The Quest for Enlightenment: The Life of the Buddha (2)

Speaker: Ven. Zhi Sheng

Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Introduction

Hello, welcome to the Fo Guang Shan English Dharma Services. My name is Zhi Sheng and this is Part 2 of “A Quest for Enlightenment: Life of the Buddha.”

In this series, I will be making references to the book, the Biography of Sakyamuni Buddha written by Venerable Master Hsing Yun. Last week, we talked about the Buddha’s enlightenment. Today, we will be talking about his renunciation. That means, we will be exploring the life of the Buddha as Prince Siddhartha, before his enlightenment.

We will discuss the following aspects:

Firstly, Siddhartha breaking the news to his father about his decision.
Secondly, his departure of the Palace.
Thirdly, the persuasion to bring Siddhartha home.
And lastly, Siddhartha’s determination.

II. Siddhartha Breaking the News to His Father about His Decision

Let us first look at how did Siddhartha break the news to his father, King Suddhodana, about his decision to become a renunciant.
Quoting from the Biography of Sakyamuni Buddha,

“Mustering his courage, the prince said, ‘Father, in this world, no matter man or woman, whether rich or poor, all will experience the pain of separation after the joy of union. This is why I must leave home and seek the path of liberation. Kind father, I hope that you will grant me my deepest wish.’

The question King Suddhodana had most feared had been asked. It struck him like a bolt of lightning. Trembling, the king stood from his throne. With tears streaming down his face, Suddhodana grasped his son’s hands and said, ‘Siddhartha, stop! You cannot think this way! You are still young. The young have fickle thoughts and easily make grave mistakes. The world is not as terrible as you think, and life is not as painful as you have imagined. If you leave to pursue spiritual practice, you will not find what you are looking for.’

The king went on, ‘Many look for liberation and live in quiet forests, but their hearts do not find true peace. Siddhartha, if you wish to seek the path, wait until you are as old as me. Otherwise you will find it difficult to accomplish your aim. You may even come to regret it.

Soon you will rule this kingdom, succeeding me on the throne so that I may dedicate the end of my years to spiritual practice. That is why you cannot leave home now. To abandon your father and leave behind your responsibilities to this country is utterly senseless. Cast aside such thoughts and follow the ways of the world. Rule this kingdom. In ten years, after you have done your duty, then you may become a renunciant.’”


Let us discuss what we have just read.

Do you think he approved of Siddhartha’s decision? No right?

He wished for Siddhartha to succeed him on the throne, not to go and become a renunciant. He told Siddhartha, after you have done your duty, THEN you may become a renunciant.

Some of you may think, why is the Prince asking for his father’s approval? Isn’t he an adult that can make his own decision? We need to think about the culture Siddhartha lived in, similar to the Chinese culture, our parents have a lot of say to our life, even decide who you can marry and how you choose to live.

For many of us, maybe we can think about, has there been a time when you wanted to do something or make a decision, and your parents disagree with? How did you handle the situation? Without their support, would you persist or give up?

Let’s see how Siddhartha responded to his father.

Quoting from the book,

After hearing his father’s words, Siddhartha spoke plainly and respectfully to his father, ‘Father, I knew you would say this. If you are able to grant me four requests, then I can reconsider my wish to renounce:

Put an end to old age;
Remove the pain of illness;
Destroy the fear of death;
Let all things neither increase nor decrease.

King Suddhodana shook his head, “Siddhartha, do not speak this way. No one in this world can grant these requests. If others heard, they would mock and make light of them. You must let go of your wish to renounce and instead succeed me on the throne.”

Respectfully and seriously, the prince replied, “Father, if no one will grant me my requests, then I ask for your permission to go forth, and I’ll accomplish these tasks myself.”


From this, we can see that Siddhartha was not going to give up. Even though his father misunderstood that Siddhartha was abandoning him and his responsibilities to the country. He was very wise to strike a deal with his father. It’s like, if you can grant me my requests, then I will fulfill your wishes.

This is a good demonstration of being able to speak our truth. Siddhartha was clear about his goal, and he stated clearly his purpose of seeking the path to liberation.

III. Departure of the Palace

Let’s look at what happened on the night of Siddhartha’s departure of the palace.

Quoting from the book,

“One night, after an exhausting day of performing, the girls went to their beds. Their makeup became smudged and uneven, their postures askew and unseemly. Some slept with their faces toward the sky. Others curled into balls before closing their eyes. Their musical instruments lay silently by their sides, their ornaments hung down like chains, their clothing twisted around them like ropes, looking like punished prisoners as they hung to their lutes.

Some lay against the wall as if pinned there by arrows. Some lay prostrate on tables as if they had been hanged. Some drooled, some snored, some slept with eyes closed and mouth agape, and some would grind their teeth.

When Siddhartha heard the music stop, he rose from his bed. Outside the window, the moon shone like a disk of bright silver.

The prince could not return to sleep. As he dressed, he peered over slumbering Yasodara, holding young Rahula in her embrace. Without disturbing them, he left his bedchamber. As he passed through the other rooms, the prince was shocked. These maidens, once alluring and seductive, had now transformed into such ghastly forms. Siddhartha looked upon them for a short moment in silence, utterly speechless.

Siddhartha thought, “All things are illusory. I cannot hesitate a moment longer. I must leave here and seek liberation.”

At that moment, the prince was resolved. He took one last look at the slumbering Yasodhara and Rahula, walked past the sleeping palace women, and quietly went to Chandaka’s dwelling.

“Chandaka, ready the white horse Kanthaka.” Siddhartha ordered, waking Chandaka.

After Siddhartha arrived at the destination, he thanked his horse and spoke to Chandaka, “You have attended to me with utmost loyalty and diligence. I shall never forget you. Wherever I went, you followed, never balking from hard work or showing signs of weariness. It is a sign of your sincerity.

“I will not speak long, but keep my words short and simple. Chandaka, this shall be your final duty: take my horse and return to the city. I will now emerge from my long dream through this dark night and go alone down the true, bright path.”

As the prince spoke, Chandaka slowly began to weep. Seeing this, Siddhartha removed his jewelry and precious garments. He presented these to Chandaka and said, “I have worn these for a long time now. Please take them with the hope that they will assuage your sorrow.”


Siddhartha’s departure of the palace was sparked by the sight of the beautiful women who transformed into ghastly forms.

Sometimes, when we wished to do something, all it takes is that one tiny little thing and it was enough to push us to go forward. Just like a glass, filled with water, it takes that one extra drop, and it overflows. So, the sight of the women was that extra drop of water for Siddhartha.

After the people in the kingdom found out about the prince’s departure, everyone was grieving. It was described that the kingdom became dark and somber as a tomb.

You can imagine how devastated the king was. He said, “Without the prince, I have become like a diseased man facing certain death. Only seeing my son again will cure me and, if he never returns, I can only end my pain through death. I yearn for the prince like a hungry ghost yearns for food.

IV. The Persuasion to Being Siddhartha Home

Seeing the king in pain, two especially intelligent ministers comforted the king by promising him that they will go to where the prince is staying and to persuade him to return home.

Quoting from the book,

…We’ve brought a decree from the king. Please, listen to his words:

Siddhartha, I understand your desire to seek the path. It is your sincere wish to find an end to the suffering and pain of birth and death. I harbor no resentment towards you for your actions. Instead, I praise your benevolent and compassionate intentions. But even if you sever your ties of affection and seclude yourself in forests, it is difficult to imagine that you feel nothing for your grieving father. Honoring one’s parents is also a part of practice.

You say that your aim is to save the entire world, to liberate all people. But right now I suffer. Why do you not save your father? Your decision to become a renunciant has caused a great flood of sorrow to come crashing into my heart, shattering it, such that it cannot be repaired.

Siddhartha, if you can understand how I feel, then swiftly return to the palace and succeed the throne. Wait until you have retired in your old age before you go forth to seek the Way. How can you claim to be compassionate if you refuse and abandon your dear father and mother? How can you say you wish to liberate all sentient beings and shelter them in that compassionate heart of yours?


If you were Siddhartha, after hearing the decree, how would you be?

I imagine, mixed feelings of guilt and frustration. Maybe even anger that you have been misunderstood.

What do you think about what the king said, “How can you claim to be compassionate if you refuse and abandon your dear father and mother?”

We can really feel the king’s pain and how much he wished for Siddhartha to return home.

V. Siddhartha’s Determination

Let’s see how Siddhartha responded to this.

Quoting from the book,

With dignity, he responded, “Wise ministers, I recognize the great sorrow which my father and aunt feel. However, even more terrifying is the sufferings of birth, old age, illness, and death. To resolve this unending menace, I have no choice but to abandon love and affection.

“Wise ministers, the people of this world, no matter who they are, are attached to this life. We all despise death. When we see it coming, we cling to life. But no matter how tightly we grasp, we cannot escape death. I have come to understand this truth, and that is why I seek liberation.

Siddhartha continued,

“A wise man does not trust the directions given to him by a blind man on a dark night. What is pure or impure in this world is to this very day a mystery. Even if what I am doing goes against the ways of the world. I shall still walk the pure path with diligence and perseverance.

When the prince told them of his determination to seek the path, the two ministers recognized the prince’s resolve and could not muster any reply. They could only fall in prostration before the prince. They had no more ideas. Not daring to simply leave the prince, they slowly retreated, meandering about the prince.

The group was so deeply moved by the prince, so filled with reverence and praise, all of them had fallen on their arms and knees to touch their foreheads to the ground. Five of the soldiers who followed the ministers were chosen to accompany the prince on his journey. They were Ajnata-Kaundinya, Asvajit, Bhadrika, Dasabala-Kasyapa, and Mahanama-Kulika.


Remember last week, we spoke of the five men that the Buddha gave his first teachings to? They were the five soldiers chosen to accompany Siddhartha.

From Siddhartha’s response to the two ministers, we can see that he was determined to keep going. Even though it pains him to know that his family was suffering, his aim was to liberate all beings, and not just his own family.

VI. Conclusion

Reading chapters 15 and 16 of The Biography of Sakyamuni Buddha again as I prepare this episode, I reflected on when I broke the news to my family about my decision to renounce.

The first person I spoke to was my brother, and he asked me, “Are you sure this is what you want to do? You’re not going to change your mind in two years that you want to do something else?”

I replied, “Are you sure your fiancé is the person you wish to marry? Are you going to commit to her for life? If you ask me if I am sure. I can tell you right now that I am.” I suppose my decision to renounce is similar to marriage. The kind of commitment we devote is similar.

Prior to my decision to renounce, I asked one Venerable, “Do you think I am suitable to become a monastic?” She shook her head and her index finger. And I thought, “Oh…I am not!” Then she spoke, “It’s not a matter of suitability, it is what you make of it!”

Those were such wise words. Often, all it takes is a decision, but we don’t always remember to make the most of it.

In conclusion of this episode, I hope we can all learn from Siddhartha’s determination. Keep going with your quest in life. No doubt it may not always be smooth sailing, but at least we are on the journey to our own destination.

With that, we have come to the end of this week’s episode.

Next week, we will be discussing about the “The Four Sights.” We hope you will tune in and join us again.

Thank you for listening. May you find peace and joy in the Dharma.

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