Extreme Practice | The Story of Lord Gautama Buddha
Then it was a Sunday and the whole family went to the famous Kelaniya Temple. They bought a bunch of lotus flowers to offer to the Buddha. Divine fragrances of flowers welcomed them as they entered the temple. Bimsara and Vishaka walked into the temple with flowers in their hands and with faith in the Buddha. They all offered flowers to the statue of the Buddha and worshiped. They offered flowers and lit joss sticks to the Stupa and the Bo tree. They lit oil lamps too. Bimsara and Vishaka felt happy and calm.
“Son, Let’s go to the shade of the Mountain-ebony (Koboleela) trees over there. It is cooler there”, the father said.
All went there and sat on the spread out mat. While worshipping the Stupa they chanted Dhammacakka sutra very nicely. They did the Buddhanussathi meditation.
Afterward, they had tea. Then, noticing that Vishaka was looking at something in one direction, the mother asked: “What is it Vishaka, do you see anything that you like?” Little Vishaka’s eyes were filled with tears, she looked very sad.
“Mother, why is that statue of Bodhisatta near the Bo tree looking like a skeleton? Is it true that our Bodhisattva suffered a lot in order to attain the Buddhahood?”
Everyone was silent for a moment, then the father broke the silence in a low and sad voice, “Yes my darling, Our Bodhisattva suffered a lot. We have the Dhamma now. We know the noble Eightfold path. We also know virtuousness, calmness of mind, and wisdom required to realize the reality of things. The Buddha has taught us everything. But children, when Prince Siddhartha became a recluse having abandoned the lay life, there was no one to teach him the path to Nirvana.”
“Why father, did He not meet the two hermits Alarakalama and Uddakaramaputta?”
“That’s right my son, he met them. But neither of them knew the Four Noble Truths. That is why the recluse Gautama left them. He did not carry on with the teachings of those hermits. Finally, he completely gave up looking for support from others. He was determined that he would find the reality of this life on his own and with his own wisdom.
Then he started the ‘painful exertion’ (dushkar kriya). Sometimes he practiced in this way; He inhaled and held the air inside without exhaling. When he kept the air inside the lungs for a long time, His ears started to make loud noises. Then He stopped that sound with effort. When the Bodhisatta continued this exercise for hours, his body became stiff and started to sweat. His stomach gave him agonizing pain, and His head hurt as if it was going to burst. But the Bodhisatta consciously bore all the pain. He continued this method for a long time, but it did not produce the result he wanted.
Then the Bodhisattva reduced his food. He took only one mouth full of rice for the whole day. Gradually, he reduced that too. Once a week, he ate a few boiled green grams. Then the body of the Bodhisattva started to become thin. His body shrank to a skeleton as days passed by. His beautiful eyes sank into his skull. When He touched his stomach He could feel his backbone. Layers of fine dust were found all over His body. All these sufferings were endured hoping to achieve Nirvana.
He meditated in very dangerous places in jungles. But His mind was never panicked. He stayed out in the freezing cold in the winter. That was the period which was called the period of painful exertion. Our Bodhisatta continued these bodily austerities for years. His determination was unbelievable. He never retreated, not even for a moment.”
Bimsara felt very sad. He said, “Father, normally people suffer to earn money. But the Buddha suffered this much solely to find liberation for the whole world. And I think it is amazing that he did not pass away while doing this”.
“Yes, of course, Bimsara, it is unbelievable. The Bodhisattva finally decided to continue with the meditation without taking any food. At that decision, the gods came to the Bodhisattva and worshiped Him. They begged Bodhisattva with so much respect; “Oh! My Lord, please do not stop eating. We shall not witness such peril. If you continue this way, we will have to pour divine food through the pores of your skin without your permission”.
Then, my son, the Bodhisattva thought “If so, I will have to consume something. If not, these gods may inject divine food into me. then my determination will waver. Hence, I shall take a little bit of food. Then no one can insert food into my body”. And Bodhisattva took one green gram a day.
During that time it was believed that extreme austerity to the body could lead one to Enlightenment. Gautama Bodhisattva too believed it. That is why he continued this agonizing exercise to the greatest extreme until there were no more ways to test his endurance. He became more or less a walking skeleton. He fainted as he tried to sit, and also as he meditated. That statue is carved and placed over there to remind us of the period that the Bodhisattva was in search of the unsurpassable Nirvana. Any person with some intelligence will be able to realize the unmatchable effort and determination the Bodhisattva demonstrated in search of the reality of life.
So my children, you already know that Prince Siddhartha was twenty-nine years old when he renounced royal life and became a monk. He suffered for six long years searching for Nibbana. His endurance of bodily pain surpassed all human limits. But this method did not bring the liberation He was looking for. Having experienced that, the Bodhisatta finally abandoned the method of enduring bodily sufferings to achieve Nirvana. During His stay at the Palace as the Prince, he treated himself with all the worldly luxuries and comforts, experiencing all the happiness arising from sensual pleasures (kamasukhallikanu yoga). That is one extreme which the Bodhisattva gave up with the Great Renunciation.
Following that, the Bodhisattva fell into the other extreme, making the body suffer from extreme practices (Atthakilamathanu yoga). Having understood through His own experience, that this method too does not bring the liberation he was looking for, Siddhartha Gautama Bodhisattva abandoned that extreme as well. He was so fortunate to eliminate both extremes and find the correct path to Nibbana all by himself. My dear children, do you remember the Brahmin Kondagngna who raised only one finger and clearly stated the prophecy at the naming ceremony of Prince Siddhartha? That Brahmin believed firmly what he said at that function. Hence, he too gave up his lay life longing to see a Buddha in his lifetime. Four of his friends by the names Vappa, Bhaddiya, Mahanama and Assaji joined him. They all became recluses. They became popular as the ‘five recluses (first five sages)’ later on.
These five ascetics faithfully assisted the Bodhisattva during His painful exertion. But they believed only in the Attakilamathanuyoga. That means they believed in making the body suffer was the only path to achieve Enlightenment. But the Bodhisattva abandoned that extreme with confident knowledge. Then the Bodhisattva started to go out for alms. He consumed food in the normal way. The five recluses could not understand this. They thought that the Bodhisattva had made a mistake. So they discussed among themselves; “There is no purpose in looking after the Bodhisattva anymore as he has given up the extreme exertions to the body. How can He become the Buddha now? He has lost his way. Let us be on our way.” So they left the Bodhisattva without even informing him and went to (Varanasi) Baranasi. At this time, Bodhisattva Gautama was living by the bank of river Neranjara in the state of Uruvel. Bodhisattva did not falter with any of these setbacks, neither retreating nor blaming. He continued his great mission of attaining Nirvana.
What our Bodhisattva did was eminently extraordinary, something which could be performed only by an extremely intelligent and courageous individual.