When Siddhartha Gautama was born, his father the King sent for the wise men to foretell his future. After examining the infant child they all proclaimed the same thing: “Siddhartha is destined to become either a great ruler whose Empire will cover the world, or else to become a great prophet, who will discover the means of salvation for all of mankind.” The King was not one for philosophy, or meditation. He asked the sages how he could ensure the child would become a great ruler. The wise men replied “He must not receive any religious teachings. Keep him away from the sacred scriptures, the Vedas and the Upanishads. Do not let him eat after midnight and above all do not let him see suffering!” The King agreed to these terms and kept the young Prince in an indulgent idle lifestyle. No suffering or torment was allowed within the walled Palace-city where Siddhartha grew up, and on his sixteenth birthday he was given a beautiful and kind cousin to marry and a party to rival all other sweet sixteens for thousands of years. Life was easy for the Prince, and no thoughts of becoming a saviour entered into his head. Alas for his father, he did not seem too interested in ruling a great Empire, but he was still young and there was plenty of time for him to become King of the World.
Meanwhile, in the realm of the Gods, trouble was stirring. The Gods themselves, although powerful, could not escape the greater powers of Karma and Fate. Through reincarnation they knew that they too could die and perhaps be reborn as a lower life-form. Although this prospect was many millions of years away for them, they were aware that salvation for all beings was at hand, if only Siddhartha could escape his indulgent lifestyle. And so they sent messengers down to the mortal world in order to bring the young Prince to his destiny.
When he was twenty nine years old Siddhartha found himself longing to see the world outside of the Palace. He asked his father to let him ride down to a neighbouring city and the King agreed, but not before he had sent an order to remove the old, the sick and those who suffered from the streets. On his chariot Siddhartha rode through the city, enjoying this new experience. But the Gods forced an old man onto the street and the Prince ordered his charioteer to stop.
“What has happened to that man? His skin is wrinkled, his hair gone and he walks so crookedly.”
The charioteer had been ordered by the King to say nothing, but the Gods loosened his tongue. “Oh Prince, that is a man struck by old age. All people, if they are lucky, will experience this, even you.”
“If they are lucky? You speak nonsense charioteer. Ride on!”
And so they did, but then they encountered a man who was severely ill. Again the Prince was horrified, and again the charioteer explained that illness came to us all. After this they encountered a corpse, and the Prince wept. “This is your fate too my Prince” said the charioteer.
On their way back to the Palace, Siddhartha was quiet. He spoke only once as they passed a mendicant monk. “Who is that fellow there? What brings him to live in rags and beg on the side of the street?” The charioteer replied, “He is a monk, an ascetic who renounces the ways of the world in order to achieve enlightenment and uncover the true nature of things.”
That night Siddhartha made a decision. Faced with suffering he could no longer live in his idyllic pleasure palace. He kissed his sleeping wife goodbye and rode out again in the night with his charioteer. Near the forest he took off his clothes and all signs that he was royalty. He gave them to the charioteer and went alone into the forest, to starve himself and live a life of denial.
Days passed, and then weeks. Siddhartha meditated and grew stronger in spirit but weaker in body. He became gaunt, a hollow reflection of his former self. Always he tried to find the truth of things but as he grew weaker his thoughts began to spiral away from him. Eventually he collapsed by a pool of water, too weak to drink.
Fortunately a group of dancing girls came by, singing a song about tuning a sitar. The lyrics told the listener that one shouldn’t leave the strings too slack or the sitar would be out of tune. One also shouldn’t tighten the strings too much or they would snap and be useless. At that point Siddhartha had a revelation and asked for some food and water. The girls gave him fruits and after getting his strength back he followed them for a while.
Now he had experienced extreme luxury and extreme deprivation. Neither was enough, neither was satisfying, neither led to the truth and to the virtuous life. Siddhartha knew now that he must walk a new path, he called it the Middle Way. Extremes were interesting, and good to be experienced, but could not hold all the truth. With this in mind he left the dancing girls and headed into the forest again. There he sat beneath the Bodhi tree and meditated. He was ready to become the Buddha, and bring salvation to everyone.