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The Buddha called himself the “Tathagata” which means “one who has gone forth” and has through his own efforts awakened to the truth of reality. He described these truths in his very first teaching, The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the sutta setting the wheel of truth in motion. Everything the Buddha would teach for the forty-five years of his teaching career was taught in the context of this first teaching.
One who has gone forth is one who has left the sense-pleasures and sense-distractions of the world behind. Arahants are those that have developed the Buddha’s Eightfold Path and have themselves become “Rightly self awakened.” Arahants are no longer attached to pursuits of attainment, acquisition and avoidance. Having left the world behind, an arahant is at peace. Arahants live their lives in lasting peace and happiness with dispassionate mindfulness of the present moment developed through the Eightfold Path.
When the Buddha left his father’s palace, leaving behind his wife and infant son, he had “gone forth” in a very literal physical sense. He left behind power, possessions, responsibilities, and family in order to seek understanding without these distractions. This was a common, socially acceptable and practical occurrence among spiritual seekers at the time. The tradition of wandering and seeking was supported by those that remained “attached” to the world and its responsibilities and distractions. In exchange for the support of householders, seekers would pass on their understanding to them. The knowledge gained and passed on was seen as a benefit to all of the society.
While it is certainly possible to “go forth” as the Buddha and the monks and nuns of his time had done and join monasteries or simply wander in search of understanding, it is much less socially accepted or practical today. In the West and most of the East the support for the monastic community is not there. There is not much societal value placed on developing spiritual understanding and those that teach the dhamma.
This initial “going forth” though was not the only culturally accepted form of developing understanding. 2,600 years later the Dhamma is still available in the same form that the Buddha presented it. Most of us will not or cannot leave the world behind physically and don robes. However, we can “go forth” in our practice in the same manner that was done in the past.
It is “going forth” that the Dhamma, the authentic teachings of the Buddha, develops in every whole-hearted practitioner. Taking true refuge in the Three Jewels – The Buddha, The Dhamma and The Sangha – is going forth. Developing the experience of the cessation of the distraction of stress and unhappiness (dukkha) through the Eightfold path is going forth. Jhana meditation is going forth.
The simple and pure act of meditation is an act of going forth, of leaving the world behind. When shamatha-vipassana meditation is developed and practiced within the framework of the Eightfold Path then meditation becomes an integrated experience of going forth as the Buddha, the Tathagata, experienced over 2,600 years ago.
Engaging the Dhamma whole-heartedly is going forth. As practitioners of the Dhamma we disengage from the distractions of the world through holding in mind all factors of the Eightfold Path as best we can. When our thoughts, words or deeds are not in accordance with the Eightfold Path, the refined mindfulness supported by Jhana meditation brings this into awareness. We are able to remain mindfully “in the world” physically, without being entangled in the distractions of the world.
The Pabbaja Sutta describes going forth. Dhamma practice develops the experience of leaving the world behind while continuing to live in this mental/physical world. We lose attachment to the world and go forth into the open air of dispassionate mindfulness:
(The Buddha) “I saw that the household life is crowded and dusty while going forth brings the open air. Seeing this I went forth. On going forth I then abandoned unskillful thoughts, words, and deeds. I went to Rajgaha, to the fortress of the Magadhans. I wandered for alms. Encountering King Bimbisara he saw the signs of awakening in me: “look at this handsome, pure, and stately one before us. His demeanor calm, his eyes down-cast. Send four Royal messengers to follow him.”
I went from house to house, well-restrained, my sense-gates guarded. I remained mindful and alert. My alms bowl filled, I left for Mount Pandava. There I stayed. Three messengers joined me. One returned. ‘King, the monk sits unwavering, mindful, alert, calm, like a lion in his lair.’
Hearing these words, the King set out for Mount Pandava. Upon arrival he sat to the Buddha’s right and said “you are young and strong. You have the look of nobility and of a warrior. You could lead an army. I offer you wealth. Tell me your birth.” “King, I was born in the foothills of the Himalayas in a land of energy and wealth, the land of the Kosalans. I am Sakyan by birth. I have left that royal life and gone forth. Not in search of sensual pleasures but in renunciation as respite from the world. I strive for understanding. This brings delight.”
The Buddha, having left the sense pleasures of the world behind, freed himself from confusion, delusion, and further suffering. He personally taught thousands of others to do the same. Many would leave the householder’s life and join him as monks and nuns. Many others remained involved with the world having jobs, businesses, and families. Both groups would find that the Buddha’s dhamma will develop release from sensory distractions and clinging to confused and deluded views and awaken.
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.