In the first installment of Jack Kerouac’s previously unpublished life of the Buddha (Vol. I/, No.4), we learned of Siddhartha’s protected upbringing within the palace walls, his marriage at age sixteen to Yasodhara, and the birth of his son, Rahula. We also learned that at the age of twenty-nine, after encountering suffering in the form of old age, sickness, and death, he bid farewell to his wife and son, saddled his horse in the middle of the night, and left the palace in pursuit of a spiritual life. In this, the second of nine episodes to be published in Tricycle, we pick up the story after the young prince has shorn his hair, traded his clothes for those of a beggar, and vowed homelessness. The full manuscript will be published in Some of the Dharma by Viking Penguin in 1995. Note: All of Kerouac’s original spellings and usage have been retained.
HE MADE INQUIRIES and roamed along looking for the famous ascetic, Alara Kalama, whom he’d heard so much about, who would be his teacher. Alara Kalama expounded the teaching called ‘the realm of nothingness,’ and practised self-mortification to prove that he was free from his body. The young new Muni of the Sakya clan followed suit with eagerness and energy. Later, to his disciples he recounted these early experiences of a self-mortifyer. “I fed my body on mosses, grasses, cow-dung, I lived upon the wild fruits and roots of the jungle, eating only of fruit fallen from the trees. I wore garments of hemp and hair, as also foul clouts from the charnel house, rags from dust heaps. I wrapped my nakedness with lengths of grass, bark and leaves, with a patch of some wild animal’s mane or tail, with the wing of an owl. I was also a plucker out of hair and beard, practiced the austerity of rooting out hair from head and face. I took upon myself the vow always to stand, never to sit or lie down. I bound myself perpetually to squat upon my heels, practiced the austerity of continual heel-squatting. A ‘thorn-sided-one’ was I; when I lay down to rest, it was with thorns upon my sides—I betook myself to a certain dark and dreadful wood and in that place made my abode. And here in the dense and fearsome forest such horror reigned, that the hair of whomsoever, not sense-subdued, entered that dread place, stood on end with terror.” For six years with Alara Kalama and later the five mendicant hermits near Uruvela in the Forest of Mortification he who would become the Buddha practised these useless and grisly exercises together with a penance of starvation so severe that “like wasted withered reeds became all my limbs, like a camel’s hoof my hips, like a wavy rope my backbone, and as in a ruined house the rooftree rafters show all aslope, so sloping showed my ribs because of the extremity of fasting. And when I touched the surface of my belly my hand touched my backbone, and as I stroked my limbs the hair, rotten at the roots, came away in my hands.”
FINALLY ONE DAY in trying to bathe in the Nairanjana he fainted in the water and almost drowned. He realized that this extreme method of finding salvation was just another form of pitiful ignorance; he saw it was the other side of the coin of existence that on one side showed extreme lusting, the other extreme fasting; extreme luxurious concupiscence and sense-ennervation on the one hand, dulling the heart of sincerity, and extreme impoverished duress and body-deprivation on the other hand, also dulling the heart of sincerity from the other side of the same arbitrary and cause-bedighted action.
“Pitiful indeed are such sufferings!” he cried, on being revived by a bowlful of rice milk donated to him by a maiden who thought he was a god. Going to the five ascetic hermits he preached at last: “You! to obtain the joys of heaven, promoting the destruction of your outward form, and undergoing every kind of painful penance, and yet seeking to obtain another birth—seeking a birth in heaven, to suffer further trouble, seeing visions of future joy, while the heart sinks with feebleness . . . I should therefore rather seek strength of body, by drink and food refresh my members, with contentment cause my mind to rest. My mind at rest, I shall enjoy silent composure. Composure is the trap for getting ecstasy; while in ecstasy perceiving the true law, disentanglement will follow.
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