Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: First Turning of the Dharma Wheel
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
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 abandoned a life of wealth and ease as a prince destined for greatness. Along the way he studied with eminent teachers like Yogic-Master Alara Kamala and experienced the life of an ascetic living in the forest submitting himself to excessive deprivations in pursuit of his goal to understand human suffering. Now with 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 those five men were capable of understanding what Siddhartha had awakened to he sat with them in the Deer Park at Isipatana in Varanasi and began to teach.
What was said then is written down in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: The First Turning of the Dharma Wheel. Siddhartha speaks first of the Middle Way that is avoided through mindfulness of the two extremes of deprivation and gluttony. He offered that the Middle Path can be realized by following the Ennobling Eightfold Path. 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. 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 view. 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.
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 the dharma and it changes how you view yourself and the world around you. By the end you are thinking of Siddhartha as the Buddha, the Awakened One.
Based on the translation by Piyadassi Thera, edited 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 exception of the Sigalovada and Vimalakirti Sutras, and each of these were written hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death.
When Siddhartha sat down to speak to the five ascetics they were monks 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 would trust to pass on his lessons in their own skillful ways. This is evidence too that 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 teacher/student 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 awareness the pursuit of sense-pleasures will 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.
One can also be addicted to self-abuse. 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. that draws a person away from the Noble Path can be seen as painful, unworthy and unprofitable.
“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: encompassing and corrective understanding, encompassing and corrective thought, encompassing and corrective speech, encompassing and corrective action, encompassing and corrective livelihood, encompassing and corrective effort, encompassing and corrective mindfulness and encompassing and corrective 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.
This 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 to be tested by others but personal experience leading to knowledge and wisdom being offered.
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 “re-wiring” 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 encompassing and corrective view and intent; of speech, action and livelihood; of effort, meditation, concentration allows the practitioner to stop seeing themselves and their world through a “lens of delusion” and instead discovering that positive thought and action result in positive karmic consequences.
“The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha), monks, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering — in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.
“The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering is this: It is this craving which produces re-becoming (rebirth) accompanied by passionate greed, and finding fresh delight now here, and now there, namely craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence and craving for non-existence.
“The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of those very cravings, giving them up, relinquishing them, liberating oneself from them, and detaching oneself from them.
“The Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the Noble Eightfold Path, and nothing else, namely: encompassing and corrective understanding, encompassing and corrective thought, encompassing and corrective speech, encompassing and corrective action, encompassing and corrective livelihood, encompassing and corrective effort, encompassing and corrective mindfulness and encompassing and corrective concentration.
“‘This is the Four Ennobling Truths’: such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before. ‘This suffering, as a noble truth, should be fully realized’: such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before. ‘This suffering, as ennobling truths have been fully realized’: such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before.
There have been some scholars, religious and secular, who have described Buddhism as a pessimistic philosophy and psychology . . . and there are examples in Buddhist texts that support that assumption . . . until we look deeper. In his first dharma talk the Buddha begins with good news – that there is a path, an Ennobling Eightfold Path that leads away from suffering – before injecting a dose of reality, that suffering is truth that encompasses all of human-kind. Perhaps what is being viewed by some as pessimistic is actually pragmatic. Some people need to be shocked by the negative in order to respond with the positive.
The Four Ennobling Truths that Siddhartha awoke to are foundational principles that all Buddhist traditions accept. The Buddha offers insight into the condition of the world NOW, both in his life-time and in our life-times. It is a truth that is as impermanent as all other phenomena depending on what happens in the future, a future we can’t see or react to. To prepare for an unknown future we realize that suffering, discontent, and unsatisfactoriness are real quantifiable factors of human existence so we might as well open our eyes and see clearly the cause so that we can respond now in appropriate ways that can result in positive consequences. There are five cravings, or attachments that generates psychoemotional suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering, death is suffering. These are five situations/experiences that we all must deal with from birth to death; it is how we deal with them that can increase suffering or decrease it. And, coming full-circle the Eightfold Path is Way out of suffering, discontent and unsatisfactoriness. Yes . . . suffering is a fact of life and the first teaching the Buddha offered was that he had realized a path, an Ennobling Eightfold Path that guided one away from suffering and offered the tools necessary to help others do the same.
Siddhartha said, “This suffering, as ennobling truths have been fully realized’: such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before.” Traditional translations use noble rather than ennobling. In EDIG we use the term ennobling as a reminder that the Four Truths are not to just be believed; they are realizations that when acted upon place us on the Noble Path, the path to liberation.
“As long as my knowledge of seeing things as they really are, was not quite clear concerning the Four Noble Truths, I did not claim to have realized the matchless, supreme Enlightenment, in this world with its gods, with its Maras and Brahmas, in this generation with its recluses and brahmas, with its Devas and humans. But when my knowledge of seeing things as they really are was quite clear in these three aspects, in these twelve ways, concerning the Four Noble Truths, then I claimed to have realized the matchless, supreme Enlightenment in this world with its gods, with its Maras and Brahmas, in this generation with its recluses and brahmanas, with its Devas and humans. And a vision of insight arose in me thus: ‘Unshakable is the deliverance of my heart. This is the last birth. Now there is no more re-becoming (rebirth).'”
It wasn’t until Siddhartha had his enlightened moment, when he saw past his own delusions and habits that he experienced liberation. He speaks of the world with its gods, the generation with its abundance of holy men, and proliferation of deific avatars and human gurus. These were all aspects of the Hindu culture, aspects that Siddhartha recognized as hindrances to the Noble Path. As long as man relied on outside, metaphysical forces to make positive changes; as long as they denied there own responsibility in HOW they were, then human-kind would be forever stuck in samsara.
“Unshakable is the deliverance of my heart. This is the last birth. Now there is no more re-becoming (rebirth).” The idea of rebirth as a Buddhist concept has long been debated on. Siddhartha as a Hindu most likely accepted the notion of rebirth. What is at question is does this quote, and some others point directly to Siddhartha accepting rebirth as a human reality. Did the idea of rebirth fit into the truth of human existence that Siddhartha realized? Or, was his perception of rebirth more like the Christian ideal of “I am reborn in Christ the Savior”? Rebirth is a subject we’ll leave now, but will return to it in a later talk.
This the Blessed One said. The group of five monks was glad, and they rejoiced at the words of the Blessed One.
When this discourse was thus expounded there arose in the Venerable Kondañña the passion-free, stainless vision of Truth, he realized: “Whatever has the nature of arising, has the nature of ceasing.”
The teaching of Siddhartha had awoken knowledge of co-dependent arising in Kondanna. Suffering arose as a consequence of thought and action. As well, suffering could be made to fall away as a consequence of thought and action. This was a powerful realization for a person whose life had been one of accepting the permanence of his conscious and unconscious mind. Here, Kondanna experienced a ‘rebirth’ of worldview.
Now when the Blessed One set in motion the Dharma Wheel, the Bhummattha devas (the earth deities) proclaimed: “The Matchless Wheel of Truth that cannot be set in motion by recluse, brahmana, deva, Mara, Brahma, or any one in the world, is set in motion by the Blessed One in the Deer Park at Isipatana near Varanasi.”
Hearing these words of the earth deities, all the Catummaharajika devas proclaimed: “The Matchless Wheel of Truth that cannot be set in motion by recluse, brahmana, deva, Mara, Brahma, or any one in the world, is set in motion by the Blessed One in the Deer Park at Isipatana near Varanasi.” These words were heard in the upper deva realms, and from Catummaharajika it was proclaimed in Tavatimsa… Yama… Tusita… Nimmanarati… Paranimmita-vasavatti… and the Brahmas of Brahma Parisajja… Brahma Purohita… Maha Brahma… Parittabha… Appamanabha… Abhassara… Parittasubha… Appamana subha… Subhakinna… Vehapphala… Aviha… Atappa… Sudassa… Sudassi… and in Akanittha: “The Matchless Wheel of Truth that cannot be set in motion by recluse, brahman, deva, Mara, Brahma, or any one in the world, is set in motion by the Blessed One in the Deer Park at Isipatana near Sarnath.”
Thus at that very moment, at that instant, the cry that the Dharma Wheel is set in motion spread as far as Brahma realm, the system of ten thousand worlds trembled and quaked and shook. A boundless sublime radiance surpassing the power of devas appeared in the world.
The Four Ennobling Truths and the reality of co-dependent arising put the power to enact positive change firmly in the hands of mankind. These were truths not reached by the deities, brahmas, devas, recluses and maras so prevalent in Hinduism; the truths sublime radiance was awoken to by a man, Siddhartha. It was a spiritual and social paradigm that Siddhartha realized could surpass the power of gods over men.
Then the Blessed One uttered this paean of joy: “Verily Kondañña has realized; verily Kondañña has realized the Four Ennobling Truths.” Thus it was that the Venerable Kondañña received the name, “Añña Kondañña’ — Kondañña who realizes.”
Anna Kondanna is put forth as the first real disciple of the Buddha. With the realization of his enlightened moment Anna Kondanna took his first step on the Noble Path. It is an ennobling step we are each capable of taking.