Out in the countryside beyond the palace, Siddhārtha studies with various wise men, and practices different techniques. He stays with a group of ascetics who attempt to achieve understanding by eating as little as possible. In diminishing the physical, they hope to strengthen their grasp of the metaphysical. Siddhārtha starves himself to the brink of death, but this strategy only perpetuates his pain. He comes to see it as another expression of his discomfort with the “ever-present problem of life and death.”
For six years, Siddhārtha continues in this pattern of discontent, unhappy with his life and miserable at the thought of death. He learns to make some concessions to his physical needs—sufficient food and a few creature comforts—but he still struggles with accepting things as they are, with feeling at peace in light of his human condition. He finds a pleasant spot under a tree, close enough to the trunk that he can lean against it if he needs to, and makes a nice place to sit with a bed of straw. He commits to staying put until he finds a way to put an end to his suffering. For a time, he falls into old habits: he gets caught up in the past; he worries about the future. Finally, he manages to subdue those thoughts, to plant his feet firmly in the “now.” At last, at the age of 35, he arrives at nirvana or “the extinction of all concepts.” He sees things just as they are, not filtered through memories or projections or ideas. His search for a more suitable place to be comes to an end. He settles into the simple peace that only the present moment can provide.
This newfound perspective transforms Siddhārtha into Buddha and eliminates his trepidation about life and death by providing him with a deeper understanding of the human condition. To communicate this insight to others, he used a number of analogies. One in particular involves a single blind tortoise swimming in a vast ocean on the surface of which floats a gold ring. The tortoise comes up for air only once every 100 years. It is rarer, said the Buddha, to be born human than for the turtle to come up for a breath with its neck through the ring.
The tortoise helps lift a burden I hadn’t realized I was carrying. From the Bible, I knew others had characterized the gate to life as narrow, but to have it acknowledged as so infinitesimally slender further illustrates the unimaginable odds. To sense this, and not put words to it, is to feel overwhelmed, even to perceive its enormity as a burden. But to acknowledge it is to bring it into the open, to begin to embrace those slim chances, to start on a path from fear to gratitude. At the same time, the analogy hints at the countless eons before and after the turtle emerges to breathe the air; the time it may spend with its head through the ring is a brief flicker in a larger story.