The First Five Monks

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on July 31, 2017.)

The five monks listen to the Buddha's teaching in a bas relief at Longchang Temple, Zhenjiang, Jiangsu

When Prince Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, left home to seek enlightenment, the forests of northern India were filled with religious seekers, and with teachers ready to share their wisdom.  The young ascetic studied with two such teachers--Alara Kalama and Uddaka--and soon equaled each in his understanding.

Disappointed that he could not learn more, he decided to struggle on alone.

In the forest, he allied himself with five other seekers, named in one tradition Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama, and Assaji. They, also, had left lives of luxury to become ascetics.

It seemed almost as if a sort of competition developed to see who could endure the most austere practices. Young Gautama's fasting was so severe that at last he looked like a living skeleton. Despite his hunger, he continued to meditate.

At last it was too much. He realized that these practices were not working, and he hit upon what has since been called "the Middle Way," neither too indulgent nor too strict. When his friends saw him eating again, they abandoned him as having "gone soft."

When at last he achieved enlightenment, he endeavored to teach. He went to Benares and arrived in the Deer Park at Sarnath, where his friends were dwelling. At first they avoided him, calling him a "good-for-nothing." But as he came nearer they noticed a change in him. He seemed noble, majestic even.

They immediately attended to him, and he taught him what he had learned, in a talk now called "The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma."

And thus his five friends from the forest became the first five Buddhist monks.

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