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The Historical Buddha, Sakyamuni

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Delighting in his royal consorts' company, then renouncing, practising the path of hardship and difficulty,
going to the place called ‘Enlightenment's Very Heart',
he vanquishes the hosts of evil,

5.    In order to fulfil his duty to his parents and provide an heir to the throne (he was their only child), he married and enjoyed the company of his royal consorts. The quest for a happy marriage, sexual satisfaction, parenthood and companionship is something which dominates peoples' lives in societies everywhere. Given the strength of human beings' illusions, their hopes and their biological drives, it would not be easy, later on, for the Buddha to point out the futility of the time and energy spent in this quest, and its high price. There would be more chance of his audience heeding someone who, as was his case, had married and satisfied three of the most beautiful brides in the land and who had enjoyed the company of the many young consorts in his royal harem. Of these, the beautiful Yasodhara, a princess in her own right, was his main bride and the mother to his only official child, Rahula.

6.    Having established his excellence in all these domains in the eyes of the world and fulfilled his duty to his parents by providing an heir, at the age of twenty-nine he renounced worldliness. The details of his fourfold vision of ageing, sickness, death and a renunciate, and the story of the feast on his last day at the palace, when Rahula was born, are poignant indeed and told in many of his life stories. The common version of the renunciation is that he had his servant, whom he had sworn to secrecy, bring him his horse, Katanka, late that same evening. Cutting off his long hair—the symbol of his royalty—with his own sword, he rode off into the jungle to follow the religious life. The mahayana version is that the Buddhas of the past, present and future emanated, gave him the vows of monastic ordination, his robes and hair-cutting, and that he set off on the eternal way of the monk. To teach others renunciation, he had himself to show the courage and ability to leave behind all the wonders and joys of his temporal life, in order to seek ageless wisdom.

7.    It would be necessary for him to teach effectively not only the inadequacies of worldly life but also those of self-mortification. Who could do this better than one who had been the most rigid of ascetics? For six years, much of it spent in the company of five other ascetics, he practised meditation and asceticism. He trained under the finest meditation teachers of his day, but soon exhausted what they had to teach him. He then devoted himself to austerities. He ate less, endured the burning sun more and practised hardships more stringently than anyone had ever done. Much of this occurred in the area of the river Neranjara. Often, he meditated for many days, without eating or moving, beneath the tall trees on its banks, with a rock for a cushion. At the end, he was such a skeletal bag of bones that his spine could be seen protruding through the skin of his abdomen. His brilliant aura and special marks had disappeared. This severe self-denial would not only serve as a proper basis for dismissing asceticism as the main way to truth, but would also demonstrate his own mastery of diligence and show his teaching to be not just an intellectual conclusion but the fruit of powerful personal experience. His ascetic period ended with him receiving the offering of a special bowl of rice gruel. Someone who had made a deep commitment to Sakyamuni, in a previous life when he was a bodhisattva, was reborn as a young milkmaid. She fed ten of her best cows with the milk of a hundred cows. Then she milked the ten cows and fed that milk to the best cow of all. Its milk she mixed with honey and the finest rice. Taking this in a golden bowl, she approached Sakyamuni and offered it to him. As he drank it, his special marks and halo returned in an instant and he cast the bowl into the river saying, "If I am to find enlightenment, may this bowl float upstream." It did.