Mar 5, 2023
Michael Haggiag

4. Outside the Palace

THE BUDDHA BLOG

Prince Gautama, encountering old age and sickness for the first time, finds his world beginining to crumble.

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King Suddhodana obviously knows how to fix things and is used to getting his own way. He thinks he can make it so his son will never find out about the dark side of life. At least not until he himself becomes the king. (Like the prince will never think of asking himself why everybody has to suffer or why we all get sick or grow old and die?) I guess all mums and dads hope that their kids won’t suffer too, but of course we all do. Just look what happens every day at school. Anyway, I suppose the prince manages to escape the pain longer than most of us, but one day the bubble bursts. It’s his own restlessness that does it.

Siddhartha starts to ask himself what his life is all about. Then he decides to go out for a ride with Channa, his charioteer. The king doesn’t like the prince leaving the palace and makes sure that his son’s route is prepared in advance. The streets are swept clean. The old and sick are moved out of sight to make way for a cheerful crowd of healthy people along the way. In spite of all the king’s efforts, this is the day that Siddhartha sees an old lady all bent over. She looks like a wrinkly bag of bones.

“What’s the matter with that woman, Channa?” “Nothing. She’s old.” "Do you mean my beautiful wife will look like that one day?” Channa nods. “We all grow old, Siddhartha.”

Siddhartha is shocked and wants to return to the palace, but things aren’t the same for him anymore. His doubts are growing and the spectre of the old woman is obsessing him. “It’s so obvious,” he thinks to himself. “We’ll all be old like that before we know it. And yet no one talks about it or seems to even think about it!”

Yasodhara is very pregnant and her body is changing every day. Next time, Siddhartha slips out of the palace without telling the king. He wants to visit the town outside the palace walls before people know he’s coming. Maybe fate has planned it because right away their chariot runs into a diseased man with beads of sweat running down his face and a glazed look in his eye.

“What’s wrong with that man?” Channa looks at him in surprise. “He has a fever, my lord.”

Once more Siddhartha is shocked. He’s already seen enough for one day. He tells Channa to turn the chariot around and they quickly ride home.

When Jizo first tells me this story, I don’t understand how Siddhartha can be shocked, but then I remember our trip to India when I was twelve. Remember? You invited Angie and me to visit you there before you left Mum.

I remember everything about that time as if it was last week. Your company had a contract to build a water purifying plant in Agra.  You took us to the Taj Mahal, which was even more amazing than in the postcards. In the town next to it was a crumbling old castle with a moat around it but the water was gone and in its place were great mounds of stinking rubbish. There was a narrow bridge over the moat where all the beggars waited to launch themselves on unsuspecting tourists. I never knew there were so many cripples in the world and all in one place! When they started galloping toward us, their stumps and crutches swinging madly in the air, I was really shocked. That night I was totally happy to be back in our air-conditioned hotel with its marble floors and fountains and glass fronted shops selling jewellry and fancy silk outfits. We had a first-rate Indian curry and you let me have a sip of your beer and it made me feel very grown up.

From the series

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