…pivoted, and restarted development of his teaching at least 3 or 4 times, depending on how you keep score. Immediately after forming the intention to benefit all conditioned beings by teaching the Noble Path, he concluded;
“And what may be said to be subject to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement? Spouses & children… men & women slaves… goats & sheep… fowl & pigs… elephants, cattle, horses, & mares… gold & silver  are subject to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement. Subject to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement are these acquisitions, and one who is tied to them, infatuated with them, who has totally fallen for them, being subject to birth, seeks what is likewise subject to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement. This is ignoble search.”
So rejecting the household life, he went forth into the homeless life of a bhikkhu. That was the first pivot. Then he approached Alara Kalama:
“Having thus gone forth in search of what might be skillful, seeking the unexcelled state of sublime peace, I went to Alara Kalama and, on arrival, said to him: ‘Friend Kalama, I want to practice in this doctrine & discipline.’
“When this was said, he replied to me, ‘You may stay here, my friend. This doctrine is such that a wise person can soon enter & dwell in his own teacher’s knowledge, having realized it for himself through direct knowledge.’ It was not long before I quickly learned the doctrine. As far as mere lip-reciting & repetition, I could speak the words of knowledge, the words of the elders, and I could affirm that I knew & saw — I, along with others…
“‘The Dhamma I know is the Dhamma you know; the Dhamma you know is the Dhamma I know. As I am, so are you; as you are, so am I. Come friend, let us now lead this community together’.”
But the Buddha was not satisfied with Alara Kalama’s teaching and moved on to Uddaka Ramaputta. This was the second pivot.
“In search of what might be skillful, seeking the unexcelled state of sublime peace, I went to Uddaka Ramaputta and, on arrival, said to him: ‘Friend Uddaka, I want to practice in this doctrine & discipline.’
“When this was said, he replied to me, ‘You may stay here, my friend. This doctrine is such that a wise person can soon enter & dwell in his own teacher’s knowledge, having realized it for himself through direct knowledge.’
“It was not long before I quickly learned the doctrine. As far as mere lip-reciting & repetition, I could speak the words of knowledge, the words of the elders, and I could affirm that I knew & saw — I, along with others.
Finally the Buddha saw the limitations of Uddaka Ramaputta’s teaching and left him to perform severe austerities alone in the forest. This was the third pivot.
“In search of what might be skillful, seeking the unexcelled state of sublime peace, I wandered by stages in the Magadhan country and came to the military town of Uruvela. There I saw some delightful countryside, with an inspiring forest grove, a clear-flowing river with fine, delightful banks, and villages for alms-going on all sides. The thought occurred to me: ‘How delightful is this countryside, with its inspiring forest grove, clear-flowing river with fine, delightful banks, and villages for alms-going on all sides. This is just right for the exertion of a clansman intent on exertion.’ So I sat down right there, thinking, ‘This is just right for exertion’.”
But wracking austerities did not deliver the enlightenment the Buddha was seeking either. So, drawing on his childhood experiences of meditative pleasure in jhāna, he pivoted again:
“Then, monks, being subject myself to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, seeking the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke, Unbinding, I reached the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding. Being subject myself to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, seeing the drawbacks of aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, seeking the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, unexcelled rest from the yoke, Unbinding, I reached the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding. Knowledge & vision arose in me: ‘Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.’
“Then the thought occurred to me, ‘This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise.  But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment, enjoys attachment. For a generation delighting in attachment, excited by attachment, enjoying attachment, this/that conditionality & dependent co-arising are hard to see. This state, too, is hard to see: the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding. And if I were to teach the Dhamma and others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me.’
Then Brahmā appeared to him and begged him to teach for the welfare of the world. We could regard this as a sixth pivot:
Then, just as a strong man might extend his flexed arm or flex his extended arm, Brahma Sahampati disappeared from the Brahma-world and reappeared in front of me. Arranging his upper robe over one shoulder, he knelt down with his right knee on the ground, saluted me with his hands before his heart, and said to me: ‘Lord, let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma! Let the One-Well-Gone teach the Dhamma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma.’
“That is what Brahma Sahampati said. Having said that, he further said this:
‘In the past
there appeared among the Magadhans
an impure Dhamma
devised by the stained.
Throw open the door to the Deathless!
Let them hear the Dhamma
realized by the Stainless One!”” — All quotes from: Ariyapariyesana Sutta
So if even the Buddha himself had to pivot and reorient his search several times, then what about us? We know enough about innovation to understand that it rarely succeeds on the first try. Thomas Edison trying thousands of formulas for the incandescent light bulb comes to mind.
And developing something like a light bulb or other piece of technology is simple compared with attaining enlightenment. So if you fail, fall down, make mistakes, switch methods, switch teachers, switch ontologies, you are in good company: the Buddha himself also pivoted several times before attaining his goal.
I’m always suspicious when some monk’s bio reads that he found his teacher at an early age and stayed on for years or decades, finally becoming his successor. It’s too neat; it doesn’t sound like the way it really is; it sounds like they were set up, and he whole thing was planned out. Made men in the monastery.
When I was first starting out I sampled so many spiritual teachers available on the US West Coast, both eastern and western. Most I rejected immediately; it was clear they faking it. I kept those with a clear disciplic succession (paramparā) who were faithful to their roots.
I joined several traditional organizations, large and small, Christian, Hindu, Budhist and so on; took the initiations, ordinations and empowerments they offered, and hung around long enough to find out what was really going on.
Sad to say, most were just money-making and power schemes. That doesn’t mean there were no intelligent, truthful, pure-minded people with deep knowledge and profound practice. But they were very much in the minority. I made it my business to make friends with them and keep in touch over the years, as part of my valuable spiritual inheritance and fortune.
We see many general teachings attributed to the Buddha, and some nice expositions of individual Suttas. But it’s rare to see an overview of the whole teaching of the Buddha in an understandable format. Educated people love charts and graphs, so here is a chart depicting the overall view of the Buddha’s teaching in the Theravāda Suttas.
Ordinary life is an obsessive process of becoming driven by ‘I’-making and ‘mine’-making, culminating in failure, loss and suffering. The cause of this suffering is the sequence of paṭicca-samuppāda, or Dependent Origination, discovered by the Buddha. Ordinarily, at each death the cycle of becoming begins anew; that is saṃsāra, the round of birth and death. Release from this cycle is possible via a special process of becoming, leading to the end of becoming. That is the Buddha’s teaching, this very Noble Eightfold Path.
An interesting feature of the Buddha’s teaching is that the cause of suffering and the cause of release are the same process of becoming. Only becoming in saṃsāra is done in ignorance, and becoming on the Path is done in full knowledge.
For more on Dependent Origination and the source of this diagram, see Practical Dependent Origination by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.
“Just as, Vaccha, a fire with fuel blazes up, but not without fuel, even so Vaccha, I declare rebirth to be for him who has grasping.”
“But Master Gotama, at the time when a flame flung by the wind goes a very long way, as to fuel, what says the master Gotama about this?”
“At the time when a flame, Vaccha, flung by the wind goes a very long way, I declare that flame to be supported by the wind. At that time, Vaccha, the wind is its fuel.”
“But Master Gotama, at the time when a being lays aside this body and rises up again in another body—what does master Gotama declare to be the fuel for that?”
“At that time, Vaccha, when a being lays aside this body and rises up again in another body, for that I declare craving to be the fuel. Indeed, Vaccha, craving is on that occasion the fuel.” — Kutūhalasālā Sutta (SN 44.9)
People often complain, “I can’t get my mind to stay concentrated for more than a few minutes.” Well here’s a simple physical analogy that may help: meditation is like putting a ball (attention) on a table (mind). If the table is biased in any way, the ball rolls in that direction. Only if the table is perfectly flat and level (mind is equipoised and tranquil) does the ball (attention) stay put.
As soon as we put attention on the mind, it starts to act up. It becomes agitated with the thought, “I am watching my mind!” Just like naughty children and internet trolls, the best response is to ignore it. But to really get the most out of practice, it should be enjoyable. Find something in your concentration that you really appreciate and enjoy, and pay attention to that. It’s easy because interest and attention naturally follow pleasure.
Once you become skilled, meditation is enjoyable and easy. Learning to meditate is a lot like learning to ride a bicycle. At first you may weave uncertainly and tend to fall. But with regular practice, the more skill you develop the more pleasant it will become. Just like once you learn to ride, cruising around on your bike is a pleasure.
“I, good Gotama, speak thus; I am of this view: ‘All is not pleasing to me’.”
“This view of yours, Aggivessana: ‘All is not pleasing to me’ — does this view of yours not please you?”
“If this view were pleasing to me, good Gotama, this would be like it too, this would be like it too.”
“Now, Aggivessana, when those, the majority in the world, speak thus: ‘This would be like it too, this would be like it too’ — they do not get rid of that very view and they take up another view. Now, Aggivessana, when those, the minority in the world, speak thus: ‘This would be like it too, this would be like it too’ — they get rid of that very view and do not take up another view.” — Dīghanakha Sutta (MN 74)
The Buddha granted that Dīghanakha’s view is nearer detachment when compared with its opposite view, ‘all is pleasing to me’. Dīghanakha was elated for a moment, thinking that the Buddha was praising and upholding his view without reserve. But he was disillusioned when the Buddha went on to show how the very dogmatic view that all views are unacceptable can itself give rise to suffering:
“As to this, Aggivessana, those recluses and brahmins who speak thus and are of this view: ‘All is not pleasing to me’, if a learned man be there who reflects thus: ‘If I were to express this view of mine, that: ‘all is not pleasing to me’, and obstinately holding to it and adhering to it, were to say: ‘This is the very truth, all else is falsehood’, there would be for me dispute with two [other view-holders]: both with whatever recluse or brahmin who speaks thus and is of this view, ‘All is pleasing to me,’ and with whatever recluse or brahmin who speaks thus and is of this view: ‘Part is pleasing to me, part is not pleasing to me’ — there would be dispute for me with these two. If there is dispute, there is contention; if there is contention there is trouble; if there is trouble, there is vexation.’ So he, beholding this dispute and contention and trouble and vexation for himself, gets rid of that very view and does not take up another view. Thus is the getting rid of these views, thus is the casting away of these views.”
“As this palace of Migāra’s mother is empty of elephants, cows, horses and mares, empty of gold and silver, empty of assemblages of men and women, and there is only this that is not emptiness, that is to say, the oneness grounded on the order of monks, even so Ānanda, a monk, not attending to the perception of village, not attending to the perception of human beings, attends to the oneness grounded on the perception of forest. His mind is satisfied with, pleased with, set on and freed in, the perception of forest. He comprehends thus: ‘The disturbances that might be resulting from the perception of village do not exist here; the disturbances that might be resulting from the perception of human beings do not exist here. There is only this degree of disturbance, that is to say, the oneness grounded on the perception of forest.’ He regards that which is not there as empty of it. But in regard to what remains there, he comprehends, ‘This is’ because it is. Thus, Ānanda, this comes to be for him a true, unperverted and pure descent into emptiness…” — Cūḷa-suññata Sutta (MN 121)
In much the same manner, the Buddha describes how a monk gradually and by stages attains to the perception of the earth as the object of meditative absorption (pañhavisaññā), the perception of the infinity of space (ākāsānañcāyatanasaññā), the perception of the infinity of consciousness (viññāṇañcāyatanasaññā), the perception of nothingness (ākiñcaññāyatanasaññā), the perception of neither perception nor-non-perception (nevasaññānāsaññāyatanasaññā), and the mental concentration based on the signless (animittaṃ cetosamādhi). At the last mentioned stage, he knows that he is experiencing only those forms of disturbances (darathā) arising from the body endowed with the six sense-spheres, due to the fact that he is living. Then again he reflects on the mental concentration on the signless, and his mind delights and abides therein.
He now begins to reflect: “This concentration of mind that is signless, is effected and thought out. But whatever is effected and thought out, that is impermanent and liable to cease.” Even as he knows and sees thus, his mind is released from the cankers of sense-pleasures, of becoming and of ignorance. In freedom, he has the knowledge that he is freed and he comprehends that he has attained the Goal. He introspects and finds that while those disturbances that might arise from the three cankers are no longer there, he is still subject to whatever disturbances that might arise from his body with its six sense-spheres due to the fact that he is alive. Accordingly he determines the fact of voidness, being faithful to the findings of his introspection. The Buddha sums up the discourse by asserting that this is the true, unperverted, pure and supreme descent into voidness:
“Ānanda, whatever contemplatives and brahmans who in the past entered and remained in an emptiness that was pure, superior, and unsurpassed, they all entered and remained in this very same emptiness that is pure, superior, and unsurpassed. Whatever contemplatives and brahmans who in the future will enter and remain in an emptiness that will be pure, superior, and unsurpassed, they all will enter and remain in this very same emptiness that is pure, superior, and unsurpassed. Whatever contemplatives and brahmans who at present enter and remain in an emptiness that is pure, superior, and unsurpassed, they all enter and remain in this very same emptiness that is pure, superior, and unsurpassed.
“Therefore, Ananda, you should train yourselves: ‘We will enter and remain in the emptiness that is pure, superior, and unsurpassed’.” — Cūḷa-suññata Sutta (MN 121)