(623 B.C. – 543 B.C.)
Prince Siddhartha attended the grand feast celebrating the birth of his son, but was preoccupied with his own thoughts. “I must become like that, that peaceful, calm person we saw in the street, dressed in yellow, seeking the Way to end suffering. I shall renounce the world this very day. I have lived a very empty and superficial life all these years.” In the silence of that night, the Prince tiptoed out of the room and asked Chandaka to saddle his favorite horse, Kanthaka. With one last look at his sleeping wife and infant son, Siddhartha vowed that he would return to see them when he had awakened to the Truth. As everyone slept, he rode out of the palace gates with faithful Chandaka by his side.
When they reached the river, Neranjara, Siddhartha dismounted, took off his fine silken clothing and removed his jeweled ornaments. He handed them all to Chandaka and told him to return with the horse to the palace. Then, with his sword, he cut off his long hair and severed all attachments to his old life. Chandaka was very sad. He begged the Prince to let him stay with him. But Siddhartha was firm in his refusal. Chandaka prepared to leave, but this time, the Prince’s favorite horse, Kanthaka, refused to move. Siddhartha spoke to him gently and persuaded him to go with Chandaka. But Kanthaka knew that he would never see the Prince again and he was so sad that he kept looking back longingly at his master and died of a broken heart on the way.
At this time, Prince Siddhartha Gautama was twenty-nine years old. He exchanged his princely clothes for those of a beggar and walked alone. He was no longer a prince, but the homeless ascetic, Gautama, in search of the Truth.
He went to Alara Kalama and Uddaka, well-known teachers of the time. Siddhartha studied very hard, until, one day, Alara said, “I have nothing more to teach you. You are equal to me now. Will you stay and help me with my pupils?” “Can you not teach me how to escape from death, illness and old-age?” asked Gautama. “No,” said Alara, “No-one in the world knows that.”
So he continued his search with other teachers and not being satisfied, wandered alone once again. At this stage he joined five other ascetics. Their names were Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji. Together, they practiced self-control and self-mortification, that is, going without the normal needs of food and rest, sleeping on hard ground and generally leading a very uncomfortable and hard life. They believed that to become spiritually pure, one had to torture the body.
The ascetic Gautama became so weak that one day he collapsed with hunger and pain. He was found by a shepherd who fed him on milk and looked after him till he became strong.
He realized that a life of mortification was useless. He knew from experience that the life of luxury which he had enjoyed as a prince was also futile. He therefore decided to follow a course between these two extremes – “The Middle Path.” He started to re-live a normal life. The five ascetics were disappointed in him and left him. He was determined to seek the Truth alone, unaided by teachers and companions.
At this time, there lived in a neighboring village, a noble woman called Sujatha. She had a baby son and to fulfill a vow which she had made, she prepared a very special dish of milk-rice as an offering and came to the same grove where the ascetic Gautama was meditating.
When Sujatha saw the serene figure of Gautama sitting under a banyan tree, she made her offering and said, “Venerable Sir, whoever you may be, god or human, please accept this milk-rice and may you attain that goal which you seek.” He took the offering. Then, he bathed in the river and sat on its bank and ate the milk-rice. After this, he returned to the river and placed the empty bowl on the water and said, “May this bowl float upstream if I am to attain Enlightenment.” The bowl did float upstream.