Lessons from the Masters Siddharta, K’Ung Ch’iu and the Old Man

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Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden (1437) Metropolitan Museum of Art (CC0)

Lessons from the Masters Siddharta, K’Ung Ch’iu and the Old Man

One version of an old story has it that when Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born, a local priest visited the family compound and prophesied that the young man would grow up to be either an emperor or a Buddha, an Enlightened One. Quite naturally, the child’s worldly father preferred the former to the latter, so he sequestered young Siddhartha within the walls of the palace, hoping to discourage any untoward spiritual development by supplying everything the young man desired in the way of material delights. But young men are curious, so one day Siddhartha had his chariot driver take him out into the real world. The journey changed his life.

The birth of Gautama Buddha, in a forest at Lumbini. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The birth of Gautama Buddha, in a forest at Lumbini. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Siddhartha’s Journey

Soon after departing the palace grounds the young prince encountered an old man. He had seen elders before, but this was an aged man who had not benefitted from the cosmetics money could obtain. Siddhartha began to suspect that life exacts a toll, and he wondered about the path his own life would take. Fear began to cloud his still-inexperienced mind. He soon encountered a man who was afflicted by a hideous disease. With a shock, he thus discovered that life contains an element of suffering. Then he caught his first glimpse of a corpse, and the reality of death was seared into his consciousness. Siddhartha later reflected on the lessons he had learned: “I also am subject to death and decay and am not free from the power of old age, sickness, and death. Is it right that I should feel horror, repulsion, and disgust when I see another in such plight? And when I reflected thus ... all the joy of life which there is in life died within me.”


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