The King still wanted to be certain that his son would not see anything on his trip that might disturb his mind, because that might make him want to leave the kingdom and follow the holy life.
The day before the Prince was scheduled to travel to the city, the King sent his servants and soldiers out with this message: "By order of the King! Tomorrow the royal Prince Siddhartha will visit the capital city of Kapilavastu. Decorate your houses and the streets and let everything be colorful in his honor. Let those who are sick or old or in any way unhealthy stay indoors tomorrow. Nothing should be seen in the city that is not young and fair and beautiful."
Then, as gently as they could, the soldiers took all the street beggars and brought them to a part of the city that was not on the prince's route.
"How tall and good looking he is!" they exclaimed.
"How bright his eyes are!"
"We are indeed fortunate that someday he will be our king."
The prince was delighted, as well. The city shone bright and clean. Everywhere he saw people dancing and laughing and cheering. The streets were covered with flower petals thrown by his joyful subjects. "The song was true," he thought to himself. "This is indeed a golden, beautiful and wondrous city!"
As they continued along the planned route, the Prince saw a sad person in the crowd. He was old and bent. The Prince had never seen anything like this before. He turned to Channa and asked, "Who is that person over there? Why is he stooped over and not dancing? Why is his face wrinkled and pale, rather than smooth and shining? Why is he so different?"
Channa replied, "That is just an old man."
"Old?" the Prince asked. "Was this man 'old' like this before, or did 'old' happen to him recently?"
"Neither," Channa answered. "Many years ago that wrinkled man was young and strong like the others you see. Slowly he grew weak. His body bent, the colors faded from his cheeks, he lost most of his teeth, until finally he looked as he looks now."
Siddhartha was both surprised and saddened. "Is that poor man the only one suffering the weakness of old age? Or are there others like him?"
"Surely you know, O Prince, that everyone must experience old age," Channa said. "You, me, your wife Yasodhara, Rahula... everyone at the palace... We are all growing older every moment. Someday most of us will look like that man."
These words shocked the gentle Prince and for the longest time he did not speak. Finally he cleared his throat. "Chana," he said, "I have seen something today that I never expected to see. In the midst of all these happy young people this vision of old age frightens me. Please turn the chariot back to the palace. I am no longer enjoying this day. I wish to see no more."
When they arrived back at the palace, the Prince hurried to his room without speaking to anyone. For a long time, he sat by himself. Everyone noticed his strange behavior and tried to cheer him up, but nothing helped.
At dinner he did not touch of his food, even though is was a meal unsurpassed in excellence. He paid no attention to the music or the dancing. He just sat by himself, thinking about old age.
And he knew that he needed to go out into the world again, and see more.
Next time, The Second Journey.
If you missed the earlier chapters, they can be found here:
Birthday of the Buddha
The Buddha Story Continued
The Young Prince
The Marriage Contest
The Pleasure Palaces
A Song Of Beauty
Buddha charms here.