Birth & Youth

The tales say he was the son of a king, raised in a palace with every imaginable luxury. He was called Siddhartha Gautama, a prince among a clan of warriors.

Young Prince Siddhartha
Young Prince Siddhartha
British Library
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"When I was a child, I was delicately brought up, most delicately. A white sunshade was held over me day and night to protect me from cold, heat, dust, dirt, and dew. My father gave me three lotus ponds: one where red lotuses bloomed, one where white lotuses bloomed, one where blue lotuses bloomed."

Bob Tenzin Thurman, scholar: "The father wants him to be a king wants him to conquer the world and to be the emperor of India, which at that time was sixteen different kingdoms. And it was predicted that he would be able to conquer wherever he wanted if he remained as a king. So the father was creating this artificial environment to coddle him."

Jane Hirshfield, poet: "His father wanted to prevent him from ever noticing that anything might be wrong with the world because he hoped that he would stay in the life they knew and loved not go off as was predicted at his birth and possibly become a spiritual teacher rather than a king."

Shielded from pain and suffering, Siddhartha indulged in a life of pure pleasure, every whim satisfied, every desire fulfilled.

"I wore the most costly garments, ate the finest foods. I was surrounded by beautiful women. During the rainy season I stayed in my palace, where I was entertained by musicians and dancing girls. I never even thought of leaving."

Siddhartha's marriage
Siddhartha marries his cousin at sixteen
British Library
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When he was sixteen, his father, drawing him tighter into palace life, married him to his cousin. It wasn't long before they fell in love.

Thurman: "He was so in love with her. There is a story that on their honeymoon which was about ten years long. At one time they rolled off the roof that they were making love on while in union and they fell down but landed in a bed of lotuses and lilies and didn’t notice they had fallen."

And so, the stories say, he indulged himself for twenty-nine years, until the shimmering bubble of pleasure burst.

D. Max Moerman, scholar: "His father does everything he can to never let him leave, never let him see the suffering that life is, but one day he goes outside and he has the first of four encounters. First he sees a sick man and doesn’t quite understand what it is. He asks his attendant and the attendant says, 'oh that happens to all of us.'"

Venerable Metteyya Sakyaputta, monk: "Everybody gets sick, and don’t think you’re a prince you’ll not get sick, your father will get sick, your mom will get sick, everybody will become sick."

Mark Epstein, psychiatrist: "Then he sees that it isn’t just this sick person, in fact it’s universal and something is stimulated inside of him. So he keeps getting the chariot driver to take him out and he sees you know horror after horror."

Siddhartha encounters suffering
Siddhartha encounters suffering
Art Resource, Inc.
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Moerman: "He sees an old man and he asks his attendant, and the attendant says. Oh that’s change, one doesn’t always stay young and perfect. And on his third trip outside, he meets a corpse. And he recognizes impermanence, and suffering, and death as the real state of things. The world that he had been protected from, shielded from, kept from seeing."

Hirshfield: "And he was shocked. You know he was shocked and he realized this is my fate, too. I will also become old. I will also become ill. I will also die. How do I deal with these things? These are universal questions in any human being’s life: what it’s like to be in a body inside of time, and our fate. And how do we navigate that? It really is a tale of the transformation from a certain naïve, innocent relationship to your own life to wanting to know the full story, wanting to know the full truth."

Moerman: "And then the fourth trip outside he sees a spiritual seeker: someone who has decided to live a life completely other than his life in order to escape from impermanence, suffering, and death. So he has this sort of traumatic encounter with the pain and suffering of life."

Epstein: "We try to protect our children. We don’t want to let our children see all the pain that’s in the world. But at a very early age, at a time before he could remember anything, at a time before there was conceptual thought he already suffered the worst kind of loss that one could suffer. Suddenly and mysteriously, his mother died when he was a week old. So something tragic happened you know right at the beginning. That might be what it takes to become a Buddha is that you have to suffer on such a primitive level."


Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.