Among the renunciants, asceticism was a common spiritual practice—punishing the body as a way to attain serenity and wisdom. Siddhartha fell in with five other ascetics, and soon was outdoing them in mortifying the flesh—subjecting his body to extremes of hardship and pain.
Kevin Trainor, scholar: "The body represents a fundamental problem. Old age brings decrepitude to the body. Sickness brings pain and suffering to the body, and death is ultimately the cessation of the functioning of the body."
So there was a sense that if you could punish the body sufficiently you could escape its influence, you could transcend some of the limitations that the body seemed to impose.
Jane Hirshfield, poet: "The ascetic pursues the truth by taking the requirements of survival down to the absolute minimum possible, barely enough food to stay alive, no protection from the elements, no heat, sit in the cold, sit in the rain, meditate fiercely for all the hours of awakening."
W.S. Merwin, poet: "The step of renunciation, of shedding everything, of dying, the feeling that one is dying to one's life as it was is essential to being reborn as someone who sees."
Ascetics can still be seen in India, firm in the belief that by subduing the flesh they can gain spiritual power.
"I had a home and I left it when I was sixteen. I don’t desire material things. To progress along your spiritual path, you should not desire material things. Keeping lots of things leads to greed. I am fifty years old. And from divine knowledge I know that to learn all there is to know, I will need forty more years. And then I will attain enlightenment."
— Bikopuri Shankapuir, ascetic
Emaciated, exhausted Siddhartha punished himself for six years, trying to put an end to the cravings that beset him.
Mark Epstein, psychiatrist: "He tortures himself. He’s trying to destroy anything within himself that he sees as bad. The spiritual traditions of that time said you can be liberated if you eliminate everything that’s human, you know everything that’s coarse and vulgar, every bit of anger, every bit of desire. If you wipe that out with force of will then you can go into some kind of transcendental state, and the Buddha tried all that. He became the most anorectic of the anorectic ascetics. He was eating one grain of rice per day, he was drinking his own urine, he was standing on one foot, he was sleeping on nails. He did it all to the utmost."
“My body slowly became extremely emaciated. My limbs became like the jointed segments of vine or bamboo stems. My spine stood out like a string of beads. My ribs jutted out like the jutting rafters of an old, abandoned building. The gleam of my eyes appeared to be sunk deep in my eye sockets like the gleam of water deep in a well. My scalp shriveled and withered like a green bitter gourd, shriveled and withered in the heat and wind.”
Venerable Metteyya Sakyaputta, monk: "What he was trying to do was pushing his body to the most extreme that he could. But then he realized that from that he couldn’t gain what he wants. Trying to torture the body. The body becomes too much. The whole attention is given to the body, nothing else."
Hirshfield: "He surrendered himself completely to the hard training that he was given. And what he discovered having tried this completely for many years was that he had not answered his question. It hadn’t worked. He was on the verge of death, dying, unawakened, when he remembered something. He remembered a day when he was young and sat by the river with his father and the perfection of the world as it was simply gave itself to him."