Why Did the Privileged Buddha Become an Impoverished Ascetic?

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The legendary stories of the Buddha present a dramatic transition said to have occurred in his early adult life at the age of twenty-nine. The historical Buddha, originally known as Siddhartha Gautama, was the founder of Buddhism, a philosophical religion that emerged probably in the sixth century BCE. Although we know little with certainty about the historical Buddha and his original teachings, legends and oral tradition tell of a story of his birth into a wealthy, royal family. This family he would soon abandon for the life of a wandering ascetic in search of answers to some of the deepest existential questions one could ask.

The Infant Buddha

Gautama’s father, Suddhodana, was a king who wanted his son to assume the throne and bring glory to his family. When Gautama was just five days old, the king invited one hundred brahmins to a feast at the palace because he believed that these priests could examine the infant’s body and foretell his future. Eight of the brahmins concluded that Gautama’s future would indeed be a glorious one. They prophesied that he would either become a Buddha who will attain spiritual enlightenment or a universal king who will rule the entire world. As a king, he would establish justice throughout the world and be a benefit to many. One brahmin, Kondanna, predicted that Gautama would never become a king but would in fact renounce a life of privilege and comfort to begin a journey with the goal of overcoming ignorance. Kondanna also predicted that the king’s son would see four things: an elderly man, a sick person, a dead body, and a wandering ascetic who would encourage him to pursue a spiritual path. These prophesies distressed Suddhodana as the king wanted nothing more than for his son to inherit the throne. As Gautama lived and grew up under the care of his aunt, Mahaprajapati Gautami, it became clear that he did not show the qualities that one would expect of a ruler or a king. He grew up kind and sensitive, and rather than playing rough games as one would expect of a boy he allocated time to caring for the animals on the palace grounds. Suddhodana was worried that his son would abandon the royal life, just as the earlier prophecy had suggested.

The Prison of the Palace of Pleasures

The king decided to hide the harsh realities of life from his son and he went to great lengths to do so. If, for instance, a palace servant became ill, the king would remove him from the premises until the illness passed. Guards were placed around the palace to keep the upsetting realities of the world at bay. King Suddhodana attempted to imprison Gautama in what we might refer to as a “palace of pleasures” (1).

When Gautama was sixteen, the king arranged an occasion to have his son meet a young woman in the area so that he could take her in marriage. In the course of this arrangement, Gautama met Yashodhara, the daughter of another king, and they both fell in love and married. We also learn from other legends that Gautama and Yashodhara had been married to each other in several previous lives (2). Gautama, however, had to prove his worth to her and so he was required to defeat rival suitors in contests of martial arts and strength. Predictably, he won and took Yashodhara’s hand in marriage. The king built three separate pleasure palaces for Gautama and Yashodhara within a park encircled by a wall, essentially imprisoning them without them realizing it. One palace was for the hot season, another for the cold, and the other for the rainy season. King Suddhodana reasoned that if everything inside these walls were made attractive, it would ensure that his son never wanted to leave. Yashodhara soon gave birth to a son, Rahula.

Gautama’s World Is Shattered

At the age of twenty-nine, Gautama was fascinated by descriptions of the world he heard in a song and asked the king for permission to see the world for himself. The king gave his permission as he realized that his son should at least get to see some parts of the world he would one day rule as king. However, the king made sure to remove all the unpleasant sites in the areas of the town his son would visit. Gautama then left the palace grounds with his charioteer, Chandaka, and their trip started off well as the people were warm and friendly. Gautama enjoyed everything he saw until the point he came across a person bent over in pain and afflicted by fever. He asked Chandaka what this is about and the charioteer responded that it is a sickness, which is something that everyone will experience in life. Gautama realized this meant that he, his family, and friends were susceptible to sickness and suffering (3). Gautama experienced further unpleasantries on his two subsequent trips during which he saw old age and death. His world had been shattered because he realized that he had been living in a delusion all along (4). Knowing this, he was perplexed at how people could seemingly live so carefree and happily with the inevitably of sickness, old age, and death. On his fourth and final trip Gautama saw a homeless wanderer and was struck by the man’s calm yet determined temperament. Asking Chandaka of this man’s purpose, Gautama learned that he was on a journey to discover a way out of the suffering in the world and Gautama’s destiny was revealed to him then and there. He knew that the only way to overcome suffering was to devote himself completely to the spiritual quest.

Gotama Renounces the Life of Wealth and Privilege

Gautama realized his understanding of the world while living at his palaces was one of deep delusion. He felt this needed to change and so he asked his father for permission to leave, but the king refused and posted guards at all the palace exits. One night, however, all the guards and servants in the palace had fallen asleep. Gautama knew that this was his best chance to escape. At that moment he desired to hold his infant son, Rahula, one last time but then changed his mind, perhaps because of the risk of awaking Yashodhara (5). Gautama silently snuck past the dancing girls, sleeping musicians, and attendants and ventured outside where he woke Chandaka. He asked the charioteer to prepare a horse and although surprised Chandaka obeyed. The two men mounted and rode through the city and the gods opened the gates. Reaching a certain point Gautama instructed Chandaka to return to the palace without him, but Chandaka pleaded and asked what he would tell his family, who would surely be devastated. Gautama instructed Chandaka to tell them that he had not left because he did not love them. He did love them, but he needed to find a way to overcome suffering in the world and promised that if he found success he would return. Should he not be successful in this mission death would have eventually parted him and his family anyway. So instructed, Chandaka returned to the palace alone. On his own, Gautama removed all signs of royalty from himself. He cut his hair, changed his silk clothing for the garments of a forest ascetic, and begun seeking someone who could assist him in his spiritual quest.

References and Recommended Readings

1. Lalitavistara Sūtra

2. Mahavastu

3. Angutarra 3:38

4. Majjhima Nikaya, 26

5. Jataka I: 62

Armstrong, Karen. 2000. Buddha. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Landaw, Jonathan., and Bodian, Stephan. 2002. Buddhism For Dummies. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

One comment

  1. […] According to the first noble truth, suffering (dukkha) is a brute part of existence in the realm of rebirth. It is usually translated into a range of rather undesirable human experiences such as suffering, pain, grief, and sorrow. Dukkha also takes numerous forms notably in sickness, old age, and death. These facts of life presented a great existential crisis for the Buddha himself and are the reason why he fled his own home. […]

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