The Buddha delivered his first teaching after his Enlightenment to the five monks who had been his companions during his period of austerities. The setting was the Deer Park at Isipatana (the modern village of Sarnath), near Varanasi. This is the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta—the teaching that set in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma. It appears in Chapter 56 of the Samyutta Nikaya.
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is, to my mind, the single most important text in the history of mankind. I don’t know any other teaching that is so concise, so clear, so deep, so compelling, so complete, so coherent. Above all, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is original. The Buddha himself, in the sutta, claims that the truths he discovered were “in regard to things unheard before”, and I don’t know of any teachings, in any tradition I have studied, that would lead me to dispute that claim.
The basic message of the sutta is simple; it consists of four connected truths.
- The first truth is that our lives are filled with stress, dissatisfaction, suffering—the constellation of negative experiences and emotions that are encompassed in the Pali word dukkha.
- The second truth is that dukkha is caused by craving—wanting what we don’t have or can’t have, wanting things to be otherwise than the way they are.
- The third truth is that if we can relinquish craving, eliminate it completely, with no residue left behind, then dukkha will end.
- The fourth truth is that the way to eliminate craving is to follow an eight-fold path, which is composed of right point of view, right purpose, right action, right speech, right livelihood, right diligence, right alertness, and right concentration.
The path that the Buddha lays out is described as the Middle Way—the way between pursuit of sensual pleasures and personal gratification on the one hand and the practice of severe and painful austerities on the other. The Middle Way, which the Buddha has realized and thereby become the Tathagata (the one who has gone that way), “gives rise to vision, gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to nibbana.” The four truths that comprise the Middle Way are described as “noble” truths—truths which enoble those who see them clearly; truths the possession of which separates those of noble character and attainment from the “uninstructed worldlings”, caught up in the pursuit of sensual pleasure and the satisfaction of ambition.
There are three “technical” terms in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, i.e. terms that have particular significance to Buddhism and that cannot be adequately translated by a single word or phrase in English. These are dukkha, nibbana, and dhamma itself.
The easiest, perhaps, is dukkha. Various translators have used the words “pain”, “suffering”, “stress”, “dissatisfaction” (and many others) to translate dukkha. What makes dukkha a little easier than the other two terms is that it means all those things. To grasp dukkha, all we have to do is grasp the essence that relates all of the terms that different people have used to translate it. Just by doing that, our understanding of the world has been deepened, and we have a new lens through which to view our lot as humans, as sentient beings.
Dhamma is a little more difficult, because it not only has many different translations, but it does, in fact, have several different meanings in Pali. On the one hand, it is the way of the world (of the universe); it is the underpinning of the causal relationships between one event and the next, whether the events involve the settling of a cooling planet into an orbit around a star, the emergence of a new species in a changing environment, or the serenity with which a good woman approaches the end of her individual life. Dhamma is also used, usually in the plural, to refer to those things which are constant across time and space—subatomic particles and energy quanta in the physical world, perhaps, or bits of information; and, in our human lives, the aggregates themselves: form, feeling, perceptions, concepts, consciousness. In that second sense, dhammanah are contrasted with samskaya—composite things, conditioned things, things which are impermanent and marked by dukkha. Finally, Dhamma refers to the Buddha’s teachings, a use which takes meaning from both its first and second usages and extends that meaning to refer to a system of understanding and practice founded on the four noble truths. Which is where we started.
And where we end, if we realize those truths with direct knowledge as the Buddha did, is with nibbana, which is the most difficult term to translate, the most difficult to conceptualize, and, when one has caught the barest glimpse of what it might refer to, the most difficult to come to terms with. The word derives from a very ancient phrase referring to the extinguishing of a flame, and that is the simile which is most frequently found in Buddhist commentary on nibbana. But nibbana is not, as Western commentators have often interpreted it to be, a nihilistic concept. When the fuel that feeds the fires of desire, anger, and hurt is used up, then those fires are in fact extinguished, and the condition into which one enters—the one in whom those fires have been extinguished—is nibbana. I don’t know what that state is—the Buddha himself said that it is ineffable. But whatever it is, it does not burn. And one entering nibbana, although that one is released from craving and its attendant dukkha, and is no longer burned by the blazing heat of passion, jealousy, and hate, does not thereby disappear into blank nothingness. The Buddha, recall, entered the state of nibbana when he was 35 and continued his teaching for another 45 years, to the enormous benefit of those of us fortunate enough to hear that teaching, albeit imperfectly, across thousands of years and thousands of miles and an infinite number of infinitely nuanced differences between the Buddha’s language and ours, the Buddha’s culture and ours.
The five monks to whom the Buddha delivered his first sermon spoke his language, lived in his world, and had spent many years working to clear their minds—meditating, practicing austerities, discussing the dhamma with one another in an attempt to unravel it. They were ready to receive the Buddha’s message, and one of them, the Venerable Kondañña, did, in fact, get it right away: “Whatever is subject to coming into being,” he exclaimed, “is subject to ceasing to be.” And with that transfer of the knowledge and vision that the Buddha had gained through his exertions to Kondañña, Kondañña became enlightened, he saw what the Buddha had unveiled, and the Wheel of the Dhamma was set in motion. And once set in motion, “it cannot be stopped by any brahmin or ascetic or god, neither by Mara nor by Brahma, nor by anyone at all anywhere in the universe.”
There are a number of translations of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta available on the web. There are three on the Access to Insight website, by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Piyadassi Thera, and Ñanamoli Thera.
You can listen to Guy Armstrong’s reading by clicking on this link, or you can right-click to download the Mp3 file to your computer.