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.
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