This morning, Annie and I visited the beautiful Ta Prohm Temple to examine some of the few reliefs in Angkor that depict the Buddha’s early years.
Our visit started with one of the large medallions of the eastern gopura of enclosure II, facing the Hall of Dancers. The magnificent Hall has been newly restored by the Archaeological Survey of India, a complex nine year project that was completed in early 2023, and kept many local artisans employed during the COVID-19 crisis. And what a fantastic job they did!
Before we get to the medallion in question, let’s continue with our tale of the Buddha’s life.
In my last journal entry, The Birth of the Buddha, I described how the great seer Asita prophesied that prince Siddhartha, son of King Shuddhodana, would be uninterested in worldly affairs, would give up his kingdom, and after long and strenuous efforts would achieve enlightenment. He would thus remove the darkness of delusion from this world, bringing to an end the cycle of births and rebirths, and freeing the world from its bonds.
The king was always aware of Asita’s prophecy, and he determined that this son must never see anything shocking or disturbing. He arranged for the prince to live in a palace from which he could not go out.
When the prince was sixteen years old, the king called upon his fellow tribesmen to send their daughters for him to choose a wife. He selected a maiden of unblemished reputation, Yashoda, whom the prince accepted with delight. The prince passed his time high up in the palace which was resplendently white like the abode of the gods and brilliant like Mount Kailasa. The court was full of musicians and dancers and the prince was captivated by sexual pleasure.
Yashodha bore a son to Siddhartha, who was named Rahula. It was considered essential that the prince, like all the bodhisattvas, must first know the pleasures that the senses can give, before reaching enlightenment.
The Four Encounters
While the young prince was enjoying his life at the palace, the courtesans told him how beautiful were the groves near the city. Stirred by curiosity, he requested a journey outside the palace. Upon hearing this, the king arranged for four pleasure excursions.
For the first excursion, the king gave orders that everybody with any kind of affliction, the aged and beggars, should be kept away from the royal path, not to upset the sensitivity of the prince. But the gods, when they saw that all the citizens were happy and acclaiming the prince, conjured up the illusion of an old man. The prince was shocked at the sight, and was even more distressed on hearing the explanation of old age given by his charioteer. He realised that old age destroys indiscriminately the memory, beauty and strength of everybody, but that people, despite this, were unperturbed. He ordered the charioteer to return quickly to the palace that now seemed empty to him.
During a second pleasure excursion, the gods created a man with a diseased body. When his appearance was explained to Siddhartha, he was dismayed by the calamity of illness and trembled at the realisation that the world is indifferent to the constant threat of disease. He hurried back to the palace, repelled by the pleasures of court people.
On the third excursion, the same gods produced a corpse which only the prince and his charioteer could see from the road. Again, Siddhartha was appalled to realise how the world could ignore a terrible end which is fixed for all, noticing that the hearts of men were hardened to fears.
Buddha’s Encounter with a Corpse, Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor, Cambodia This large medallion of the eastern gopura of enclosure II at Ta Prohm Temple may be interpreted as the Buddha’s encounter with a corpse. It appears as if a wild animal is portrayed eating the entrails of the dead man, in keeping with modern representations of this story.
On the fourth and final excursion, Siddhartha met a saintly man and understood that there could be an escape from suffering through religious serenity. By coincidence, the same day, the Buddha-to-be encountered a woman who awakened in him the idea of nirvana.
Siddhartha Meeting a Holy Man, Banteay Samre Temple, Angkor, Cambodia In this relief, on the highest pediment of the northern gopura I at Banteay Samre Temple, one can see a prince riding a horse and holding a lotus with his left hand, passing near a temple or a palace, together with the members of his court. In the register below, the same figure is kneeling in front of rishis, one of whom is holding a rosary.
Siddhartha thus understood that old age, illness and death must affect everyone and render everything impermanent, the prince realised that everything around him was transient and that the pleasures of the senses were creating the illusion of ‘the world’. He thereupon withdrew from sexual contact with the palace women, as he could no longer find happiness in their sensual powers.
Through these encounters, Siddhartha was thus urged by the gods to abandon the world before his imminent royal consecration.
In my next journal entry of this series, I’ll describe how the prince leaves behind his life of privilege in The Great Departure.
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