…The view which emerged from the Upanishads, the late Vedic literature, was that the goal of spiritual practice was the union of the individual essence (ātman) with the universal essence (Brahman) achieved through various practices, e.g. spiritual study, austerities, yoga, etc.
Most spiritual seekers in 6th century BCE India were on a quest to directly experience the supreme individual essence of ‘ātman’. The Buddha-to-be himself ardently sought to achieve this through the established spiritual exercises of concentration meditation and then austerities for six long years.
However, he was dissatisfied with the results, despite being recognized by his teachers as an exceptional student. He then decided to try another approach and returned to his initial spiritual enquiry of investigating the cause of human suffering, which was, in fact, a radical and significantly new approach.
The new approach was not to seek what the true nature of a human being is, but rather to investigate how a human being experiences reality, starting from the universal experience of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) as expressed through old age, sickness and death. These were the shocking realities which had initially shaken the wealthy, pampered young man out of his complacency to seek a spiritual solution.
That is, rather than look for some intrinsic essence within a human being, he sought the causes of the imperfection of human existence.
An effect of this particular approach to spiritual practice, possibly unexpected, was a diminishing of self-referencing and increase in humility. The traditional spiritual path, looking for one’s ultimately ‘true’ and ‘pure’ self, is based on self-referencing and fused with self-affirmation, which could lead to self-inflation, since that ultimate, eternal self (ātman) is equated with the essence of the universe (Brahman). (Of course, for the rare few who followed this path to its end, the self dissolved in the universal essence.)
The Buddha’s quest focussed on the imperfections of human existence which lead to everything human beings identified with as ‘self’ being destroyed by old age, sickness and death. It also led to a diminishing of self-affirmation as the self was depersonalized and de-constructed into constituent processes: grasping, craving, ignorance, etc.
In the Pali Canon (S.II,72f) the Buddha explains that both dukkha and ‘the world (loka)’ arise from sense-knowing, which includes contact and can lead on to feeling, craving, grasping, etc. In other words, the world to the Buddha is the world of subjective experience.
…With his new approach to spiritual practice, the Buddha-to-be recalled an occasion in his childhood when his mind innocently settled into absorption concentration. Recognizing that he had chanced upon an exalted state which was not involved with sensual pleasures or unwholesome states, he used this as a basis for a contemplative investigation of the causes of existential unsatisfactoriness.
…The Buddha’s innovative approach to spiritual practice – a penetrating investigation supported by a calm and focused mind – became the key to his breakthrough to Awakening, revealing an extraordinary insight into reality.
This reflection by Ajahn Thiradhammo is from the book, Beyond I-Making, “Historical and Theoretical Background,” (pdf) pp. 20-22. [Please see the book for suttas and notes omitted from this reflection.]