The Ascetic Gautama

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on December 7, 2015.)

Sujata feeds refined milk to the ascetic Gautama in a panel at Daxingshan Temple, Xi'an

Visitors to some temples may be surprised to see a statue of an emaciated figure sitting calmly in a meditative position. His hands are folded in his lap as he peers off into the distance. The most striking feature, however, is his body: you can count his ribs, and his abdomen is incredibly shrunken.

This is Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became the historic Buddha, during the practices that led to his enlightenment. He had left his palace and fallen in with a group of five ascetics. Together, they competed to see whose practice could be more severe, believing that this was the path to enlightenment. At one point, he said later, he was eating only a single grain of rice and one drop of water a day!

The Buddha later described himself like this: His legs were like two sticks of bamboo, his backbone like a rope, and his chest like the roof of an unfinished house. He claimed that he could touch his belly and feel his backbone!

At last it was too much, and he passed out while bathing in a river and nearly drowned.

Fortunately, a young woman from a nearby village found him. Her name was Sujata, and she had just prepared an offering to a god. She had fed the milk of a thousand cows to 500; she fed that to 250, and so on down to eight cows. Taking the offering to a tree said to be inhabited by a god, she found the hermit under it, and nursed him back to health.

From this the Buddha arrived at what he called "The Middle Way": Neither the luxury of a prince, nor the privations of an ascetic, would lead to enlightenment, but only the calming of the mind.

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