BUDDHISM COURSE FOR BEGINNERS:
Lecture No. 4,
22nd January 2000
Venerable Dhammasami ,
Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre, London.
The First Sermon
of the Buddha
(Dhammacakka-pavattana Sutta: the Discourse on the
Establising of the Wheel of Truth)
The First Sermon of the Buddha, delivered in the
Deer Park, Sarnath, near Benares city, Uttar Pradesh, in northern India is
almost 26 centuries old. Before we look at the Sutta (Discourse) itself, it
would be helpful to see the situation, which formed the inseparable context to
the preaching of this First Sermon.
Background of the
The 6th BC in India was quite remarkable in many
ways. We can see some social changes taking place. The Brahmins, who dictated
the Indian social hierarchy, were gradually loosing their sole dictactorship in
society. Brahmins were just like an ordinary lay person in their daily life.
They had a family. It was just a caste. Of course, the called themselves a high
caste. They derived their authority from Vedas - their holy scriptures.
The Brahmins monopolized not only religious and
educational establishment but also all social affairs. They instructed the
kings what and how to do their business. They said that a man born into a
trader's caste could not become a politician or a priest even if he wished to.
The opportunity of education, becoming a businessman, entering into public life
and being ordained were never opened to a man born into so-called laborer's
class. Women were considered inferior and derived of all equal opportunity.
They were owned by their father and brother before being married, and their
husband once they were given away in marriage. They could not even perform a
religious ritual practice. This was a general picture of Indian social life at
However, by the time the Buddha came along people
started becoming more critical of how the social structure was formed. The
other social groups namely warrior caste and traders were obviously heading for
a prominent social position.
Even among the Brahmins, there emerged many people
challenging the traditional values. In terms of religious practice, there had
already been many groups going against Brahmanism - the established faith at
We see wanderers, ascetics, Ajivakas, Jainas and
even materialists proclaiming their own doctrines with a considerable
followers. Among them, Jainism has a very torturous, suffering and painful
practice. According to them unless you pay the price for evil deeds done
sometime in the past by torturing yourself through a certain practice like
staying naked, sleeping on the ground and starving yourself, there cannot be
liberation from suffering. This was a diametrical opposite to the relaxed and
indulging practice in Brahmanism. The two are opposite to each other and both
Brahmins were no longer the only advisors and
instructors of the rulers. The kings and generals sought opinions and advice
from the revolutionary doctrines, if you like, of those non-Brahmins. The king
constitutionalized no state religion. Instead, he approached every different
religious leaders and philosophers for advice. Freedom of expression was
enjoyed in this way in the 6th century BC. This was the background of the birth
The Prince Siddhattha and
the Two Extreme Practices
We have now in a possible brief manner examined the
socio-religious background of the then India. Let us now have a quick look at
the Ascetic Gotama in his search for the answer to the common problems that
every living being has to face.
His search for the truth at early stages was
entirely influenced by those well-known pre-Buddhist religious practices like
Yoga meditation techniques of the Sankhya Philosophy. We know that he practiced
it under the guidance of Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta, two best-known
meditation teachers at that time. He mastered their teaching but was not happy
with the achievement, as that did not find him the end of suffering.
Being unsatisfied with the achievement under them,
he set out for another method. This time he took a more painful path, which he
thought, might lead him to the end of suffering. He even starved himself until
he became so weak and was almost dead. This kind of self-mortification practice
could be the famous practice of Jainism at that time.
Having gone through himself all the most famous
methods under reputed masters he could possibly come across in India, he found
that the teachings of those masters could not solve the common problems we all
have to face in our life. This is the point where he became sure of what can
and cannot be achieved through those doctrines and he denounced all of them
after thorough examining and investigation.
The Ascetic Gotama adopted a completely new path and
he worked through that with a firm determination to realize the end of
suffering. Having experienced, gone through the two extreme spiritual
practices, and having learnt their inability to deliver a solution to the end
of suffering, he adopted the Middle Path. He began eating again. He meditated
under the Bodhi tree at Gaya, in Magadha kingdom of ancient India. He was
determined not to get up until he found the truth.
He went on through the night. Through most advanced
concentration and clear mind, he reflected. He came to see clearly many past
lives, the way life goes on, the way suffering is caused, and how people are
different due to their different kamma. On seeing the roots of suffering and
their working, he found complete detachment, boundless compassion and wisdom.
He eradicated all defilement. He was now a Buddha, an Enlightened Being. Now we
have tried our best to understand of how the Ascetic Gotama was searching for
Preaching of the First
As we all know the Ascetic Gotama became a buddha, a
full-enlightened one at the age of 35 without external help. He walked himself
the path he had discovered. He reviewed the truth he had just discovered. That
took place for weeks. Two months later, He was in Sarnath, Benares. It is a few
hundreds miles away from the place He attained enlightenment. You can imagine
how hard the Buddha had to work to share the truth he had found.
Although His heart was full of compassion, He was
very much selective about His listeners. You may remember that soon after His
Enlightenment when He was reflecting the newly found Dhamma, He came to realize
that it is deep and difficult to understand. His own observation was that His
philosophy and teachings were going against mainstream. He rejected the caste
system, which the majority of the society dared not think of any change to it.
He elevated the position of women in society proclaiming that the possibility
of enlightenment is open to both man and woman. Among them, only the wise can
be convinced of the truth, regardless of gender and social position.
People said the world was created. He said " no
". He did not believe that we have to rely on some one like Brahma or God
to liberate ourselves. He said we created our own life.
The Way to Free Ourselves
The key to free ourselves from suffering is to first
acknowledge and understand suffering itself. Instead of ignoring it, we should
recognize that it is there. We should accept it. This is what is known as the
First Noble Truth.
It is about common suffering all living beings face in life. Separation from
loved one or from something you like is suffering. To be with the one or in the
place you do not like is suffering. Death is suffering. Getting old is
suffering and so on. In brief, the whole life is suffering. This is not to look
at life in a very pessimistic way, but rather a very skillful way of looking at
life. Once we accepted suffering as fact of life, we can then start to live in
harmony with life itself. Otherwise, we are always frustrated and complaining
when we do not get our way, when things go wrong. Accepting suffering relieves
you psychologically from the burden of having to resist or fear it
When we have accepted the reality of suffering, we
will then come to understand its cause. Therefore, the cause of suffering is
the Second Noble
Truth. This is to be got rid off. We eliminate the cause of
suffering when we follow the Path forms Buddhist way of life.
The way to accept suffering, the wisdom to see the
cause of suffering and the path leading us to the end of suffering is call
Noble Eightfold Path. It is Middle Path avoiding both extremes of practice:
self-torture and self-indulgence. This is the Fourth Noble Truth. It is a path made of eight
factors. It should be followed in daily life. It is divided into three forms of
training: sharing (Dana), Moral Ethics (Sila) and Meditation
(bhavana). They should be developed in a balanced manner; lacking one
will upset the other factor and result in not being a true path. You cannot
pick and choose the one you like. Sharing without meditative outlook does not
come under the Path, nor meditation without an ethical morality.
The end of suffering itself is Nibbana, and it is
the Third Noble Truth. It is
something to be achieved. Nibbana means an experience of a living person who
has forever destroyed attachment, hatred and delusion. He is always mindful and
peaceful. This is possible here and now. You do not need to wait for next life
or till the next buddha comes.
These are the Four Noble Truths, the central
teaching of the Buddha.
It was declared to the Five colleagues that the
First Noble Truth should be understood, and also has been understood by Him.
That was something unheard of before and was greeted everywhere including in
the Devalokas - heavenly worlds. The whole discourse is based on common
experience in daily life. Penetrating into its real nature with insight is
called Enlightenment. Only one of the Five understood what He taught on that
occasion. Initially only 20% success. But less than a week later, they all were
convinced of the true problem of life, its cause and the end of it. They have
walked the Path, the Eight factors have been fully developed. They achieved
Nibbana in that very life.
Establishing the Monastic
At the end of the first day, the Buddha admitted one
of the Five namely Kondanna into the Bhikkhu Order advising him to go on with
the practice. What the Buddha told him was very interesting and important. He
said: Go on with Holy Practice; The Dhamma has been
well expounded to guide you in putting an end to the end of all these
problems.. This means that this First Sermon includes all we need to
overcome suffering. All what He taught later were just different ways of
explaining the same thing in a variety of context. We shall remind ourselves
with this advice the need for practice.
The Sutta in
The Sutta describes different kinds of suffering we
are faced with as human beings, the cause of suffering, and the Path that leads
to the end of suffering. The Noble Eightfold Path is explained in brief where
as attachment and Nibbana are also given explanation. In other words, the Four
Noble Truths are what the Buddha taught in His First Sermon.
Related articles for further reading selected by
the Course Organiser:
- The Great Discourse on the Wheel of
Dhamma, Mahasi Sayadaw,
- The First
Sermon, Transalted by Sayagyi U Chit Tin.