So far in this section–Life of Buddha–we focused on Siddhartha’s journey from birth to renouncing luxuries. In this issue, we would learn about the various ways and means pursued by Siddhartha in his quest to find answers to end suffering.

Pursing other ways

Siddhartha decided to understand various means to find ways to come out of the circle of suffering. He soon left Rajgriha to meet up with  Arada Kalam, a hermit saint and a teacher of yogic meditation.

However, on his way, he saw the hermitage of Brighu and visited it out of curiosity. Siddhartha learnt about the different ways of penances practiced by the ascetics there from Brighu. He learnt that the means of penance vary in its nature. While some lived like birds feeding on small portions of food, others lived on nothing but air. Some ascetics found their nourishment from stones, while others ate raw corn ground. They also imposed bodily penance, some by keeping their hair continually wet with water, while others by dwelling in the water and getting their bodies scratched by tortoises. Brighu explains to Siddhartha that by enduring such penances, the ascetics are able to attain heaven and through the path of pain they reach happiness.

On learning about the various penances, Siddhartha explained to Brighu that it was for the first time he had seen such penances. He further stated that he does not wish for heaven, instead, he is trying to understand the reason behind suffering of man and solutions to end them. Thereafter, he expressed his desire to leave the hermitage and visit Muni Arada Kalam as he wished to learn the Sankhya philosophy and Samadhi marga. Brighu, impressed by the resolve of Siddhartha choosing liberation instead of attaining heaven, gave him the permission to leave the hermitage.

Study of Sankhya

After leaving Brighu’s ashram, Siddhartha travelled to Vaishali to become a disciple of Arada Kalam. On meeting up with Arada Kalam, Siddhartha implored him to tell him about his doctrine. Thereafter, Arada Kalam expounded to Siddhartha the tenets of what was known as the Sankhya Philosophy. Siddhartha was greatly pleased with the clear exposition given by Arada Kalam.

Training in Samadhi Marga

Siddhartha also wanted to acquaint himself with the Dhyana Marga (Concentration of the Mind) as a means to finding a solution to his problem statement. At that time, there were three schools of the Dhyana Marga. However, all of them had one common thread, i.e., control of breathing as the means of achieving Dhyana.

While one school followed a way of controlling breathing called Anapanasati, another school followed the process known as Pranayama. It divided the breathing process into three parts: Breathing in (Puraka); holding the breath (Kumbhaka); and breathing out (Rechak). The third school was known as Samadhi School. Arada Kalam was well known as the master of Dhyana Marga, and Siddhartha decided to get some training in the Dhyana Marga under Arada Kalam. Siddhartha learnt the technique of the Dhyana Marga, which consisted of seven stages. After gaining mastery over it, Siddhartha asked his teacher whether there was anything further he needed to learn, to which, Arada Kalam stated that he had nothing more to teach Siddhartha.

Siddhartha took leave of Arada Kalam and decided to pay a visit to another yogi named Uddaka Ramaputta, who was reputed to have devised a technique which enabled a Dhyani to go one stage higher than that devised by Arada Kalam. Siddhartha thought of learning his technique and experiencing the highest stage of Samadhi. Accordingly he went to the Ashram of Uddaka Ramaputta and placed himself under his training.

Within a short period of time Siddhartha mastered the technique of Uddaka’s eighth stage. After having perfected himself in the technique of Uddaka Rama-putta, Siddhartha asked him the same question which he had asked Arada Kalam, whether there was anything further his teacher could teach him. Siddhartha received the same reply as given by Arada Kalam.

While, Arada Kalam and Uddaka Ramaputta were famous for their mastery of Dhyana Marga in Kosala, Siddhartha longed to train under similar masters of Dhyana Marga in Magadha. When he went to Magadha, he found their technique of Dhyana Marga, though based on control of breathing, was different from what he learnt in Kosala.

The technique was not to breathe, but to reach concentration by stopping to breathe. While practising the technique, Siddhartha felt piercing sounds coming out of his ears, and his head appeared to him to be pierced as though by a sharp pointed knife. Despite being a painful process, Siddhartha mastered this technique as well.

Trial of asceticism

After finishing his training in Sankhya Philosophy and Samadhi Marga, Siddhartha decided to pursue the process of asceticism followed in Brighu’s ashram. He felt that to speak authoritatively about the process, he needs to go through the trail and gain experience in it. Siddhartha visited the town of Gaya and settled at Uruvela, in the hermitage of Negari, the Royal Seer of Gaya, for practising asceticism. The place was situated on the banks of the river Nairanjana, and was perfect for training in asceticism.

Siddhartha was joined by five other Parivrajakas to practise asceticism. They served him reverently, abiding as pupils under his orders, and were humble and compliant. The austerities and self-mortification practised by Siddhartha were of the severest sort.

As per Buddha and His Dhamma, “[Siddhartha] visited two but not more than seven houses a day and took at each only two but not more than seven morsels. He lived on a single saucer of food a day, but not more than seven saucers. Sometimes he had but one meal a day, or one every two days, and so on, up to once every seven days, or only once a fortnight, on a rigid scale of rationing.”

As he started advanced practice of asceticism, his diet only consisted of herbs or grains of wild millets and paddy or water plants or flour of oilseeds, and such other food grains. He often lived on wild roots and fruits. His clothing was also minimal in nature, consisting of rags from the dust-heap, tree bark, grass, hair of men or animals woven into a blanket, or of owl’s wings. He diligently plucked out the hair of his head and beard, and never gave up the upright sitting posture.

He kept on tormenting and torturing his body for the sake of asceticism. His practice was so severe that the dirt and filth accumulated over his body for years used to drop off on its own. He used to reside in the darkest depths of the forest, where no one ventured alone. During winters, Siddhartha would spend the chilly nights in the open and day in dark thicket, while in the summer months, he would dwell under the baking sun by the day and thicket by night.

The extreme asceticism practiced by Siddhartha is described in such a manner in the Buddha and His Dhamma, “Siddhartha lived only on a single bean a day—on a single sesamum seed a day—or a single grain of rice a day. When he was living on a single fruit a day, his body grew emaciated in the extreme. If he sought to feel his belly, it was his backbone which he found in his grasp; if he sought to feel his backbone he found himself grasping his belly, so closely did his belly cleave to his backbone and all because he ate so little.”

The above is the fifth part of our series on the Life of Buddha, referenced from ‘The Buddha and His Dhamma,’ by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. In the forthcoming issues, we will focus on the Buddha’s journey to attain enlightenment.