THE PRINCE WHO WAS to become the historical Buddha has generally been referred to as the Bodhisattva when spoken of during the period of quest and religious disciplines following his great renunciation and up until his enlightenment. A bodhisattva has been described as one who “seeks upward for bodhi [wisdom]” and “teaches downward to all beings,” that is, one who on the one hand perfects himself by aiming at the attainment of enlightenment, but on the other hand also descends to the level of the unenlightened in order to save them. (In the simplest Mahayana Buddhist terms, a bodhisattva is one who devotes himself to attaining enlightenment not only for himself but for all sentient beings.)
After his renunciation of the secular world the Bodhisattva set out in search of a competent teacher to help him attain enlightenment. Most teachers at that time were ascetics, generally hermit-sages, and the most renowned among them was the hermit-sage Arada-Kalama, who lived in the mountains immediately north of Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir, in the state of Bihar), the capital of the important kingdom of Magadha. The Bodhisattva visited this hermit-sage to learn his method of freeing the spirit from the bonds of the flesh. Though the philosophy propounded by AradaKalama was indeed profound, the Bodhisattva soon understood it and attained the same level of enlightenment as his teacher. Moved by the Bodhisattva’s ability, Arada-Kalama suggested they jointly teach his disciples; but the Bodhisattva declined because he was convinced that he had not yet attained true enlightenment, and he journeyed forth to study under another ascetic. He next went to the hermit-sage Udraka-Ramaputra, who lived in the mountains near Rajagriha with seven hundred disciples. Udraka-Ramaputra also was a profound philosopher, but the Bodhisattva shortly reached the same state of enlightenment as he and realized that the teachings of Udraka-Ramaputra would not lead him to his goal.
One cannot attain a spiritual state of perfect selflessness through philosophic contemplation alone; and if one does not attain such a state, one cannot comprehend the majesty of the universe, that is, the supreme truth that is capable of saving all sentient beings from their sufferings.
Udraka-Ramaputra proposed that the Bodhisattva join in leading the hermit-sage’s disciples, but the Bodhisattva declined Udraka-Ramaputra’s offer and once more set out to seek the true path to enlightenment. This time he determined that he would no longer rely on others: he concluded that he could attain enlightenment only through his own practice and meditation. He went to the southwest and climbed to the top of Mount Gaya, where he sat in meditation, considering what he must do in order to attain enlightenment. From a distance five ascetics, disciples of Udraka-Ramaputra, watched him in his meditation. They had left their teacher, saying among themselves, “We have long studied asceticism under our teacher, yet we have been unable to attain the state of enlightenment preached by him. In a short time, however, that Bodhisattva has completely understood Udraka-Ramaputra’s teachings; and finding them insufficient, he now seeks a higher state of wisdom. He is one who will surely attain perfect enlightenment in the future. Let us follow him.” Those ascetics, Ajnata-Kaundinya, Bhadrika, Vashpa, Mahanama, and Ashvajit, hold an important place in the history of Buddhism. (According to another version of this story, Shuddhodana had originally sent the five to care for his son; but, deeply affected by the Bodhisattva’s dedication, they abandoned the secular life to join him.)
Fine forests grew along both banks of the Nairanjana River, near the foot of Mount Gaya; and the rugged Mount Pragbohi rose on the opposite bank of the river. After the Bodhisattva descended Mount Gaya, he entered the forest near the village of Uruvilva and began to practice ascetic austerities there. With the Bodhisattva’s permission, the five ascetics who had followed him joined him in his ascetic practices and also served as his attendants.
Most ascetics at that time practiced various kinds of rigorous self-denial and strict self-discipline. Some sought to attain enlightenment while so severely limiting their food intake that they almost starved. Others immersed themselves in icy waters during the cold season and roasted themselves before blazing fires during the hot season. Some went completely naked, exposed to the extremes of weather in all seasons. One sect believed that ascetics must live where corpses were abandoned and remain silent all their lives. Another required its followers to patiently endure eating grass like a cow and licking the dirt like a dog. Even today in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi (which has also been called Benares), for example, many such ascetics are to be seen. There are those who stand on one leg with one hand raised above their head for long periods, those who lie on beds of thorns or sharp nails, those who hang upside down from tree branches, and those who stare at the sun all day, moving only to follow it through the sky.
It is said that the Bodhisattva engaged in such ascetic practices as controlling his breathing while deep in meditation. One story has it that he disciplined himself to eat but one grain of rice and a single sesame seed each day. An unusual sculpture in the Lahore Museum in Pakistan represents the Bodhisattva during this period of his ascetic practices. This deeply moving image, which dates from the early centuries of the Christian Era, shows his wasted body in a very realistic manner: the protruding bones, the shrunken stomach, and the eyes sunk deeply in his skull indicate the starvation he has undergone. His emaciated face, however, reveals both his benevolent character and his wholehearted dedication to the pursuit of enlightenment.
After six years of ascetic practices, the Bodhisattva realized he could not attain supreme enlightenment through self-mortification because it was mistaken and unnatural. Supreme enlightenment encompasses a path that we can comprehend, a way by which we can understand the universe as it exists and by which we can live in harmony with all things in the universe. Though the extreme discipline of ascetic practices is not without worth when employed as a means of renouncing egoistic attachment to self, one must bear in mind that such self-mortification is but a single step toward true enlightenment. The true path enables us to make the best use of our bodies so long as they are ours. For most people, tormenting the body is a way of tyrannizing the spirit, not freeing it: true freedom of the spirit cannot be achieved through tyranny. Giving up austerities, the Bodhisattva is said to have gone to a nearby burning ghat, where corpses were cremated, and to have gathered there the ragged, discarded clothing of the dead, which he then washed and donned because it was considered suitable wear for an ascetic. (In those days it was customary to repair such garments by piecing together odd bits of cloth; some say this practice is the origin of Buddhist monks’ custom, still practiced today. . . of making their outer robes by piecing together squares of cloth.)
Clothed thus in rags, the Bodhisattva went to the Nairanjana River, where he shaved off his matted hair and beard and bathed. Afterward he accepted from Sujata, a young woman from the nearby village, a bowl of rice boiled in milk and, mentally and physically refreshed, turned toward a new form of practice. The Bodhisattva’s five followers were deeply disappointed by his actions because they had believed he would surely attain supreme enlightenment, and for that reason they had shared his life during six years of ascetic practices. They thought that he must have eaten the rice gruel because he was no longer able to bear ascetic practices and had failed in his search for enlightenment. They agreed that they should no longer study with him. Dissatisfied and angry, they made their way to Deer Park, outside Varanasi, which was at that time a center for ascetics.
Excerpted from Nikkyo Niwano’s Shakyamuni Buddha: A Narrative Biography, and reprinted with permission from Kosei Publishing Company.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.