Story adapted by Laurie Lyons and Adam Wells, Illustrations by Lisette Morales
A long time ago in a land far away, Airavata, the mystical white elephant visited Queen Maya in a dream and entered her side. The queen soon learned she was pregnant with the future heir to the throne of the Shakya clan. A holy man visited when the child Siddhartha was born, and predicted he would become a great king like his father Suddhodana, or a holy man. Just a few days later, Queen Maya died of complications from childbirth.
Maya’s sister, Pajapati, was also married to the king. She became Prince Siddhartha’s stepmother, and raised him as her own. King Suddhodana showered the young prince with luxury and sheltered him from the outside world to ensure that his son would succeed him and become king rather than leave the palace to become a holy man.
At sixteen Prince Siddartha was married to the beautiful Princess Yasodhara who bore him a son, Rahula. Inside the palace walls the young Prince’s every desire was fulfilled. His body was adorned with the finest silks, beautiful dancing girls entertained him, and he ate exotic game prepared in the richest sauces and drank nectar fit for the gods. Beautiful tapestries from Persia hung from the Palace walls. His nostrils filled with the fragrance of fresh cut flowers that servants threw before his feet, and his ears only heard pleasing words.
One day, outside the protective walls of the palace, Prince Siddhartha encountered a feeble old man hunched over a walking cane. He thought to himself, “Will I also be old one day and suffer like this?” Later that day, the future Buddha saw a sick person lying in the street coughing and shaking. While returning to the palace Siddhartha watched as a funeral procession walked by. Viewing the corpse and seeing the dead man being carried to the charnel grounds forced the prince to contemplate his own possible sickness and death. Was a life pursuing sensual pleasure a form of suffering if in the end we are all going to experience old age, sickness and death?
Just before returning to the palace walls Siddhartha passed by a sadhu dressed in rags sitting cross legged holding up his begging bowl. Sadhus were holy people who renounced the world and sensual pleasure for a life of contemplation and peace. This final sight made the young prince wonder if there was another way to live.
Returning to the palace Siddhartha realized that after seeing the Sadhu sitting in meditation that he had to leave the royal palace and seek enlightenment. The next morning he left his life of luxury and his family behind. He entered the forest to practice meditation and asceticism with the sadhus.
After six years of practicing yoga and meditation with many teachers, Siddhartha still had not found enlightenment. His body was thin and weak, his mind foggy. After years of following the ways that deprived the body, he was near death. He sat to rest by a tree. A woman named Sujata brought him an offering of delicious sweet rice porridge. Nourished and energized, Siddhartha realized that niether a life of extreme luxury nor extreme deprivation was what he needed. He embarked on a new path of his own creation, The Middle Way.
Determined to reach enlightenment for all living beings, he sat under a Bodhi tree determined not to move until he was freed from birth and death. Siddhartha sat unmoving for six days. He encountered many parts of himself that he hadn’t faced before. He remembered all of his past lives. He was accosted by Mara, the God of Delusion, who shot arrows of temptation at Siddhartha. Sitting steadfastly, undeterred by Mara, the arrows turned into flower petals mid-air and softly fell to the ground. At dawn of the 7th morning, Siddhartha saw the morning star. In this moment, he awoke from the dream of having a separately existing self. The Buddha touched the earth and uttered, “I alone in heaven above and earth below am the Honored One. I awaken with all sentient beings.”