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A broadcast talk from B.B.S

U Sein Nyo Tun, I.C.S. (Retd.)

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Vol. VII, No. 4, 1960

Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhassa.

          Every devout Buddhist knows the story of the Four Great Omens—the omens or signs that appeared to Prince Siddhattha, the Future Gotama Buddha, and which led Him on to make the Great Renunciation. These omens are landmarks which are full of meaning and import in the illustrious and inimitable life of Sammasambuddha.

          When the young prince, Siddhattha, was born, there was a prophecy that he would become either an Universal Monarch—a Cakkavattin, a powerful King of Kings—or an Universal Teacher—an All Enlightened Buddha, a Teacher of brahmas, devas, and men. It was foretold that in the latter eventuality, He would decide to become a Buddha after seeing four omens, namely, an old man, a sick man. a dead man, and a bhikkhu or recluse. As is the case with mundane men endowed with earthly power, luxuries, and riches, the prince's father, King Suddhodana of Kapilavatthu, desired to see his son become an Universal Monarch, and was extremely anxious to prevent the possibility of the prince becoming an Universal Teacher.

          The King therefore gave the prince in marriage to his beautiful cousin, Princess Yasodhaya, at the early age of sixteen, and surrounded him with a surfeit of worldly luxuries and worldly sensual pleasures. On the other hand, he placed strong guards and patrols within the city and its environments to see that the omens did not and could not appear to the prince. Thus did Siddhattha live in the lap of luxury, ease, sensuality, and forgetfulness, surrounded and guided by vigilant watchmen and protectors.

          But this state of affairs could not last indefinitely. The paramis or perfections that had been attempted and fulfilled by this Man of great destiny during four asankheyyas and a hundred thousand world-cycles could not forever remain dormant. Soon after He entered his twenty-ninth year, the devas of the Tusita deva world, took it upon them selves to penetrate the elaborate precautions and guards, and to show the four Great Omens to the pleasure and luxury wrapped prince.

          The prince was greatly disturbed by the sight of the omens. On the first occasion, when He saw the omen of the decrepit old man while on a pleasure drive in the Royal Park, He asked His charioteer, "Who is this strange man? He appears to be so full of misery and is unlike any man I have seen before." "He is an old man, Sir," replied the charioteer. "Shall I also become like him one day?" again asked the prince. "Without a doubt. Your Royal Highness," said the charioteer, "Where there is birth, old age follows inevitably." The prince was greatly upset and turned back immediately to his palace. He asked similar questions on the second and third occasions when he saw the sick man and the dead man, and received similar replies. Again, on each of these occasions, he was greatly upset and returned immediately to his palace.

          On the fourth occasion when the prince saw the yellow robed recluse, he asked, "Who is this man who looks so composed, dignified, and serene?" "He is a recluse, a holy man, Sir," replied the charioteer. And who is a recluse?" again asked the prince. "He is a man who has renounced the world in order to seek a way of escape from the suffering that exists in the world," replied the charioteer.

          The charioteer was further inspired to embark on a lengthy praise of the many excellent qualities of a recluse. The prince was greatly pleased with this inspired eloquence and listened to it with a willing ear. He thereupon resolved that he too would forthwith renounce the world and become a recluse for the purpose of seeking a way of escape from worldly miseries, not only for himself, but also for the sake of the whole of animate nature, and agitations of the mind that had assailed him on the occasions when he saw the first three omens now became appeased, and he experienced a new-won happiness and serenity unlike any he had felt before.

          This, in short, is the story of the Four Great Omens.

          Now, if we pause to consider the nature and intensity of Prince Siddhattha's reactions to the sight of the four omens, we cannot but be struck by the contrast between them and those of the countless millions of men and women that we know and see around us in this modern world. Despite the fact that He lived amidst the mental-vacuum-inducing atmosphere of distracting pleasures and luxuries, the intrinsic thoughtful nature of the prince immediately produced in him a fear and an agitation in regard to the fundamental nature of all worldly life. The pleasures and luxuries that were at his beck and call were transformed in a moment from attractive pursuits to empty, chimerous, and falsely alluring pitfalls when faced with the prospect of the inevitableness of decaying old age, distressing disease, and the vast uncertainty that lay beyond death.

          On the other hand, the infinite number of ordinary humans who are born into this world, live their humdrun unthinking lives, and untimely die—from day to day, year to year, and generation to generation—are unmoved by these meaningful omens which are common sights they see practically every day of their lives. In their work as in their leisure, the realisations that they also are subject to old age, decay, disease, and death, do not occur to them. And, if they do, they are fleeting flashes that exercise little effect on the decisions and acts which they make and perpetrate every waking moment of their lives.

          In their absorption and pre-occupation with present events, their daily acts seemingly emerge from the standpoint that they themselves would never become old, nor decay, nor be subject to disease, nor to death. It is as if they labour continually under the strongly wishful delusion that they are the exceptions to the inexorable natural law that whoever is born into this world is subject to old age, decay, disease, and death. And these remarks apply not only to the men in the street but also to the many leaders of men in every walk of life—in politics, religion, commerce, education, etc. The world would be a vastly changed place for the better, if the man and women who inhabit it are continually mindful and alert to the inevitability of old age, decay, disease, and death.

          There is nobody in this world who can avoid old age, disease, and death, or who can in the future be able to avoid old age, disease, and death, and yet there are very few persons who live under the continual realisation that these are sure and certain eventualities to which they are willy-nilly subject. Everybody tries in his or her own way to postpone the occurrence of these banes of mankind with varying degrees of failure, and behind the facade of this attempt they build a wishful fools' paradise wherein they tacitly believe that old age, disease, and death can be indefinitely deferred. Even science is hope— hopeful in this particular, for there have been scientifically sponsored attempts throughout the last few centuries of scientific advancement not only of deferring old age, disease and death for a time but also of preventing their occurrence altogether. The fallacy of science in this context consists not in the belief that there is a way of avoiding old age, disease and death altogether, but in the assumption that this way can be found within the vicious circle of worldly life.

         Prince Siddhattha, at the age of twenty- eight, was in the prime of his life when he saw the four Great Omens. He was as hale and healthy as any human being could wish to be, and he was as remote from death as any human being could possibly be. And yet, the moment he saw the omens, he was immediately shaken out of his forgetfulness, which the sedatives of ease and pleasure had induced, and his realisation of the inevitability of old age, disease, and death was so strong that he fell that he would be afflicted by them at the very moment.

          Therein lies the difference between men of great destiny who have aeons of work towards greatness behind them and the common place men and women whose future after death is enshrouded in anxious uncertainty. While in the case of these great men their sensibilities are so sharp and delicate that the prospect of old age, disease, and death becomes imminent the moment they see signs of them; in the case of the mass of ordinary humans of uncertain destiny their senses are so gross and undeveloped that even repeated sights of such signs day-in and day-out every day of their lives do not produce any impression.

          The ability to acquire an internal realisation of the Truth, a realisation which is more than an intellectual or logical acceptance, comes out of a lengthy process of specifically directed work which comprises more than one lifetime. In fact it involves an infinite number of lifetimes or rebirths. It is because individuals vary in this foundation of previously attempted specific work that there exists in this present world infinite varieties and degrees of reductions to the portents that they see around them every day of their lives. In the Buddhist teachings, five extremely difficult acquisitions are mentioned. Of them. saddhamma savanam dullabham means "Hard is it to hear the doctrine of the good" and dullabha saddha sampatti means "hard is it to acquire a fullness of faith in the doctrine of the good." They imply that the opportunity to have the way to truth presented is not easily acquired but is the result of an infinite number of years of hard work, while having obtained the opportunity to hear the presentation of the way to truth, it is a still more difficult task to acquire a realisation—an internal realisation—of the truth of that way.

          In the Buddhist teachings, the realisation of the truth is a personal concern. Truth cannot be taught or otherwise conveyed from one person to another. All that can be done is to show the way to truth—the method of how truth can be achieved—and each individual will have to put forth effort according to that method in order to obtain a realisation of that truth. That is why the Buddha said, "Buddhas only show the way."* Buddha embodied Truth in the word Nibbana, Let us therefore take heed and put forth unrelenting effort in order to realise Nibbana. As human beings we have a certain amount of previous effort to sustain us. Let us continue the good work in this life and persevere in that effort so that Nibbana may be ours before long.

Sabbe satta sukhita hontu!

* Dhammapada, verse 276.