Of all Buddhist tales, the best-known and best-loved is the story of Buddha’s own birth and youth. Buddha—“the Enlightened One” or “The Awakened One”—is the religious title given to Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of the Sakya clan, which ruled an area that today straddles the border between Nepal and the Indian state of Bihar. He is believed to have lived from around 563 to around 483 B.C.
No official account of Buddha’s life was left by either Buddha or his disciples. As with most great religious leaders, the stories of his early life were gradually expanded and embellished by his followers. Still, the legend probably represents in symbolic form the early spiritual life of the young man who became the Buddha.
In the royal city of Kapilavatthu, a son had come to the great King Suddhodana and his lovely Queen Maya. They named the boy Siddhartha, which means “He Who Reaches His Goal.”
Soon after the birth, the king was visited by a great seer named Asita. The baby was brought for him to see. To the king’s alarm, the holy man burst into tears.
“Sir, what is wrong?” asked the king. “Do you foresee some disaster for my son?”
“Not at all,” said the seer. “His future is supreme. Your son shall become a Buddha, an Enlightened One, and free the world from its bonds of illusion. I weep only for myself, for I will not live to hear his teachings.”
Now, the king was distressed that his only heir might turn to a life of religion. He called upon eight Brahmin priests, all skilled in interpreting signs, and asked them to prophesy for the prince.
When the priests had conferred, their spokesman addressed the king. “Your majesty, if your son follows in your footsteps, he will become a Universal King and rule the known world. But if he renounces home and family for the life of a seeker, he will become a Buddha and save the world from its ignorance and folly.”
The king asked, “What would cause my son to renounce home and family?”
The priest answered, “Seeing the four signs.”
“And what are the four?”
“An old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man.”
“Then none of these shall he see,” the king declared. And he placed guards around the palace to keep all such persons away.
As Siddhartha grew to manhood, the king sought ways to strengthen the prince’s ties to home. He married him to the lovely Princess Yasodhara, who in time bore a son. And he surrounded him with dancing girls to while away his hours. The prince became a creature of pleasure and seldom left his luxurious apartments in the palace’s upper stories.
But one day Siddhartha thought he would visit a park outside the city. The king arranged the outing, with strict orders to his guards to keep the road clear of the old, the sick, the dead, and the holy.
As the prince passed through the city in his royal carriage, people lined the road to admire him. The guards followed the king’s orders as best they could. But even so, the prince spied in the crowd a man with gray hair, weak limbs, and bent back.
“Driver,” said Siddhartha, “what is wrong with that man?”
“He is old, my lord.”
“And what is ‘old’?” asked the prince.
“‘Old’ is when you have lived many years.”
“And will I too become ‘old’?”
“Yes, my lord. To grow old is our common fate.”
“If all must face old age,” said the prince, “then how can we take joy in youth?”
Not long after, the prince spied a man yellow-faced and shaking, leaning on a companion for support. “Driver, what is wrong with that man?”
“He is sick, my lord.”
“And what is ‘sick’?”
“‘Sick’ is when your health has left you.”
“And will I too become ‘sick’?”
“It is likely, my lord. To be sick is our common fate.”
“If all must face sickness,” said the prince, “then how can we take pride in health?”
Before long, the prince spied a stiff, motionless man being carried along by four others.
“Driver, what is wrong with that man?”
“He has died, my lord.”
“And what is ‘die’?”
“‘Die’ is when your life is finished.”
“And will I too ‘die’?”
“You will, my lord, without a doubt. Of all our fates, death is the most certain.”
“If all must face death,” said the prince, “then how can we delight in life?”
At last the prince spied a man with shaved head and saffron robe.
“Driver, what is that man.”
“He is a seeker, my lord.”
“And what is a ‘seeker’?”
“A ‘seeker’ is one who renounces home and family to wander about, living on what he begs. Avoiding pleasure, he subdues the passions; meditating, he controls the mind. And so he strives for freedom from this world of tears and the endless round of rebirths.”
“Driver, return to the palace. No more do I care for parks or pleasure or anything that may pass away. Soon I too will be a seeker, renouncing this life that binds me.”
That very night, Siddhartha slipped into the women’s quarters for one last look at his sleeping wife and son. Then quietly he descended to the courtyard, mounted a white steed, and set out.
The city gate, too heavy for a single man, swung open by itself at his approach. And as the prince passed through, he made this vow:
“Never shall I enter this city again, till I’ve seen the farther shore of life and death.”
More About the Story
This simplified retelling is based primarily on the Pali Canon and the Nidanakatha (introduction to the Jataka), with some help from the Buddhacarita of Asvaghosha and the Mahavastu. Most of these texts were written down between 500 and 1000 years after the lifetime of Buddha but were based on earlier oral and written traditions.
Buddhism in Translations, selected and translated by Henry Clarke Warren, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1896 (Vol. 3 of the Harvard Oriental Series). Includes the relevant portion of the Nidanakatha.
The Gospel of Buddha, compiled by Paul Carus, Open Court Publishing, Chicago and London, 1917. Drawn from numerous sources.
The Life of Gotama the Buddha, compiled by E. H. Brewster, Kegan Paul, London, 1926. Drawn from the Pali Canon.
The Buddhacarita, or Acts of the Buddha, translated by E. H. Johnston, Motilal Banarsidass, Lahore, 1936.
The Mahavastu, Vol. 2, translated by J. J. Jones, Luzac, London, 1952 (Vol. 18 of Sacred Books of the Buddhists).
The Historical Buddha, H. W. Schumann, Arkana, London, 1982.
For further reading: Paul Carus’s The Gospel of the Buddha (see above) and The Life of Buddha, by A. Ferdinand Herold, Tuttle, Tokyo, 1954.
How to Say the Names
(General hint: If an h follows a d, or t, pretend it isn’t there.)
Buddha ~ BOO-duh
Siddhartha ~ sid-DAR-tuh
Gautama ~ GAW-tuh-muh
Kapilavatthu ~ KAP-pil-luh-VAH-too
Suddhodana ~ soo-DO-duh-nuh
Maya ~ MAH-yuh
Asita ~ AH-see-tuh
Yasodhara ~ yuh-SO-duh-ruh