AS·CET·IC [əˈsedik/] adjective: characterized by or suggesting the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons. “an ascetic life of prayer, fasting, and manual labor”
noun: a person who practices severe self-discipline and abstention.
Gautama did not become Buddha by reading Sutras or chanting. He starved himself, afflicted himself with many pains as an ascetic. Emaciated, fed and nursed back to life by a woman who found him dying; renewed and refreshed, he meditated under a tree until he achieved an enlightened state.
But, what is Enlightenment? Modern science might break it down to its base function of a dopamine and endorphin induced euphoria attained through the rigorous discipline of the mind and body. Of course Gautama became supercharged after what he had gone through—elevated even—to an altered state never experienced or historically documented.
What he taught afterward was a different path than the one he took to become the Buddha. Immediately following his new-found understanding of the human condition, he began teaching the Middle Way. Later he developed the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path as the way leading to Enlightenment, not the abstinence to the point of near-death, followed by a physical revitalization, that led him to it.
In his historical fiction, Siddhartha, Herman Hesse posed a question that relates to this very controversy. The Brahman-turned-seeker explained to the Buddha why he could not become a follower. Siddhartha spoke to Gautama in a reverent way, entreating him:
I have not doubted for a single moment that you are Buddha. You have found salvation from death. It has come to you in the course of your own search, on your own path, through thoughts, through meditation, through realizations, through enlightenment. It has not come to you by means of teachings! And—thus is my thought, oh exalted one: The teachings of the enlightened Buddha contain much. But there is one thing which these so venerable teachings do not contain: they do not contain the mystery of what the exalted one has experienced for himself, he alone among hundreds of thousands. [excerpted; italics added]
Siddhartha’s query might have included not only, ‘what did you experience upon becoming Enlightened,’ but, ‘what steps did you take to attain it; and why do you teach a different Path to your disciples?’ In other words: “It has not come to you by means of teachings!” Hesse may have wondered why the Sutras we read today are a necessary gateway to Enlightenment, when they were a byproduct of Gautama’s release from life’s suffering, not the means he used to realize that freedom.
Despite this contention, the Buddha taught one element to the Path that is key. According to Ch’an Buddhism, every living person is capable of achieving spontaneous enlightenment, but they must let it become manifest.
In reality, we all have the same Buddha nature, and we can manifest this Buddha nature right now. Bodhidharma says that: “The Buddha-nature is obscured by a layer of dust which prevents the real from manifesting.” -Daniel Scharpenburg
What takes years for the novitiate to reach at a Buddhist shrine, may just as well be found by the person who, intent on gaining inner peace, encounters a variety of spiritual experience throughout their life. They won’t find it walking down the street, hit by a bolt of light. But, the search for it may actually be the very thing they seek—the search becoming the thing sought. It certainly is not something you buy from the Zen master at the local temple, or from a monk in an isolated mountain monastery. If someone demands alms, or asks you to devote time with the promise to guide you on the road to Nibbana, they may just as well sell you a paper bag full of tap water. Because Enlightenment is a thing you should experience on your own, just like the Buddha.
The Principles of Ch’an Buddhism -Daniel Scharpenburg