First Turning of the Dharma Wheel
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Talk presented in the Deer Park at the Buddha Center, Second Life – First in a series offering a way to think differently about Buddhist ideals meeting the realities of contemporary life.
Siddhartha traveled over a thousand miles from his birthplace and home at Lumbini to the shade of a bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya where he attained awakening. He had abandoned a life of wealth and ease as a prince destined for greatness in order to pursue knowledge and wisdom. Along the way he studied with eminent teachers like Yogic-Master Alara Kamala and he experienced the life of an ascetic living in the forest submitting himself to excessive deprivations in pursuit of his goal to understand human suffering. Finally, after just sitting in meditation under a bodhi tree and gaining the knowledge of a Noble Path out of suffering he set out toward home, searching as he went for someone that might also understand the depth of compassion and wisdom that arose with Siddhartha’s awakening. In the city of Sarnath, 200 miles closer to his home, Siddhartha encountered the five ascetic monks he had once practiced with. They had previously abandoned Siddhartha because of his change in worldview from one of the power of deprivation to help one achieve spiritual liberation to moderation in all things is a more pragmatic path. Realizing that these were five men most likely to be capable of understanding what Siddhartha had awakened to he sat with them in the Deer Park at Isipatana in Varanasi and began to teach.
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: The First Turning of the Dharma Wheel is the text of that first teaching, a teaching personally experienced by the Buddha’s disciple who related it, as evidenced by the words that begin the sutra – Thus have I heard. Siddhartha speaks first of the Middle Way that is realized through mindfulness avoidance of the two extremes of deprivation and gluttony. Then the Four Ennobling Truths that he had awakened to were spoken aloud to the five ascetics, truths that would come to reshape their worldview as it had Siddhartha’s if those realizations were viewed as actions. In the final verses of the sutra Siddhartha says, “This is the last birth. There is no more re-becoming.” Seen by many to be a confirmation of Siddhartha’s acceptance of the Hindu ideal of rebirth there is another lens to view those words through . . . a lens we’ll look through in a future talk. The Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta offers these important teachings in a traditional manner. Viewing it through a “contemporary lens” the lessons that the Buddha imparted can help guide a contemporary Noble Life, just as the view through a “traditional lens” still guides practitioners today.
Now . . . imagine you sit cross-legged in the manicured grass of a royal park. Your one-time friend and fellow ascetic sits before you. No longer is he thin and malnourished . . . nor is he fat and satisfied. Siddhartha looks more content than anyone you’ve ever encountered and you want to know why so you listen. You experience a new paradigm of dharma and it changes how you view yourself and the world around you. By the end you come to a new way of thinking, and regard Siddhartha as the Buddha, the Awakened One.
Based on the translation by Piyadassi Thera, editing and commentary by Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi
Thus have I heard:
On one occasion the Blessed One was living in the Deer Park at Isipatana near Sarnath. Then he addressed the group of five ascetic monks:
The earliest teachings in the Pali Nikayas are directed at “monks” and there is logic in this. Most of the Buddhist sutras are teachings for “monks” with the notable exceptions of the Sigalovada and Vimalakirti Sutras, each of these written hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death. A layperson, in many instances can substitute layperson for monk or monastic in the sutras and recognize the value of a teaching that goes beyond monastery walls.
When Siddhartha sat down to speak to the five ascetics they were holy men of an ascetic spiritual practice . . . but they were laypeople where Siddhartha’s new paradigm was concerned. As time passed Siddhartha would have focused his teaching on training a sangha of monks that he could trust to pass on his lessons in their own skillful ways. This is evidence too that a realization of conditioned arising was at the heart of the dharma. Siddhartha taught the dharma from the perspective of a prince/ascetic/teacher to men and women who would take his words and ideals and teach them from their own unique perspective while keeping to Siddhartha’s intent to guide humans to the alleviation of suffering. This is a dynamic that continues today in the student/spiritual teacher relationship.
“Monks, these two extremes should not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ignoble people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.
Being overwhelming attracted to the pleasures that arise from the six senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and consciousness leads to indulging in thoughts and actions that hinder a spiritual practice. Without mindfulness the pursuit of sense-pleasures can quickly take the place of pursuit of a Noble Life.
Indulging in sense-pleasures is like a person whose avatar wanders Second Life engaging in master/slave relationships, sexual play, fantasy role playing games, and the beauty of some of the lands in this virtual reality without acknowledging the opportunities for learning and positive character development available in that virtual world, and that there are virtual activities that “muddy the water” of a sincere Buddhist practice.
One can also be addicted to self-abuse and mortification. In Siddhartha’s culture and time we think of the ascetics who starved themselves, slept on the ground in the forests, and wore clothing made from the cast-offs in the charnel pits because this is the mortification that he spoke of in this sutra. To engage the dynamism of the dharma we must see beyond Siddhartha’s story to our own. Self-mortification is any thought or action that degrades or diminishes the value of one’s self or one’s actions. Today self-mortification can be viewed as more than it was in Siddhartha’s time and culture. Any activity, from sexual misconduct to reality t.v., to belittling our own thoughts and actions, to inappropriate virtual activities that draws a person away from the Noble Path can be seen as painful, unworthy and unprofitable on the Noble Path.
“Avoiding both these extremes, the Awakened One has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nirvana. And what is that Middle Path realized by the Awakened One…? It is the Noble Eightfold path, and nothing else, namely: appropriate understanding, appropriate thought, appropriate speech, appropriate action, appropriate livelihood, appropriate effort, appropriate mindfulness and appropriate concentration. This is the Middle Path realized by the Awakened One which gives vision, which gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment, and to Nirvana.”
The Dhammacakkapavattana Sutra may be the most personal of all of Siddhartha’s talks. While he never mentions his own journey directly, he alludes to it. He had lived the two extremes and experienced the positive and negative consequences of them, as a prince and a pauper. What Siddhartha offered was not theory or ideals he agreed with, it was personal experience that led him to knowledge and wisdom.
His initial emphasis is on moderation, on the Middle Path that is walked between excess and deprivation. Siddhartha offers the path that worked for him, a path that required a “creative re-description” of how he saw himself and the world around him. The Ennobling Eightfold Path IS the Middle Path. Being always mindful of engaging life moment-to-moment with appropriate view and intent; of speech, action and livelihood; of effort, mindfulness, concentration allows the practitioner to stop seeing themselves and their world through a “lens of delusion” and instead leads to discovering that positive thought and action will result in positive karmic consequences.
NOTE: Monday, Jan 31st at the Buddha Center the second part of this important sutra.