Although in later times a fairly detailed biography of the Buddha was developed, in the early texts there is a lack of reliable material about the Buddha’s life, probably because the life as such was not considered as important as the teaching. Occasionally, though, in his encounters with others, the Buddha did refer to his own practice before his Awakening, and his life shortly thereafter.
There are four places where this occurs in the Middle Length Discourses (Majjhimanikāya), and when they are taken together they build up quite a good picture of the Buddha’s reasons for the renunciation, his going-forth, and the various people he met, the practices he undertook and his decision to teach.
In the discourse presented here the Buddha is requested to give a Dhamma talk to the monks, and he speaks about the two searches or quests, the one for what is subject – like he himself is – to birth, old-age, sickness, death, grief and defilements, which is characterised as an ignoble search; and the other a quest for what is not subject to these faults, which is the noble search for Nibbāna.
In this search the Buddha sought out various people, meeting with a great meditation Master, Āḷāra Kālāma, and later with Uddaka Rāmaputta. These two are often referred to as the Bodhisatta’s teachers, but one of the interesting things that work on this discourse has revealed is that the Buddha only accepted Āḷāra as his teacher, and did not speak of Uddaka in the same way, but only as a friend in the spiritual life (sabrahmacāri), and that it is wrong to speak of the Bodhisatta’s two teachers, as he never acknowledged that himself.
After studying with Āḷāra and Uddaka to the highest levels they had attained, the Bodhisatta was still dissatisfied, as the practice didn’t lead out of saṁsāra, but only to its highest levels. He therefore abandoned them and after travelling to Uruvelā he eventually attained Awakening.
The Buddha, as he then was, after an intercession by the Brahma Sahampati, decided to teach. He first thought of Āḷāra and Uddaka, but then he understood that they had recently deceased, so he sought out his earlier companions, the group-of-five monks and they too soon attained Awakening, though the teachings on the first and second discourses are not included here.
The discourse closes with a supplementary teaching on the dangers inherent in the five strands of sense pleasure, and how Māra has control over anyone subject to them; and the freedom to be obtained by attaining states where Māra’s range doesn’t reach. Various events, such as his austerities, are not recounted in this discourse, but they are in others, including one I am working on at present, and which will be published here in due course.
There are two different versions of this work, the first with the Pāḷi text and a line-by-line translation, meant more for the student of Pāḷi:
the second has only the English, but it also has a reading of the translation embedded in the text, so if you want to listen rather than read you can do so here:
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