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Introduction to the First Discourse
The Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta

Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11
[SN 5.56.11]

by Narada Maha Thera



"The best of paths is the Eightfold Path. The best of Truths are the four Sayings. Non-attachment is the best of states. The best of bipeds is the Seeing One."
The Dhammapada

Ancient India was noted for distinguished philosophers and religious teachers who held diverse views with regard to life and its goal. Brahmajala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya mentions sixty-two varieties of philosophical theories that prevailed in the time of the Buddha.

One extreme view that was diametrically opposed to all current religious beliefs was the nihilistic teaching of the materialists who were also termed Carvakas after the name of the founder.

According to ancient materialism which, in Pali and Samskrit, was known as Lokayata, man is annihilated after death, leaving behind him whatever force generated by him. In their opinion death is the end of all. This present world alone is real. "Eat, drink, and be merry, for death comes to all," appears to be the ideal of their system. "Virtue", they say, "is a delusion and enjoyment is the only reality. Religion is a foolish aberration, a mental disease. There was a distrust of everything good, high, pure and compassionate. Their theory stands for sensualism and selfishness and the gross affirmation of the loud will. There is no need to control passion and instinct, since they are the nature's legacy to men."

Another extreme view was that emancipation was possible only by leading a life of strict asceticism. This was purely a religious doctrine firmly held by the ascetics of the highest order. The five monks that attended on the Bodhisatta, during His struggle for Enlightenment, tenaciously adhered to this belief.

In accordance with this view the Buddha, too, before His Enlightenment subjected Himself to all forms of austerity. After an extraordinary struggle for six years He realized the utter futility of self-mortification. Consequently, He changed His unsuccessful hard course and adopted a middle way. His favourite disciples thus lost confidence in Him and deserted Him, saying -- "The ascetic Gotama had become luxurious, had ceased from striving, and had returned to a life of comfort." Their unexpected desertion was definitely a material loss to Him as they ministered to all His needs. Nevertheless, He was not discouraged. The iron-willed Bodhisatta must have probably felt happy for being left alone. With unabated enthusiasm and with restored energy He persistently strove until He attained Enlightenment, the object of His life.

Precisely two months after His Enlightenment on the Asalha (July) full moon day the Buddha delivered His first discourse to the five monks that attended on Him.

Dhammacakka is the name given to this first discourse of the Buddha. It is frequently represented as meaning "The Kingdom of Truth." "The Kingdom of Righteousness." "The Wheel of Truth." According to the commentators Dhamma here means wisdom or knowledge, and Cakka means founding or establishment. Dhammacakka therefore means the founding or establishment of wisdom. Dhammacakkappavattana means The Exposition of the Establishment of Wisdom. Dhamma may also be interpreted as Truth, and cakka as wheel. Dhammacakkappavattana would therefore mean -- The Turning or The Establishment of the Wheel of Truth.

In this most important discourse the Buddha expounds the Middle Path which He Himself discovered and which forms the essence of His new teaching. He opened the discourse by exhorting the five monks who believed in strict asceticism to avoid the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification as both do not lead to perfect Peace and Enlightenment. The former retards one's spiritual progress, the latter weakens one's intellect. He criticized both views as He realized by personal experience their futility and enunciated the most practicable, rational and beneficial path, which alone leads to perfect purity and absolute Deliverance.

This discourse was expounded by the Buddha while He was residing at the Deer Park in Isipatana near Benares.

The intellectual five monks who were closely associated with the Buddha for six years were the only human beings that were present to hear the sermon. Books state that many invisible beings such as Devas and Brahmas also took advantage of the golden opportunity of listening to the sermon. As Buddhists believe in the existence of realms other than this world, inhabited by beings with subtle bodies imperceptible to the physical eye, possibly many Devas and Brahmas were also present on this great occasion. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Buddha was directly addressing the five monks and the discourse was intended mainly for them.

At the outset the Buddha cautioned them to avoid the two extremes. His actual words were: -- "There are two extremes (anta) which should not be resorted to by a recluse (pabbajitena)," Special emphasis was laid on the two terms "anta" which means end or extreme and "pabbajita" which means one who has renounced the world.

One extreme, in the Buddha's own words, was the constant attachment to sensual pleasures (kamasukhallikanuyoga). The Buddha described this extreme as base, vulgar, worldly, ignoble, and profitless.

This should not be misunderstood to mean that the Buddha expects all His followers to give up material pleasures and retire to a forest without enjoying this life. The Buddha was not so narrow minded.

Whatever the deluded sensualist may feel about it, to the dispassionate thinker the enjoyment of sensual pleasures is distinctly short-lived, never completely satisfying, and results in unpleasant reactions. Speaking of wordly happiness, the Buddha says that the acquisition of wealth and the enjoyment of possessions are two sources of pleasure for a layman. An understanding recluse would not however seek delight in the pursuit of these fleeting pleasures. To the surprise of the average man he might shun them. What constitutes pleasure to the former is a source of alarm to the latter to whom renunciation alone is pleasure.

The other extreme is the constant addiction to self-mortification (attakilamathanuyoga). Commenting on this extreme, which is not practised by the ordinary man, the Buddha remarks that it is painful, ignoble, and profitless. Unlike the first extreme this is not described as base, worldly, and vulgar. The selection of these three terms is very striking. As a rule it is the sincere recluse who has renounced his attachment to sensual pleasures that resorts to this painful method, mainly with the object of gaining his deliverance from the ills of life. The Buddha, who has had painful experience of this profitless course, describes it as useless. It only multiplies suffering instead of diminishing it.

The Buddhas and Arahants are described as Ariyas meaning Nobles. Anariya (ignoble) may therefore be construed as not characteristic of the Buddha and Arahants who are free from passions. Attha means the ultimate Good, which for a Buddhist is Nibbana, the complete emancipation from suffering. Therefore anatthasamhita may be construed as not conducive to ultimate Good.

The Buddha at first cleared the issues and removed the false notions of His hearers. When their troubled minds became pliable and receptive the Buddha related His personal experience with regard to these two extremes.

The Buddha says that He (the Tathagata), realizing the error of both these two extremes, followed a middle path. This new path or way was discovered by Himself. The Buddha termed His new system Majjhima Patipada -- the Middle Way. To persuade His disciples to give heed to His new path He spoke of its various blessings. Unlike the two diametrically opposite extremes this middle path produces spiritual insight and intellectual wisdom to see things as they truly are. When the insight is clarified and the intellect is sharpened everything is a seen in its true perspective.

Furthermore, unlike the first extreme which stimulates passions, this Middle Way leads to the subjugation of passions which results in Peace. Above all it leads to the attaintment of the four supramundane Paths of Sainthood, to the understanding of the four Noble Truths, and finally to the realization of the ultimate Goal, Nibbana.

Now, what is the Middle Way? The Buddha replies: It is the Noble Eightfold Path. The eight factors are then enumerated in the discourse.

The first factor is Right Understanding, the keynote of Buddhism. The Buddha started with Right Understanding in order to clear the doubts of the monks and guide them on the right way. Right Understanding deals with the knowledge of oneself as one really is; it leads to Right Thoughts of non-attachment or renunciation (nekkhammasamkappa), loving-kindness (avyapada samkappa), and harmlessness (avihimsa samhappa), which are opposed to selfishness, illwill, and cruelty respectively. Right Thoughts result in Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, which three factors perfect one's morality. The sixth factor is Right Effort which deals with the elimination of evil states and the development of good states in oneself. This self-purification is best done by a careful introspection, for which Right Mindfulness, the seventh factor, is essential. Effort, combined with Mindfulness, produces Right Concentration or one-pointedness of the mind, the eighth factor. A one-pointed mind resembles a polished mirror where everything is clearly reflected with no distortion.

Prefacing the discourse with the two extremes and His newly discovered Middle Way, the Buddha expounded the Four Noble Truths in detail.

Sacca is the Pali term for Truth which means that which is. Its Samskrit equivalent is satya which denotes an incontrovertible fact. The Buddha enunciates four such Truths, the foundations of His teaching, which are associated with the so-called being. Hence His doctrine is homocentric, opposed to theocentric religions. It is introvert and not extrovert. Whether the Buddha arises or not these Truths exist, and it is a Buddha that reveals them to the deluded world. They do not and cannot change with time, because they are eternal truths. The Buddha was not indebted to anyone for His realization of them, as He Himself remarked in this discourse thus: "With regard to things unheard before, there arose in me the eye, the knowledge, the wisdom, the insight and the light." These words are very significant because they testify to the originality of His new Teaching. Hence there is no justification in the statement that Buddhism is a natural outgrowth of Hinduism, although it is true that there are some fundamental doctrines common to both systems.

These Truths are in Pali termed Ariya Saccani. They are so called because they were discovered by the Greatest Ariya, that is, one who is far removed from passions.

The First Noble Truth deals with dukkha which, for need of a better English equivalent, is inappropriately rendered by suffering or sorrow. As a feeling dukkha means that which is difficult to be endured. As an abstract truth dukkha is used in the sense of contemptible (du) emptiness (kha). The world rests on suffering -- hence it is contemptible. It is devoid of any reality -- hence it is empty or void. Dukkha therefore means contemptible void.

Average men are only surface-seers. An Ariya sees things as they truly are.

To an Ariya all life is suffering and he finds no real happiness in this world which deceives mankind with illusory pleasures. Material happiness is merely the gratification of some desire.

All are subject to birth (jati) and consequently to decay (jara), disease (vyadhi) and finally to death (marana). No one is exempt from these four causes of suffering.

Wish unfulfilled is also suffering. As a rule one does not wish to be associated with things or persons one detests nor does one wish to be separated from things or persons one likes. One's cherished desires are not however always gratified. At times what one least expects or what one least desires is thrust on oneself. Such unexpected unpleasant circumstances become so intolerable and painful that weak ignorant people are compelled to commit suicide as if such an act would solve the problem.

Real happiness is found within, and is not to be defined in terms of wealth, power, honours or conquests. If such worldly possessions are forcibly or unjustly obtained, or are misdirected or even viewed with attachment, they become a source of pain and sorrow for the possessors.

Normally the enjoyment of sensual pleasures is the highest and only happiness of the average person. There is no doubt some momentary happiness in the anticipation, gratification, and retrospection of such fleeting material pleasures, but they are illusory and temporary. According to the Buddha non-attachment (viragata) or the transcending of material pleasures is a greater bliss.

In brief this composite body (pancupadanakkhandha) itself is a cause of suffering.

There are three kinds of craving. The first is the grossest form of craving, which is simple attachment to all sensual pleasures (kamatanha). The second is attachment to existence (bhavatanha). The third is attachment to non-existence (vibhavatanha). According to the commentaries the last two kinds of craving are attachment to sensual pleasures connected with the belief of Eternalism (sassataditthi) and that which is connected with the belief of Nihilism (ucchedaditthi). Bhavatanha may also be interpreted as attachment to Realms of Form and vibhavatanha, as attachment to Formless Realms since Ruparaga and Aruparaga are treated as two Fetters (samyojanas).

This craving is a powerful mental force latent in all, and is the chief cause of most of the ills of life. It is this craving, gross or subtle, that leads to repeated births in Samsara and that which makes one cling to all forms of life.

The grossest forms of craving are attenuated on attaining Sakadagami, the second stage of Sainthood, and are eradicated on attaining Anagami, the third stage of Sainthood. The subtle forms of craving are eradicated on attaining Arahantship.

Right understanding of the First Noble Truth leads to the eradication (pahatabba) of craving. The Second Noble Truth thus deals with the mental attitude of the ordinary man towards the external objects of sense.

The Third Noble Truth is that there is a complete cessation of suffering which is Nibbana, the ultimate goal of Buddhists. It can be achieved in this life itself by the total eradication of all forms of craving.

This Nibbana is to be comprehended (sacchikatabba) by the mental eye by renouncing all attachment to the external world.

This First Truth of suffering which depends on this so called being and various aspects of life, is to be carefully perceived, analysed and examined (parinneyya). This examination leads to a proper understanding of oneself as one really is.

The cause of this suffering is craving or attachment (tanha). This is the Second Noble Truth.

The Dhammapada states: "From craving springs grief, from craving springs fear; For him who is wholly free from craving, there is no grief, much less fear." (verse 216).

Craving, the Buddha says, leads to repeated births (ponobhavika). This Pali term is very noteworthy as there are some scholars who state that the Buddha did not teach the doctrine of rebirth. This Second Truth indirectly deals with the past, present and future births.

This Third Noble Truth has to be realized by developing (bhavetabba) the Noble Eightfold Path (ariyatthangika magga). This unique path is the only straight way to Nibbana. This is the Fourth Noble Truth.

Expounding the Four Truths in various ways, the Buddha concluded the discourse with the forcible words: "As long, O Bhikkhus, as the absolute true intuitive knowledge regarding these Four Noble Truths under their three aspects and twelve modes was not perfectly clear to me, so long I did not acknowledge that I had gained the incomparable Supreme Enlightenment.

"When the absolute true intuitive knowledge regarding these Truths became perfectly clear to me, then only did I acknowledge that I had gained the incomparable Supreme Enlightenment (anuttara sammasambodhi)."

"And there arose in me the knowledge and insight: Unshakable is the deliverance of my mind, this is my last birth, and now there is no existence again."

At the end of the discourse Kondanna, the senior of the five disciples, understood the Dhamma and, attaining the first stage of Sainthood, realized that whatever is subject to origination all that is subject to cessation -- Yam kinci samudayadhammam sabbam tam nirodhadhammam.

When the Buddha expounded the discourse of the Dhammacakka, the earth-bound deities exclaimed: "This excellent Dhammacakka, which could not be expounded by any ascetic, priest, god, Mara or Brahma in this world, has been expounded by the Exalted One at the Deer Park, in Isipatana, near Benares."

Hearing this, Devas and Brahmas of all the other planes also raised the same joyous cry.

A radiant light, surpassing the effulgence of the gods, appeared in the world.

The light of the Dhamma illumined the whole world, and brought peace and happiness to all beings.



Taken from "The Buddha and His Teachings"
Written by Ven. Narada
Published by Cultural Conservation Trust
Reprinted with permission.



PTS, L. Feer, Samyutta-Nikaya V: Maha-vagga XII: Sacca-Samyutta 2: Dhammacakkapavattana-vaggo, pp 420
PTS, F.L. Woodward, trans., The Book of the Kindred Sayings V: The Great Chapter XI: Kindred Sayings about the Truths II: Foundation of the Kingdom of the Norm, pp 356
WP, Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans., The Connected Discourses of the Buddha II: The Great Book 12: Connected Discourses on the Truths 2: Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma, pp1843


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