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It is said that Siddhartha had lived many lives before this one as countless animals, innumerable human beings, and even gods, across four incalculable ages, the sacred texts say, and many eons, experiencing life in all its different forms.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama:"Siddhartha's previous lives, many aeons. Sometimes as a human being, sometimes as an animal, but then gradually, using his practice, becoming more higher and higher, deeper, deeper."

Trinh Xuan Thuan, astrophysicist: "The idea is from life to life to progress more and more towards enlightenment and become wiser and wiser."

Robert Tenzin Thurman, scholar: "Some beings will stubbornly insist on their ignorance and their egotism and they will charge ahead grabbing and eating what they can in front of themselves and being dissatisfied but thinking that the next bite will do it. And they will die and be reborn and die and be reborn an infinite times. It could take them a billion lifetimes if they’re very stubborn, you know."

D. Max Moerman, scholar:"And becoming a Buddha, becoming enlightened is the only way of getting out of the continual cycle of death and rebirth. Now rebirth here isn’t the popular notion that, you know, in my past life I was Cleopatra floating down the Nile, or Napoleon. It’s as if every life is going through Junior High School again over and over and over."

Yogi and guru
Yogi and guru
Thomas Laird
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With the authority of the priests worn thin and wisdom seekers like Siddhartha roaming the countryside, holy men emerged teaching their own spiritual disciplines. Siddhartha apprenticed himself to one of them, a celebrated guru who taught that true knowledge could never come from ritual practice alone. It was necessary to look within.

"You may stay here with me,” the guru told him. “A wise person can soon dwell in his teacher's knowledge and experience it directly for himself." Siddhartha set himself to learn the rigorous practices the guru prescribed.

Mark Epstein, psychiatrist:"The teachers of the time are already teaching forms of yoga and meditation, teaching that the self reflective capacity of the mind can be put to use to tame the mind, to tame the passions—that was already established in India. And there were probably so many schools of yoga and meditation in those days just as there are now."

Dr. Yogiraj Rakesh Pandey, yogi:"Yoga is not only for the body, although it benefits the body in many ways. The ultimate goal of yoga is to achieve deep meditation. It does not come easily or quickly. It comes by practice."

Dr. Yogiraj Rakesh Pandey, yogi
David Grubin Productions
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Although yoga appears to focus on controlling the body, it is in fact an ancient, spiritual discipline, a form of meditation, harnessing the energies of the body to tame the mind. Some yogis learn to sit without moving for hours, breathing more and more slowly until they seem to be barely breathing at all.

Epstein:"All kinds of trance states are possible through meditation. If you hold the mind, if you concentrate the mind on a single object, be it a word or a candle flame or a sound, it’s possible to transport the mind into all kinds of interesting places. The person who was to become the Buddha was very good at all those practices. He was a super student, doing these practices, taking them to their limit. And no matter what he did in these practices he was still stuck in the pain that he set out with."

Kevin Trainor, scholar: "He ascends to these very, rarified states of consciousness, but it’s not permanent and it does not bring penetrating truth into the nature of reality. So these become a temporary escape from the problem of existence but they don’t solve the problem."

Siddhartha apprenticed himself to another popular guru, but the results were the same. He said later:

"The thought occurred to me; this practice does not lead to stillness, to direct knowledge, to deeper awareness.”

Disenchanted, he left this master, too. Siddhartha continued to drift south, still searching for the answer to his questions: "Why do human beings suffer? Is there any escape?"

Moerman: "He’s trying and trying and searching and searching, and he already experienced extreme luxuries, so now he tries extreme deprivation."


Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.