Brief notes on Buddhist thought and practice
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The Mendicant Life

Like all wandering ascetics, every morning Siddhartha and his five companions would get up, take their alms bowls, and beg for food from door to door. This was a common custom in those days, when there were many wandering monks. People believed that if you helped an ascetic, you would get some of the merit he developed.

Many of the people he begged from could see that Siddhartha was different from most monks. He still looked and acted like a prince. His clothes weren’t even ragged yet. So people gave him the best food they had.

Still, instead of feeling satisfied with that, the first time he looked into his bowl, Siddhartha was disgusted! He had always lived like a prince. All his life he had been given the best food available, served in an attractive way, "fit for a king," you could say. Now, even though the people were giving him their best, it was still mostly the scraps and leftovers of common people’s dinner.

Finally, though, he learned to eat it. He reminded himself that he had left home by choice, and had to accept all of the conditions of such a life.

  1. Put yourself in Siddhartha's place. What other conditions of the mendicant's life would be difficult to adjust to?
  2. If you were one of the people, would you be more likely to give food to a "princely beggar," or less?
Next time: King Bimbasara

The Five Companions

So Siddhartha, born a prince, was now a mendicant, a beggar.

He went to a mango grove called Anupiya, near the Anoma River. There he rested for seven days, getting used to his new life.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, there was an uproar. The king saw that his thirty years' effort was wasted. Chinese tradition says he sent five faithful servants to persuade the prince to return. Instead, he persuaded them! When he explained his reasons for leaving, they decided to become monks too and accompany him into the forest.

In the Southern tradition, though, the Bodhisattva's first five companions are not servants from the palace. They were connected to the sages who gave him his name as a baby. One was Kondanna, the youngest of those sages; the other four are sons of the four other sages. And in the Southern tradition, they didn't meet him until after he had studied with some masters.

There is an interesting connection between the two traditions, however. Although the names vary in both traditions, the most common set of Southern names and the most common set of Chinese names are nearly a perfect match (except for Kondanna). In other words, the Chinese tradition gives names that are clearly the Chinese version of those in the Southern tradition. They are even given in the same order.

Here's a chart:

KondannaAjnata-KaundinyaJiao Chenru
MahanamaMahanama-KulikaMohe-nan (or Monan-juli)

  1. What challenges would Siddhartha face, having been raised in a palace, and now living as a beggar?
  2. Discuss King Shuddhodana's feelings at this point.
  3. Why do you think the Chinese tradition was developed in a way so different from the Southern tradition?
Next time: The Mendicant Life

The Great Departure

Leaving the room where the dancers were sleeping, Prince Siddhartha called Channa, his chariot driver, and told him to saddle his horse Kanthaka for a long journey that very night.

Then he went to the room where his wife Yashodara and new-born son Rahula were, and he found that they were asleep, too. He decided not to wake them--perhaps because of compassion, or perhaps because he thought Yashodara might plead with him to stay.

Channa brought Kanthaka saddled and ready. Then he and Channa left the palace together. They rode out in silence. Legend says that the gods held up Kanthaka’s hooves so they wouldn’t make any noise as he left.

They passed through the sleeping city and out from the gates. Prince Siddhartha stopped and looked back at the city of his ancestors. Then, turning Kanthaka’s head to the road, he went silently toward the banks of the river Anoma.

There, on the banks of the river, the prince removed all of his fine jewelry and his fancy outer robes and gave them to Channa. He asked Channa to do one last service: to take his goods and his horse and return them to his father. He asked Channa to tell his mother, his father, and his wife that he was well, and that he had gone to seek the answer to the questions that had troubled him for so long.

Naturally Channa begged to be taken along. But the prince insisted that this was something he had to do alone. Besides, he said, it was not suitable for a wandering monk to have a servant. He promised that he would see Channa again.

Weeping, Channa could only obey. He led Kanthaka down the moonlit road. Tradition says the horse, too, wept. Some even say that his heart broke, and he died on the road. Channa then returned to the palace on foot, with the prince’s robes and Kanthaka’s saddle.

And so that night, Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya clan, heir to the throne of Kapilavastu, took his sword and, kneeling by the river, cut off his royal topknot. He then turned his face from the city where his loved ones slept and, with mindful steps, set out to solve for all people the problems of human suffering, and to lead the life of a homeless ascetic.

  1. What do you think of the prince leaving his wife and infant son this way?
  2. Why do you think tradition has inserted the supernatural details into the story?
  3. Imagine Channa returning to the palace. What could he possibly say to justify his role in the prince's departure?
Next time: The Five Companions

The Dancing Girls

After the baby's birth, Prince Siddhartha still wasn't ready to leave home. He needed one more little push.

Meanwhile, his father was still working hard to try to keep him happy. To this end, the very night Rahula was born, King Shuddhodana hired the most attractive women to sing beautiful songs and perform delightful dances.

Of course, it didn't work. As the prince tried to be a good son and watch the show his father had paid for, he became so bored he fell asleep. The girls noticed, and when they got tired of performing for a sleeping audience, they sat down to take a break until the prince awoke. Unfortunately, they fell asleep too.

While they lay in awkward positions, snoring, mouths open, saliva dribbling onto their exquisite clothes, the prince woke and saw these "beautiful" women. He was so disgusted that he slipped out of the room as quietly as possible.

He knew then and there that the beauty of the palace was only an appearance. Underneath its beauty all was unpleasant, all was suffering. It was time for him to leave.

  1. What is the value of entertainment? Is there any harm in forgetting our troubles for a while?
  2. What about beauty? Is it an illusion?
Next time: The Great Departure


After seeing the Four Sights, Prince Siddhartha sat thinking in the garden. Suddenly, a servant came running with news: Princess Yashodara had just given birth to a baby boy!

When he heard the news, the prince just sat and murmured over and over, " obstacle has been born…a fetter has arisen... an obstacle has been born..." Although most of us rejoice at the birth of a baby, the prince realized that even the joys of life also tie us to this world.

The Chinese have an expression, "sheng-lao-bing-si." It means "birth, old age, sickness, death." These are called the "four afflictions" that affect every person.

You may wonder how birth could be an affliction, but it's certain that to be alive is to suffer. If we were never born, we would never suffer. This insight would become very important in the thinking of the Buddha-to-be.

The servant who brought the news misunderstood what Siddhartha was saying, and thought the word "obstacle"--"rahu"--was to be the new baby's name.

And so the child was named "Rahula."

  1. Do you think birth is an "affliction"?
  2. Are you troubled by this young man's response to the birth of his first (and only) child?
  3. What "fetters" or "obstacles" are there in your life that might seem like "blessings" to others?
Next time: The Dancing Girls

The Four Sights

Although his father had surrounded him with luxury, the young Prince Siddhartha was still curious about the world.

So his father let him go out into the city, but first he made sure that the people outside the palace looked like those inside: young, healthy, and happy. All the old, sick, and poor were removed from sight.

When the prince went out with Channa, his charioteer, the people lined the streets, waving banners and cheering. At first, the trick worked. The prince began to think that perhaps he had been wrong, and the world was indeed a wonderful, happy place. But then something happened.

Some say it all happened on one trip around Kapilavastu; others say it took place over four journeys. Some say the gods intervened in disguise; others say it was simply the way of nature.

But as Channa drove the prince, something walked across the chariot's path. Siddhartha asked Channa if it was a man. Yes, said Channa. But how could it be? It was bent over. Its hair was white, and it had no teeth. It was thin and weak.

The prince had seen an old man.

He questioned Channa more, and learned that this would happen to him, if he lived long enough, as it happened to all. Siddhartha was deeply disturbed.

Later he encountered a sick man. And later still, he witnessed the grief of mourners as a corpse burned on a funeral pyre. All of this confirmed his suspicions about the true nature of things.

But then, he saw something else. A man, with shaved head and saffron robe, who looked serenely calm.

A monk! Channa explained that this man was seeking a way out of suffering, and this really set him to thinking...

  1. What feelings do you get when you think of old age, illness, and death?
  2. Is the world a happy place, or a place of suffering? Why do you think so?
  3. Why do you think Siddhartha found the monk so intriguing?
Next time: Rahula

Among the Beautiful People

Siddhartha's father now felt a little better about his son's future, but he was still on his guard, worried that his son might become a monk and lose the chance to be a universal king.

He had already had high walls built around all the gardens.

But now, he also hired all kinds of entertainers: singers, dancers, jugglers--anyone who could make the prince happy. But there was still one little problem.

With so many people around the prince--servants, gardeners, cooks, entertainers, and so on--the king was worried that some of these people might remind the prince of the sad things in life. They might talk about sad things, or they might get sick. Others among them would grow old.

So the king issued orders that no one was to speak of old age, sickness, or death. Furthermore, he ordered that only young, cheerful, healthy, pleasant people were to surround the prince. If anyone got sick, they should leave the palace at once, and not return until they were better. The king would not allow anyone to look sad or tired around the prince.

You see, the king was determined to do everything he could to keep the prince from leaving and becoming a monk.


  1. What do you think of the king's plans? Was the king thinking clearly? Do his plans seem like good ideas?
  2. Were his plans fair to the prince? How about to those around him?
  3. As I read this story, I can see trouble brewing. I feel the king is trying too hard. What do you think?

Next time: The Four Sights

The Wedding Competition

But the wedding of Prince Siddhartha to Princess Yashodara could not be conducted just yet.

In those days, tradition required that a prince of the Kshatriya caste had to prove that he was a great warrior.

First he had to show that he was a good swordsman. To do this, Prince Siddhartha cut through the trunk of a tree. He did it so well that the tree didn't fall until the wind pushed it over!

Next he had to shoot an arrow farther than anyone. And he did, even beating his rival, Prince Devadatta.

Next, of course, was horsemanship. They had a race. Prince Siddhartha easily won on Kanthaka. So everyone said Siddhartha hadn't won: Kanthaka had!

To retry his horsemanship, the elders decided that all the young men should try to ride a wild, black stallion. No one was able, until it was Prince Arjuna's turn. Everyone thought that he was the best horseman among the young men. And in fact, he did get on the horse. But then it threw him off.

It was then Prince Siddhartha's turn. After Arjuna's injury, it would have been reasonable for him to just give up.

But he didn't. He walked up to the horse and spoke softly to it. Then he got on easily and rode the horse anywhere he wished.

So Prince Siddhartha won the competition. Soon he and Yashodara had a royal wedding as beautiful as you can imagine.


  1. Why are the tests in the wedding competition all physical tests? Why would strength and fighting skill be so important?
  2. What do you think Siddhartha might have said to the horse? (Or does it matter?)
  3. Do you think Siddhartha "really" won, or could the competition have been "fixed"?

Next time: Among the Beautiful People

Choosing a Bride

How to keep the prince from becoming a monk? King Shuddhodana was stumped. So he summoned his royal advisors and asked for their advice.

They advised him to do the natural thing: although it was true that Prince Siddhartha was a very special young man, they figured that, like any sixteen-year-old, he would be happy if he married a beautiful wife with gentle manners.

The king agreed. He ordered them to summon all the most beautiful maidens in his realm. The Prince would give a gift to each of them, and the advisors would watch carefully to see which girl he favored the most.

And so it was. Many maidens came, and the Prince gave exquisite gifts to each, one by one. But the Prince seemed bored, not at all interested in any of the young women. Everyone was puzzled. Finally, all the gifts were gone, and all the maidens had left.

Suddenly, one more maiden rushed in!

"O Prince," she asked, "have you no gift left for me?"

Prince Siddhartha was so overwhelmed by her beauty and manner that, smiling warmly, he gave her the string of jewels from his own neck. He tied it around her waist, and asked her name.

She was Yashodara, and her father was the king of Siddhartha's mother's hometown.

The courtiers who watched the Prince were overjoyed to see how he accepted Yashodara. They reported to the king, and plans for the wedding were begun.


  1. This seems a reasonable plan. Do you think it will work?
  2. In terms of storytelling, why do you think Yashodara arrives late, after all the gifts have been distributed?
  3. Is it significant, do you think, that Yashodara comes from the hometown of Siddhartha's mother?

Next time: The Wedding Competition