In telling his own story, the Buddha was not motivated by the desire, common at present, to simply tell “what it felt like to be me.” He gives very few details of his personal life, mentioning his luxurious and refined upbringing simply to prove that when he talks of the drawbacks of sensual pleasures, he’s talking from experience. Aside from that detail, he recounts only the events and decisions of universal import. He tells his story as a way of teaching Dhamma that others can apply in their own lives, regardless of race, gender, or cultural or economic background. And the lessons in Dhamma begin with the role that many of the supplementary factors for the path played in his own search for awakening.
His original impulse to seek awakening was inspired by a sense of heedfulness, realizing that he had been complacent in his search for happiness, and that a life devoted to the pursuit of things subject to aging, illness, and death was a life wasted. Later, in reflecting on this realization, he compared the arising of heedfulness to the act of sobering up from an intoxication.
Heedfulness grew to urgency when he reflected on the pointless conflict of life around him. In this way, his movement from heedfulness to urgency parallels the contemplation in AN 5:57, where contemplating one’s own mortality gives rise to heedfulness, and contemplating the universality of mortality gives rise to the terror of urgency.
This sense of urgency was followed by a quality that is not given a name in the Buddha’s autobiographical accounts, but which other suttas call confidence (pasāda): the uplifting belief that it is possible, through developing skillfulness, to find a way to the deathless.
The way consisted of applying his powers of observation to his actions, posing questions in terms of appropriate attention, and in being truthful in answering those questions. This quality of truthfulness was particularly dramatic in his decision to abandon his austerities. Even though he had devoted six years to those austerities, enduring extreme hardship, he did not allow his pride to obscure the fact that that path had been a mistake.
At the same time, he was able to use the questions of appropriate attention to understand where exactly the austerities were unskillful…he realized that the problem lay, not in the pain, but in the fact that he had pursued his punishing course to the extent of weakening his body beyond the point where his mind could enter right concentration.
In this way, the Buddha’s autobiographical accounts are an excellent lesson in the power of action and in how to put his later teachings on action to good use. He frames his search for the deathless as a search for what is skillful. In other words, the very nature of an act of search means that one is convinced of the power of action, and wants to find which actions will help the search succeed.
At every step where the Bodhisatta entered a new phase of his search, the impulse to change came from asking himself, in effect, “I am not getting the results I want. Why am I doing this? What if I tried doing that instead?” In some cases, “that” turned out to be a mistake—spectacularly in the case of his austerities. But he never lost his confidence that a skillful way could be found—a lesson that applies to all who follow in his footsteps.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the book, On the Path: An Anthology on the Noble Eightfold Path, (pdf) pp. 53-54.