and attendant bodhisattvas, Bodh-gaya, tenth century. Courtesy of The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1920 (20.58.16).

This episode of the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, as retold by Nikkyo Niwano, starts in Bodh-gaya
following the Buddha’s awakenment under the Bodhi tree. The decision
to turn the dhamma wheel initiates a teaching mission that lasted over
forty years and took the Great Sage back and forth across the breadth of
northern India.

Concerning his meditation after awakenment and his decision to teach, in “Tactfulness” the Buddha himself says,

[I] again reflected thus:
‘Having come forth into the disturbed and evil world,
I, according to the buddhas’ behest,
Will also obediently proceed.’
Having finished pondering this matter,
I instantly went to Varanasi.

Here the Buddha is saying, “I came forth into this disturbed and evil
world charged with the mission of saving it.” Buddhists always remember
the Buddha’s resoluteness and great compassion for all living beings,
which must be regarded not merely as expressions of the Buddha’s
personal concern for us but as the real concerns of all humankind. Even
if we feel that we are as yet very far from achieving the spiritual
development of the Buddha, we must strive to accomplish the mission
entrusted to us as ordinary people.

Undoubtedly, during the several weeks that he remained at Bodh-gaya
in meditation and thought following his awakenment, the Buddha
devoted much time to organizing the teachings he would present in
explaining the profound truth to which he had been awakened. When he
at last felt fully prepared, the Buddha departed on the teaching mission
that would bring his message to others.

On beginning his mission Shakyamuni thought, “To whom should I first
preach this Law? Who will be able to understand it?” His former
teachers, Arada-Kalama and Udraka-Ramaputra, came to mind; but he
learned that the two hermit-sages were already dead. He then remembered
the five ascetics who had practiced austerities with him and later,
becoming disillusioned, had left him. He was told that they were staying
at Deer Park, near Varanasi, where many hermits gathered for ascetic
practices. Alone, Shakyamuni made his way on foot to Varanasi, over two
hundred kilometers to the west of Bodh-gaya.

Shortly after leaving Bodh-gaya, Shakyamuni encountered a young monk
who addressed him, saying, “You look purified. Under whom have you
studied in becoming a monk? To what kind of teaching have you devoted
yourself?” Shakyamuni replied with quiet dignity, “I am all-wise, a
victor over all things. I have extinguished all desires and become
detached from all things. Able to attain awakenment unaided, I have
no teacher and no equal in this world. I am a buddha.” The monk said,
“That may be so,” and briskly resumed his course.

That young monk, Upaka by name, is still remembered today because, by
not asking to be instructed, he lost the opportunity to be the first to
hear Shakyamuni’s message. Anyone who seeks after the Way must regard
all people with whom he comes into contact as teachers and all places as
proper places in which to learn the truth. For example, the Flower
Garland Sutta contains the story of a monk called
Sudhana-shreshthidaraka, who was able to learn a valuable lesson from a
prostitute. Thus Upaka, who was immediately moved by the serene dignity
of the Buddha, ought to have respectfully asked Shakyamuni to explain
his awakenment. Upaka was later to regret sorely that he had not done
so, and he did eventually accept the teachings of the Buddha.

After walking many days across the hot plains of
India, Shakyamuni finally reached Varanasi. He soon went to Deer Park,
where the five ascetics who had accompanied him for six years were then

Seeing a monk approaching, the five recognized him as the Gautama
whom they had followed in his practice of austerities (Gautama was
Shakyamuni’s family name). “That is Gautama, isn’t it? He is the fallen
monk who failed in his ascetic practices. Let us refrain from paying our
respects to him when he comes to us. However, we may give him some

Though they spoke thus to one another, when they met Shakyamuni they
were so effected by his dignity that they were incapable of remaining
indifferent. Each rose unconsciously and received him reverently, making
obeisance to him. They took his begging bowl, washed his feet and dried
them, and prepared a seat of honor for him. They greeted him: “Our
friend, Gautama!”

Shakyamuni then solemnly declared: “You must no longer address me as
Gautama, nor yet as friend. I have already become a buddha. I will
preach to you the eternal truth I have perceived. If you practice this
according to my teaching, you will surely attain enlightenment and
achieve your purpose in becoming monks.”

Anyone other than Shakyamuni making such a seemingly haughty
statement, so similar to his declaration to Upaka, would have inevitably
invited accusations of arrogance. It is not possible for the ordinary
human mind to encompass Shakyamuni’s own comprehension of his
buddhahood. His awareness was founded both in the universal truth to
which he had been awakened and in his realization that all things of
heaven and earth were his responsibility. His announcement would have
been astounding without his confident affirmation “I am a buddha.”

Those who linger at the various stages before attaining buddhahood
are yet unperfected and imprudent and therefore should always be modest.
However, since Shakyamuni was a buddha, any reticence on his part would
have denigrated his buddhahood. We must understand this point in order
to appreciate that Shakyamuni was speaking forthrightly, not exhibiting
overweening pride.

The five monks were inspired by Shakyamuni’s virtuous mien and paid
him homage despite their initial reaction, but they did not consent
immediately to listen to Shakyamuni’s teaching. In fact, at first they
did not want to hear it. However, Shakyamuni, ardently desiring to
enlighten them, addressed them three times, saying, “I will now preach
the Law to you. Come and listen to me.” Three times they refused to heed
him. Finally he said to them sternly, “Monks! Have I ever spoken
untruthfully to you? Have I?” They recalled that he had always taught
them with honesty, and they were moved by his compassionate wish to save
all sentient beings from their sufferings. As they reflected on these
things, a desire to hear Shakyamuni’s message gradually arose in them.