How was the Buddha able to obtain enlightenment after his going forth?

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Here is the passage for our gathering today.

“Thus Uddaka Rāmaputta, my companion in the holy life, placed me in the position of a teacher and accorded me the highest honour. But it occurred to me: ‘This Dhamma does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna, but only to reappearance in the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.’ Not being satisfied with that Dhamma, disappointed with it, I left.”  MN26.16

Having the goal to become a Buddha, or achieve complete enlightenment, sounds naive since it is incertain, unknown, and doubtful whether it can come true or not in this life. Not all people can make their dreams to come true due to unexpected obstructions, unfavorable circumstances, lack of energy or aptitude, changes of their minds, or complacency of self-satisfaction. Nonetheless, Gotama Siddhartha fulfilled his goal so he ended his suffering, found inner peace, and developed perfect knowledge of wisdom through enlightenment.

The Questions about Gotama’s Practices before His Enlightenment

Then, how did he make that happen? What were the key factors in which he could actualize the seemingly impossible work? Did he have any teachers? What kinds of practices did he take on along the way to the final enlightenment?

Today, we are going to think about these questions. By answering these questions, not only can we learn about how Gotama achieved enlightenment, but also some lessons that can be applied to our life when we want to achieve something meaningful.

It is well known that in the acme of their music career the members of Beatles made an excursion to India in order to experience what that land offered spiritually Indian has long been the land of spirituality. In search for something more than worldly things, people still travel to it. They try to find spiritual gurus and teachers to learn meditation, yoga, or other kinds of religious practices. Ancient India seems not much different than now in that practitioners of various religious ideas travel around in the vast subcontinent with the ambition to obtain enlightenment.

Like many contemporary people leaving their home to become wandering ascetics with the ambition of enlightenment, Gotama, who as a prince of a small kingdom had revelled in the luxurious life, did set out at his age 29, which was soon after his first son Rāhula was born. In the middle of the night, he left his palace by riding a horse with his servant. Through the night, he rode and arrived at a river where he shaved his hair in accordance with the custom of ascetics and sent his servant and the horse back to his hometown.

A Prince Begging Alms Food in the Street

In a city named Rājagaha Gotama started his ascetic life. He begged alms for food in the street like other homeless practitioners. However, he was not an ordinary ascetic. It seems that Gotama being an ascetic was surprising news for the people living in the city. Even the king of the city recognized him. Later, this king, named Bimbisara, became a patron for the Buddha and his community.

It is plausible to guess that Gotama acquainted with other practitioners in the city, by which he could get some information about various spiritual communities. It is no doubt that he could hear from people about who were the renowned gurus to confer religious teachings.

Two Teachers of Gotama before his Enlightenment

The first teacher that Gotama found was Alara Kalama, whose teaching was about the absorption of “nothingness.” Under Kalama’s teaching and guidance, the achievement of Gotama’s practice soon became the same as his teacher, who then offered him a position so that together they lead the religious community that followed Kalama’s teaching. Gotama rejected this offer since he thought that the absorption of nothingness was not the final state that ended all suffering and brought about inner peace.

The second teacher was Uddaka Ramaputta, whose teaching was about the absorption of “neither-perception-nor-non-perception.” Again, Gotama soon mastered the teaching and achieved the level as same as the teacher. Uddaka Ramaputta also offered him the position to lead the group that followed Rama’s teaching. Gotama rejected it, again for the same reason discussed above.

Self-mortification Practice

Then, with other ascetics he practiced self-mortification for a long time. The practices of self-mortification were such as self-inflicting, starving, and stopping one’s breath. However, none of these brought inner peace and enlightenment. While pondering upon his experience of self-mortification practices, he suddenly remembered a time of his youth when he accidently fell into a deep meditative state. The experience of the accidental meditative state was not of self-mortification but was a pleasant abiding without sensual desires and defilements of the mind.  

Years of rigorous self-mortification practice much weakened Gotama’s body. In order to initiate his own way of practice, he started to moderately intake food. His friends, who practiced self- mortification together with Gotama, saw him take food. They thought that he was corrupted so they left him alone.  

For his own way of practice to the final enlightenment, Gotama Siddhartha found a suitable spot under a tree near a river. With resolute and a determined mind, he did sit under the tree. A week later he finally achieved enlightenment at dawn.   

This is the brief story about the ascetic life of Gotama Siddhartha. In pondering his ascetic life, three things are conspicuous to me as key factors that had him actualize the seemingly impossible work of enlightenment. These three things are teachers, experience, and honest critical reflection.

What had Gotama Achieve Enlightenment?

It is said that one of extraordinary things in the Buddha’s enlightenment is that he made it by himself without aids of other gurus or teachers. In my opinion, this is half true since he studied with two renowned spiritual teachers, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, both of whom are now thought of as being in the yogic tradition. Although he was all alone at his final stage, it seems undeniable that he learned from the two teachers something significant that had been unknown to him before he studied with them.

In reading and learning Buddhist scripture, what the former teachers of the Gotama taught seems closer to the practice of Buddhist meditation than self-mortification that he later took on. In the process of Buddhist practice, the levels of nothingness and neither-perception-nor-non-perception are the third and fourth immaterial meditative state, which is also similar with the experience that young Gotama accidentally had through falling into a deep meditative state.  

Teacher, Experience, and Honest Reflection

After experiencing two deep meditative states, Gotama took self-mortification practice for a long time and pushed himself to the limit. In the end, he reflected on his experience and abandoned self-mortification since he concluded that self-mortification would not bring about any favorable state for inner peace and enlightenment. In the Buddha’s lifetime there was a widespread belief among ascetic practitioners that self-mortification could bring about purification and enlightenment. By his own experience, Gotama realized that this could not do so.

Finally, the honest critical reflection seems to be the most important factor by which Gotama could fulfill his goal in the end. It was because of his honest and critical reflection that made him reject the two proposals made by two former teachers to lead religious communities. If he became complacent with the meditative states of nothingness and neither-perception-nor-non-perception, surely there was no Buddha and Buddhism. However, his honest reflection allowed him to know that the meditative states were not ultimate and he had to continue his practice.

Also, as to the practice of self-mortification, it was his critical evaluation of the experience that it was not conducive and helpful for inner peace that would lead to enlightenment.

Thus, we have discussed how Gotama achieved his ultimate goal of enlightenment. The lessons that we can learn from his ascetic life can be applied to what you are pursuing now. Do find good teachers who can lead you to a certain level, and be open to experiences. Most of all, we should reflect on the learning and experiences honestly and critically so as to not to deceive ourselves and not to become complacent with partial achievement.

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