Dharma Pearls

Translating Classical Buddhism to Modern English

The Numerical Discourses

31. Progressive

8. The Bodhisattva’s Austerities

1. Thus I have heard:[1] One time, the Buddha was staying in a forest outside of Vaiśālī.

2. It was then that the Bhagavān addressed the monks, “In the past before I achieved the Buddha path, I lived there on Mount Great Fear. During my time on that mountain, I was clothed in mental states both with and without desire, which was hair-raising. During the hottest time of the year, wild horses could be seen all around where they sat, and at night they would go deep into the forest. During the coldest part of the year, the weather would alternate between wind and rain, and they would go into the forest during the day and could be seen sitting at night.

3. “At the time, I could correctly recite a single verse that hadn’t been heard before and hadn’t been seen before.

4. “Suppose I went to the charnel ground to get clothes from a dead body to cover my own body. If a villager decided to come then to collect kindling wood, they might touch my ears or nose; perhaps spit, urinate, or put dust and dirt on my body. Still, I never paid attention to those people. This was the equanimity that I had.

5. “At the time, there was a place where cattle were kept. Supposing I saw the calves defecate, I would take the opportunity to eat it. If there wasn’t any calf dung, then I would eat the adult cattle’s dung. When I ate this food, I would think to myself, ‘Now, what use is this food? Would it be possible to go the whole day without eating?’

6. “When this thought occurred to me, gods then came to me. They said, ‘Now, don’t stop eating again! If you stop eating, we’ll boost your health with ambrosia. That will sustain your life.’

7. “Then, I had another thought: ‘Now that I’ve stopped eating, what are the reasons for the gods to offer ambrosia to me? Maybe they are tricking me!’ Then, I also thought, ‘Maybe I’ll eat leftover sesame or rice.’

8. “It was then that I ate one grain of sesame or rice each day, and my body became emaciated. I was skeletal, and my joints were visible. The crown of my head became a sore. The skin and flesh fell off by itself. My head was like a rotten gourd or radish. It was the same as that during that time. The crown of my head was an open wound with skin falling off by itself because I wasn’t eating.

9. “My vision at that time also appeared the way stars do in deep water because I wasn’t eating. My body was like a rotten cart; [671a] it was the same. All rotten and damaged, it couldn’t support itself normally. My buttocks were the same as a camel’s footprint. If I touched my belly, I could feel my backbone. If I touched my back, then I could feel my belly’s skin. My body was that feeble because I wasn’t eating.

10. “At the time, I continued eating a single grain of sesame or rice, which wasn’t ultimately profitable, and I still didn’t attain the most honored teaching. If I had the thought of wanting to relieve myself and went somewhere to do that, I couldn’t get up or sit down on my own. When the gods saw this, they would say, ‘This ascetic Gautama will choose nirvāṇa.’

11. “Sometimes, there were gods who also said, ‘It won’t be long now before the ascetic Gautama’s life will end. Surely, his life will end now.’

12. “Sometimes, there were gods who said, ‘This ascetic’s life isn’t going to end. This ascetic really is an arhat. This arhat’s teaching is the ascetic practice.’

13. “At the time, I was like a spirit consciousness that knew from outside its destination as it approaches. Again, I thought, ‘Now, may I enter an uninterrupted meditation.’ So, I meditated without interruption, counting my inhalations and exhalations. Now, by counting my inhalations and exhalations, I perceived my breath escaping through my ear. The sound of the air was like thunder.

14. “At that point, I had the thought, ‘I’ll shut my mouth and close my ears; that’ll make my breath stop escaping.’ My breath didn’t escape from those places then, but my inner breath escaped to my hands and legs. Even though my breath wasn’t escaping from my ears, nose, or mouth, the internal sound of it was like a thunderous roar. It was the same for me. My spirit consciousness felt like my body was spinning.

15. “At the time, I had another thought, ‘It would be suitable for me to meditate without interruption.’ I closed the passages of breathing. Once they were closed, then I was troubled by a feeling in my forehead like someone was drilling into my head. The extreme pain of my headache was like that.

16. At that point, I therefore had a spirit consciousness. I then thought, ‘Now, I can sit in meditation and not breath in or out.’ I then stopped my inhalation and exhalation and held all my breath in my abdomen.

17. “When my breath circulated, it was the smallest amount, like a butcher slaughtering a cow with a blade. I was extremely troubled by pain in the same way. It was also like a pair of strong men grabbing a weak man and putting him on burning coals. The extremely pain would be unbearable. My pain and suffering was indescribable in the same way.

18. “Then, my spirit consciousness still remained. I would sit in meditation [671b] for a day, and my physical form was not that of a man. When people saw me, they would say, ‘This ascetic’s appearance is so dark!’ When other people saw me, they would say, ‘This ascetic’s appearance looks like it’s the end of him.’ Monks, you should know that during those six years of my ascetic practice, I didn’t attain the most honored teaching.

19. “Then I thought, ‘Today, I can eat a small fruit.’ I then ate a fruit, and I began eating one fruit a day. My emaciated body wasn’t able to stand up or sit down on its own as though I were 120 years old. My joints had separated and couldn’t support me. Monks, you should know that one fruit then was like just a little jujube today.

20. “Again, I then thought, ‘This is not a basis for me to achieve awakening; there must be another path.’ I then thought, ‘I recall a day in the past when I sat under my father the king’s tree without lust or desire. I abandoned bad and unskillful qualities to reach the first meditation. Without perception or contemplation, I reached the second meditation. Mindful and pure, without any of the myriad perceptions, I reached the third meditation. Without any more pleasure or pain, my mind and thoughts were pure, and I reached the fourth meditation. Perhaps that could be the path? I’ll pursue this path.’

21. “During those six years of diligent hardship pursuing awakening, I hadn’t won anything. Sometimes I laid on thorns, and sometimes it was on wood boards with iron nails. Sometimes I roosted like a bird far from the ground or hung upside down with my head towards the ground. Sometimes I squatted on my heels with my legs crossed. Sometimes I grew my hair longer than ever before. Sometimes I roasted myself between the sun and burning coals. Sometimes I sat in frigid water and submerged myself in it. Sometimes I stayed silent and wouldn’t speak. Sometimes I had one meal, or other times I had two meals … seven meals. Some meals were greens and fruit, some meals were rice and sesame, some were grass and tubers, some were tree fruit, some were flowers and incense, and other meals were various fruits and berries. Sometimes I went naked, and sometimes I wore rags and refuse. Sometimes I wore sedge grass, and sometimes I wore wool clothes. Sometimes I covered myself with human hair, and sometimes I grew my hair. Sometimes I took other people’s hair and added it to my own.

22. “Thus, monks, my former ascetic practices up until that point were still not a basis for winning the four teachings. What are the four? They are the noble precepts and discipline that’s hard to comprehend and hard to know, the noble wisdom that’s hard to comprehend and hard to know, the noble liberation that’s hard to comprehend and hard to know, and the noble concentration that’s hard to comprehend and hard to know. Monks, these are the four teachings, and my past ascetic practice didn’t win these essentials.

23. “At that point, I thought, ‘Now, I need to [671c] pursue the unsurpassed path.’ Which was the unsurpassed path? It was the one that heads for those four teachings: The noble discipline, noble concentration, noble wisdom, and noble liberation.

24. “I then thought, ‘It’s not possible for this feeble body to pursue the most honored path. More or little food and subtle energy will strengthen this body. Once my health is vigorous, then afterward I’ll be able to cultivate the path. I will eat to improve my health.’

“The five monks then abandoned me and went home. They said, ‘This ascetic Gautama’s disposition is wrong. He commits wrong action by abandoning the true teaching.’

25. “At that point, I got up from my seat and traveled east. As I went, I thought, ‘There have been buddhas [numbering like] the Gaṅgā River’s sands in the distant past. Where did they achieve awakening?’

26. “A god up in the sky then told me, ‘Noble man, you should know, that those buddhas and bhagavāns [numbering like] the Gaṅgā River’s sands in the past sat in the refreshing shade of a bodhi tree when they became buddhas.’

27. “Again, I thought, ‘How did they sit to attain the Buddha’s awakening? Did they sit or stand?’

28. “The gods then came and told me, ‘Those buddhas [numbering like] the Gaṅgā River’s sands in the past sat on a cushion of grass. Afterward, they became buddhas.’

29. “I then left. Not far away, there was an ascetic cutting grass along side the road. I went to him and asked, ‘Who are you? What’s your name? What clan are you from?’

30. “The priest replied, ‘My name is [Maṅgalā] from the Viśākha clan.’

31. “I then said to that man, ‘Good, good! Such a clan name is rare in this world. That clan name isn’t empty; it surely meets its epithet. It makes present fortune that’s not without profit. Birth, old age, illness, and death are forever eradicated. Your Viśākha clan and mine are equals. I was just now going to look for some grass.’

32. “[Maṅgalā] asked, ‘Gautama, could you use this grass today?’

33. “I then replied to [Maṅgalā], ‘I’d like to prepare a seat under the king of trees to pursue four teachings. What four? They are the noble discipline, noble concentration, noble wisdom, and noble liberation.’

34. “Monks, you should know that then [Maṅgalā] personally took his grass to the king of trees, and I sat on it with upright body and mind. Seated with legs crossed, I set my attention to what was in front of me.

35. “I then was mentally freed from greed and removed from bad qualities. With perception and contemplation, I reached the first meditation. When perception and contemplation were eliminated, I reached the second and third meditations. With equanimity, mindfulness, and purity, sorrow and joy were eliminated, and I reached the fourth meditation.

36. “At that point, my mind was purified, [672a] and I removed the bonds, attained fearlessness, and became aware of my past lives and numberless incarnations. I then recalled numberless events of those eras, whether from one birth, two births, three, four, or five births, ten births, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, or a hundred births, a thousand births, a hundred thousand tens of thousands of births, an eon of formation, an eon of decay, countless eons of formation, countless eons of decay, or countless eons of formation and decay. I once died here and was born there. My life ended there, and I was reborn here. Without origin or end to the causes and conditions for them, I remembered countless life events in this way.

37. “Again, I observed the kinds of births and ends of sentient beings with the heavenly eye that’s pure and flawless, including their good destinations and forms and their bad destinations and forms. Whether they were beautiful or ugly, the origin of it was their actions. I fully knew them. Perhaps, again, the physical, verbal, and mental actions of a sentient being were bad. They slandered the noble ones and performed actions of wrong view. When their bodies broke up and their lives ended, they were born in hell. Sometimes, again, the physical, verbal, and mental actions of a sentient being were good. They didn’t slander the noble ones and also practiced right view. When their bodies broke up and their lives ended, they were born in a good place up in heaven. This is known as the physical, verbal, and mental actions of sentient beings that lack any wrong acts.

38. “With a concentrated mind that was pure and flawless, I ended the contaminants. Becoming uncontaminated, my mind was liberated, and my wisdom was liberated. My births had been ended, the religious practice had been established, and the task had been accomplished. I was no longer subject to the womb, and I knew it as it really was. I then achieved the unsurpassed, correct, and true awakening.

39. “Monks, suppose that either ascetics or priests clearly understand the destinations [of rebirth]. Those destinations still have no origin. There’s none to which I haven’t traveled in the past, except for the Pure Abode Heavens from which beings don’t return to this world. Perhaps, again, ascetics or priests were born in that place, but I wasn’t born there. It wouldn’t have been fitting. Once someone is born in the Pure Abode Heavens, they aren’t born in this world again. The noble concentrations that they had attained, I also attained. The noble wisdom that they had attained, I also attained. The noble liberation that they attained, I also attained. The noble liberation of knowing and seeing that they attained, I also attained. I cut the root of the womb and forever ended birth and death. I won’t again be subject to the womb.

40. “Therefore, monks, you should seek the methods for achieving these four things. The reason for that is if monks attain these four things, they’ll achieve awakening without difficulty. As I have today, they’ll achieve the unsurpassed, correct, and true awakening. As a result of these four things, they’ll attain this fruit. Thus, monks, should you train.”

41. When the monks heard what the Buddha taught, they rejoiced and approved.


  1. Thus sutra is roughly parallel with the austerities section of MN 12 and T757. [back]

Translator: Charles Patton

Last Revised: 2 November 2020