After making sure Channa was safely travelling back to the palace, Siddharta started his journey to find a way to end suffering.
Siddharta began his ascetic life by begging for alms in the street. He wandered along the Ganges River, looking for spiritual teachers. Soon he met his first teachers, Alara Kalama and Uddhara Ramaputta. They were considered to be the best teachers in meditation of that time.
Siddhârta first joined the hermitage where the holy Alara Kalama taught the doctrine of renunciation to a great number of disciples. After he had learned all he could teach, Siddharta was asked to succeed him. “You understand the law as well as I understand it; all that I know, you know. Hereafter, if you wish, we will share the work; we will both teach the disciples.”
But Siddhârta asked himself, “Is the law that Arata teaches the true law? Does it lead to deliverance?”
He thought, “Arata and his disciples lead lives of great austerity. They refuse food prepared by man; they will eat only fruit, leaves and roots; they will drink only water. They sleep under a canopy of branches; they expose their bodies to the bitter winds and to the hot sun. To them, virtue comes only with suffering. And they think they are happy, for they believe that by practising perfect austerity, they will earn the right to ascend to the sky!… Yes, they will ascend to the sky! But the human race will continue to suffer old age and death!
To lead a life of austerity and be indifferent to the constant evil of birth and death is simply to add suffering to suffering. Men tremble in the presence of death, yet they do their utmost to be reborn; they keep plunging deeper and deeper into the very pit they fear.
If it is an act of piety to mortify the flesh, then it must be impious to indulge in sensuality, but mortifications in this world are followed by gratifications in the next, and thus the reward of piety is impiety.
If, to be sanctified, it is enough simply to be abstemious, then the deer would be saints, and those men also would be saints who have lost caste, for to them an evil fate has made pleasure unattainable.
But, it will be said, it is the intention to suffer that develops religious virtue. The intention! We can intend to gratify our senses as well as we can intend to suffer, and if the intention to gratify our senses is worth nothing, why should the intention to suffer be of any value?”
Thus did he ponder in the hermitage of Arata Kalama. He saw the vanity of the doctrine that the master was teaching, and he said to him, “I will not teach your doctrine, Arata, because these teachings will not lead to deliverance. I shall leave your hermitage, and I shall seek the rule to which we must submit before we can have done with suffering.”
With Udaka Ramaputta, Siddharta practised austerities and achieved high levels of meditative consciousness. Once more he was asked to succeed his teacher. But he still did not understand the mystery of life and death, and did not find the complete freedom from suffering that he sought.
Again, Siddhartha thanked his teacher and left. But, this time, he decided to find the ultimate truth by his own wisdom and effort.
After having abandoned his teachers and their systems, Siddharta threw himself deeper into the forest, near the village of Uruvela, in order to enter upon a new path, the path of self-mortification.Together with five other ascetics, Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji, Siddhartha found a quiet spot on the banks of a nearby river.
For six years, he remained on the banks of the river and meditated. He never sought shelter from the wind, from the sun or from the rain; he allowed the gadflies, the mosquitoes and the serpents to sting him. He was oblivious to the boys and girls, the shepherds and woodcutters, who jeered at him as they passed by and who sometimes threw dust or mud at him.
He hardly ate: a fruit and a few grains of rice or of sesame composed his fare. He became very thin; his bones showed prominently. But under his gaunt forehead, his dilated eyes shone like stars.
The sincerity and intensity of his practice were so astounding that, before long, the five ascetics became followers of Siddhartha.
But the answers to his questions were not forthcoming. He redoubled his efforts, refusing food and water, until he was in a state of near death. Siddhârta became extremely thin, but still he would not give up such practice.
Until one day when, sitting in meditation, he heard someone playing lutes, a musical instrument. Hearing the man tuning the instrument, Siddhârta suddenly realized, “When the strings of the lute are loose, its sound won’t carry. When the strings are too tight, it breaks. When the strings are neither too loose nor too tight, the music is beautiful. I’m pulling my strings too tightly. I cannot find the way to truth living a life of luxury or with my body so weak.”
Finally Siddharta understood that all of these austerities only proved futile. They didn’t lead to any enlightenment, to any state of higher wisdom. They led only to the wasting of the body and the weakening of the mental faculties.
He also remembered an experience from his childhood, when his mind had settled into a state of deep peace. The path of liberation was through discipline of mind. “Could that be the path to the Enlightenment?”, he wondered.
He became aware that for the mind to function properly at full capacity, the body had to be strong and healthy, and therefore he decided to abandon this course of self-mortification and to resume taking food again.
A peasant girl named Sujata saw this starving monk and took pity on him. She begged him to eat some of her milk-rice. Having realized that these extreme practices were leading him nowhere, that in fact it might be better to find some middle way between the extremmes of the life of luxury and the life of self-mortification, Siddharta accepted the food. He ate, drank and bathed in the river.
But the moment he accepted a bowl of rice milk from a young girl, disappointed, his companions accused him to have abandoned his spiritual exertions and to be reverting to a life of luxury. He tried to explain but they wouldn’t listen. They abandoned him.
Alone again, Siddharta went to gather alms, he began to eat until he had regained his strength and vigor. Once recovered, in the town of Bodh Gaya, Siddhârta found a place under a boddhi tree (fig tree). He decided to sit as long as it would take for the answers to the problem of suffering to come.
Facing east, he made a promise to himself, “I shall not get up until I achieve my goal, until I find a way of freedom from suffering, for myself and all people.”
(to be continued…)