to his room and for the rest of the day sat in deep thought.
The shock from witnessing old age, sickness, and death affected the prince so much that he spent many days in contemplation and distress.
Finally, he decided to visit the city for the fourth time. On the way to the park, he saw a happy man sitting beside the road. He had a shaved head and was wearing an orange robe; a smile on his face was so radiant that it immediately drew young prince’s attention.
“Who is this man in an orange robe?” asked the prince. “Why does he look so happy and carefree? What does he do for a living?”
“That is a monk,” replied Channa. “He gave up everything to live in a temple. He goes from house to house for food and teaches people how to be peaceful and live a happy life.”
After hearing Channa’s reply, the prince felt happy for the first time in many days. “I must become like this monk,” he thought to himself. “I must leave everything behind to find enlightenment.”
The next day, at the age of 29, the prince left the castle and became a wandering monk. After six years he obtained enlightenment and delivered the first sermon to a group of 5 ascetics in the Deer Park at Isipatana near Benares.
This is how he defined the first noble truth:
“The Noble Truth of suffering (Dukkha) is this: Birth is Dukkha; aging is Dukkha; sickness is Dukkha; death is Dukkha; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are Dukkha; association with the unpleasant is Dukkha; dissociation from the pleasant is Dukkha; not to get what one wants is Dukkha—in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are Dukkha.”2