One of the two teachers to whom Gotama, after his renunciation, first attached himself, the other being Uddaka Rāmaputta. In the Milindapañha (p.236) Ālāra is mentioned as Gotama's fourth teacher. The ThigA. (p.2) says he went to Bhaggava before going to Ālāra. The Mtu. (ii.117f.) and the Lal. (330f), give quite different accounts.
In the Ariyaparivesāna Sutta (M.i.163-5; also 240ff; ii.94ff, 212ff) the Buddha describes his visit to Ālāra. Gotama quickly mastered his doctrine and was able to repeat it by heart; but feeling sure that Ālāra not only knew the doctrine but had realised it, he approached him and questioned him about it. Ālāra then proclaimed the ākiñcaññāyatana (sphere of nothingness, see jhāna 7), and Gotama, putting forth energy and concentration greater than Ālāra's, made himself master of that state. Ālāra recognised his pupil's eminence and treated him as an equal, but Gotama, not having succeeded in his quest, took leave of Ālāra to go elsewhere (VibhA.432). When, after having practised austerities for six years, the Buddha attained Enlightenment and granted Sahampati's request to preach the doctrine, it was of Ālāra he thought first as being the fittest to hear the teaching. But Ālāra had died seven days earlier (Vin.i.7).
The books mention little else about Ālāra. The Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta (D.16; Vsm.330) mentions a Mallian, Pukkusa, who says he had been Ālāra’s disciple, but who, when he hears the Buddha's sermon, confesses faith in the Buddha. Pukkusa describes Ālāra to the Buddha as one who practised great concentration. Once Ālāra was sitting in the open air and neither saw nor heard five hundred passing carts though he was awake and conscious.
As already stated above, the aim of Ālāra’s practices is stated to have been the attainment of Akiñcaññayatana, the stage of nothingness. Whether this statement is handed down with any real knowledge of the facts of his teaching, it is not now possible to say. Asvaghosa, in his Buddhacarita (xii.17ff), puts into the mouth of Ārāda or Ālāra, a brief account of his philosophy. It has some resemblance - though this is slight - to the Sānkhya philosophy, but in Ālāra’s teaching some of the salient characteristics of the Sānkhya system are absent. In reply to Gotama's questions about the religious life and the obtaining of final release, Ālāra describes a system of spiritual development which is identical with the methods of the Buddhist monk up to the last attainment but one. The monk reaches the four jhānas and then attains successively to the states of space, infinity and nothingness. The last three stages are described in the terms of the first three of the four Attainments. (For a discussion on this see Thomas, op. cit., p.229-30; see also MA.ii.881; VibhA.432).
According to Buddhaghosa (AA.i.458), Bharandu Kālāma was a disciple of Ālāra at the same time as Gotama and is therefore described as the Buddha's purāna-sabrahmacārī (A.i.277). Buddhaghosa further tells us (DA.ii.569) that in Ālāra Kālāma, Ālāra was his personal name. He was so called because he was dīgha-pingala (long and tawny).