The king did everything he could think of to ensure his son Prince Siddhartha would grow up prepared for a life following in his own footsteps and become a king. He ordered a high wall to be built around the palace, including its parks and gardens, but the prince was not happy living like a prisoner. One day he told his father, "I must go out of the palace gate and see how other people live."
"Very well, my son," said the king, "you shall go outside the palace wall to see how people live in my city. But first I must prepare things, so that all would be good and proper for my noble son's visit."
The king ordered the people of the city to prepare for his son's visit by making the streets and homes beautiful and welcoming him as he passed them by. When the people had decorated the city the king said, "Now you can go, my dear son, and see the city as you please."
As the young prince was going through the streets all of a sudden, from a small old hut beside the road, out came an old man with long silver-grey hair, wearing very old, torn and dirty rags. The skin of his face was dried and wrinkled. His sunken eyes were dim and he was almost blind. There were no teeth in his mouth. He stood up, trembling all over, almost bent over double and clutching at a shaking stick with two bent and skinny hands to save himself from falling.
The old beggar dragged himself along the street, paying no attention to all the happy people around him. He was speaking very feebly, begging people around him to give him food, as he would die that very day if he could find nothing to eat. When the prince saw the old man, he didn't know what he was looking at. It was the first time in his life that he had seen an old man of this type.
"What is that, Channa?" he asked his driver. "That really cannot be a man! Why is he all bent? What is he trembling for? Why is his hair silver-grey, not black like mine? What is wrong with his eyes? Where are his teeth? Is this how some people are born? Tell me, oh good Channa, what does this mean?"
Channa told the prince that it was an old man and he was not born like that. "When young he was like us and now, due to his old age he has become this way." Channa told the prince to forget this man. But the prince was not satisfied. "Everyone in the world, if he lives long enough, becomes like this man. It cannot be stopped," said Channa.
The prince ordered Channa to drive back home at once, as he was very sad and wanted to think carefully about that terrible thing called old age.
That night there was a grand royal feast for the prince, but he was not interested or happy at all during the dinner and dance. He was thinking all the time, "Some day you will all grow old and frail and bent—every one of you, even the prettiest."
He could not sleep when night came. He was in bed thinking that one day, everyone would grow old, grey, wrinkled, toothless and ugly like the old beggar. He wanted to know if anyone had found a way to stop this horrible thing—old age.
The king, when he heard this story, was very sad and worried that his son would leave the palace. He told his attendants to put on more dances and dinners. But the prince begged his father to allow him to see Kapilavatthu on an ordinary day without the people being told of his visit.