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Jun 12th
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Home History General The Buddha's Life - Page 6

The Buddha's Life - Page 6

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Article Index
The Buddha's Life
Noble and Ignoble Quests
Renunciation of Worldly Life
Meeting Alara, the Great Ascetic
Meeting the Sage Udaka
Practising Extreme Austerities
Mara's Persuasion
Right Reasoning
The Enlightenment
Giving First Sermon
Meeting with Upaka
Group of Five Monks
All Pages

Practising Extreme Austerities


After he had left Udaka's centre, the Bodhisatta wandered about in Magadha, searching on his own the peerless path of tranquillity, the Undying nibbāna . During his wanderings, he came to the forest of Uruvela near the big village of Senanigama. In the forest he saw the clear, flowing river Neranjara. Perceiving thus a delightful spot, a serene dense grove, a clear, flowing stream with a village nearby which would serve as an alms resort, it occurred to him: "Truly, this is a suitable place for one intent on effort," and he stayed on in the forest.

At that time the Bodhisatta had not yet worked out a precise system of right struggle. Austerity practices were, of course, widely known and in vogue throughout India then. Concerning these practices, three similes came to the mind of the Bodhisatta.


A log of snappy wood freshly cut from a sycamore tree and soaked in water cannot produce fire by being rubbed with a similar piece of wet sappy wood or with a piece of some other wood. Just so, while still entangled with objects of sensual desires such as wife and family, while still delighting in passionate pleasures and lustful desires are not yet quieted within him, however strenuously someone strives, he is incapable of wisdom, insight and incomparable full awakening. This was the first simile that occurred to the Bodhisatta.

Even if the sycamore log is not soaked in water but is still green and sappy, being freshly cut from the tree, it will also not produce any fire by friction. Just so, even if he has abandoned the objects of sensual desires such as wife and family and they are no longer near him, if he still delights in thoughts of passionate pleasures and lustful desires still arise in him, he is incapable of wisdom, insight or full awakening. This is the second simile.

According to the Commentary, this simile has a reference to the practices of Brahma dhammika ascetics. Those Brahmins led a holy ascetic life from youth to the age of forty-eight when they went back to married life in order to preserve the continuity of their clan. Thus, while they were practising the holy life, they would have been tainted with lustful thoughts.

The third simile concerns with dry sapless logs of wood not soaked in water. These logs of dry wood will kindle fire when rubbed against one another. Similarly, having abandoned objects of sensual desires and weaned himself of lustful thoughts and cravings, he is capable of attaining wisdom, insight and full awakening, whether he practises extreme austerity or whether he strives painlessly without torturing himself.


Of the two methods open to him according to the third simile, the Bodhisatta considered following the path of austerity.

"What if now with my teeth clenched and my tongue cleaving the palate, I should press down, constrain and crush the naturally arising thought with my mind."

The Pali text quoted here corresponds with the text in the Vitakka Sandhana Sutta , but the method of crushing the thought with the mind as described in the Vitakka Sandhana Sutta was one prescribed by the Buddha after attaining enlightenment. As such, it involves banishment of any lustful thought which arises of its own accord by taking note of its appearance as an exercise of Vipassana meditation in accordance with the Satipatthana Sutta and other similar texts. The method of crushing the thought with the mind as described here refers to the practical exercises performed by the Bodhisatta before he attained the knowledge of the Middle Path and is, therefore, at variance with the Satipatthana method.

However, the Commentary interpretation implies suppression of evil minds with moral minds. If this interpretation were correct, this method, being concordant with Satipatthana Sutta and other texts, would have resulted in Enlightenment for the Bodhisatta. Actually, this method led him only to extreme suffering and not to Buddhahood. Other austerity practices taken up afterwards also led the Bodhisatta merely into wrong paths.

Austerity practice followed by the Bodhisatta at that time appeared to be somewhat like that of mind annihilation being practised nowadays by followers of a certain school of Buddhism. During our missionary travels in Japan, we visited a large temple where a number of people were engaged in meditation exercises. Their meditation method consists of blotting out a thought whenever it arises. Thus emptied of mind (mental activity), the end of the road is reached, namely, Nothingness, i.e. Void. The procedure is as follows: young Mahayana monks sat cross-legged in a row, about six in number. The master abbot went round showing them the stick with which he would beat them. After a while, he proceeded to administer one blow each on the back of each meditator. It was explained that while being beaten it was possible that the mind disappeared altogether, resulting in Nothingness. Truly a strange doctrine. This is in reality annihilation of thought by crushing with mind, presumably the same technique employed by the Bodhisatta to crush the thought with the mind by clenching the teeth. The effort proved very painful for him and sweat oozed out from under his armpits, but no superior knowledge was attained then.


Then it occurred to the Bodhisatta:

"What if I controlled respiration and concentrate on the breathless jhana?"

With that thought, he restrained the in-breathing and out-breathing of the mouth and nose. With the holding of respiration through the mouth and nose, there was a roar in the ears due to the rushing out of the air just like the bellows of a frog making a roaring noise. There was intense bodily suffering, but the Bodhisatta was relentless. He held the in-breathings and out-breathings, not only of the mouth and nose, but also of the ears. As a result, violent winds rushed up to the crown of the head, causing pains as if a strong man had split open the head with a mallet, as if a powerful man were tightening a rough leather strap round the head. Violent winds pushed around in the belly causing misery like being carved up by a sharp butcher's knife. And there was intense burning in the belly as if roasted over a pit of burning coals. The Bodhisatta, overcome physically by pain and suffering, fell down in exhaustion and lay still. When the deities saw him lying prone, some of them said,

"The monk Gotama is dead."

Other deities said,

"The monk Gotama is not yet dead, he is dying."

Again other deities said,

"The monk Gotama is neither dead nor dying. He is just lying still, dwelling in the state of Arahatship ."

In spite of all these painful efforts, no higher knowledge was gained


So it occurred to the Bodhisatta:

"What if I strive still harder, entirely abstaining from food?"

Knowing his thoughts, the deities said,

"Please, Lord Gotama, do not entirely abstain from food. If you do so, we shall instill heavenly nourishment through the pores of your skin. You shall remain alive on that."

Then it came to the Bodhisatta:

"If I claim to be completely fasting and these deities should instill heavenly nourishment through my pores and I should thus be sustained, that would be for me a lie."

The Bodhisatta rejected the deities offer saying that he refused to be injected with divine nourishment.

Then he decided to take less and less nourishment, only as much bean soup as the hollow of a hand could hold. Living on about five or six spoonfuls of bean soup each day, his body reached the state of extreme emaciation. The limbs withered, only skin, sinews and bones remained. The vertebrae became exposed in uneven lumps and protuberances. The widely dispersed bones jutted out, presenting an ungainly, ghastly appearance just as in the paintings of the Bodhisatta undergoing extreme austerity. The gleam of the eyes shrunk down in their sockets, looked like the reflection from water sunk deep in the well. The scalp had shrivelled up like a green, soft gourd withered in the sun. The emaciation was so extreme that if he attempted to feel the belly skin, he encountered the spinal column; if he felt for the spinal column, he touched the belly skin. When he attempted to evacuate the bowel or make water, the effort was so painful that he fell forward on the face, so weakened was he through this extremely scanty diet.

Seeing this extremely emaciated body of the Bodhisatta, the people said,

"The monk Gotama is a black man."

Others said,

"The monk Gotama has a brown complexion."

Again others said,

"The monk Gotama has the brown-blue colour of the torpedo fish."

So much had the clear, bright, golden colour of his skin deteriorated.




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" There is no fire like passion; there is no evil like hatred; there is no ill like (the burden of ) khandhas; there is no bliss that surpasses the Perfect Peace (i.e., Nibbana). "

The Dhammapada

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