Before He Reached Enlightenment

Before He Reached Enlightenment

by Susan Downing

Who was the Buddha?  Every day I think of him and give thanks.  I am so grateful that he gained enlightenment and gave us the precious teachings that we can use to make our way out of life’s sufferings.  And until recently, this was pretty much the extent of how I thought of him – as an enlightened being.

Sure, we know the Buddha was an actual historical personage, and we are told that when he attained enlightenment, he was able to see all his past lives.  These have come down to us in the form of the Jataka tales, and these tales show us that even in the lifetimes before he gained enlightenment, the Buddha was able to act with a degree of compassion and equanimity that seem unimaginable to us. (See Jeff’s post, “Hunting Trip” on this topic. )

Reading these stories colored my impression of the Buddha: I realized recently that I’ve always thought of him as someone who was pretty much immune to suffering, or who at least had a super-human tolerance for pain and suffering.  So it made sense to me that since the Buddha was free of suffering, he could teach the rest of us how to be free, too.

Then I was listening to a talk by the Dalai Lama in which he was discussing the qualities a suitable teacher.  (Jeff talks about these in detail in his recent post, “Ten Qualities of a Suitable Teacher.”)  It really struck me when His Holiness said that for any teacher to be able to teach us effectively about how to overcome suffering, he has to have overcome it himself.

That got me thinking about the Buddha.  As I noted, until now I’d only ever thought of him as an enlightened being.  But he didn’t come into that lifetime enlightened, having already overcome suffering.  It’s just that he apparently didn’t encounter it when he was growing up as a prince in a palace.  Accounts of Gautama’s early life tell us that his father, the king, took great care to protect him from seeing any suffering at all, much less experiencing it.  It wasn’t until curiosity about life outside the palace led Gautama to make a series of secret forays beyond the palace walls that he came face to face with the reality of human suffering – he saw the old, the sick and the deceased.  And it upset him! As the story usually goes, on his final secret visit to the outside world, Gautama saw a spiritual practitioner – an ascetic in saffron robes – and this vision inspired him to devote himself to the spiritual path.

I always viewed this series of events mostly as evidence of Gautama’s bodhicitta: he saw the suffering of others and was so moved by it that he resolved to find a way to help people overcome their suffering.  But after listening to His Holiness, it occurred to me that the Buddha couldn’t learn how to do this by studying the topic second hand.  He wouldn’t be able to judge whether he’d overcome suffering unless he himself had suffering to overcome.

So, here we have Gautama, living the luxurious life of a prince, with a beautiful wife and a newborn baby son, both of whom he loves deeply.  And he sincerely wants to find a way to help other people end their suffering.  And thus we’re told that he slips out of the palace one night under cover of darkness, without telling his wife, and goes off in search of a solution.

Now, I’ve never come across any discussion of what was in the future Buddha’s mind when he crept out of the palace that night, or what he experienced in the years between the night he left and the night he reached enlightenment.  The accounts of Gautama’s life that cover that period do little more than fill out the timeline with descriptions of the methods he pursued and ultimately rejected: years of study in meditation with the renowned ascetic teachers of that period, followed by 5-6 years practicing asceticism together with 5 other ascetics.

I began to reflect on what the Buddha’s life in that period might actually have been like, and suddenly I began to see him differently than I ever have before. I began to see him as a person like the rest of us, in the sense that he must have experienced suffering, too, and a variety of types of it.  Given that Gautama was not yet enlightened when he left his royal life behind, and given that he really loved his wife and son (and probably really enjoyed the palace life, too!) we can guess that this must have been a very difficult step to take.  Later on, when the Buddha taught the dharma and was describing the types of suffering we endure, one of those he listed was being separated from those we love.  We can assume that he himself must have felt that suffering very acutely, and that would have given him great motivation to find a way out of it.

Yet, he didn’t discover the solution easily or quickly.  During his years practicing asceticism, the emotional and psychological pain of being separated from his loved ones would certainly been compounded by the pain of hunger, the pain of living outdoors with no protection from the elements, and the pain of illness which he would inevitably have experienced.  It was only when he was quite literally on the verge of death from starvation and exposure that (as one of the versions tells us) a young girl convinced him to come to her village and accept food and shelter.  So, we can assume that Gautama also had a very good idea of the suffering one endures when facing death.

Now, once in that village, Gautama turned away from asceticism. We read in the accounts of the Buddha’s life that he did so because he realized that pushing his body to its limits clouded his mind rather than clearing the way for insight, as he’d hoped it would do.  And with a clouded mind, he was unable to continue his inquiry into the nature of suffering.  That explanation sounds so objective and technical in a way, as if the future Buddha was simply measuring the tolerances of a machine and how it would perform in certain conditions. But I am sure that he wasn’t sitting out in the forest, musing abstractly about his practice and thinking, “This seems like a method that might help people who are suffering.” Rather, I think he spent those years enduring the pain of his separation from those he loved, the intense physical pain of hunger and cold, and the fear of being set upon by wild animals.  And when he realized that asceticism could not help him overcome this terrible suffering, his own personal suffering, he gave it up and looked for another practice that would do so.

Finally he found it.  Then he set about teaching others to practice in a way that would allow them to end their suffering, too.  But he wasn’t able to do that until he’d experienced and conquered suffering, in all the forms it took between the time when he walked out of the palace and when he reached full enlightenment.

Realizing this, I feel so encouraged in my practice. I experience suffering, just as the Buddha did, and I’ve certainly travelled down some dead end paths, too, seeking a way out of it.  But knowing that the future Buddha made use of his suffering to gain insight, instead of being destroyed by it, inspires me to do the same.  He not only showed me how to do it.  He showed me it can be done.  And I am so grateful for that.

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