Buddha’s Realization Of Impermanence: “The World Is On Fire!”
“The world is on fire!” These were the words of Prince Siddhartha Gautama to his charioteer, an old man. The charioteer looked around and got confused. He did not see anything burning. But for Prince Siddhartha, everything around him was burning at that moment.
To understand this statement of the Buddha, it’s essential to understand the context. When Siddhartha was born as a son to King Suddhodana, astrologers predicted that this newborn prince would eventually become the greatest king in the world or the greatest monk ever to walk on Earth. Fearing that the prince might become a monk and renounce the kingdom, the king created an illusory world for Siddhartha. The king knew that if his son came to know of suffering, ageing, and death, then there were chances that he might become a renunciate. So he ensured that everything and everyone around the prince stayed young and happy. Young courtiers, young girls and even young plants and animals. No sick or old person was allowed to come near the prince, and even the flowers in the garden were changed every night so that he didn’t notice the ageing and death of the flowers.
But then, one day, when he was 29 years of age, Prince Siddhartha was to go outside the palace for a youth conference. While on his way aboard a chariot, he encountered 4 different kinds of people: a sick man, an aged man, a dead man, and a monk. Looking at the first 3 men, he encountered suffering for the first time in his life. He realized that everything in the world is impermanent, that everything is ageing, and that everything is moving towards death. He could clearly see the illusory nature of the world around him because everything changes every moment, everything is impermanent, and hence everything will perish. He realized that attachment to anything leads to suffering because everything is impermanent. Therefore he said to the charioteer, “Th world is on fire!”
The 4th man Siddhartha saw was a monk who had given up his attachments to worldly desires, so Siddhartha decided to become a monk himself. He told the charioteer that if everything is impermanent, I will search for what is permanent. He then left his family and the kingdom and began his journey toward enlightenment.