Gautama the Buddha is a great guru of millions of spiritual seekers and is the guru of countless gurus. But few people know about his gurus.
People popularly know that prince Siddhartha Gautama left the palace at the age of 29 in search of truth. Then he attained Buddhahood at the age of thirty-five. However, the part of his life between these two significant events is little known to people in general.
Gautama wandered for six years, meeting many gurus and following different practices of different traditions. This is the part of his life that is most interesting and useful to people who are seekers on a spiritual path. On the occasion of Guru Purnima which falls on July 5, I would like to present about his gurus and his endeavors to find the ultimate wisdom.
Search of Knowledge
When Siddhartha left the palace in search of the truth, he did not immediately start meditation on his own. He walked in the southern direction and on the first day he stayed at the hermitage of a Brahmin nun named Shakyi. Another day he stayed at the hermitage of another Brahmin nun Padma. This shows that at the time women too left their house in search of knowledge. These days some feminists see the shadow of patriarchy in Buddha’s leaving his family. They narrate that it was selfishness of the Buddha not to think of his wife. Whether man or woman, it is a person’s choice to stay at home or leave. Selfishness is there in limiting oneself to family and even more selfishness is in forcing someone to stay in the family against their will!
Further, Gautama went to the hermitage of a Brahmarshi named Raivat. Then he went to the ashrams of rishis Rajak and Bhrigu. Bhrigu was an expert on different practices of fasting. There he was surprised to see some of Bhrigu’s disciples were only eating grains just like birds while others were grazing on grass like goats, and others were even lying like snakes and taking in only air as food. Gautama saw such practices for the first time and asked Bhrigu the purpose of the fasting. The hermit told Gautama that it was all for to be reborn in heaven. Gautama told him that he was not interested to go to heaven but to be liberated from suffering once and for all. Bhrigu appreciated his great purpose and suggested him to visit the ashram of the great sage Arada Kalam. The sage was a great philosopher of Sankha School of the time.
Gautama learned meditation from Arada Kalam and perfected up to seventh levels of meditation. In the meditations he realized different experiences of higher mental states, like oneself being expanded in the infinite space as the sky, becoming infinite consciousness, realizing infinite nothingness, and many more marvelous experiences.
Then Arada Kalam told Gautama that there was nothing more he could teach; Gautama had already mastered all that Kalam knew. Kalam offered Gautama to become a teacher in his ashrama. But Gautama was not satisfied with the meditative experiences. He realised that they were great experiences, but not liberation itself. So, he asked Kalam if he knew any greater guru. Kalam told him that there was another guru Rudrak Ramputra who knew higher meditation than him. Kalam expressed his good wishes and bid farewell to Gautama.
Gautama headed towards the ashrama of Radrak Ramputra. There he learned the eight level of meditation. He realized that there is neither perception nor non-perception. Just like Kalam, Ramputra also told him that he had taught everything he knew and offered Gautam to become a teacher in his ashrama. But these higher level experiences did not satisfy Gautama. He was looking for liberation, not supernatural experiences. He asked Ramputra about his guru. Ramputra replied that he had no guru. He learned on his own. From this we can learn that learning meditations can be without guru as well.
In present day context, we have J. Krishnamurti who emphasised on learning from direct observation of the self without a guru. When we reflect on Buddha’s life events, we can learn that people have been attaining higher levels of meditation without guru from time unknown. Another influential person is UG Krishnamurti who had had few glimpses of meditation experiences. He is famous for discarding meditation and spiritual experiences. But 2600 years back, Gautama had many such extraordinary experiences and he had discarded them for not having any relation with spirituality or liberation.
A seeker may get hundreds of such experiences on his spiritual path which could be very overwhelming, but they do not have even a distant link with spirituality (lokottara) and liberation. Not finding any higher guru, Gautama asked Ramputra for permission to leave his ashrama for further search on his own. Ramputra expressed his well-wishes and asked Gautama, “If you get higher knowledge, please come back to teach me”. Here we need to note the liberal attitude of the then gurus. They were not only happy to let their disciples leave them, but also ready to learn from them. Nowadays, it would be difficult to find such a guru!
Finding no higher gurus, Gautama started to practice on his own. When we study the sutras in Majjhim Nikaya, we can find that he had practiced most severe austerities under Yoga, Tantra and Jain traditions. The list of practices is long which shows he sincerely devoted himself to all the major practices that existed at the time. What is notable here is the ideal attitude of seekers. He was fully dedicated to the purpose and ready to engage himself in any practice of any tradition without any bias, but with openness and curiosity. He went on and on though he was not getting what he was looking for.
Finally, he heard someone learning to play Veena, a stringed instrument of the East. At first, the strings of the musical instrument were too loose, it could not produce any music. Then the learner tightens the strings. Again it did not produce any good tune because the strings were too tight. Finally when the strings were neither too loose nor too tight, it gave a soothing music. Gautama, who was hearing it all, reflected on himself. He was practicing which were too tightly or too severely. Realizing it, he left all the harsh austerities and practiced the middle path. That soon led him to liberation. Later, the Middle Path became the main philosophical approach of Buddhism.
This incidence shows that Guru is not limited to a teacher we are devoted to. A seeker can learn from any person and any event. Moreover, at the final stage you become your own guru.
It could be because the Buddha himself had followed different approaches and practices, his teachings also promote openness to learning and inquiry. Kalam Sutra is a famous teaching of the Buddha which promotes liberal approach. Kalams were intellectual people who lived in the then Kosala state. They had listened to all gurus of the time. They wanted to listen to the Buddha too. So, they invited him and asked, “We have heard from many Shramans and Brahmins. All of them claim only their doctrines are true. The doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces. Venerable sir, there is doubt; there is uncertainty in us concerning them. Which of these revered Shramans and Brahmins spoke the truth and which falsehood?”
The Buddha replied “It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain. Uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful.” Then the Buddha set ten criteria of rejection. He said, “do not accept any doctrine merely because-- it is traditional and age-old or it is very new and distinct or it is popular, or rt is written in a holy scripture, or it sounds very logical, or t is an axiom or self-explanatory., the presentation is attractive, the speaker’s personality is pleasant, it fits with one’s faith and or it is said or endorsed by an authority.
The Buddha did not just stop here. He asked the Kalams, "What do you think, Kalamas? Does greed appear in a person for one’s benefit or harm?" Kalams answered, "For his harm, venerable sir." In the same way, the Buddha kept on asking about hate and delusion, if they arise for one’s benefit or harm. What the Buddha pointed out was that people can learn much more by reflecting on one’s own mental activities than from gurus and philosophies. People should develop the ability to discern what is truth and falsehood by themselves, rather than depending upon gurus and set principles.
The Buddha is an ideal guru because he never dictated any doctrines on his own monks and followers but promoted free inquiry. At several occasions, the Buddha has said, “O bhikshus and wise people, just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting, and rubbing it, so you must examine my words and accept them, but not merely out of reverence for me.” Buddha’s emphasis was ultimately on people become their own gurus. His very famous saying is, Appa deepo bhawa, “You become a light onto yourself”.
(Manandhar is a scholar of Buddhism)
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