Disgust at Sorrow

Life of BuddhaAśvaghoṣa

Without are pleasant garden glades, flowing fountains, pure refreshing lakes, with every kind of flower, and trees with fruit, arranged in rows, deep shade beneath. There, too, are various kinds of wondrous birds, flying and sporting in the midst, and on the surface of the water the four kinds of flowers, bright colored, giving out their floating scent; minstrel maidens cause their songs and chorded music, to invite the prince. He, hearing the sounds of singing, sighs for the pleasures of the garden shades, and cherishing within these happy thoughts, he dwelt upon the joys of an outside excursion; even as the chained elephant ever longs for the free desert wilds.

The royal father, hearing that the prince would enjoy to wander through the gardens, first ordered all his attendant officers to adorn and arrange them, after their several offices:—To make level and smooth the king’s highway, to remove from the path all offensive matter, all old persons, diseased or deformed, all those suffering through poverty or great grief, so that his son in his present humor might see nothing likely to afflict his heart. The adornments being duly made, the prince was invited to an audience; the king seeing his son approach, patted his head, and looking at the color of his face, feelings of sorrow and joy intermingled, bound him. His mouth willing to speak, his heart restrained.

Now see the jewel-fronted gaudy chariot; the four equally pacing, stately horses; good-tempered and well trained; young and of graceful appearance; perfectly pure and white, and draped with flowery coverings. In the same chariot stands the stately driver; the streets were scattered over with flowers; precious drapery fixed on either side of the way, with dwarfed trees lining the road, costly vessels employed for decoration, hanging canopies and variegated banners, silken curtains, moved by the rustling breeze; spectators arranged on either side of the path. With bodies bent and glistening eyes, eagerly gazing, but not rudely staring, as the blue lotus flower they bent drooping in the air, ministers and attendants flocking round him, as stars following the chief of the constellation; all uttering the same suppressed whisper of admiration, at a sight so seldom seen in the world; rich and poor, humble and exalted, old and young and middle-aged, all paid the greatest respect, and invoked blessings on the occasion.

So the country-folk and the town-folk, hearing that the prince was coming forth, the well-to-do not waiting for their servants, those asleep and awake not mutually calling to one another, the six kinds of creatures not gathered together and penned, the money not collected and locked up, the doors and gates not fastened, all went pouring along the way on foot; the towers were filled, the mounds by the trees, the windows and the terraces along the streets; with bent body fearing to lift their eyes, carefully seeing that there was nothing about them to offend, those seated on high addressing those seated on the ground, those going on the road addressing those passing on high, the mind intent on one object alone; so that if a heavenly form had flown past, or a form entitled to highest respect, there would have been no distraction visible, so intent was the body and so immovable the limbs. And now beautiful as the opening lily, he advances towards the garden glades, wishing to accomplish the words of the holy prophet (Rishi). The prince, seeing the ways prepared and watered and the joyous holiday appearance of the people; seeing too the drapery and chariot, pure, bright, shining, his heart exulted greatly and rejoiced. The people (on their part) gazed at the prince, so beautifully adorned, with all his retinue, like an assembled company of kings gathered to see a heaven-born prince. And now a Deva-râga of the Pure abode, suddenly appears by the side of the road; his form changed into that of an old man, struggling for life, his heart weak and oppressed. The prince seeing the old man, filled with apprehension, asked his charioteer, “What kind of man is this? his head white and his shoulders bent, his eyes bleared and his body withered, holding a stick to support him along the way. Is his body suddenly dried up by the heat, or has he been born in this way?” The charioteer, his heart much embarrassed, scarcely dared to answer truly, till the pure-born (Deva) added his spiritual power, and caused him to frame a reply in true words: “His appearance changed, his vital powers decayed, filled with sorrow, with little pleasure, his spirits gone, his members nerveless, these are the indications of what is called ‘old age.’ This man was once a sucking child, brought up and nourished at his mother’s breast, and as a youth full of sportive life, handsome, and in enjoyment of the five pleasures; as years passed on, his frame decaying, he is brought now to the waste of age.”

The prince, greatly agitated and moved, asked his charioteer another question and said, “Is yonder man the only one afflicted with age, or shall I, and others also, be such as he?” The charioteer again replied and said, “Your highness also inherits this lot: as time goes on, the form itself is changed, and this must doubtless come, beyond all hindrance. The youthful form must wear the garb of age, throughout the world, this is the common lot.”

Bodhisattva, who had long prepared the foundation of pure and spotless wisdom, broadly setting the root of every high quality, with a view to gather large fruit in his present life, hearing these words respecting the sorrow of age, was afflicted in mind, and his hair stood upright. Just as the roll of the thunder and the storm alarm and put to flight the cattle, so was Bodhisattva affected by the words; shaking with apprehension, he deeply sighed; constrained at heart because of the pain of age; with shaking head and constant gaze, he thought upon this misery of decay; what joy or pleasure can men take, he thought, in that which soon must wither, stricken by the marks of age; affecting all without exception; though gifted now with youth and strength, yet not one but soon must change and pine away. The eye beholding such signs as these before it, how can it not be oppressed by a desire to escape? Bodhisattva then addressed his charioteer: “Quickly turn your chariot and go back. Ever thinking on this subject of old age approaching, what pleasures now can these gardens afford, the years of my life like the fast-flying wind; turn your chariot, and with speedy wheels take me to my palace.” And so his heart keeping in the same sad tone, he was as one who returns to a place of entombment; unaffected by any engagement or employment, so he found no rest in anything within his home.

The king hearing of his son’s sadness urged his companions to induce him again to go abroad, and forthwith incited his ministers and attendants to decorate the gardens even more than before. The Deva then caused himself to appear as a sick man; struggling for life, he stood by the wayside, his body swollen and disfigured, sighing with deep-drawn groans; his hands and knees contracted and sore with disease, his tears flowing as he piteously muttered his petition. The prince asked his charioteer, “What sort of man, again, is this?”

Replying, he said, “This is a sick man. The four elements all confused and disordered, worn and feeble, with no remaining strength, bent down with weakness, looking to his fellow-men for help.” The prince hearing the words thus spoken, immediately became sad and depressed in heart, and asked, “Is this the only man afflicted thus, or are others liable to the same calamity?” In reply he said, “Through all the world, men are subject to the same condition; those who have bodies must endure affliction, the poor and ignorant, as well as the rich and great.” The prince, when these words met his ears, was oppressed with anxious thought and grief; his body and his mind were moved throughout, just as the moon upon the ruffled tide. “Placed thus in the great furnace of affliction, say! what rest or quiet can there be! Alas! that worldly men, blinded by ignorance and oppressed with dark delusion, though the robber sickness may appear at any time, yet live with blithe and joyous hearts!” On this, turning his chariot back again, he grieved to think upon the pain of sickness. As a man beaten and wounded sore, with body weakened, leans upon his staff, so dwelt he in the seclusion of his palace, lone-seeking, hating worldly pleasures.

The king, hearing once more of his son’s return, asked anxiously the reason why, and in reply was told—“he saw the pain of sickness.” The king, in fear, like one beside himself, roundly blamed the keepers of the way; his heart constrained, his lips spoke not; again he increased the crowd of music-women, the sounds of merriment twice louder than aforetime, if by these sounds and sights the prince might be gratified; and indulging worldly feelings, might not hate his home. Night and day the charm of melody increased, but his heart was still unmoved by it. The king himself then went forth to observe everything successively, and to make the gardens even yet more attractive, selecting with care the attendant women, that they might excel in every point of personal beauty; quick in wit and able to arrange matters well, fit to ensnare men by their winning looks; he placed additional keepers along the king’s way, he strictly ordered every offensive sight to be removed, and earnestly exhorted the illustrious coachman, to look well and pick out the road as he went. And now that Deva of the Pure abode, again caused the appearance of a dead man; four persons carrying the corpse lifted it on high, and appeared (to be going on) in front of Bodhisattva; the surrounding people saw it not, but only Bodhisattva and the charioteer. Once more he asked, “What is this they carry? with streamers and flowers of every choice description, whilst the followers are overwhelmed with grief, tearing their hair and wailing piteously.” And now the gods instructing the coachman, he replied and said, “This is a dead man: all his powers of body destroyed, life departed; his heart without thought, his intellect dispersed; his spirit gone, his form withered and decayed; stretched out as a dead log; family ties broken—all his friends who once loved him, clad in white cerements, now no longer delighting to behold him, remove him to lie in some hollow ditch tomb.” The prince hearing the name of Death, his heart constrained by painful thoughts, he asked, “Is this the only dead man, or does the world contain like instances?” Replying thus he said, “All, everywhere, the same; he who begins his life must end it likewise; the strong and lusty and the middle-aged, having a body, cannot but decay and die.” The prince was now harassed and perplexed in mind; his body bent upon the chariot leaning-board, with bated breath and struggling accents, stammered thus, “Oh worldly men! how fatally deluded! beholding everywhere the body brought to dust, yet everywhere the more carelessly living; the heart is neither lifeless wood nor stone, and yet it thinks not ‘all is vanishing!‘” Then turning, he directed his chariot to go back, and no longer waste his time in wandering. How could he, whilst in fear of instant death, go wandering here and there with lightened heart! The charioteer remembering the king’s exhortation feared much nor dared go back; straightforward then he pressed his panting steeds, passed onward to the gardens, came to the groves and babbling streams of crystal water, the pleasant trees, spread out with gaudy verdure, the noble living things and varied beasts so wonderful, the flying creatures and their notes melodious; all charming and delightful to the eye and ear, even as the heavenly Nandavana.

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