The Noble Search, Without Google

by | Oct 24, 2023 | Buddhism for All

(Continued from The Four Sights, Four Signs, and Four Sighs.)

After shaving his head and beard, and exchanging his princely robes for rags, Siddhattha started his life as a penniless, homeless, wandering ascetic living off the charity of strangers.  Pretty soon after, he found his way to his first teacher, an ascetic of repute by the name of Alara Kalama.[1]  Siddhattha turned out to be a meditation prodigy.  Under the tutelage of Alara, Siddhattha quickly mastered the state of deep meditative concentration known as the “base of nothingness”.  Soon, Siddhattha equaled Alara, and the master could teach the student no more.  Alara offered Siddhattha a place by his side to lead their community as equals.  Siddhattha was touched by the offer, but he also knew that the “base of nothingness” was not the complete freedom from suffering that he was looking for, so he respectfully left Alara to continue his noble search.

After Alara, Siddhattha found another teacher, an ascetic of repute by the name of Uddaka Ramaputta.  Ramaputta means “son of Rama”.  Uddaka’s father, Rama, had gained mastery over a state of deep meditative concentration called the “base of neither perception nor non-perception”, and yes, it is one notch deeper (and more awesome) than the “base of nothingness” Siddhattha learned from Alara earlier.  With the instructions passed on by Uddaka, Siddhattha soon mastered it.  Alas, once again, in a short amount of time, the student had equaled the master, and the master had no more to teach the student.  Actually, it may be even worse than that.  The texts hint strongly to, but do not explicitly say, that Uddaka himself did not master the “base of neither perception nor non-perception”, and if that was the case, Siddhattha had exceeded the master.  In fact, Uddaka did not offer Siddhattha a place by his side to lead their community as equals like Alara did, instead he asked Siddhattha to take over as sole leader of their community.  Siddhattha turned down that offer for the same reason, that even the “base of neither perception nor non-perception” was not the complete freedom from suffering he was looking for.  So Siddhattha gracefully left Uddaka to continue on his noble search.[2]

Siddhattha now had a major problem.  You see, the “base of neither perception nor non-perception” was pretty much the deepest and most refined state of meditative concentration an ancient sage could get into, and Alara and Uddaka were basically the best meditation teachers one could have learned from at that time.  Siddhattha had now equaled or surpassed them.  Hence, Siddhattha now had nobody to teach him, and no clear path forward.  What to do? 

Siddhattha found a grove by a river near a village in a place called Uruvela where he could practice and seek the path on his own.  Eventually, he attracted five followers, one of whom was Koṇḍañña, yes, the same Koṇḍañña who had earlier predicted that baby Siddhattha would one day grow up to become a buddha.  The other four where Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama, and Assaji.

In ancient India during Siddhattha’s time, there was a popular belief that salvation could be achieved by living a life of strict asceticism.  Siddhattha tried exploring that path, and to do it better than anybody else could have done.  “I will carry austerity to the utmost,” he thought. “This is the way to acquire wisdom.”[3]  He lived a life of extreme austerity and self-mortification, torturing his own body, for six years.  First, he ate very little food, like “a handful of soup” a day.[4]  There was even a time when he tried eating only a single grain of rice a day.  For extra humor points, he also said, “you may think the rice grain was bigger at that time, but no, it was at most the same size as now.”[5] (Yes, this is actually recorded in the ancient Buddhist scriptures, I kid you not.  The Buddha had a great sense of humor.)  

After a while, things got pretty bad.  By his own description, “Because of eating so little my limbs became like the jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo stems, … my ribs jutted out, my eyes sank far down in their sockets, my scalp shriveled and withered, my belly skin adhered to my backbone; thus if I touched my belly skin I encountered my backbone and if I touched my backbone I encountered my belly skin.  Because of eating so little, if I defecated or urinated, I fell over on my face there.  And, if I tried to ease my body by rubbing my limbs with my hands, the hair, rotted at its roots, fell from my body as I rubbed.”  Ouch.

He also tried “breathless meditation”, which means holding his breath for long periods of time, until he had severe headaches and extreme bodily pains, presumably due to oxygen-deprivation.  “There were violent pains in my head, just as if a strong man were tightening a tough leather strap around my head as a headband.  There was a violent burning in my body, just as if two strong men were to seize a weaker man by both arms and roast him over a pit of hot coals …”  No, that didn’t work out so well either.

A common representation of Siddhattha undergoing extreme austerity.

Six long years of extreme austerity and self-mortification later, and having absolutely nothing to show for it, Siddhattha reflected on how he should proceed.  He realized that torturing one’s own body does not bring about the greater wisdom that leads to the end of all suffering.  As he reflected, he suddenly remembered the incident at the plowing festival when he was a young child.  The adults were all distracted by the festive activities, they left him alone, and he sat, meditated and went into the meditative state known as the “first jhāna”, a state of meditative concentration filled with inner joy.  As he reflected, he asked himself, “Why should I be afraid of the inner joy brought about by the first jhāna?  That joy has nothing to do with sensual pleasure or unwholesome mental states, so I should not be afraid of it.” This is actually a vitally important practical insight, as we shall see later in this series.

In a poetic way, my friends, we can say this was the exact moment Buddhism started.  It was the moment Siddhattha decided that he would turn away from self-torture, but more importantly, that he would turn towards a very specific kind of joy: the wholesome spiritual joy that comes from letting go.[6]  Better still, this joy is accessible to everyone, so accessible even a young child could experience it!  It would be on the foundation of this joy that Siddhattha would attain full enlightenment.  You will find in Buddhism for All that wholesome spiritual joy threads through the practice of Buddhism.  You will also find that this joy is highly accessible even to modern people like you and I.

Siddhattha decided that the first jhāna was his right stepping stone toward his journey to full enlightenment.  But to get back into meditation practice, he needed to nourish his body back to health, so he decided to accept food from donors, including a meal of milk-rice offered by a local villager, a young milk-maid called Sujata. 

Sujata offering food to a famished Siddhattha. Artwork by Colin Goh.

There is a lovely mythical story that is not supported by the canonical texts, but is widely told and appears on wall murals in many Buddhist temples.  According to the story, Siddhattha was physically so emaciated at the end of his austerities that when he tried to bath in a river, he was unable to climb back out.  He started to drown.  As he was drowning, Sujata saw him and pulled him out of the river, thus saving his life.  Sujata was actually there to give an offering of milk-rice to a local tree god, but after she rescued him, she was so impressed with his resolve for enlightenment that she gave the offering to him instead to support his quest.  Hence, according to this version, we might not even have Buddhism if not for Sujata’s heroism.  Everyday heroes surround us. [7]

Siddhattha’s five followers saw him eating solid food and thought that he had given up on his noble search.  They felt disappointed and disgusted, and they decided to abandon him.  I imagine they might have felt conned.  If Koṇḍañña were living in modern times, he might tell his friends sarcastically to start calling him “Conned-añña”.

But Siddhattha’s true path had finally begun, and nothing could stop him.  He sat under a tree and began his meditation.  First, he abided in the first jhāna, where his mind was concentrated, stable, calm, serene and filled with inner joy.  Next, he further refined his mind and progressed into increasingly deeper jhānas until he reached the fourth jhāna, a state of profound meditative concentration characterized by perfect equanimity and “mindfulness purified by equanimity”.  Using that highly refined state of mind, Siddhattha investigated deep into the nature of suffering and freedom from suffering. 

That was a genius move, Siddhattha’s great pioneering innovation.  Other people had mastered meditative concentration too, but Siddhattha pioneered making use of it as a tool to investigate deeply into the nature of the mind in order to develop profound insights.[8]  Hence, he was able to develop complete insight into the nature of suffering and liberation from suffering.

By the third watch of the night, Siddhattha had gained what was called the three kinds of clear knowledge[9]: the knowledge of his own past lives, the knowledge of how beings pass away and take rebirth in accordance with their karma, and the knowledge of the destruction of mental corruptions.[10]  In doing so, he penetrated completely into the nature of suffering and had discovered complete liberation from suffering.  “Ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose.”  Siddhattha had achieved perfect enlightenment.  From this moment on, Siddhattha would be known as the Buddha, the Enlightened One.  He was thirty-five.

Yes, he does look suspiciously like Keanu Reeves. Source: the movie Little Buddha.

The word “buddha” relates to the word “budh” which primarily means “to know, to understand”.  It also means “to blossom” (said of a flower) or “to awaken” (from sleep).  In this context, the primary meaning pertains: the Buddha is “the One Who Has Understood.”[11]  In popular usage, “Buddha” is often translated as the “Enlightened One”, or the “Awakened One”.  Siddhattha is referred to as the Buddha with a capital “B” because buddhas are so rare there is only one in the known history of the world.  Uruvela, the place where the Buddha achieved perfect enlightenment, would later be known as Bodhgaya, in honor of the Buddha.

Up next: the version of the enlightenment story with special effects.



[1] The story of the Siddhattha training under his two teachers is documented in Majjhima Nikāya 26.

[2] Majjhima Nikāya 26.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Majjhima Nikāya 36.  The story of Siddhattha’s experiment with severe austerity and his enlightenment (including all the quotes) is taken from Majjhima Nikāya 36.

[5] Majjhima Nikāya 12.

[6] A nice coincidence: Soryu and I did not know when we wrote this, but we found out later that in the mythical account recorded in the medieval Nidānakathā, Siddhattha lost his “thirty-two marks of a great man” when he started torturing himself, and suddenly regained them here.

[7] There is a stupa built to commemorate Sujata near to the Mahabodhi Temple, and this stupa is dated to the 2nd century BCE, which means it predates even the earliest scriptures being written down.  See: David Geary, Matthew R. Sayers, Abhishek Singh Amar, Cross-disciplinary Perspectives on a Contested Buddhist Site: Bodh Gaya Jataka. (2012).

[8] According to Henepola Gunaratana in The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation, Access to Insight (BCBS Edition) 2013, “Whereas serenity meditation is recognized as common to both Buddhist and non-Buddhist contemplative disciplines, insight meditation is held to be the unique discovery of the Buddha and an unparalleled feature of his path.”  Rahula in What the Buddha Taught, makes a similar assertion, that the Buddha discovered insight meditation, calling it the “essentially Buddhist meditation.”

[9] In Pali: vijjā.

[10] In Pali: āsava.

[11] Bhikkhu Bodhi, “On Translating ‘Buddha,’” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 2020(19): 52–78.

Featured image by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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