Buddha was born a crown prince in the ancient city of Kapilavastu in India. His original name was Prince Siddhartha Gautama. Prince Siddhartha came to understand the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death, which led him to realise that nothing in life is permanent and everything is an illusion. Determined to find a way out of suffering, the prince then left the palace to seek the truth of life.
After five years of learning from different spiritual teachers and six years of cultivation, the prince attained enlightenment and became awakened to the truth of the universe. He was then known as Shakyamuni Buddha or “The Enlightened One”.
Buddha is compassionate and wanted to share the dharma to mankind. He hoped to help people find peace within and gain the ultimate wisdom. And so, Buddha expounded the dharma for the first time in the Deer Park. Buddha had also decided to liberate all living beings from sufferings and the very first few persons who Buddha wanted to teach the dharma to were the Five Disciples.
The Five Disciples were trusted aides sent by King Suddhodana, the father of the prince, to accompany the prince when he left the palace. However, the prince did not gain any enlightenment after cultivating for a long time. He realised that his practice of subjecting his body to extreme fasting and sufferings was not the way to achieve enlightenment. He then forsaken his practice and sought alternatives.
After abandoning his initial practice, he came to River Niranjana where he fainted due to extreme fatigue and exhaustion. A shepherd girl saw him and fed him with some goat milk.
When the Five Disciples learnt that their beloved and respected prince had accepted the shepherd girl’s goat milk, they did not understand the decision of the prince and thought that the prince had forsaken his cultivation totally and lost his integrity. Hence, they left him and went to the Deer Park to continue with their cultivation.
Prince Siddhartha did not forsake his cultivation, instead, he changed the cultivation method to achieve enlightenment. He realised that to achieve enlightenment is to have mental discipline to achieve a pure mind. In Bodh Gaya, the prince meditated under the Bodhi tree where he achieved enlightenment and was known as Buddha from then on.
After Buddha arrived at the Deer Park, the Five Disciples saw and avoided Buddha. But Buddha was not affected by their behaviour and walked towards them respectfully. By then, the Five Disciples had a closer look and realised that the prince’s image had changed to become more solemn and dignified. Hence, they could not help but walked towards Buddha and bowed to him respectfully. From then onward, Buddha started the teachings of Four Noble Truths and the Twelve Laws of Karma. That was the starting point of Buddha’s teaching which later spread throughout the land.
Some might wonder, who were the Five Disciples? Why were they chosen to be the first group of Buddha’s disciples? What were their relationship and fate with Buddha?
Sacrificing oneself to relieve the suffering of all living creatures in many past lives
In order to quell the curiosity in everyone’s mind, Buddha told a story of his past life.
In the many lifetimes before the current life, there was a small kingdom which was ruled by a benevolent king who loved his people like they were his own children. Unfortunately, the small kingdom was hit by a severe drought. The drought was so bad that the soil had dried up and cracked, nothing could be grown on the land. The drought resulted in a famine that killed many. Driven by hunger, people became desperate and started to riot. The ministers of the kingdom were helpless and resigned to their fate.
The King felt sorrow to see his people suffering and dying of hunger. One day he told his ministers, “Is it because of me? Am I lacking virtues and have not accumulated merits? Is that why my people are suffering from hunger and my kingdom is in chaos?”
The king continued, “I am going to pray to the heaven sincerely and hope it will start to rain soon.”
For seven consecutive days, the king prayed faithfully and devotedly for rain but to no avail. The sun was still scorching and there was not a single cloud in the sky. The king was desperate and pondered with despair. If praying would not bring the rain, he had to think of other solutions.
After long consideration, the king had an idea. He gave up his royalty and handed his kingdom to his cabinets of ministers and instructed them to take good care of the people. He then travelled to the sea with a few of his trusted aides. And by the rock on the shore, he prayed devotedly for one more time.
He made an oath, “I am willing to bear all the sins of my people. I am willing to sacrifice myself to end the suffering of my people. I wish to become a big fish, so that my people can feed on me and curb their hunger temporarily so they can live.”
Immediately after the prayer, the king jumped into the sea.
Upon hearing that the king had sacrificed his own life for his people, the citizens of the kingdom were in grief and the riots stopped. Shortly after, a big fish appeared in the middle of the sea and slowly swam to the shore. It was as big as a hill. The fish floated along with the waves of the sea and landed on the shore.
There were five people who were repairing their boats on the shore. They saw how the fish appeared in the middle of sea and floated towards the shore. Puzzled by the scene, five of them quickly ran towards the fish. When they went near to the fish, they felt that the fish was talking to them.
The fish said, “Please go to the village and knock on every house. Please tell the people to come and slice me for some meat to fill their stomach.”
The fish continued saying, “I had been cultivating life after life for so many lifetimes, sacrificing myself to end relief the sufferings of others. Now my people are suffering and in great hunger, of course I must save them. If the five of you could fulfil my wish, the five of you would be the first that I would liberate from suffering if I attained enlightenment in the future.”
This was the predestined relationship of how and why they became the Five Disciples of Buddha.
Translated by Christine