Against The Stream ~ THE BUDDHA'S FIRST JOURNEY
HE’S A KING’S SON, and always lived in
luxury before. Maybe we expected more from him than
he was capable of. But come, let’s go to him!"
"We’re leaving, Rajaputra",
said the stern-faced spokes-man of the Five, Kondanya.
"We can stay with you no longer, since you abandoned
your search and started to eat again!"
"But I haven’t abandoned my search.
That was the wrong way, don’t you see? It brought
me nothing but exhaustion, and I almost died! There
has to be a better way, an intelligent way that avoids
extremes like that!"
"No! If you had persisted, you would
have found that which you sought. We never saw or
heard of anyone else who went as far as you. We followed
you for years, thinking that if anyone could make
the breakthrough, it would be you. All our hopes were
pinned on you. And now you’ve let us down. We’ve
lost our respect for you!"
"And where will you go?"
"What is that to you? We can go wherever
we like; it doesn’t matter. But we’ve
heard of a Deer Park near Varanasi, where many yogis
and seekers stay. Perhaps we’ll go there."
With that, they left Siddhartha in the forest,
to carry on his quest alone. But he soon recovered
from his disappointment, because, having seen the
futility of the way he had been on, he felt confident
now of finding the right way.
Some weeks later:
"What peace, what clarity has come
to me! Everything seems different and vibrant, though
it’s still the same! It was here— all
along— what I sought, only I did not see it
before. I feel light, as if a great burden has been
put down! Done is what needed to be done. My search
is at an end. I am liberated from ignorance and the
bonds of desire. I see the past, the way by which
I have come. Whoever would have thought it would be
like this, and that even the bad things, the suffering,
the pain, had parts to play?
"But who will believe me? How to explain
to others what I have found? How can words convey
it? To try explaining it will only be needlessly troublesome
for me. Better stay here in the forest, enjoying the
peace and bliss of realization until I die."
So He thought at first, but as the days
passed and His joy continued unabated, He felt that
His great discovery should not— could not—
be kept to Himself; He would have to share it with
others. "But who will understand? It is so profound,
and beyond the comprehension of people lost in the
world of sense-pleasures, seeking happiness and trying
to escape pain. And yet, like lotus flowers in a pond—
some below the surface, some just at the surface,
some above the surface but not yet open, and others
in full bloom— so there are people at different
levels. There are those completely lost in ignorance,
others with little intelligence, and some with greater
intelligence, people who are not completely ignorant
and blind, with not much dust clouding their vision.
The two teachers who I spent time with before—
noble-minded, selfless men— who taught me all
they could, are no longer alive; the news of their
deaths reached me just the other day. And the five
who were with me before were deluded and convinced
that the only way to Enlightenment was through self-mortification,
but they were not stupid. They might understand if
I were to explain to them. But would they listen?
They abandoned me before; maybe they would only harden
their hearts and turn away again. Then again, they
might not; it is possible that they might listen and
understand. It is worth the risk. I will go".
Having made up His mind, He set out towards
the west, but had not gone far when He met Upaka,
a wandering ascetic, who said to Him: "Your appearance,
friend, is pleasing, your countenance radiant and
clear. You must have found something extraordinary.
Would you tell me who is your teacher and what he
"There is no-one I call teacher. By
my own efforts have I attained Enlightenment and become
Upaka was unimpressed, and thought He was
boasting— a thing not rare in those days. "It
may be so," he said, "It may be so,"
and went off on his own way. The Buddha realized it
was a mistake to be so forthright, and decided that
different approaches should be used with different
Traveling by day until the searing heat
persuaded Him to seek the shade of a tree, He would
resume His journey in the late afternoon, when it
was cooler. He slept wherever He happened to be at
nightfall— usually outside, but sometimes in
a village meeting-hall or hut— and ate whatever
food He was able to obtain along the way. He met many
people in the villages and countryside through which
He passed, many of whom greeted Him respectfully and
offered Him what food they could spare; but some were
rude and either ignored Him completely or rebuked
Him for living off others instead of earning his living
by His own labor. Some came to Him with problems and
tales of sorrow, and He listened sympathetically,
saying little; people would leave Him feeling calmer
and clearer in mind. Always, when He spoke, He used
words and examples suitable to His listeners. Mostly,
because He was traveling in the countryside, He used
the language of the peasants and farmers, speaking
of the changing seasons, ploughing, sowing, reaping,
seeds and fruit. He spoke of the simple joys of life,
and the need to do what is right. Most people who
listened to Him were impressed and inspired by the
sincerity and warmth of His speech.
"We have seen many wandering ascetics
like this, with matted hair and beards, almost naked
and carrying only a bowl and staff," said one
man to those around him; "But this one is different;
he’s so calm and dignified! Can this be the
one we’ve heard of— the one they call
the Sakyamuni— he who was a prince but gave
up everything to go forth in search of Truth? It is
said that our good king, Bimbisara, offered him half
the kingdom of Magadha, but he declined, saying that
he had already given up one kingdom and was not in
search of another. Our king was amazed at his determination,
but respected it, and requested the rishi to return
when he had found what he was seeking, and share it
with him. It must be him. It can be no other. Let
us also pay our respects to him, and ask him to speak
The Buddha consented, happy to share something
of what He had found with people eager to learn. Where
He saw that people were not interested, however, He
kept quiet. "I cannot make people understand,"
He thought; "When they are ready, only then will
One day, He came upon a party of hunters
who, knowing that such yogis were vegetarian, greeted
Him with derision. The Buddha remained silent and
did not respond. "Come, sadhu, and eat with us
what we have caught," one hunter jeered. Another
restrained his companion, saying: "Each to his
choice, brother; each to his choice. This sadhu said
nothing to us. Why do you taunt him like this?"
Chastened, the first admitted his mistake and apologized
to the Buddha. He, seeing an opening, said: "While
I lived the family life, I also ate the flesh of animals.
But, having gone forth, I abandoned this, and now
nothing lives in fear of me. All beings love their
lives and none desires pain. I restrain myself from
causing pain to even the lowest being. I may still
have enemies, but no-one’s enemy am I."
Often, He saw people at their religious
devotions in their homes or at their temples, making
offerings and beseeching the gods for help and favors,
but He heard no answers. Twice along the way, He chanced
upon bodies being cremated, and felt the sorrow of
Eventually, He reached the Ganges, which
He would have to cross. There were men who earned
a living by ferrying people over, but He had no money
and could not pay. This did not worry him, however,
and He did not ask to be taken across. Instead, He
sat on the bank, quietly contemplating the river flowing
silently past, thinking of how it began as a tiny
stream high up in the snow-clad mountains far away,
and merged eventually with the sea, losing its separate
identity but not its substance therein. "Life
is a process, like this river," He thought, "never
still for a moment, but always changing. Nothing stands
still, nothing stays the same; nothing can be grasped,
possessed, and called ours. If we understand this,
we can help others to understand that while living
here, we should avoid doing evil as far as possible
and do as much good as we can. In this way, we may
give life a meaning, so that it doesn’t just
flow on purposelessly, like this river, which knows
not where it came from, where it is, nor where it
His musings were interrupted by one of the
boatmen. "I know you have no money to pay me
with," he said, "but if you will wait until
I have other passengers, I will take you across."
The Buddha smiled and said: "You are very kind."
Soon, other people came, and took places
in the boat. The boatman beckoned to the Buddha, and
asked Him to sit near him. Then, with strong arm,
and quick, sure strokes of his oars, the launched
the craft from the bank, out onto the broad river.
The current wasn’t strong, as the rains had
yet to come, so he didn’t need to exert himself
much. The passengers chatted among themselves, most
returning home from various errands; the boatman knew
them all, and spoke to them by name. But the Buddha
was clearly someone special, and in mid-stream, he
turned to Him and said: "I know you are a homeless
one, but may I know where you have just come from,
and where you are going?"
Courteously, the Buddha replied: "I
came recently from Gaya in Magadha, and am bound for
the Deer Park known as Isipatana. Perhaps you have
heard of this place?"
"Indeed I have. Indeed I have,"
said the ferryman. "It is a pleasant place frequented
by sadhus and rishis like yourself, and is about two
hours’ walk from here, going west.
"I always carry sadhus across free,
knowing they have no money. Some are grateful, and
others not, considering it their right to be taken
across for nothing. Some of them say they are holy
men, and that I can make merit by taking them across.
But I never see this merit they talk about, and sometimes
I feel I’m being cheated. These other people
have to pay for my service, which is my way of earning
a living and supporting my family. I cannot live on
"Well said," replied the Buddha.
"You perform a useful service by which you earn
an honest living. How else would people cross the
river if there were no-one like your good self to
take them? There is no bridge or ford. Now, just as
you provide a useful service to others, do you benefit
from others in any way?"
"Of course I do," said the ferryman,
"We all depend on others for many things. While
I am ferrying people across the river, I can’t
be working in the fields, and consequently, I get
my food from others. And my clothes. And medicine
when I or anyone of my family need it. And whatever
else I need."
"Quite true," said the Buddha.
"You are perceptive. We all depend upon others,
and it is fortunate for us that different people do
different things. If all men were boatmen like yourself,
for example, how would they get their food? If all
were farmers and produced food, how would they get
their clothes and other necessities? How would they
cross the river?
"But life is not merely a matter of
exchanging goods and services; there are other things
that people need, things that can’t be bought
and sold. We need friends. We need love. We need kindness.
Now and then, we need someone to listen to us. We
are not complete in ourselves; we need others; everyone
does. And just as we like others to be kind to us
and help us in various ways, so others like it if
we are kind to them. We should not always count the
cost, and think of what we can get in return."
"I understand," the ferryman said,
with tears of joy in his eyes. "What you are
saying is that we should feel happy at the time of
helping others, without thinking of gaining anything
from it; that doing good or right is all the result
we need. Thank you. You have given me something that
will help me for many a long day; I am well-paid for
taking you across. Whenever you need to cross again,
please look for me. My name is Nyanapala, and my home
is over there, among those trees. I will be honored
to see you and serve you again."
"May you and yours be well and happy,"
said the Buddha as the boat reached the bank and He
stepped out. "If I pass this way again, I will
look for you." He then made His way up the slope,
and the boatman watched Him with admiration until
He disappeared from sight. Later that evening, when
the boatman reached home, his wife could see his eyes
shining, and asked him what had happened. He told
her: "I met a very special person today and took
him across the river— one of these wandering
ascetics that we see now and then, with long hair
and beard, and clad only in rags. But he was different;
there was something about him that made me feel good;
meeting him has given me hope and a great feeling
of self-worth. I have been blessed, and will never
forget him." His wife felt his happiness as if
it were her own.
The sun had almost set as the Buddha got
down from the boat, and He didn’t want to reach
the Deer Park in the dark, so while it was still light
enough, He bathed in a pond covered with lotuses,
and selected a tree beneath which to spend the night.
There were houses not far away where He might get
some food in the morning.
He did not sleep immediately, of course;
it was still early evening, and so, according to His
custom, He sat cross-legged and reviewed the day just
gone, and the people He had met and spoken with. "Each
has his or her own story," He thought; "each
sees the world in his own way; each has his hopes,
fears and aspirations; each wishes to be happy and
avoid suffering. There is so much to be understood
about life; we do not need to suffer as much as we
do. If only people would open their minds and hearts
and live considering others, the world would be a
much better place to live in. I can help people to
see this, but only if they are ready to see; if they
are not ready, or refuse to see, no-one can help them."
The next morning, after He had been to the
houses nearby for alms and had eaten the rice and
vegetables the people there had kindly put into His
bowl, He set off for the Deer Park of Isipatana. Arriving
there, He inquired of two yogis He met if they knew
of a group of five others who might be staying there.
They told Him that there was such a group of five
in the park, and directed Him to the place they had
chosen as their abode. Thanking them, He followed
the way indicated, and saw the five in the distance.
They also saw him coming.
"Look who’s coming!" said
two of them together; "It’s Siddhartha!
What can he want? Maybe he’s on his way back
to Kapilavastu, to inherit his kingdom, and is just
stopping by to show off!" Another said: "Why
should we care? He abandoned his search and reverted
to a life of sense-pleasure. We don’t respect
him anymore, remember? That’s why we left him.
Look how sleek and well-fed he is! He’s obviously
been stuffing himself since we left!" Yet another
said: "Ignore him, and if he comes here, well,
we can’t stop him, but don’t get up to
As He came closer, however, they were so
impressed with His bearing and dignity, that they
forgot their resolutions to ignore Him and rose from
their seats as one to receive Him. "We respected
him before," said one, quietly, "but there’s
something different about him now; something has happened!
"Welcome, Friend Gotama," they
said, "It is good to see you again. How have
you been? How did you know where to find us?"
One took His bowl, one took his upper robe, one gave
Him water to drink, and another water to wash his
face and feet, while the fifth prepared a seat for
"Do you not recall saying, when you
left me, that you might come here? I took a chance
on finding you here. But it is not appropriate for
you to address me by name or as friend," said
the Buddha. "I am not now as I was then. I have
found that which I sought. I am now a Buddha".
Remembering His encounter with Upaka, He knew He was
taking a risk in saying this, but felt there was no
"But how can that be?" said one
of the Five. "You tried everything in your search,
and went further in the practice of austerities than
anyone had ever gone, and became known as Sakyamuni
as a result. But still you didn’t find it, and
now you expect us to believe you when you’ve
gone back to a life of sense-pleasure?"
"The ways I tried before were useless,"
said the Buddha, "and led nowhere. When I saw
they were wrong, I turned from them. But I did not
give up my search, and though I eat, it is only to
sustain my life; I have not gone back to a life of
sense-pleasures as you think. I have found a Middle
Way that avoids useless extremes."
"It is hard to believe, and yet there
is something about you that was not there before."
"When we were together earlier,"
said the Buddha, "did you ever hear me make such
"No, never. We always knew you as one
who spoke only the truth."
"Come, then, and pay attention. Open
are the gates to the Deathless. I will explain to
you what I have found."
Convinced, the Five sat, listening attentively
as the Buddha spoke about Suffering, the Cause of
Suffering, the End of Suffering, and the Way to the
End of Suffering. His voice carried authority, wisdom
and compassion. And, as He spoke, the light of understanding
appeared on the face of Kondanya, and the Buddha saw
it and said: "Kondanya has understood! Kondanya
Thus was the Buddha’s
message proclaimed. He uttered His ‘Lion’s
Roar,’ which has not yet ceased to reverberate.
During the next few days, while speaking
to them again, they all became enlightened and free
from ignorance. And with these Five as the nucleus,
the Buddha started His Order of Monks that until today,
we call the Sangha, or more specifically, the Bhikkhu
Sangha. It is the oldest continuous organization in
What Siddhartha achieved was not for Himself
alone, but for countless others. The impact the Buddha
made on the world cannot be measured.
N.B. This story is not from the Buddhist
scriptures, but from my own imagination. I wrote it
because the scriptures say nothing about this journey
of 250 kilometers. It is said that He gave His First
Sermon to the Five Ascetics in the Deer Park, but
what about all the people He must have met along the
way— did He have nothing to say to them? I imagine
He must have been bursting with joy to share what
He had found with others; His words must have been
full of Dharma. A sermon need not be a long and wordy
affair, but can be something short and to the point.