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The discourse is set in the hermitage of the brāhmaṇa Rammaka, who is otherwise unknown, as there appears to be no further information about him in the commentaries, and although they gather at the hermitage, Rammaka himself doesn’t appear in the discourse, and nor do any of his disciples (if he had any).
The monks tell Ven. Ānanda that it is a long time since they heard a discourse from the Buddha face to face, an interesting biographical detail in itself, as it shows that the Buddha was not always teaching, but must have taken time off on occasion, and maybe it indicates that the Buddha was in his later years at this time.
The chief interest in the discourse is in the Buddha’s discussion of his motivation when going forth, and his autobiographical recollections of his life as a Bodhisatta and his search for, and eventual attainment of, Awakening, The discussion here is in very realistic terms, which stands in contrast to the mythologising of other discourses which mention the time he was still a Bodhisatta, like the Discourse on the Wonderful and Marvellous, MN 123.01 and his decision to give his liberating teaching.
Although in later times a fairly detailed biography was developed, in the early texts there is a lack of reliable material about the Buddha’s life, probably because the life as such was not considered as important as the teaching. Occasionally, though, in his encounters with others, the Buddha did refer to his own practice before his Awakening, and his life shortly thereafter.
There are four places where this occurs in the Middle Length Discourses (Majjhimanikāya), The discourses are the one here, the Noble Search (MN 26), and the discourses to Saccaka (MN 36), Prince Bodhi (MN 85) and Saṅgārava (MN 100).02 and when they are taken together they build up quite a good picture of the Buddha’s reasons for the renunciation, his going-forth, and the various people he met, the practices he undertook and his decision to teach.
In the discourse the Buddha talks about the two searches or quests, the one for what is subject – like he himself is – to birth, old-age, sickness, death, grief and defilements, which is characterised as an ignoble search; and the other a quest for what is not subject to these faults, which is the noble search for Nibbāna.
In this search the Buddha sought out various people, meeting with a great meditation Master, Āḷāra Kālāma, and later with Uddaka Rāmaputta. After studying with Āḷāra and Uddaka to the highest levels they had attained, the Bodhisatta was still dissatisfied, as the practice didn't lead out of saṁsāra, but only to its highest levels. He therefore abandoned them and after travelling to Uruvelā he eventually attained Awakening.
The Buddha, as he then was, after an intercession by the Brahma Sahampati, decided to teach. He first thought of Āḷāra and Uddaka, but then he understood that they had recently deceased, so he sought out his earlier companions, the group-of-five monks and they too soon attained Awakening.
The discourse closes with a supplementary teaching on the dangers inherent in the five strands of sense pleasure, and how Māra has control over anyone subject to them; and the freedom to be obtained by attaining states where Māra’s range doesn't reach.
Although the Buddha relates at some length this period of his life some of the people and events that are found in the developed traditional biography are missing here: there is no mention of the four signs, though the Buddha does discuss what made him go forth; a crucial section dealing with the Bodhisatta’s austerities is omitted; the ploughing festival is not mentioned (though there is mention of the Buddha’s Father), nor is Sujāta (though the rice and milk is mentioned), nor the struggle with Māra. This doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, they might simply have not been considered relevant in these contexts.03
Also omitted from this story are Canonical recollections: the meetings with the Grumbling Brahmin, the protection offered by Mucilinda, and the meeting with his first two lay disciples, Tapussa and Bhallika; See the Great Chapter, elsewhere on this website for these stories, and the teachings mentioned next.04 and neither the teaching of the Discourse that Set the Dhamma Wheel Rolling, or the Characteristic of Non-Self that led to the group-of-five monks attainment of Arahatship are included, although the circumstances surrounding these teachings are found.
* * *
A couple of things need to be discussed here, as they show that a close reading of the texts often turns up things that are unexpected. The first is when the Bodhisatta decides to go forth, in part the Buddha recalls:
Then ... while still a youth ... though my Mother and Father didn’t like it, and were crying with tearful faces ... I went forth from the home to the homeless life.
The problem here is that, according to another discourse, Udāna, 5-2: Appāyukasuttaṁ, The Discourse about the One Short-Lived.05 and tradition in general, the Bodhisatta’s Mother had already passed away seven days after the birth, so she can hardly be weeping at his renunciation now.
Relationship terms in Pāḷi, and indeed in all Indian languages, are very precise, and the compound, which is common, cannot be loosely interpreted to mean his foster Mother or Aunt, so it is not easy to reconcile what is found here with the established traditions, and the two recollections, both attributed to the Buddha, are irreconciliable as they stand.
* * *
A second problem concerns the widely accepted tradition that the Buddha had two teachers, Āḷāra and Uddaka, whom he visited and learned from before beginning his ascetic practices and eventually realising Awakening for himself.
The main source for this tradition is this very discourse and its parallels, and the Buddha’s recollections as contained herein. However, the Buddha makes a very clear distinction between these two, and he only refers to Āḷāra as his teacher, saying:
Thus my teacher Āḷāra Kālāma, monks, placed me, the pupil, as equal, and on the very same position as himself, and worshipped me with the highest worship.
Here he specifically refers to Āḷāra as his teacher,
In the parallel passage with Uddaka, however, he says something very different:
Thus my friend in the spiritual life, Uddaka Rāmaputta, monks, placed me in the teacher’s position, and worshipped me with the highest worship.
He doesn’t refer to Uddaka as his teacher, but as a friend in the spiritual life (
The reason for this is that Uddaka was not the teacher of the group: that had been someone named Rāma, As he is called Rāmaputta, this was perhaps his Father, in the spiritual sense at least. The difference between the two has been discussed in MLD, n. 303; Analayo, A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya, p. 177; and especially in Wynne, How old is the Suttapiṭaka? p. 22ff. None of these authors, however, draw the necessary conclusion that the Buddha had only one, not two, teachers. 06 who is always referred to in the past tense and as absent, presumably because he was no longer living.
Compare the following passages in the Pāḷi. The first concerning Āḷāra, where the Bodhisatta is asking about Āḷāra’s personal attainment: The text is very complex grammatically in these sections, and MLD is more of a paraphrase than a translation.07
In what way, friend Kālāma, do you declare: I have deep knowledge of this Dhamma myself, having directly experienced and attained it?
The parallel passage with Uddaka, however, has him asking not about his own, but about Rāma’s attainment:
In what way, friend, did Rāma declare: I have deep knowledge of this Dhamma myself, having directly experienced and attained it?
At a later point Āḷāra says:
Thus I declare I have deep knowledge of this Dhamma myself, having directly experienced and attained it.
as opposed to:
Thus Rāma declared he had deep knowledge of this Dhamma himself, having directly experienced and attained it.
From this we conclude that according to the early tradition at least the Buddha only accepted Āḷāra as his teacher, and Rāma, though he had higher attainments than Āḷāra, had already passed away when the Bodhisatta came into contact with his group, and he never met him or took him, or his son, as his teacher.
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last updated: June 2014