It was about the same time when Prince Siddhattha married (and thus, for the time-being at least, made another step into worldly life) that Kolita and Upatissa left behind their worldly homes and started upon their quest for inner peace and salvation. Together with their friends, they began a period of training under a spiritual teacher, just as the Bodhisatta did later.
At that time, there were many teachers with many different views. Some of them even taught amoralism, others taught fatalism, and again others taught materialism. Both friends realized the hollowness of such teachings early enough and thus did not take them too seriously. In Rajagaha, however, there was one teacher who appealed to them. His name was Sanjaya who, according to tradition, was identical with Sanjaya Belatthaputta, mentioned in the Pali Canon as one of the six non-Buddhist teachers. Under him the group of friends was ordained, which added considerably to Sanjaya's reputation. What did he teach them? The texts do not provide an answer to this question in a way we are used to, but only some key ideas are briefly indicated, which, for the Indian of those days, was sufficient for making them understand the substance of these teachings.
Contrary to other ascetic teachers who made definite dogmatic statements about specific topics, Sanjaya posed what may be called "the deepest existential problems" in a more comprehensive way. Firstly: Is there another world beyond our empirical surface experience? Secondly: After the death of this material body, does one appear in that other world by way of a purely mental birth process as a spontaneously arisen being? Thirdly: Whatever action one had committed in this carnal existence, be it good or bad, will it take effect in the next life, be it of a spiritual or human type, by way of reward or punishment, thus constituting our destiny? Fourthly: What, finally, is the destiny of a Perfected One after death? In which way is it possible to conceive and describe his state or condition? Whenever such questions were raised by ancient Indian thinkers, four alternative types of answers were thought to be possible: affirmation; negation; partial affirmation and partial negation; neither affirmation nor negation. Sanjaya, however, taught that, with regard to the questions mentioned, none of those four positions was acceptable as a solution; they all contained unresolvable contradictions (antinomies), and therefore one should refrain from any judgment about these problems. Here it may be noted that, from the four sets of antinomies which often occur in the Pali scriptures (e.g., Majjh. 63), only the fourth set is identical with Sanjaya's problems, namely the one concerning the after-death state of a Perfected One.
While other ascetic teachers as a solution of their problems always advocated one of the four logical alternatives — yes, no, yes and no, neither-nor — Sanjaya did not commit himself to any of them. Especially, he did not commit himself dogmatically to the unprovable assertion (made, for instance, by popular natural science) that there is no world beyond, no mind-made (astral) body, no law of Karma and no survival after death. In that attitude, he clearly differed from the materialists of his time. He rather taught that, in view of the unresolvable nature of these problems, one should keep to a stance of detachment and impartiality, not tolerating the slightest bias towards approval or disapproval of any of these theories and their consequences. From that we can see that he was a confirmed agnostic and skeptic of a peculiar brand who tried to convert the purely negative "Ignorabimus" ("We cannot know") into a definite philosophical attitude. In some ways, he was what we nowadays would call an existentialist. He taught, so to speak, a kind of dialectical existentialism, instead of dialectical materialism.
An Indian king Ajatasattu, reported to the Buddha the following talk he had with the ascetic Sanjaya:
"One day I went to Sanjaya of the Belattha clan and I asked him: 'Can you, sir, declare to me an immediate fruit, visible in this very world, of the life of a recluse?' Being thus asked, Sanjaya said: 'If you asked me whether there is another world — well, if I thought there were, I would say so. But I don't say so. And I don't think it is thus or thus. And I don't think it is otherwise. And I don't deny it. And I don't say there neither is nor is not, another world. And if you asked me about the beings produced spontaneously; or whether there is any fruit, any result, of good or bad actions; or whether a Tathagata continues or not after death — to each or any of these questions do I give the same reply.'
"Thus, Lord, did Sanjaya of the Belattha clan, when asked what was the immediate fruit and advantage in the life of a recluse, show his manner or prevarication."
— Digha Nikaya No. 2; adapted from the translation by T.W. Rhys Davids.
But Kolita and Upatissa who, at that time, had not found any better teacher, were attracted by Sanjaya as they must have felt that his philosophical stance was something more than mere evasion. Yet, after a short time, they realized that Sanjaya did not know what they were searching for: a cure for the illness of universal suffering. Besides, they intuitively felt sure that there actually was another world, that there were mind-born beings (as, e.g., deities), and that there was a moral recompense of actions. In so far, their understanding went beyond that of their skeptical teacher. Furthermore, Sanjaya, in total contradiction to his dogmatic skepticism, had once declared that his best disciples had been reborn at such and such a place (Samy. 44, 9). Hence, one day, the two friends approached Sanjaya and asked him whether he had still other teachings to convey than those they had learned from him. To this he replied: "That is all. You know my entire teaching." Hearing this, they decided to leave and to continue their search. They felt that it was for finding liberation that they had left their families, and not for the sake of endless and futile agnostic arguments.
Thus, for a second time, they took up the life of wanderers in search of truth. Again, they walked across India for many years, from North to South, from East to West. They endured the dust of the road and the tormenting heat, the rain and the wind, being spurred on by thoughts that moved the mind of many Indians:
"I am a victim of birth, aging and death, of sorrow, lamentations, pains, griefs and despairs. I am a victim of suffering, a prey of suffering. Surely, an end of this whole mass of suffering is discovered!"
— Majjh. 28; trans. Ñanamoli.
In their travels they met many ascetics and brahmans who had the reputation to be exceptionally wise. With them they had religious talks on God and world, heaven and hell and on the meaning of life and the way of salvation. But with their keen and critical minds trained by Sanjaya's skepticism, they very soon realized the emptiness of all those assertions and the learned ignorance of these philosophers. None of these teachers could answer their probing questions, while the two friends themselves were quite able to reply when questioned.
There is no record that tells us to which other teachers they had gone. But it would be surprising if the two truth-seekers had not met such mystics and sages as for instance the seer Bavari of great meditative power or the two teachers of Formless Infinity whose disciple the Bodhisattva was for some time. But from their life story we can conclude that the two attained as little to the world-transcending experience of liberation as the Bodhisattva did. What may have been the cause of that lack of attainment?
There are two possibilities for spiritual seekers: either to gain inner peace and serenity by deep meditation (samadhi) or to seek for a clear teaching about the meaning of existence in its entirety, which encompasses the meaning of that inner peace. Those who had achieved such inner peace through meditation, mostly gave up any further search as they had found an overwhelming bliss which they believed to be the goal. But at its best, this bliss would last a few aeons in one of the celestial worlds, and then its kammic force would be spent, leaving the meditators in the same samsaric imprisonment as before. In former lives, this must have happened often to the Bodhisattva as well as to Kolita and Upatissa. Though the two friends had no recollection of such previous experiences, they obviously had an intuitive feeling that meditative bliss and its rewards were not the final goal, but only a temporary relief within the continuing cycle of suffering. Hence their foremost quest was for clarity about the concatenation of existence, how things hang together in this complex Samsara. But such clarity cannot be found without the help of a Buddha. Hence they had to continue their search until it had led them to the Buddha. In ages void of a Buddha's appearance, their search would have been as futile as the recurring attainment, enjoyment and again losing of Samadhi. It may have been an undefinable inner urge within them, which did not allow them to rest until they had found the Buddha who, like them, had gone forth in search of liberation, during the last years of their own quest. If even the Bodhisattva, the future Buddha, only in the pressing situation of a great spiritual crisis remembered the meditative experience of his young years and only then could see it and use it as a gate to liberation, it was not to be expected that the two friends would find out by themselves that meditative absorption (jhana) was to be used as a gate of access to higher stages of the mind's emancipation. They neither had the meditative experience nor the wide and independent mental range of a Buddha. This is one of the aspects of existential misery, of prison-like ignorance: either one settles down at the gate, regarding it, as the mystics do, as one's true home of peace and bliss; or one by-passes it quickly. In retrospect, the friends' wanderings in search of truth were just a going in circles, in expectation of a Buddha's message of the liberating Path.