The Quest for Enlightenment: The Life of the Buddha (3)

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 thank you for tuning in today. This is part 3 of “A Quest for Enlightenment: Life of the Buddha.”

In this series, I am making references to the book, The Biography of Sakyamuni Buddha written by Venerable Master Hsing Yun. Last week, we discussed about Renunciation of Prince Siddhartha. Today, we will explore “The Four Sights” and how that led to Siddhartha’s renunciation.

The Four Sights are:

The first is an old man. 

Second is a sick man. 

Third is a corpse. 

And lastly, a renunciant.

II. Four Sights: An Old Man

Before we begin, it might be good to keep in mind that, Prince Siddhartha lived a luxurious life and stayed within the grounds of the palace. He was raised in a well-protected environment.

So let’s begin. Quoting from the book,

“One day, Siddhartha asked his father if he could visit the forests outside the city walls. King Suddhodana agreed but ordered that the city streets be thoroughly swept clean. The king banned the elderly, the diseased, the poor, and the starving from these streets, and removed any corpses from sight.”

“Once outside the city walls, the prince spotted a frail elderly person. Siddhartha was startled and confused by the sight. Turning to his driver Chandaka, he asked, “Chandaka, is that an old man? Why is it that he needs a crutch to walk? Chandaka, why did he arrive at this state? Was he born this way?”

“The chariot driver Chandaka heard the prince’s questions, but did not know how to answer. If he chose to speak honestly, it would rouse the prince’s compassion. Otherwise he would have to lie to the prince, which he dared not do.

Chandaka hesitated, uncertain what to do.”

The prince continued to ask until Chandaka was forced to speak honestly, “Prince, you already know that he is an aged man. Look over at his face; when one gets old, one’s skin color changes, memory fades, worries grow, and happiness wanes. One’s eyes, ears, nose, and tongue no longer function as well as in youth. This is what it means to grow old.”

Hearing Chandaka’s answer, the prince sighed deeply and continued to closely question Chandaka. “Chandaka, there are many people in this world. Will they all grow old one day? Will I as well?”


Let’s pause here for a moment to discuss what we have just read.

First of all, we can see how the king kept the prince much sheltered. Everything provided to the prince had been perfect and without flaws. Even for the first time he visited outside the city walls, the king made sure everything was beautiful and enjoyable.

So when the prince encountered the sight of an old man. It was a shock to him. He had never seen such a sight. Have you ever seen something that was a shock to you?

Maybe we can think of it as, when we travel to another country, encountering some things for the first time that leave an impact on us.

I remember travelling to India for the first time, on our way to Sarnath from Kushinagar, as our coach bus past through the villages. I saw children playing in the fields. They were playing with tree twigs and digging holes in the ground. I thought, most children had toys to play with. But these children didn’t have that luxury. As our coach bus passed by, some children would run after us, some stood waving their hands to greet us with big smiles. Their friendliness made an impact on me. I can still remember that scene.

Another thing I would like to highlight is, Chandaka being caught in a dilemma. He was torn, to be honest to the prince or lie to him? Because he knew there were consequences for being honest. And in the end, he did not wish to lie to the prince and chose to be honest. Remember last week, before Siddhartha handed his belonging to Chandaka when he was renouncing, he praised Chandaka for attending to him with utmost loyalty. We can see from this part of their interaction, it showed how close they are, like a good friend and not a superior and subordinate.

III. Four Sights: A Sick Man and A Corpse

After the prince saw the first sight of an old man, he spent most of his days with no joy and his heart could not find peace. The king got worried and encouraged him to venture outside again. Let’s see what happens on his second trip.

Quoting from the book,

“Not far outside the gates of the city, Siddhartha saw a man on death’s door from sickness. The man lay on the side of the path, his stomach bloated despite his emaciated body. His breathing was labored, his limbs were as weak as dead tree branches, and tears fell from his eyes as he moaned.”

The prince was filled with sympathy. Turning to Chandaka, he asked why the man had fallen into such a state. Chandaka did not dare hide the truth. “Prince, this man is sick. In the body, if the organs do not work in harmony, then pain and sickness will manifest.”

The prince felt deeply about what Chandaka said.

The 3rd time Siddhartha ventured outside the city walls was encouraged by his father. The king personally chose a flourishing grove, prepared the roads and paths to be swept clean before sending more beautiful women.

But before the chariot driver had even reached the grove chosen by the king, they encountered a funeral procession.

Siddhartha sighed deeply and shook his head as Chandaka reported to him, “Prince, inside there is a corpse!”

The sight of aging and sickness had shaken the prince. Now that he had seen the suffering of death, the prince leaned against the chariot and sighed sorrowfully. “The people of this world are deeply misguided. With death so close, how can we relax? We are not like trees or stones. How can we live, unaware of the impermanence of things, passing our days in leisure and games? Death is certain. How can I sit and watch as life quietly slips by?”


Now that the prince had seen an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. Each of these sights impacted him greatly. Suddenly, he realized that everyone is in the process of aging, anyone can fall sick, and no one can escape death. With such thoughts in mind, he asked, how could I still spend time relaxing? How can I still enjoy while knowing others are in pain and suffering?

If you were the prince, upon seeing these sights, what would be in your mind?

Perhaps we can think of it like, if one of our family members is unwell. Definitely, we are affected. We would not be able to settle our minds, let alone take joy in what we normally do. We would feel the need to do something to help them. We would be deeply affected knowing that they are suffering.

In some ways, the prince felt for these people so deeply because he thought of them as close to him as his own family. This shows his compassion for all beings.

So to quickly recap, the first time it was the prince that asked the king’s permission to venture outside the city walls and he saw an old man. But the second and third time, it was encouraged by the king as he saw how miserable the prince was. But now, the fourth time, the prince petitioned his father to allow him and other sons of noble lineage to visit the groves outside the city.

IV. Four Sights: A Renunciant

After they got to the grove, the prince sat under a tree.

Quoting from the book,

As the prince pondered on birth and death, a renunciant appeared before him. The prince quickly stood up to greet him. Respectfully, the prince asked, “Who are you and why are you dressed in such strange clothing?”

The renunciant said, “I am one who has left the ties of family behind. I wish to escape the suffering of aging, illness, and death. My purpose is to find the great path of freedom and liberation. No one can avoid aging, illness, and death. Therefore, I have left home to become a renunciant.”

Hearing the renunciant’s words, the prince’s heart filled with joy. “I feel the same. I wish to cast off these worldly desires and seek liberation! I, too, wish to free all beings from suffering. But I never knew how—what great fortune for me to meet you today. It is as if, amidst the darkness of the world, I have seen a bright light.”


Meeting the renunciant was like seeing a bright light at the end of the tunnel for the prince. And this was the reason why the prince decided to become a renunciant.

I suppose I look my journey of learning Buddhism. Renunciation was indeed an option I never knew until I meant the venerables at Nan Tien Temple in Australia. It gave life choices that an extra option. Instead of the traditional way of living, that is, study hard, find a job, get married, have kids, raise them, grow old, and die. This was a program that was embedded in our minds since young. This was a life’s plan.

However, I wished to live differently, and doing what was programmed simply was not intriguing enough for me.

V. Conclusion

From the Four Sights that the prince encountered, a question we all can think about is, what are your turning points in life?

Well, for me, the first turning point was when our whole family migrated to Australia when I was twelve. Another turning point was when a high school friend asked me to volunteer over Christmas and New Year at Nan Tien Temple. They needed volunteers as the temple had just opened two months before Christmas. And then I joined the Buddha’s Light International Association-Young Adult Division, which is a youth group affiliated to Fo Guang Shan. From then on, my life changed. I often described that I would not be who I am if I never joined the youth group.

Of course there are more turning points, but due to time, we won’t go through all of them. Ah yes, the ultimate turning point was renouncing.

Well, we are near to the end of this week’s episode. I would like to take this opportunity to send gratitude to all that had been part of my journey, especially my friends and family who had to put up with me over the years. Thank you so much and sorry if I ever caused you pain. I am not who I am without you too.

So, next week will be the last episode of A Quest of Enlightenment: Life of the Buddha, and we will be discussing about “His Birth.”

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

If you would like to listen to more contents, don’t forget to subscribe to our channel, Fo Guang Shan English Dharma Services.