Life of the Buddha

Electronically Distributed by BuddhaNet

(Part One) 19. The First Five Monks

Now the Buddha wanted to tell other people how to become wise, good and do service for others. He thought, “Now Asita, Alara and Uddaka are dead but my friends Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji are in Benares. I must go there and talk to them.”

Then he set out for Benares, till at last he came to a grove where his five friends were. This grove at Sarnath was called the Deer Park. They saw him coming towards them and one said to another, “Look yonder! There is Gotama, the luxury-loving fellow who gave up fasting and fell back into a life of ease and comfort. Don’t speak to him or show him any respect. Let nobody go and offer to take his bowl or his robe. We’ll just leave a mat there for him to sit on if he wants to and if he does not, he can stand. Who is going to attend on a good-for-nothing ascetic like him.”

However, as the Buddha came nearer and nearer, they began to notice that he had changed. There was something about him, something noble and majestic such as they had never seen before. And in spite of themselves, before they knew what they were doing, they forgot all they had agreed on. One hastened forward to meet him, and respectfully took his bowl and robe, another busily prepared a seat for him, while a third hurried off and brought him water to wash his feet.

After he had taken a seat the Buddha spoke to them and said, “Listen, ascetics, I have the way to deathlessness. Let me tell you, let me teach you. And if you listen and learn and practise as I tell you, very soon you will know for yourselves, not in some future life but here and now in this present lifetime, that what I say is true. You will realise for yourself the state that is beyond all life and death.”

Naturally the five ascetics were very astonished to hear their old companion talking like this. They had seen him give up the hard life of fasting and consequently believed that he had given up all efforts to find the truth. So initially they simply did not believe him, and they told him so.

But the Buddha replied, “You are mistaken, Ascetics. I have not given up all effort. I am not living a life of self-indulgence, idle comfort and ease. Listen to me. I really have attained supreme knowledge and insight. And I can teach it to you so you may attain it for yourselves.”

Finally the five were willing to listen to him and he delivered his first teachings. He advised his followers to follow the Middle Way, avoiding the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-torture. For the first time he taught the Four Noble Truths and how to practise the Eightfold Path, the Noble Way that would lead to freedom from suffering and to the way of enlightenment. With the conversion of the five ascetics at the Deer Park at Sarnath, the order of monks was established.