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The Life of Sakyamuni Buddha

Search for Meaning

As the prince’s mind engaged in a profound struggle, his father the king, remembering the words of the sage Asita who had offered a prophecy regarding the prince, worried profoundly that the prince might leave home to seek the path. One day, he heard that the prince planned to leave the castle and visit the forest, and he ordered his attendants to remove all foul and ugly things from the prince’s view. He ordered the attendants to clean the roads, decorate the city, and sweep and clean the garden. The prince, accompanied by his attendants, left by carriage from the East Gate. On the road, he caught sight of a man laboriously shuffling along. The man appeared to be a hunchback; his hair was white; his body was emaciated; and he leaned on a cane. When the prince asked the charioteer what manner of man he was, the charioteer answered, “An old man.” The prince said, “Am I going to become like that man?” the charioteer said, “All living beings, whether noble or ignoble, are unable to escape this fate.” The prince became distressed, and thought of visiting the garden vanished, so he immediately ordered the chariot to return to the palace.

The four gates

The second time, the prince left the city through the South Gate. He caught sight of a man who had wasted away to the bone. While he writhed in pain in the middle of a rubbish heap and panted, beads of perspiration flowed down his jaundiced skin. The prince asked, “Will I also someday become ill like that man?” The charioteer answered, “No one is able to escape this suffering.” Again the prince ordered his chariot back to the palace.

King Suddhodana heard about this and became increasingly distressed. With added severity, he ordered his attendant to clean every part of the city. But when the prince left the city through the West Gate, he chanced upon a procession of people grieving mournfully and bearing a dead man on a bier. The prince sighed and asked, “Alas, in the end, am I going to become like that man?” The charioteer answered, “All living things must inevitably die.” Therefore that day, again the chariot was ordered back.

On the next occasion, when he left the city through the North Gate, he met a man clothed in a saffron robe, walking along with great dignity. His hair and beard were shaved off, and he was carrying a begging bowl in his hands. When the prince asked the charioteer, “What manner of man is he?” the charioteer answered, “A mendicant who seeks the path.” The prince stepped off the chariot, bowed to the man and said, “What kind of benefits are there for the mendicant?” The man answered, “Observing the transiency of this world, old age, illness, and death, I seek to liberate myself, and abandoning all my relatives, I practice the path now in tranquil surroundings. Guided by the true Dharma, I now restrain my five sensory organs, and with great compassion I protectively guard all people without being stained by the defilements of this world; these are the benefits of the mendicant.”

In this part of the life story of the historical Buddha, we again see the motif of the four directions. Like the four directions, the Truth is seen as being constant while also being fluid. What is constant in our human existence is the cycle of life; old age (aging), sickness (decline), and death that comes as a natural consequence of having been born. Like the birth story, however, we can see of how a human life is capable of not only searching for the truth but is also able to realize and share that truth with all others. This aspect of seeing the dynamic and constant attributes of Truth can be found in the rituals of different Buddhist traditions, including the practice of circumambulation (see video)

...even the wealth and power of a king ... cannot protect us from the truth.

Although the story of the Four Gates tells us of a truth that all of us share and experience, we are, nonetheless, captivated by it because we are also shown how even the wealth and power of a king, like the desire of all parents to shield their children from the suffering found in life, cannot protect us from the truth. It helps us to see that the truth is not something to be protected from, but something we must become awakened to. Ignorance is not bliss. It is, in fact, the very opposite: ignorance is the source of our suffering.

We discover that regardless of how we may try to dress up life, as the King attempted to do for his son, we cannot escape from the truth of old age, sickness, and death. Although we typically see death as the end of our lives, this story teaches us, through the death of the queen mother, that the conditions for our death exist at birth. Where then do we find the motivation to continue on if this indeed is the story of our life? Whereas it is true that we cannot escape old age, sickness, and death—the conditions of our human existence—we discover that these same conditions can also become the source for our search for the truth. No aspect of our human life, what we sometimes call the human struggle, necessarily ends in darkness. We discover that from these experiences a path that is also a part of what it means to be human opens up to us. We discover the motivation to understand and fully live our lives.