stories , Buddha , India , podcast

Buddha's Path to Enlightenment

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Read by Jana
Chants by Jana
Adaptation and production by Bertie
Buddha images courtesy of Deposit Photos

Previously, we heard how the future Buddha was born two and half thousand years ago as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. He grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas in the land of Shakya, which would now be in southern Nepal. At his birth, wise seers prophesied that the prince would either rule as sole emperor of the world or become an awakened one. In addition, one seer foretold that he would see four signs that would put him on the path to enlightenment. The four signs would be an old man, a sick person, a corpse, and a monk. When he was 29 years old, he saw the four signs. After these revelations, sensual pleasure disgusted him. He resolved to seek enlightenment. He took one last glance at his sleeping wife and child. Then he rode out through the city's gates on his horse Kanthaka followed by his faithful servant Channa.

Buddha’s path to enlightenment

The earth beneath the feet of Kanthaka turned around like a potter's wheel, forcing the future Buddha to contemplate the star-lit city of splendour. Then he roared like a lion.

“I shall not reenter the walls of my father until I have learned how to vanquish old age and death.”

After that, the gods lit the way with 60 thousand torches on all sides. Angelic voices and instruments filled the heavens. A torrent of flowers poured down from the sky like water in the rainy season. Indeed, so many petals were strewn on the ground that Kanthaka struggled to wade through them. Channa took hold of his tail and the faithful horse pulled him over the floral tide.

Eventually, they came to a river. The future Buddha asked its name.

"This great river is called Anoma," replied Channa. Anoma means "glorious."

"My retirement shall be called glorious too," replied the future Buddha.

Then he dug his heels into the sides of Kanthaka, giving him the signal to leap across the great river. Kanthaka cleared the silver stream with Channa still grasping his tail.

On the other side, they found a peaceful gove where deer slept without fear. The future Buddha felt at ease as if he had found the place he was looking for.

He dismounted from his horse and stroked Kanthaka’s head.

Then he spoke to Channa:

“You have shown your devotion and skill. I am delighted at the love you have shown me, without any need for rewards. Take Kanthaka with you and go back to the city. I have arrived at my destination.”

Next, he removed his jewellery and gave it to the faithful servant saying:

“Return to my father. Say that I have not left because of any lack of love or regard for him. I am set on a life of contemplation to destroy old age and death.”

Then Channa, his eyes full of tears, said, “To leave you causes me great sorrow. My mind is sinking like an elephant in the mud. How can I go back to the city of your father, while leaving you alone in the wild? What will the King say to me when I return without you?”

And the Buddha replied: “Give him this message. Birds leave the nests. Clouds gather in the skies and then part. Even the leaves fall from their trees. So do not be sorry for the separation. Be sorry for those who are attached to sensual pleasures, because their lives will only end in suffering and pain. As for me, I shall return as soon as I have conquered old age and death. Or should I fail in my task, then I shall go on until I die.”

After hearing these words, Kanthaka licked his master’s feet and shed warm tears. The prince stroked his head and said:

“Do not cry Kanthaka. You have been the best of horses. I could not have asked more of you.”

Then the Prince drew his bejewelled sword, like a snake from the hole, its blade flashing with gold. Using it, he sliced his ornate headdress from his head and tossed it high up into the air while calling out:

"If I am to be a Buddha, let this crown of mine remain in the sky."

Sakka, the king of the gods, heard this request of the future Buddha and caught the ornament in a casket.

Next, the future Buddha lifted his hair with his left hand, and with his right, he held his sharp scimitar and chopped it off. Then he shaved off his beard to match his head.

Finally, he needed to dispose of his rich robes. But what should he wear in their place?

While he was pondering this problem, a god dressed as a hunter, Ghatikara Maha Brahma, brought him the eight necessary things of a travelling monk. These were:

Three orange robes A begging bowl A razer A needle A belt and A water strainer

When the bald future Buddha was dressed in an orange robe, he threw his royal attire into the river, and it floated away like a goose. Channa sadly took his master's jewels and magnificent weapons, and his faithful horse, Kanthaka, and made his way back to the palace.

Kanthaka plodded slowly on, not eagerly as before. He turned back in the direction of the grove and neighed piteously while thinking, "I shall never see my master again." And then the heart of the mighty steed broke. He died and went to heaven, where he became the god Kanthaka.

There was a mango grove on the bank of the river Anoma called Anupiya. It was a lovely spot, and the future Buddha spent a week there meditating. After that, he walked some 30 leagues to Rājagṛiha, which means the "City of Kings."

When he reached Rajagriha, he begged from house to house. The appearance of this beautiful begging monk caused quite a stir. They were amazed at this monk who walked with the gait of a lion, and whose face shone with the beauty of the moon. Some stood and stared, others sprang up and followed him, still others greeted him with bowed heads and folded hands.

People ran to the king and declared:

"Whether he is a man or a god, or a serpent or a bird, we cannot say."

The king's curiosity was peaked. He went up onto the palace roof to see the future Buddha and the crowd he was drawing. He said to his attendants:

"When he leaves the city, watch how he departs.
If he is a god, he will vanish into the air. If he is a serpent, he will dive into a hole in the ground. If he is a bird, he will take flight, but if he is a human, he will sit down and eat."

Now when the future Buddha left the city, he did indeed sit down to eat the food that he had begged. But when he looked at the food in his bowl, his stomach was revolted by it, and he could not eat.

He thought: "When I was a prince, I ate only the most fragrant rice with the most delicious sauces, yet when I saw a monk clad in a robe from the rubbish heap, I thought, how I longed to live as he did.”

And so, he forced himself to eat the poor food that he had begged. The king's attendants watched all this, and they went up to the future Buddha and told him that the king wished to meet him. Out of courtesy, the future Buddha returned to the palace with the attendants and stood before the king who spoke as follows.

"You dress like a beggar, but you have the habits and bearing of a prince, and your face shines like the moon above the cloud. In short, I am convinced that you are from a noble family. Stay in my palace, eat only the finest foods, and join me in the government of this country.”

The future Buddha thanked the king and praised his noble and generous heart, but declined his offer.

“Sir, my feet are set on the path to enlightenment. There is no turning back to sensual pleasure. Would an escaped rabbit return to the serpent’s mouth? Would a burned man put his hand back in the flame? Would a healed blind man spoil his eyes again?”

The king smiled kindly: “Come, come, there is a time for everything in life. Right now you are young. Enjoy pleasure while you have your strength and beauty. The age to reflect and seek enlightenment is when you are old.”

And the future Buddha replied: “Pleasure deludes the minds of men. For no quantity satisfies cravings and desires. A king might conquer all the lands beyond the seas. The heavens might rain down gold for him. He might marry a thousand wives. And yet he would not find freedom from old age and death.”

At last, the king conceded:

"In that case, I shall let you go. May you achieve all that you desire. You must promise that when you reach enlightenment, the first place you come to preach will be this city of kings."

"I do so promise," said the future Buddha, who now wished to seek out the help of wise men and tutors.

In the next stage of his life, he studied under the master, Alana Kalana, who taught him progressive states of consciousness.

These first four stages of meditation are known as Jhanas.

First Jhana:
Anxiety and pain, as well as physical pleasure, are banished. Instead, the mind experiences pleasure and satisfaction. Second Jhana Thoughts and desires are banished, and the mind finds emotional joy. Third Jhana Joy gives way to quieter peace and contentment Fourth Jhana Peace turns into perfect equanimity with no positive or negative emotions.

After the four Jhanas, the student aims for a further four spheres of awareness.

The sphere of infinite space in which the body floats, gradually filling out all of space.

The sphere of infinite consciousness, in which the mind fills space and unifies with nature

The sphere of nothingness, in which the mind discovers that infinity contains nothing permanent

And finally, The sphere of perception and non-perception, in which the mind experiences indescribable peace.

Alana Kalana helped the future Buddha reach the sphere of nothingness. Then he said, "You are now my equal. So stay here and teach the students alongside me."

But the future Buddha wanted to reach a higher state, so he moved on to a new teacher, Uddaka Ramaputta. Soon he attained the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception. Then his teacher said: "You are now my superior. Stay and teach the students in my place."

But the future Buddha replied: "I have not yet learned how to overcome suffering, old age, and death."

And so, he left Uddaka Ramaputta and made his home on the banks of the river Nairánjana, where he delighted in tranquility. Here he met five monks who recognised his nobility and self control.

This was the time of The Great Struggle. The five disciples swept his cell and served him during those years. The future Buddha tried extreme fasting, believing that it was the way to destroy death and old age. He lived on a single sesame seed or one grain of rice per day. Over six years, his body shrivelled, until you could see the bones through his skin, although a delightful light shone around him.

While sitting in a prolonged trance of suppressed breathing he fell to the ground, as if dead.

The disciples travelled to the land of Shakya, where the future Buddha had been born. There they told his father, King Suddhodana, that his son had met his end. But his father would have none of it.

"Has he attained enlightenment?" he asked.

"No, sir," replied the disciples.

"Then he has not yet died," replied the king, "For it is destined that he will attain enlightenment before he dies. "

When they returned to the future Buddha, they found that he was indeed alive, but he had changed his mind about the great struggle.

"It is like trying to tie knots in the air," he told them. “When the mind is worn out by hunger and fatigue, how can it achieve supreme calm?”

But his disciples were disillusioned by him.

"He has tried for six years to reach enlightenment," they said. "How much less likely he is to succeed now that he tends to his bodily needs!"

So the disciples left him sitting under a banyan tree in a place called Uruvela.

A banyan tree plants its seed on the branch of another tree and sends its roots down so they look like trunks. The future Buddha sat under the tree, still weak and needing nourishment.

It so happened that a woman called Sujata lived nearby. She had prayed to the Banyan tree, asking for a husband and a son. The spirit of the Banyan tree had granted her wish. Now she wanted to offer gratitude to the tree.

One morning, when she was about to milk her eight cows, the cows' udders spilt milk into the bowls underneath them without being touched.

"This is a sign," said Sujata. "I Must offer this milk to the spirit of the Banyan tree."

She began to boil up the miraculous milk and mix it with rice to make kheer or rice pudding. The milk blew up into a giant canopy of the boiling pans, but not a single drop overspilled. Then the gods injected divine nectar into the kheer to make it supremely nourishing.

While this was happening, her servant, Punna, was walking by the Banyan tree. She saw the future Buddha sitting radiant under the tree and was very excited. She ran back to her mistress saying,

"The spirit of the tree has manifested himself and is ready to receive your offering in person."

Sujata was so delighted by the news that she promoted Punna to the position of Eldest Daughter and gave her a room in the house.

Sujata took out a golden dish and poured the kheer into it, as smoothly as water rolling off a lotus leaf. Then, in one hand, she took the dish, and in the other a vase of flower-scented water. Finally, she went to the Banyan tree and placed her offering into the hands of the future Buddha, saying, "Lord, accept my gift."

The future Buddha stood up and walked around the tree before bathing in the river Niranjana. When he had bathed and dressed, he sat down and ate the divine kheer. He was fully nourished and able to sit in a trance for 49 days, full of delight.

He came out of the trance still holding the golden bowl given to him by Sujata. He stood up and tossed it into the river, saying, "If I am to reach enlightenment, let this bowl float upstream!"

The bowl made its way against the current before being sucked down by a whirlpool and finishing up in the palace of the black serpent king.

The future Buddha walked as strong as a lion to a bodhi tree. He walked around this tree, feeling the world tilt this way and that until he found the place where it was in perfect balance. At last he sat down cross-legged.

While the future Buddha sat under the bodhi tree, the gods came down to earth to guard him. Angels serenaded. Sakka, the king of the gods, blew on his conch shell. And Kala, the black snake king sang.

O sage, your radiance shines forth like the sun, and surely you will enjoy the result you wish for today.

As he sat, the future Buddha thought:

“I’ll not move a muscle until I have fulfilled my task.”

Now Mara, the demon tempter, saw what was happening and realised:

"If I do not strike now, he will attain enlightenment this day."

And so Mara mounted his elephant and came charging up with his entire army, roaring like a flood. The sky lost its glimmer, the earth shook, and the winds blew in different directions.

His soldiers had the faces of birds, fishes, and horses, with monstrous mouths, and the horns and legs of goats. Their ears dangled like elephants’. Their hair was the colour of smoke, and their bodies were covered with red spots. Some were tall like palm trees carrying spears, others were short like children with savage teeth. Onward they came, leaping and dancing, and walking along the tops of trees.

As the demon army of Mara swept towards the throne of wisdom, the gods could not stand their ground. Kala, the snake king dived into a hole. Sakka slung his conch shell over his back and headed to the edge of the world. Maha Brahma abandoned his white umbrella and fled the scene.

But the future Buddha sat rooted to the spot.

Then Mara blew up a whirlwind that knocked down trees and villages, but when it reached the future Buddha, it became a mere breeze that fluttered at the end of his robe.

Then he sent a flood that covered the trees, but when the waters reached the future Buddha, they lightly sprinkled him with a few drops of rain.

Then he sent smoking rocks down through the sky, but they turned into flowers when they reached the future Buddha's head.

Finally, Mara charged on his elephant and threw his discus at him, but it changed into a fragrant bouquet.

So Mara despairing of force winning the day declared: “Fire might give up its heat, water its wetness, and the earth its stability, but this man will not budge”

But he had one more trick to try.

He sent his three temptress daughters, Trsna, Rati, and Rāga (thirst, desire, and delight). Each was different in appearance, for men have many tastes. They danced and sang before the future Buddha and used charms wiles and sweet talk that would have driven an ordinary man wild with lust, but still, he could not be distracted. They might as well have tried to poke a hole in rock using the stem of a lily.

Persistence conquers all. He who rubs sticks will find fire and he who digs long enough will find water. So the future Buddha sat in stillness and meditation until he found enlightenment proving that nothing is impossible.

For a moment the earth stood still. The birds did not sing, the trees did not rustle, and the rivers did not flow.

Then all the earth, rocks and trees, called out, "We are the witnesses that the future Buddha has achieved the ten perfections and will attain enlightenment this day."

At last, Mara fled. At last his troops scattered in every direction. At last, the gods celebrated the victory.

Throughout the 10,000 worlds, flags and banners flew, trees bloomed, fruit ripened, the blind received their sight, the deaf their hearing, the disabled walked, and prisoners' chains fell off.

The moon in the heavens shone like a girl with a smile, and a sweet-smelling shower of flowers fell down wet with dew.

The flames of hell became sweet breezes of perfume, and the angry thunderbolts were changed into lotus blossoms.

The future Buddha had become Buddha.

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