The Buddha, His Life and Teachings

The Great Renunciation

In the silence of that moonlit night (it was the full-moon day of July, Âsâlha) such thoughts as these arose in him: “Youth, the prime of life, ends in old age and man’s senses fail him at a time when they are most needed. The hale and hearty lose their vigour and health when disease suddenly creeps in. Finally death comes, sudden perhaps and unexpected, and puts an end to this brief span of life. Surely there must be an escape from this unsatisfactoriness, from ageing and death.”

Thus the great intoxication of youth (yobbana-mada), of health (ârogya-mada), and of life (jivita-mada) left him. Having seen the vanity and the danger of the three intoxications, he was overcome by a powerful urge to seek and win the Deathless, to strive for deliverance from old age, illness, misery, and death not only for himself but for all beings (including his wife and child) that suffer.n7 It was his deep compassion that led him to the quest ending in enlightenment, in Buddhahood. It was compassion that now moved his heart towards the great renunciation and opened for him the doors of the golden cage of his home life. It was compassion that made his determination unshakeable even by the last parting glance at his beloved wife asleep with the baby in her arms.

Thus at the age of twenty-nine, in the flower of youthful manhood, on the day his beautiful Yasodharâ had given birth to his only son, Râhula, Prince Siddhârtha Gotama, discarding and disdaining the enchantment of the royal life, scorning and spurning joys that most young men yearn for, tore himself away, renouncing wife and child and a crown that held the promise of power and glory.

He cut off his long locks with his sword, doffed his royal robes, and putting on a hermit’s robe retreated into forest solitude to seek a solution to those problems of life that had so deeply stirred his mind. He sought an answer to the riddle of life, seeking not a palliative, but a true way out of suffering, to perfect enlightenment and Nibbâna. His quest for the supreme security from bondage, Nibbâna (Nirvâna), had begun. This was the great renunciation, the greatest adventure known to humanity.

First he sought guidance from two famous sages, from Alâra Kâlâma and Uddaka Râmaputta, hoping that they, being masters of meditation, would teach him all they knew, leading him to the heights of concentrative thought. He practised concentration and reached the highest meditative attainments possible thereby, but was not satisfied with anything short of Supreme Enlightenment. These teachers’ range of knowledge, their ambit of mystical experience, however, was insufficient to grant him what he so earnestly sought, and he saw himself still far from his goal. Though both sages, in turn, asked him to stay and succeed them as the teacher of their following, the ascetic Gotama declined. Paying obeisance to them, he left them in search of the still unknown.

In his wanderings he finally reached Uruvelâ, by the river Nerañjarâ at Gayâ. He was attracted by its quiet and dense groves, and the clear waters of the river were soothing to his senses and stimulating to his mind. Nearby was a village of simple folk where he could get his alms. Finding that this was a suitable place to continue his quest for enlightenment, he decided to stay. Soon five other ascetics who admired his determined effort joined him. They were Kondañña, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahânâma, and Assaji.