In a small town named Kolita, near Rājagaha, capital of the kingdom of Magadha, a child was born who was destined to become the second chief disciple of the Buddha. The boy’s parents named him Kolita, after the town. The family belonged to the Moggallāna clan, one of the most illustrious brahmin clans of the period, which claimed direct descent from the ancient Vedic seer Mudgala. The town was inhabited entirely by brahmins, and in its religious attitudes and social customs it was extremely conservative. Kolita’s father was born of the most prominent family, from which the town’s mayor was usually appointed.

Being a member of such a high caste and of the town’s most respected family, his father was almost a petty king. Thus Kolita was raised in an environment of wealth and honour, and his favourable circumstances shielded him from direct contact with the sorrows of life. He was educated entirely in the brahmanic tradition, which upheld the belief in the reality of an afterlife and in the law of kamma and its fruits. These beliefs permeated the everyday life of the brahmins and determined the form and content of their rituals, which governed all aspects of their lives.

Kolita’s family lived on very friendly terms with another brahmin family from a neighbouring village. On the very day of Kolita’s birth, a son was born to this other family, whom they named Upatissa. When the children grew up, they became fast friends and before long were inseparable. Whatever they did, they did together, whether it was play or study, pleasure or work. Always the two boys were seen together, and their undisturbed friendship was to last until the end of their lives.

In their temperaments the two were quite different. Upatissa was more adventuresome, daring, and enterprising, while Kolita’s tendency was to preserve, to cultivate, and to enrich what he had gained. Their places within their families were also different: Kolita was the only child, but Upatissa had three brothers and three sisters. Yet, despite the differences in their characters, they never quarrelled or came into conflict but always dwelt on amicable terms, maintaining a steadfast loyalty and self-sacrificing devotion.

To both youths, their friendship meant so much and filled their daily life to such an extent that they displayed little interest in the opposite sex.

Nevertheless, like other young men of their background—wealthy and high ranking brahmins—the two friends were enamoured with the intoxications of youth, health, and life. Each was the leader of a group of friends with whom he engaged in play and sport. When they went to the river, Kolita’s companions came on horseback and those of Upatissa were carried in palanquins.

Each year Rājagaha hosted a grand public celebration called the Hilltop Festival, which featured popular shows and amusements. The two friends looked forward to this event with keen anticipation and reserved seats from which they could comfortably watch the entertainment, a mixture of folk comedies and old legends. On the first day of the festival, they were fully engrossed in the entertainment. When there was something to laugh at, they joined in the laughter; and when there was something exciting, they became excited. They enjoyed the show so much that they returned on the second day and closely followed all the performances.

Inexplicably, however, far from satisfying them, the entertainment left them with a deep feeling of discontent. Nevertheless, they made reservations for the third day too, as a new program had been announced in glowing terms.

That night strange thoughts haunted their hearts and disturbed their sleep. As Kolita tossed and turned in his bed, he kept on asking himself:

“What is the use to us of this frivolity? Is there anything here really worth seeing? What benefit comes from a life devoted to enjoyment and pleasure seeking? After a few years, these glamorous actors will all be old and feeble; they will leave the stage of life and continue their migrations through existence, driven on by craving, and we too will also have to move on. These actors cannot even help themselves to solve the problem of existence. How then can they help us? Instead of wasting our time with these festivities we should seek a path to deliverance!”

Upatissa, too, had spent a restless night, disturbed by quite similar thoughts. He reflected how the ancient myths and legends dramatized in those performances presupposed the reality of rebirth; but the jokes and frolics overlaying those ideas in the plays insinuated that one need be concerned with this present life alone. Was this not an artificial suppression of truth by pretence and vain illusions?

The next morning, when they took their seats, Kolita said to his friend:

“What is the matter with you? You are not your usual merry self. Is something troubling you?”

His friend replied:

“Last night, while I lay in bed, I kept on asking myself, ‘What is the use to us of all these pleasures of eye and ear? They are absolutely worthless! Shouldn’t we rather seek to find release from the devastating law of impermanence, to liberate ourselves from the fleeting illusions of life, which lure us on yet leave us empty?’ That is what has been weighing on my mind. But you, too, dear Kolita, seem morose today.”

Kolita replied:

“I have been thinking exactly the same thoughts. Why should we stay here any longer, in this unholy vanity show? We should seek the way to deliverance!”

When Upatissa heard that his friend had the very same wish, he happily exclaimed: “That was a good thought that came to us both, independent of each other. We have wasted our time long enough with worthless frivolities. But if we earnestly seek a teaching of deliverance, we shall have to give up home and possessions and go forth as homeless wanderers, free of worldly and sensual bonds, rising above them like birds on the wing.”

So the two friends decided to undertake the life of ascetics—homeless mendicants who then wandered along the roads of India, as they still do now, in search of a spiritual teacher, a guru who could guide them to the liberating knowledge of enlightenment. When they told their followers about their decision, these young men were so deeply impressed that most decided to join their friends in their spiritual quest. So all of them said farewell to their families, took off the sacred brahmanic thread, cut off their hair and beards, and put on the pale saffron garments of religious wanderers. Discarding all distinguishing marks and privileges of their caste, they entered the classless society of ascetics.


At about the same time that Prince Siddhattha, the future Buddha, married—and thus for the time at least stepped more deeply into worldly life—the two friends Kolita and Upatissa left behind their homes and embarked upon the difficult quest for inner peace and salvation. Together with their retinues, they began a period of training under a spiritual teacher, just as the Bodhisatta did later.


At that time, northern India teemed with spiritual teachers and philosophers  whose  views  ranged  from  the  demonic  to  the Super divine. Some taught a moralism, others fatalism, still others materialism. Both friends realized the hollowness of such teachings early enough and thus felt no attraction towards them. In Rājagaha, however, there was one teacher who appealed to them. His name was Sañjaya, who, according to tradition, was identical with Sañjaya Belatthaputta, mentioned in the Pāli Canon as one of six non-Buddhist teachers. Under him the group of friends were ordained, which added considerably to Sañjaya’s reputation.


The texts do not give us detailed information about Sañjaya’s teachings, but from a number of brief indications we can roughly reconstruct the substance of his doctrine. Unlike other ascetic teachers who made definite dogmatic statements about specific topics, Sañjaya maintained a rigorous scepticism in regard to the deep existential problems with which the thinkers of the period wrestled. He formulated this scepticism around the chief questions debated by his philosophical contemporaries: Is there another world beyond the visible order? After the death of this material body, does one appear in the world beyond by way of a purely mental birth process as a spontaneously arisen being? Will the good and bad actions one has performed in this present existence bear good and bad fruits in the next life? What, finally, is the destiny of a Tathāgata or Perfect One after death? How are we to conceive and describe his post-mortem condition?


Whenever such questions were raised by the Indian thinkers of this period, four alternative types of answers were thought possible: affirmation, negation, partial affirmation and partial negation, and neither affirmation nor negation. Sañjaya, however, taught that with regard to the questions mentioned, none of those four positions was acceptable as a solution; they all contained unresolvable contradictions or antinomies, and therefore, he held, one should refrain from any judgment about these problems. Here it may be noted that, of the four sets of antinomies which often occur in the Pāli, only the fourth set is identical with Sañjaya’s problems, namely, the one concerning the after-death state of a Perfect One.


While other ascetic teachers always advocated one of the four logical alternatives as a solution to these problems—yes, no, yes and no, neither yes nor no—Sañjaya did not commit himself to any of them.


He especially did not commit himself dogmatically to the unprovable assertion (made, for instance, by popular natural science) that there is no world beyond, no mind-made (astral) body, no law of kamma, and no survival after death. In that attitude, he clearly differed from the materialists of his time. He taught rather that, in view of the unresolvable nature of these problems, one should keep to a stance of detachment and impartiality, not tolerating the slightest bias toward approval or disapproval of any of these theories and their consequences. From this we can see that he was a confirmed agnostic who tried to develop a consistent scepticism built upon a recognition of the dialectic tensions inherent in speculative thought.


In the Sāmaññaphala Sutta, the king of Magadha, Ajātasattu, reported to the Buddha the following talk he had with the ascetic Sañjaya. Although this account may reflect the way the Buddhists understood Sañjaya rather than his own way of formulating his doctrine, it offers us a glimpse into his philosophical stance:

“One day I went to Sañjaya of the Belattha clan and I asked him: ‘Can you, sir, declare to me an immediate fruit, visible in this very world, of the life of a recluse?’


Being thus asked, Sañjaya said:

“If you ask me whether there is another world—well, if I thought there were, I would say so. But I don’t say so. And I don’t think it is thus or thus. And I don’t think it is otherwise. And I don’t deny it. And I don’t say there neither is nor is not another world. And if you ask me whether there are beings reborn spontaneously; or whether there is any fruit, any result, of good or bad actions; or whether a Tathāgata exists or not after deathto each and all of these questions do I give the same reply.”


Thus, Lord, when asked about the immediate fruit and advantage in the life of a recluse, Sañjaya of the Belattha clan showed his manner of prevarication.”


Kolita and Upatissa initially must have felt that Sañjaya’s philosophy was something more than mere evasion. Not having met a better teacher, they were probably attracted to him because of his apparent freedom from dogmatism and his dialectical skills.


After a short time, however, they clearly realized that Sañjaya could not offer them what they were really searching for: a cure for the illness of universal suffering. Besides, we may suppose that by reason of their mental formations from past existences they must have intuitively felt that there actually was another world, that there were mind-born beings (e.g., deities), and that there was moral recompense of actions. In this respect their understanding went beyond that of their sceptical teacher. Hence one day the two friends approached Sañjaya and asked him whether he had still other teachings more advanced than those they had already learned from him. To this he replied:

“That is all. You know my entire teaching.”

 Hearing this, they decided to leave and to continue their search elsewhere. After all, they had not left their families for the sake of endless and futile agnostic arguments but to find a path to final deliverance from suffering.


Thus, for a second time, they took up the life of wanderers in search of truth. They walked across India for many years, from north to south, from east to west. They endured the dust of the road and the tormenting heat, the rain and the wind, spurred on by thoughts that moved deep within the Indian soul:

“I am a victim of birth, aging and death, of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. I am a victim of suffering, a prey of suffering. Surely, an end to this whole mass of suffering can be discovered!”


In their travels they met many ascetics and brahmins who were reputed to be exceptionally wise. With them they had religious discussions on God and the world, on heaven and hell, on the meaning of life and the way to salvation. But with their keen and critical minds trained by Sañjaya’s scepticism, they very soon realized the emptiness of all those assertions and the learned ignorance of these philosophers. None of these teachers could answer their probing questions, while the two friends themselves were quite able to reply when questioned.


The records do not tell us who their other teachers were, but it would be surprising if the two truth-seekers had not met such mystics and sages as, for instance, Bāvari, a seer of great meditative power, or Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, the two teachers of formless infinity under whom the Bodhisatta had studied. From their life story, however, one thing is clear: until they encountered the Buddha the two had failed to find even the tracks of a path to the world- transcending experience of liberation. What may have been the reason? Spiritual seekers at the time of the Buddha pursued either of two aims: to gain inner peace and serenity by deep meditation (samādhi) or to acquire a clear view of the ultimate meaning of existence.


Those who sought to understand the nature of existence generally proceeded through speculative flights of the intellect and tended to spurn the path of meditative absorption. In contrast, those who had achieved inner peace through the meditative path for the most part remained content with their attainment, believing this to be the final goal. Lacking the guidance of a Buddha, they did not even suspect that this meditative peace, so tranquil and sublime, was still mundane and thus merely a force of kammic construction within the cycle of repeated birth and death.


Their meditative attainments would bring them a blissful rebirth in one of the super sensual Brahma-worlds, where the life span is inconceivably longer than in the sensual world; but eventually such kammic force would be depleted, followed by a rebirth elsewhere, leaving the meditators in the same saṃsāric imprisonment as before. In their former lives as meditating hermits, this must have happened often to the Bodhisatta as well as to Kolita and Upatissa. This is one aspect of existential misery, of prisonlike ignorance: either, like the mystics, one settles down at the gate, regarding it as one’s true home of peace and bliss; or, like the speculative thinkers, one bypasses it quickly and becomes lost within the labyrinths of the intellect. Though the two friends had no recollection of jhānic experiences from previous lives, they obviously had an intuitive feeling that meditative bliss and its rewards were not the final goal but only a temporary relief within the continuing cycle of suffering.


Hence their foremost quest was for clarity about the concatenation of existence, for understanding how things hang together in the complex web of saṃsāra. In ages devoid of a Buddha’s appearance, their search would have been as futile as the recurring attainment, enjoyment, and loss of samādhi. It may have been an undefinable inner urge within them that did not allow them to rest until they had found the Enlightened One who, like them, had gone forth in search of liberation during the last years of their own quest.


If even the Bodhisatta, the future Buddha, could discover how to integrate meditative absorption with penetrating insight only when he reached a critical impasse in his own spiritual search, it was not to be expected that the two friends on their own could find the subtle key to mind’s emancipation, for they had neither the wide meditative experience nor the far-reaching independent mental range of a Buddha.


In retrospect, the friends’ wandering in search of truth was just a running in circles, which would end only when their uncompromising integrity and insatiable thirst for truth finally led them to the feet of the Enlightened One.


Without knowing anything of the Buddha, the two friends gave up their life of wandering and returned to their home country of Magadha. Both were about forty years of age. Despite their many disappointments they still had not given up hope. Having made a pact that the one who found a genuine path to the Deathless first would quickly inform the other, they set out on their search separately, thereby doubling their chances of meeting a competent spiritual guide.


It was shortly before this happened that the Buddha had set in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma at Benares, and after his first rains retreat he sent out his first batch of disciples, sixty arahants, to proclaim the Dhamma for the well-being and happiness of the world.

To be Continued……