Difference between the Buddha's path and what is taught to others?

I’ve been thinking about the usual presentation of the Buddha’s quest for, and eventual attaining of, enlightenment, and how that compares with what we see him teach others, as well as the kinds of enlightenment experiences that are recorded in the Theragatha and Therigatha. It seems like the way the Buddha’s path played out is quite different from everyone else’s. I mean, the Buddha’s path is always presented as,

  1. Seeing the old, sick, dead, and an ascetic
  2. Leaving his comfortable life
  3. Practicing under various teachers and mastering their teachings
  4. Engaging in extreme austerities
  5. Abandoning them in favor of moderation and the form jhanas
  6. Going through the 4 form jhanas, then attaining the 3 knowledges, then attaining enlightenment

The connection between the jhanas and the three knowledges was obviously key to the Buddha’s enlightenment. So why isn’t that, and only that, taught to others as the path to enlightenment? I mean, is there anywhere in the suttas where the Buddha said, “And then I meditated on the body as the 4 elements, had a minor insight into anatta, and became a stream enterer. Later I had a deeper insight when contemplating eye consciousness as impermanent and became a once returner,” or something like that? And why is the Buddha’s experience of enlightenment so different from other’s who attained stream entry by simply hearing a phrase spoken? Or some other random event, like we see in the Theragatha and Therigatha where enlightenment happens when someone was about to kill themselves? I’m just wondering if there is an explanation of this in the suttas themselves.


I think the explanation rests in the fact that a number of steps in between 4 and 5 are not taken into account. For example, after austerities, the Buddha discovered, the four noble truths and formulated the principle of dependent origination etc.
His being an Arahant from a stream winner could have happened in a flash when the reality of existence dawned on him.
He had to then communicate his discovery to others using similes and discourses appropriate to the audience.
With Metta

Some of those points are not actually in the suttas like seeing old, sick, dead, ascetic, for example.

The path he teaches others is the same as his own path though, minus his trial and error, why would he want you to go through his errors?

The path IS attaining the four jhanas and seeing the 3 characteristics of the 5 aggregates via the jhanas.

The only shortcut he gave us is not needing the formless ayatanas/jhanas.

His path is basically attaining the four jhanas and and then discovering the true dhamma, which is the four noble truths, 3 characteristics and dependent origination.

He attains proper attention first, then discovers the true dhamma. Everyone else discovers the true dhamma (by hearing/being a savaka), and then they attain proper attention (yoniso manasikara) which is like flipping a switch on the nama-rupa to weaken the defilements instead of feeding them.


Yes, the obvious answer is that after he discovered the Four Noble Truths, Dependent Origination, the three characteristics, the Noble Eightfold Path, etc., he taught those directly, saving us the trouble of having to discover them for ourselves. The role of a buddha being someone who discovers the Dhamma and teaches it implies all of this, but it’s never explicitly said, is it?

Do we have any explicit examples of the Buddha practicing asubha, the 4 brahma viharas, seeing the body as the 4 elements, or any of the other supplementary practices he taught, before attaining enlightenment? The more I think about it, the more surprising it is to me that we have all of these different practices taught by the Buddha in the suttas, but little to no explicit description of the Buddha himself practicing them, or at least saying to the monks, “Y’all are lucky that you have me to teach you these practices, since I didn’t know about them before my enlightenment. They’ll save you a lot of time and trouble!”

To be clear, I’m not casting doubt on the authenticity of anything, just pointing out how much we all seem to assume without being able to directly quote something the Buddha said. I haven’t read all of the suttas, though. So there might be suttas where the Buddha does address some of this.

He said when he was an unawakened Bodhisatta he couldn’t get into jhanas until he saw the drawbacks of sensual desires. The drawbacks means Impermanence. Asubha means Impermanence of body or food, that’s why we find a rotting body disgusting because Impermanence is painful to bear.

Also there’s a sutta of him spreading brahma viharas after the morning meal and going for a walk.

Furthermore there’s several suttas where he says “until I’ve understood x,y,z I didn’t claim to be fully awakened” or “anyone who has attained full awakening has had to learn/develop x, y, z”

He doesn’t need to continue doing insight work because he’s finished that part of the path. All he has to do now is deal with physical pain and staying sharp (by entering jhanas aka “pleasant abiding”) and teach the dhamma.


But that isn’t explicit. You’re interpreting what drawback means here. Did the Buddha say, “I went to a charnel ground, watched bodies decay, and then saw my own body as no different from the corpses”? I’m not trying to be argumentative, but my whole point is about things being explicitly said by the Buddha.

Can you provide the sutta? I would like to read it.

Again, not to be argumentative, but I’m not sure this address my question, unless the “x, y, z” were practices and not wisdom or some kind of knowledge.

No, he quite explicitly states that drawbacks = 3 characteristics, specifically Impermanence.

  • Gratification = assada = pleasure of the senses (specifically suppressing dukkha)
  • Drawback/danger = adinava = 3 characteristics
  • Escape = Nissarana = Noble eightfold path

“Then, bhikkhus, it occurred to me: ‘The pleasure and joy that arise in dependence on form: this is the gratification in form. That form is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change: this is the danger in form. The removal and abandonment of desire and lust for form: this is the escape from form.

As for Brahma vihara

After the meal, on my return from alms-round, I enter a wood.

So pacchābhattaṁ piṇḍapātapaṭikkanto vanantaññeva pavisāmi.

I gather up some grass or leaves into a pile, and sit down cross-legged, with my body straight, and establish mindfulness right there.
So yadeva tattha honti tiṇāni vā paṇṇāni vā tāni ekajjhaṁ saṅgharitvā nisīdāmi pallaṅkaṁ ābhujitvā ujuṁ kāyaṁ paṇidhāya parimukhaṁ satiṁ upaṭṭhapetvā.

I meditate spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, I spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.


Also here in MN12 the buddha said he slept in charnel grounds

"I would make my bed in a charnel ground with the bones of the dead for a pillow. And cowherd boys came up and spat on me, urinated on me, threw dirt at me, and poked sticks into my ears. Yet I do not recall that I ever aroused an evil mind (of hate) against them. Such was my abiding in equanimity. [80]

combined with his austere practices, he was quite familiar with the drawbacks.

1 Like

But going from that to asubha practice requires taking a leap. It isn’t explicit.

That sutta is post enlightenment.

OK, that’s getting close.

Ajahn @Brahmali and Bhante @sujato is it really the case that we don’t have any suttas where the pre-enlightenment Buddha describes how he practiced many of the things he taught others post-enlightenment? It’s interesting that we get lengthy descriptions of austerities, but none of them explicitly mention the charnel ground meditations or 4 elements meditations. I’m getting the feeling that to answer this question we would need to start talking about what practices were common among samanas in Magadha. Surely every kind of practice the Buddha did pre-enlightenment wasn’t preserved in the suttas. But then we’re making inferences again. We still lack examples of the Buddha stating clearly and matter-of-factly that he did practice X before attaining enlightenment, but did it slightly wrong (without knowledge of anatta, for example), but after enlightenment knew it was a useful practice when done correctly, and so taught it to his students.

Well he clearly mastered Brahma viharas if people defecating on him didn’t arise any unwholesome states of mind…

In this sutta he talks about separating his thought into two classes, but doesn’t go so far as to say he practiced the Brahma Viharas. This might be splitting hairs, but I am hoping to find very clear, explicit examples.

Well, if we’re splitting hairs then you should know that there’s 2 kinds of Brahma Viharas.

There’s post-5 hindances Brahma Viharas also called a measureless mind, this is the same thing as jhanas.

Then there’s pre-5 Hindrances brahma viharas, which is used to dispell unwholesome thoughts.

The sutta I linked was former type, where he attains jhanas, and in that state of purity he infuses all directions with that energy.

The sutta you linked has to do with pre-5 hindrances brahma Viharas. There’s another sutta where he talks about getting rid of ill-will nimitta with metta nimitta.

So you probably won’t find a Sutta of him doing the post 5 hindrances Brahma Viharas as a Bodhisatta, because when he usually references his past as a Bodhisatta it’s to pragmatically describe how he overcame certain problems and sticking points.

IMO trying to find out if the Buddha practiced them or not is a waste of time. The teaching is well explained by the Buddha and all we have to do is practice.
Your attempt reminds me of MN.63.
"Suppose a man was struck by an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends and colleagues, relatives and kin would get a field surgeon to treat him. But the man would say: ‘I won’t pull out this arrow as long as I don’t know whether the man who wounded me was an aristocrat, a brahmin, a merchant, or a worker.’ He’d say: ‘I won’t pull out this arrow as long as I don’t know the following things about the man who wounded me: his name and clan; whether he’s tall, short, or medium; whether his skin is black, brown, or tawny; and what village, town, or city he comes from. I won’t pull out this arrow as long as I don’t know whether the bow that wounded me is made of wood or cane; whether the bow-string is made of swallow-wort fibre, sunn hemp fibre, sinew, sanseveria fibre, or spurge fibre; whether the shaft is made from a bush or a plantation tree; whether the shaft was fitted with feathers from a vulture, a heron, a hawk, a peacock, or a stork; whether the shaft was bound with sinews of a cow, a buffalo, a swamp deer, or a gibbon; and whether the arrowhead was spiked, razor-tipped, barbed, made of iron or a calf’s tooth, or lancet-shaped.’ That man would still not have learned these things, and meanwhile they’d die".
With Metta


Because the Buddha remembered all his past lives and found no contentment there. And that alone makes him different. The view trudging up the mountain differs from the view at the peak.

It is also why he initially didn’t think of teaching the Dhamma, because how could he teach such an experience? How could one teach the view of the peak to one trudging up the mountain?

MN26:19.16: So, as I reflected like this, my mind inclined to remaining passive, not to teaching the Dhamma.

Yet when Brahmā Sahampati protested, the Buddha realized that there was a way to teach:

MN26:21.7: Let those with ears to hear decide their faith.

So he taught us the truths about trudging, the origin of trudging, the end of trudging and the path to the end of trudging up the mountain. He taught us the shortcut. :mount_fuji:

So, since we so far don’t have any evidence of the Buddha practicing what he preached (I mean that only half ironically), then I guess we assume that post-enlightenment the Buddha came up with a completely new set of practices that he hadn’t ever practiced before, and that potentially didn’t even exist before? It was only after discovering the 4 Noble Truths that he reailzed seeing the body as nothing other than the four elements was a beneficial practice? I’m not trying to simply create an argument, by the way, or troll anyone. I am genuinely interested in this question.

1 Like

We can practice as described and join him in the supreme emptiness. We have only his words as recorded, not his thoughts. And ultimately, his words pointed to emptiness.

MN121:13.1: Whatever ascetics and brahmins enter and remain in the pure, ultimate, supreme emptiness—whether in the past, future, or present—all of them enter and remain in this same pure, ultimate, supreme emptiness.
MN121:13.4: So, Ānanda, you should train like this: ‘We will enter and remain in the pure, ultimate, supreme emptiness.’

And emptiness lies beyond consciousness and speculation.

That’s factually untrue. He practiced jhanas and he preached jhanas. The only difference is you don’t get abhinna if you’re not free from sensual desire. So he doesn’t care how people become free from sensual desire (asubha, anapanasati, elements, ayatanas, etc…) as long as they do so they can attain abhinna.

Taking into account what was discussed at the beginning of the topic…

It is the case, and I don’t think it’s a problem. Part of the Buddha’s awakening was his insight into the path. The path shows the general process, not specific practices. That general process is the purification of the mind from defilements. There is no need for the Buddha-to-be to have used all possible purification practices, just a sufficient subset to have enabled him to reach the goal. Once he had taken a closer look at the defilements of people in general, he may have realised that a number of additional practices would be useful for them, such as contemplation of the 31 parts of the body. We can assume, on the basis of his jhāna experience as a child, that the Buddha was relatively free of defilements, and so he may not have needed such strong medicine to achieve his purpose.

To be honest, I think we should expect the Buddha’s teachings not to match exactly what he practiced before his awakening. But the general thrust of the path would have to be the same.


You’re right, there is something weird about this. I don’t think we will find the explanation in the suttas themselves. I think this should be explained with another (historical?) approach.

Early Buddhism is one of Sramana movement together with Ajivikism and Jainism. The primary goal of Sramanism of that time is solely attaining Arahantship. AFAIK there is no mention of stages of awakening before Arahantship (Sotapanna, Sakadagami, and Anagami) in contemporary Sramana sects. So I think this concept of stages of awakening is a later development of early Buddhist doctrine, but not too much later because it’s from the Buddha himself. Perhaps after years of teaching Dhamma, the Buddha come to know the different capability of people to attain enlightment and reformulate his path to enlightenment into 4 stages of awakening as we know today. Just IMHO.