This is based upon reading the dhammacakkappavattana sutta.
In the Buddha-to-be’s quest for awakening, it seems to me there was a pivotal turning point, a shift that fundamentally changed his entire outlook and enabled him to see what he had been missing. It was the question he asked himself “Why am I afraid of that happiness that is a happiness apart from sensuality and unwholesome states?”
I’ve always kind of assumed that after finally realizing that his practice of asceticism was a dead end, he suddenly remembered his childhood experience of sitting under the rose apple tree, recalled his happiness born of seclusion from sense pleasure and that is what sparked his question. Recently, I thought of another possibility. That he had never forgotten that experience, that the memory of it was part of what attracted him to renunciation.
In his own words, the Buddha told of his decision to go forth, how he had realized that he was subject to sickness, old age and death and that he had been seeking after what was subject to sickness, old age and death, a futile way to live. At some point the hook of overt sensual pleasure must have given way to his realization that he was experiencing dukkha, a dissatisfaction underpinning his very existence. Like others of his culture, he decided to shave his head and beard and renounce all of that in order to go forth to find release.
I don’t think this was a hasty or impulsive decision, he wasn’t that kind of person. In my estimation, the Buddha was the most brilliant, thoroughly inquisitive, insightful, courageous, person who ever lived. I’ll bet he thought about renunciation a lot. There must have been many factors that he considered and many concepts that compelled him to make such a radical turn. He was not awakened yet, so he didn’t have the wisdom that he later developed, but he was motivated for the right reasons and chose the meditative path rather than a strictly philosophical one. His culture was one deeply immersed in religious structure, religions which intrinsically included formal meditation practices, so I think it’s safe to say that he knew a lot about sitting in meditation and meditative training.
I think it might be possible that, at this juncture of his quest, amongst those motivating factors, he may have thought much of his earlier “meditation” experience under the rose apple tree, quite surely a singularly powerful moment in his life. Recalling this glimpse of nibbana and wanting to follow that path may have been a major reason to choose the homeless, wandering meditation life, that what was widely practiced by others in his culture. There were other avenues available for his quest but he chose a meditative route, perhaps based upon his own single experience of the first absorption under the tree, that which he may have somewhat understood then but would later fully realize and redefine.
In going forth, he states that he set about in a conventional way, applying conventional methods based upon the underlying assumption that in order to purify, one must avoid all pleasure. Each of the successive stages of practice that he mastered was intentionally devoid of pleasure.
He described finding isolated places in the forest and facing his fear; fear of animals, snakes and bandits. He laid a foundation of not reacting to anything, not leaning into the next moment, staying present until the unwholesome thoughts subsided. He directed his mind towards its inclinations, separating his thoughts, wholesome and unwholesome, past and future, ill will and benevolence. He trained to abandon and prevent unwholesome thoughts and to arouse and maintain wholesome thoughts. He left behind the sensual thoughts of desire and aversion.
Likely by a teacher or perhaps on his own, he approached absorption. When lights and visions appeared, doubt arose and the visions vanished. So he set about to remove all hinderances and found the delicate balance he needed to cultivate samadhi. First with vitakka and vicara, then without vitakka but with vicara and then without either, eventually mastering absorption, able to enter at will.
His mastery over hinderances and of the absorptions as well as his cultivation of confidence, energy, sati and samadhi set the stage for his training under Alara Kalama and Udakka Ramaputta. The Buddha recounted many times how he quickly reached the levels of his teachers, attained the highest levels of meditation yet still found everything so far to be unsatisfactory, not leading to the goal.
After leaving those teachers he employed forceful mind control and breath control, yet still could not remove unwholesome thoughts from his mind. Extreme asceticism was his next attempt to weaken and control sensuality. He countered pleasure with pain and avoided pleasure to its furthest possible point but in the end it was fruitless.
It’s at this point in his narratives that he recalls his experience under the rose apple tree. However, this time he recalls not merely the incident, but specifically zeroes in on its aspect of the happiness born of seclusion, free from sensual desire and aversion that he experienced through absorption. The way he describes the rose apple tree experience in multiple suttas, it appears to have been an isolated incident. Did he reach absorption having been instructed in meditation or did he reach it spontaneously?
We know, because he plainly said it, that he was afraid of happiness, that he consciously and purposefully held a belief that happiness was to be attained through pain. Perhaps at this pivotal time he took stock of all that he had mastered in his spiritual quest and suddenly saw it as dry and lifeless, devoid of happiness and joy. Perhaps he then thought “Why am I afraid of all happiness? Why am I avoiding non-sensual pleasure? Have I gone through all of my efforts trying to eradicate all joy and thus hindered my progress? What if I consider everything I’ve accomplished and aroused joy? Could this be the way?”
I don’t think it heretical to think it’s possible that he didn’t suddenly recall the long forgotten incident at the rose apple tree. In fact, it seems more in line with and supportive of the Buddha’s unsurpassed mind that he wouldn’t have overlooked such a powerful experience, but rather finally realized with penetrative wisdom what he needed to do.