The Four Signs

Siddhartha begged his father to allow him to go beyond the palace walls. Suddhodhana hated to deny his son anything so he quickly tried to ensure that life outside the palace gates was just as perfect as life inside. When Siddhartha wandered outside, everywhere he went he saw happiness, health, and good cheer. Then suddenly an old decrepit man with white hair, withered skin, and a staff to lean on crossed his path. Leaning over to his companion and servant, Chandaka, Siddhartha asked, “What is this?”

Chandaka explained that before them was an old man and told Siddhartha that everyone would age similarly one day. Siddhartha was saddened and shocked by the sight of the old man and wondered how he could continue to enjoy such sights as his garden when such suffering was to come later.

A second trip outside the palace grounds brought the sight of a sick man with oozing sores. Chandaka had to tell him that sickness and pain befalls everyone. At home, the king continued to rain luxury on the prince, hoping to distract him from these disturbing visions and his newfound knowledge. But a third visit outside his sanctuary found him confronting a funeral procession and a corpse. Chandaka explained death to Siddhartha and told him it was inevitable for everyone.

Buddha is also sometimes referred to as Shakyamuni, which means “Sage of the Shakya Clan,” as he hailed from Shakya.

Siddhartha was overwhelmed. Sickness, old age, and death — how had he missed all this suffering in life? Finally, on another excursion with Chandaka, Siddhartha came upon a yogi in yellow robes with shaven head and an empty bowl. Chandaka explained that this ascetic had renounced all worldly goods and gained peace by doing so. Siddhartha began to think this might be the thing for him. That night the opulence of the palace disturbed him deeply. The four signs had left their mark and the veil of luxury and riches had been removed. The world now seemed a place of suffering and pain. Sudhodhana's plan backfired.

It's hard to imagine how this intelligent young man could get to his thirtieth year without having ever seen the first three of these four signs. Even if he never left the walls of the palace, family members, servants, and priests must have shown signs of illness, aging, and someone was likely to have perished. Viewed as a metaphor for the loss of innocence, the Four Signs are a crucial moment in Siddhartha's story.

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