Shakyamuni Buddha

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Ascetic Practices and the Middle Way

The fourth basic archetypal element in the story of Siddhartha as bodhisattva is his six years of arduous practice before his great awakening. Following the common religious practices of the time, Siddhartha took on the meditation trainings of the two leading contemporary Indian spiritual teachers that led to a mental state of vacancy and to awareness beyond perception or nonperception. Siddhartha mastered these practices and was recognized by both teachers as their most adept disciple. Siddhartha, however, refused their offers to take over their congregations. He recognized that this progression into lofty, ethereal mental realms did not in truth lead to the ultimate liberation from suffering that he sought. Rather, he saw these elevated mental states as escapes from ordinary consciousness that evaded confronting the practical realities of suffering.

But Siddhartha continued to follow the spiritual and yogic customs of his time, undergoing rigorous austerities, and many ascetic practices have been retained in various Buddhist traditions. Gautama's ascetic regimen followed some of the more extreme contemporary Indian practices, such as severe fasting, never going indoors under shelter, and self-mortifications. The aim of such effort was to purify and expunge all worldly desires and defilements, to transcend all attachment to the physical. Siddhartha is sometimes depicted during his period of severe fasting as gaunt and emaciated, with ribs showing sharply, either sitting in meditation or walking.

The story describes how Siddhartha, near the point of death, came to realize that such exertion was not conducive to true spiritual well-being or development. He was offered milk as nutrition by a cowherd and then given rice pudding by a sympathetic maiden. He accepted this food, embracing the "middle way" between excessive asceticism and materialist hedonism. Greatly refreshed and with renewed health from this nourishment, Siddhartha determined to sit in contemplation without moving until he had realized the end of all suffering. He sat down under a fig tree, which ever since has been known as the bodhi tree, or tree of awakening.

The middle way

The point of the Middle Way is not to be caught by worldly, material pleasures and pressures, but also not to be caught by extreme acts of denial of the material. Excessively austere reactions against the physical may only be further expressions of entrapment by them. But a casual or lax attitude, without some kind of physical dedication or mindful practice that actually embodies or expresses the teaching, also misses the helpful, awakening awareness of the bodhisattva.