There now ensued a second struggle in Gotama's mind, described with all the wealth of poetry and imagination of which the Indian mind is master. The crisis culminated on a day, each event of which is surrounded in the Buddhist accounts with the wildest legends, on which the very thoughts passing through the mind of Buddha appear in gorgeous descriptions as angels of darkness or of light. To us, now taught by the experiences of centuries how weak such exaggerations are compared with the effect of a plain unvarnished tale, these legends may appear childish or absurd, but they have a depth of meaning to those who strive to read between the lines of such rude and inarticulate attempts to describe the indescribable. That which (the previous and subsequent career of the teacher being borne in mind) seems to be possible and even probable, appears to be somewhat as follows.
Disenchanted and dissatisfied, Gotama had given up all that most men value, to seek peace in secluded study and self-denial. Failing to attain his object by learning the wisdom of others, and living the simple life of a student, he had devoted himself to that intense meditation and penance which all philosophers then said would raise men above the gods. Still unsatisfied, longing always for a certainty that seemed ever just beyond his grasp, he had added vigil to vigil, and penance to penance, until at last, when to the wondering view of others he had become more than a saint, his bodily strength and his indomitable resolution and faith had together suddenly and completely broken down. Then, when the sympathy of others would have been most welcome, he found his friends falling away from him, and his disciples leaving him for other teachers. Soon after, if not on the very day when his followers had left him, he wandered out towards the banks of the Neranjara, receiving his morning meal from the hands of Sujata, the daughter of a neighbouring villager, and set himself down to eat it under the shade of a large tree (a Ficus religiosa), to be known from that time as the sacred Bo tree or tree of wisdom.
There he remained through the long hours of that day debating with himself what next to do. All his old temptations came back upon him with renewed force. For years he had looked at all earthly good through the medium of a philosophy which taught him that it, without exception, contained within itself the seeds of bitterness, and was altogether worthless and impermanent; but now to his wavering faith the sweet delights of home and love, the charms of wealth and power, began to show themselves in a different light, and glow again with attractive colours. He doubted, and agonized in his doubt; but as the sun set, the religious side of his nature had won the victory, and seems to have come out even purified from the struggle. He had attained to Nirvana, had become clear in his mind, a Buddha, an Enlightened One. From that night he not only did not claim any merit on account of his self-mortification, but took every opportunity of declaring that from such penances no advantage at all would be derived. All that night he is said to have remained in deep meditation under the Bo tree; and the orthodox Buddhists believe that for seven times seven nights and days he continued fasting near the spot, when the archangel Brahmā came and ministered to him.
As for himself, his heart was now fixed, - his mind was made up, - but he realized more than he had ever done before the power of temptation, and the difficulty, the almost impossibility, of understanding and holding to the truth. For others subject to the same temptations, but without that earnestness and insight which he felt himself to possess, faith might be quite impossible, and it would only be waste of time and trouble to try to show to them "the only path of peace." To one in his position this thought would be so very natural, that we need not hesitate to accept the fact of its occurrence as related in the oldest records. It is quite consistent with his whole career that it was love and pity for others - otherwise, as it seemed to him, helplessly doomed and lost - -which at last overcame every other consideration, and made Gotama resolve to announce his doctrine to the world.
The teacher, now 35 years of age, intended to proclaim his new gospel first to his old teachers Ālāra and Udraka, but finding that they were dead, he determined to address himself to his former five disciples, and accordingly went to the Deer-forest near Benares where they were then living. An old gāthhā, or hymn (translated in Vinaya Texts, i. 90) tells us how the Buddha, rapt with the idea of his great mission, meets an acquaintance, one Upaka, a wandering sophist, on the way. The latter, struck with his expression, asks him whose religion it is that makes him so glad, and yet so calm. The reply is striking. "I am now on my way," says the Buddha, "to the city of Benares, to beat the drum of the Ambrosia (to set up the light of the doctrine of Nirvana) in the darkness of the world!" and he proclaims himself the Buddha who alone knows, and knows no teacher. Upaka says: "You profess yourself, then, friend, to be an Arahat and a conqueror?" The Buddha says: "Those indeed are conquerors who, as I have now, have conquered the intoxications (the mental intoxication arising from ignorance, sensuality or craving after future life). Evil dispositions have ceased in me; therefore is it that I am conqueror!" His acquaintance rejoins: "In that case, venerable Gotama, your way lies yonder!" and he himself, shaking his head, turns in the opposite direction.
Nothing daunted, the new prophet walked on to Benares, and in the cool of the evening went on to the Deer-forest where the five ascetics were living. Seeing him coming, they resolved not to recognize as a superior one who had broken his vows; to address him by his name, and not as "master" or "teacher"; only, he being a Kshatriya, to offer him a seat. He understands their change of manner, calmly tells them not to mock him by calling him "the venerable Gotama"; that he has found the ambrosia of truth and can lead them to it. They object, naturally enough, from the ascetic point of view, that he had failed before while he was keeping his body under, and how can his mind have won the victory now, when he serves and yields to his body. Buddha replies by explaining to them the principles of his new gospel, in the form of noble truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path (see Buddhism).