The Buddha – Chapter 14: The Noble Search

Given the importance of the Buddha for Buddhism, it is noteworthy that biographies of the Buddha, that is, chronological accounts of the events of his life from his birth to his death, are a late addition to Buddhist scriptures. The first such texts appear some five hundred years after his passage into nirvana. This is not to say that biographical elements are absent in the early literature. In the sutras, the Buddha recounts individual events in his life that occurred from the time that he renounced his life as a prince until he achieved enlightenment six years later. Several accounts of his enlightenment also appear in the sutras. The Mahaparinibbana Sutta (Discourse on the Final Nirvana’), describes the Buddha’s last days, his passage into nirvana, his funeral and the distribution of his relics. Biographical accounts in the early sutras provide little detail about the Buddha’s birth and childhood, although some sutras contain a detailed account of the life of a previous buddha, Vipasyin. Another category of early Buddhist literature, the vinaya (concerned ostensibly with the rules of monastic discipline), contains accounts of numerous incidents from the Buddha’s life, but rarely in the form of a continuous narrative; biographical sections that do occur often conclude with the conversion of one of his early disciples, Sariputra.

One could gather the events set forth in these various sources, arrange them in chronological order and present a synthetic biography; many such works have been composed over the centuries and to the present day. Yet in the first centuries of the tradition, there seems to have been little interest in such projects. The stories that tended to be told were of the Buddha’s previous lives, leading to his momentous final birth; of the circumstances in which he gave a particular teaching or formulated a particular rule for the monastic code; of a particular miraculous deed; or of his death and the disposition of his relics. The focus, then, is on the Buddha as an extraordinary being endowed with supernormal powers, perfected over the aeons, who appeared briefly in this world to teach the dharma and the vinaya, before passing away, leaving behind his teachings, leaving behind the sangha, and leaving behind his traces on the landscape in the places where he performed miraculous deeds and the places where his relics are enshrined.

The selection below is from one of the more famous autobiographical narratives from the sutta collections, called the Ariyapariyesana (‘The Noble Search’). Here the Buddha recounts his departure from home in search of the truth, his tutelage with other teachers, his enlightenment and his first sermon. One notes immediately the understated tone of the narrative, devoid of the detail so familiar from the biographies.

There is no mention of the opulence of his youth, no mention of his wife, no mention of the chariot rides, no description of the departure from the palace in the dead of night, no mention of Mara. Although the accounts of his study with other meditation masters assumes a sophisticated system of states of concentration, the description of the enlightenment itself is both simple and sober, portrayed as the outcome of long reflection rather than as an ecstatic moment of revelation. Indeed, one would be tempted to describe the account below as demythologized, but this would imply that layers of myth had been removed from it. The relation of the mythological to the historical in the life of the Buddha is a question that has yet to be answered.

The reader will note that the Buddha refers to himself as a bodhisattva (bodhisatta in Pali), an early occurrence of the term. Familiar elements of the enlightenment narrative are also to be found here, including the reluctance to teach, the imprecations by the deity Brahma, and the first encounter with another human being after the enlightenment. Rather than responding with obeisance to the new Buddha’s poetic proclamation of his supreme attainment, the man expressed indifference. The selection ends with the famous scene of the scepticism of the five friends, soon to become the first disciples of the Buddha.

‘Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened bodhisatta, I too, being myself subject to birth, being myself subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement, I sought what was also subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement. Then I considered thus: “Why, being myself subject to birth, do I seek what is also subject to birth? Why, being myself subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement, do I seek what is also subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement? Suppose that, being myself subject to birth, I seek the unborn supreme security from bondage, nibbana. Suppose that, myself being subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement, I seek the unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless and undefiled supreme security from bondage, nibbana. ”

‘Later, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessing of youth, in the prime of life, though my mother and father wished otherwise and wept with tearful faces, I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and went forth from the home life into homelessness.

‘Having gone forth, bhikkhus, in search of what is wholesome, seeking the supreme state of sublime peace, I went to Alara Kalama and said to him: “Friend Kalama, I want to lead the holy life in this dhamma and discipline.” Alara Kalama replied: “The venerable one may stay here. This dhamma is such that a wise man can soon enter upon and abide in it, realizing for himself through direct knowledge his own teacher’s doctrine.” I soon quickly learned that dhamma. As far as mere lip-reciting and rehearsal of his teaching went, I could speak with knowledge and assurance, and I claimed, “I know and see” – and there were others who did likewise.

‘I considered: “It is not through mere faith alone that Alara Kalama declares: ‘By realizing for myself with direct knowledge, I enter upon and abide in this dhamma.’ Certainly Alara Kalama abides knowing and seeing this dhammaThen I went to Alara Kalama and asked him: “Friend Kalama, in what way do you declare that by realizing for yourself with direct knowledge you enter upon and abide in this dhamma?” In reply he declared the base of nothingness.

‘I considered: “Not only Alara Kalama has faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. I too have faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. Suppose I endeavour to realize the dhamma that Alara Kalama declares he enters upon and abides in by realizing for himself with direct knowledge?”

‘I soon quickly entered upon and abided in that dhamma by realizing for myself with direct knowledge. Then I went to Alara Kalama and asked him: “Friend Kalama, is it in this way that you declare that you enter upon and abide in this dhamma by realizing for yourself with direct knowledge?” – “That is the way, friend.” – “It is in this way, friend, that I also enter upon and abide in this dhamma by realizing for myself with direct knowledge.” – “It is a gain for us, friend, it is a great gain for us that we have such a venerable one for our companion in the holy life. So the dhamma that I declare I enter upon and abide in by realizing for myself with direct knowledge is the dhamma that you enter upon and abide in by realizing for yourself with direct knowledge. And the dhamma that you enter upon and abide in by realizing for yourself with direct knowledge is the dhamma that I declare I enter upon and abide in by realizing for myself with direct knowledge. So you know the dhamma that I know and I know the dhamma that you know. As I am, so are you; as you are, so am I. Come, friend, let us now lead this community together.”

‘Thus Alara Kalama, teacher, placed me, his pupil, on an equal footing with himself and awarded 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 nibbana, but only to reappearance in the base of nothingness.” Not being satisfied with that dhamma, I left it and went away.

‘Still in search, bhikkhus, of what is wholesome, seeking the supreme state of sublime peace, I went to Uddaka Ramaputta and said to him, “Friend, I want to lead the holy life in this dhamma and discipline.” Uddaka Ramaputta replied: “The venerable one may stay here. This dhamma is such that a wise man can soon enter upon and abide in it, realizing for himself through direct knowledge his own teacher’s doctrine.” I soon quickly learned that dhamma. As far as mere lip-reciting and rehearsal of his teaching went, I could speak with knowledge and assurance, and I claimed, “I know and see” – and there were others who did likewise.

‘I considered: “It is not through mere faith alone that Rama declared: ‘By realizing for myself with direct knowledge, I enter upon and abide in this dhamma.’ Certainly Rama abided knowing and seeing this dhamma.” Then I went to Uddaka Ramaputta and asked him: “Friend, in what way did Rama declare that by realizing for himself with direct knowledge he entered upon and abided in this dhamma?” In reply Uddaka Ramaputta declared the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.

‘I considered: “Not only Rama had faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom; I too have faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. Suppose I endeavour to realize the dhamma that Uddaka Ramaputta declared he entered upon and abided in by realizing for himself with direct knowledge?”

‘I soon quickly entered upon and abided in that dhamma by realizing for myself with direct knowledge. Then I went to Uddaka Ramaputta and asked him: “Friend, was it in this way that Rama declared that he entered upon and abided in this dhamma by realizing for himself with direct knowledge?” – “That is the way, friend.” – “It is in this way, friend, that I also enter upon and abide in this dhamma by realizing for myself with direct knowledge.” – “It is a gain for us, friend, it is a great gain for us that we have such a venerable one for our companion in the holy life. So the dhamma that Rama declared he entered upon and abided in by realizing for himself with direct knowledge is the dhamma that you enter upon and abide in by realizing for yourself with direct knowledge. And the dhamma that you enter upon and abide in by realizing for yourself with direct knowledge is the dhamma that Rama declared he entered upon and abided in by realizing for himself with direct knowledge. So you know the dhamma that

Rama knew and Rama knew the dhamma that you know. As Rama was, so are you; as you are, so was Rama. Come, friend, now lead this community.”

‘Thus Uddaka Ramaputta, my companion in the holy life, placed me in the position of 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 nibbana, but only to reappearance in the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.” Not being satisfied with that dhamma, I left it and went away.

‘Still in search, bhikkhus, of what is wholesome, seeking the supreme state of sublime peace, I wandered by stages through the Magadhan country until eventually I arrived at Senanigama near Uruvela. There I saw an agreeable piece of ground, a delightful grove with a clear-flowing river with pleasant, smooth banks and nearby a village for alms resort. I considered: “This is an agreeable piece of ground, this is a delightful grove with a clear-flowing river with pleasant, smooth banks and nearby a village for alms resort. This will serve for the striving of a clansman intent on striving.” And I sat down there thinking: “This will serve for striving.”

‘Then, bhikkhus, being myself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, seeking the unborn supreme security from bondage, nibbana, I attained the unborn supreme security from bondage, nibbana; being myself subject to ageing, having understood the danger in what is subject to ageing, seeking the unageing supreme security from bondage, nibbana, I attained the unageing supreme security from bondage, nibbana; being myself subject to sickness, having understood the danger in what is subject to sickness, seeking the unailing supreme security from bondage, nibbana, I attained the unailing supreme security from bondage, nibbana; being myself subject to death, having understood the danger in what is subject to death, seeking the deathless supreme security from bondage, nibbana, I attained the deathless supreme security from bondage, nibbana; being myself subject to sorrow, having understood the danger in what is subject to sorrow, seeking the sorrowless supreme security from bondage, nibbana, I attained the sorrowless supreme security from bondage, nibbana; being myself subject to defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to defilement, seeking the undefiled supreme security from bondage, nibbana, I attained the undefiled supreme security from bondage, nibbana. The knowledge and vision arose in me: “My deliverance is unshakeable; this is my last birth; now there is no renewal of being.”

‘I considered: “This dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in worldliness, takes delight in worldliness, rejoices in worldliness. It is hard for such a generation to see this truth, namely, specific conditionality, dependent origination. And it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbana. If I were to teach the dhamma, others would not understand me, and that would be wearying and troublesome for me.” Thereupon there came to me spontaneously these stanzas never heard before:

Enough with teaching the dhamma

That even I found hard to reach;

For it will never be perceived

By those who live in lust and hate.

Those dyed in lust, wrapped in darkness

Will never discern this abstruse dhamma

Which goes against the worldly stream,

Subtle, deep, and difficult to see.

Considering thus, my mind inclined to inaction rather than to teaching the dhamma.

‘Then, bhikkhus, the Brahma Sahampati knew with his mind the thought in my mind and considered: “The world will be lost, the world will perish, since the mind of the Tathagata, accomplished and fully enlightened, inclines to inaction rather than to teaching the dhamma.” Then, just as quickly as a strong man might extend his flexed arm or flex his extended arm, the Brahma Sahampati vanished in the Brahma-world and appeared before me. He arranged his upper robe on one shoulder, and extending his hands in reverential salutation towards me, said: “Venerable sir, let the Blessed One teach the dhamma, let the Sublime One teach the dhamma. There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are wasting through not hearing the dhamma. There will be those who will understand the dhammaThe Brahma Sahampati spoke thus, and then he said further:

In Magadha there have appeared till now

Impure teachings devised by those still stained.

Open the doors to the deathless! Let them hear

The dhamma that the Stainless One has found.

Just as one who stands on a mountain peak

Can see below the people all around,

So, O wise one, all-seeing sage,

Ascend the palace of the dhamma.

Let the Sorrowless One survey this human breed,

Engulfed in sorrow, overcome by birth and old age.

 

Arise, victorious hero, caravan leader,

Debtless one, and wander in the world.

Let the Blessed One teach the dhamma,

There will be those who will understand.

‘Then I listened to the Brahma’s pleading, and out of compassion for beings I surveyed the world with the eye of a buddha. Surveying the world with the eye of a buddha, I saw beings with little dust in their eyes and with much dust in their eyes, with keen faculties and with dull faculties, with good qualities and with bad qualities, easy to teach and hard to teach, and some who dwelt seeing fear in blame and in the other world. Just as in a pond of blue and red lotuses, some lotuses that are born and grow in water thrive immersed in the water without rising out of it, and some other lotuses that are born and grow in the water rest on the water’s surface, and some other lotuses that are born and grow in the water rise out of the water and stand clear, unwetted by it; so too, surveying the world with the eye of a buddha, I saw beings with little dust in their eyes and with much dust in their eyes, with keen faculties and with dull faculties, with good qualities and with bad qualities, easy to teach and hard to teach, and some who dwelt seeing fear in blame and in the other world. Then I replied to the Brahma Sahampati in stanzas:

Open for them are the doors to the deathless,

Let those with ears now show their faith.

Thinking it would be troublesome, O Brahma,

I did not speak the dhamma subtle and sublime.

‘Then the Brahma Sahampati thought: “I have created the opportunity for the Blessed One to teach the dhamma.” And after paying homage to me, keeping me on the right, he thereupon departed at once.

‘I considered thus: “To whom should I first teach the dhamma? Who will understand this dhamma quickly?” It then occurred to me: “Alara Kalama is wise, intelligent and discerning; he has long had little dust in his eyes. Suppose I taught the dhamma first to Alara Kalama. He will understand it quickly.” Then deities approached me and said: “Venerable sir, Alara Kalama died seven days ago.” And the knowledge and vision arose in me: “Alara Kalama died seven days ago.” I thought: “Alara Kalama’s loss is a great one. If he had heard this dhamma, he would have understood it quickly.”

‘I considered thus: “To whom should I first teach the dhamma? Who will understand this dhamma quickly?” It then occurred to me: “Uddaka Ramaputta is wise, intelligent and discerning; he has long had little dust in his eyes. Suppose I taught the dhamma first to Uddaka Ramaputta. He will understand it quickly.” Then deities approached me and said: “Venerable sir, Uddaka Ramaputta died last night.” And the knowledge and vision arose in me: “Uddaka Ramaputta died last night.” I thought: “Uddaka Ramaputta’s loss is a great one. If he had heard this dhamma, he would have understood it quickly.”

‘I considered thus: “To whom should I first teach the dhamma? Who will understand this dhamma quickly?” It then occurred to me: “The bhikkhus of the group of five who attended upon me while I was engaged in my striving were very helpful. Suppose I taught the dhamma first to them.” Then I thought: “Where are the bhikkhus of the group of five now living?” And with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I saw that they were living at Benares in the Deer Park at Isipatana.

‘Then, bhikkhus, when I had stayed at 􀀸ruvelā as long as I chose, I set out to wander by stages to Benares. Between Gayā and the Place of Enlightenment the Ājīvika 􀀸paka saw me on the road and said: “Friend, your faculties are clear, the colour of your skin is pure and bright. Under whom have you gone forth, friend? Who is your teacher? Whose dhamma do you profess?” I replied to the Ajivika Upaka in stanzas:

I am one who has transcended all, a knower of all,

Unsullied among all things, renouncing all,

By craving’s ceasing freed. Having known this all

For myself, to whom should I point as teacher?

I have no teacher, and one like me

Exists nowhere in all the world

With all its gods, because

I have No person for my counterpart.

I am the Accomplished One in the world,

I am the teacher supreme.

I alone am a Fully Enlightened One

Whose fires are quenched and extinguished.

I go now to the city of Kasi

To set in motion the wheel of dhamma

In a world that has become blind

I go to beat the drum of the deathless.

‘By your claim, friend, you ought to be the Universal Victor.’

The victors are those like me

Who have won to destruction of taints.

I have vanquished all evil states,

Therefore, Upaka, I am a victor.

‘When this was said, the Ajlvika Upaka said: “May it be so, friend.” Shaking his head, he took a byway and departed.

‘Then, bhikkhus, wandering by stages, I eventually came to Benares, to the Deer Park of Isipatana, and I approached the bhikkhus of the group of five. The bhikkhus saw me coming in the distance, and they agreed among themselves thus: “Friends, here comes the recluse Gotama who lives luxuriously, who gave up his striving, and reverted to luxury. We should not pay homage to him or rise up for him or receive his bowl and outer robe. But a seat may be prepared for him. If he likes, he may sit down.” However, as I approached, those bhikkhus found themselves unable to keep their pact. One came to meet me and took my bowl and outer robe, another prepared a seat, and another set out water for my feet; however, they addressed me by name and as “friend”.

‘Thereupon I told them: “Bhikkhus, do not address the Tathagata by name and as ‘friend’. The Tathagata is an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One. Listen, bhikkhus, the deathless has been attained. I shall instruct you, I shall teach you the dhamma. Practising as you are instructed, by realizing for yourselves here and now through direct knowledge you will soon enter upon and abide in that supreme goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the home life to homelessness.”’

From the Ariyapariyesana Suita, Majjhima Nikaya (MN i 163-172).

From The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, trans. Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995), pp. 256-64.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.