Lecture No. 4, 22nd January 2000

     Author: Venerable Dhammasami , Sri 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 Discourse

    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 that time.

    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 that time.

    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 are extreme.

    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 of Buddhism.

    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.

    Enlightenment through Middle Path

    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 the truth.

    Preaching of the First Sermon

    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 from Suffering

    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 Order

    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 Brief

    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:

  1. The Great Discourse on the Wheel of Dhamma, Mahasi Sayadaw,
  2. The First Sermon, Transalted by Sayagyi U Chit Tin.

(Next Week: "The Four Noble Truths")

22nd January 2000