The First Discourse of the Buddha
It was almost seven years since young Gotama cut his glossy black hair and beard; donned the ochre robes; set forth from home to homelessness in search of the supreme path of peace. Samana Gotama, as he was now called, wandered in the forests; lived a life of austerities; went from teacher to teacher and mastered their techniques of meditation. Yet, he was dissatisfied and his goal unreached. He set out again leaving behind the teachers and their teachings. He retired into the forests of Uruvala in Maghada country and earnestly engaged himself in extreme austerities and self-mortification. His body emaciated, grew weaker and his mind appeared to wander. He realized the futility of such methods. He understood that the mind , in order to function properly, has to be supported by a strong and a healthy body. He abandoned self-mortification and resumed taking food. His fellow Samanas disillusioned, left Gotama to his methods and walked away.
It was on the full moon night in the month of Vesaka – the sixth month; it was one of those nights he spent under the Bodhi tree; he understood the sorrows of earthly existence and the supreme peace unaffected by earthly existence. He said to himself “My emancipation is won…Done what is to be done. There is nothing beyond this (katam karniyam, naa param itthattaya).”
For several days, he wandered in peace and tranquility, among the woods. He enjoyed his quiet serene days and lonely walks in the forest. He wished the idyllic life would last forever. He pondered whether he should share his newfound wisdom with others. Yet, He wondered whether anyone would be interested or appreciate his findings, which helps in seeing things clearly, as they are; and in attaining knowledge, higher wisdom, peace, and enlightenment or nirvana.
He debated, there might still be those not entirely blinded by the worldly dirt. He thought of his teachers Alara Kalama and Uddaka son of Rama both “wise, intelligent and learned; and of nature scarcely tainted “; and, said to himself they would quickly comprehend the knowledge he had just gained. Then he sadly realized that Uddaka son of Rama had just passed away; and Alara Kalama died about seven days ago. Then the thought came to him of his erstwhile fellow Samanas, those who left him to pursue their ways. He decided to talk to his fellow seekers and share with them the new wisdom. (Majjhima Nikaya; Sutta 26)
He journeyed from place to place from Gaya ; and at length reached the holy city of Varanasi after nearly seven weeks, covering a distance of about 144 miles . On his way , a monk named Upaka enquired Gautama where he was headed to, “To set in to motion the wheel of Dhamma (Dhamma Chakkam pavattetum)” he replied ” I proceed to Varanasi ”.
There at Varanasi ; he learnt the five ascetics (Kondanna, vappa, Mahanama, Assaji, and Bhadda) whom he knew before were at Isipatana (Rishipattana – where the sages live, now called Saranath), nearby. He found them in the garden Migadaaya (Deer park) at Isipatana. They were surprised to see him ; but , were impressed by his majestic, pure and serene demeanor. They wondered whether he had achieved uttari_manusa_dhamma, the super human achievement.
He told them he had done what had to be done. He had attained it. He asked them to listen to his findings. He told them: “I teach about suffering and the way to end it”.
They listened to him in all earnestness. What he spoke to those five ascetics later gained renown as one of the greatest and most important discourses in religious history. At the end of his talk, the Buddha emerged as the Teacher. He came to be revered as Bhagava (the Blessed One).
The talk was “The first teaching” (Pathama desana).It later came to be celebrated as Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the discourse that set in motion the wheels of Dhamma.
The Buddha spoke to the five ascetics at the garden of Migadaaya where the deer roamed unmolested and in peace, located in Isipatana near the holy city of Varanasi, in the evening of the full moon day in the month of Asalhi – the eighth month (Ashada-July). He spoke in simple Magadhi the language his listeners understood well. The discourse was brief, with short, simple and precise statements. There were no definitions and no explanations. It was a direct sincere talk.
It was a simple and a straight narration of how Samana Gotama transformed into the Buddha. He spoke from his experience; narrated his findings; and explained the four truths and the three aspects of each; and the middle path.
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. “These two extremes should not be resorted to by a recluse who has renounced the world”.
He advised them to follow the Middle Way (majjhiama patipada)
He went on to explain four noble truths (cattari ariya sacchani): Sorrow (dukkha) in life is a fact; it has a cause; that cause can be eliminated; and there is a method by which it is eliminated.
Briefly, he said:
*clinging to existence is sorrow (dukkham ariya saccham);
*thirst or craving (tanha) for pleasure (kama tanha), thirst for existence (bhava tanha), thirst for heavenly existence (vibhava tanha) is the cause;
*suffering ceases with the complete cessation of this thirst, and
*the Path (dukkha – nirodha-gamini patipada ariya saccham) that leads to the cessation of sorrow is the Eightfold Path, that is: Right Belief, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Means of Livelihood, Right Endeavor, Right Memory and Right Meditation. .
When a person develops properly the Noble Eight Fold Path (ariyo atthangiko maggo), he can eradicate craving which is cause of suffering. When he eradicates craving, he can stop completely the continuous cycle of suffering. When this craving and this suffering are removed completely (vimutti), one can realize Nibbana.
The samanas listed to the Buddha in rapt attention delighted in his words and convinced of the excellence of his message. Samana Kondanna understood. Thus, the Dhamma-chakka was set in motion
Based on these postulates the Buddha set out to teach his methods for the benefit of humanity. The rest of Buddha’s teachings are within the ambit of these principles. The later scholars hailed, “There is no teaching of the Master outside the scope of this sermon”.
Illustrating the Buddha’s design the second century scholar Upatissa (Vimutti Magga) wrote:
Just as a skilled physician first sees the symptoms of a disease , then examines the cause of it , and then prescribes a suitable remedy ; so the four truths may be known as coming in the same order.
The Buddha is the Beshaja_guru, Mahabeshaja (the great physician).
The first three (understanding, diagnosis, and prescription) are of theoretical import while the fourth is essentially a practical measure. The discourse explains this as the method (naya), the road (magga) and the steps to be taken (pati pada) to eliminate sorrow and to obtain emancipation.
The second and the fourth postulates (origination of sorrow and the methods of eliminating sorrow) represent Buddha’s original contribution to Indian culture; the former being his philosophical stand point and the latter his religious system.
Of the eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path; the, first two relate to Wisdom; the second three to Morality; and the last three are about Concentration. Sila-Morality (right speech, right action, right livelihood), Samadhi-Concentration (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration), and Panna-Wisdom (right attitude, right understanding) are the three stages of the Noble Path. These factors denote the stages and attitudes of the aspirant.
To cease from evil,
To do what is good.
To cleanse one’s mind:
This is the advice of all the Buddha
The concept of path as it relates to the pilgrim and his progress , occurs in Upanishads too. Yajnavalkya mentions it as pantha. The Buddha extends it to a series of steps pati pada (step by step) leading to the goal (vaddanaka pati pada).The Buddha is thus the path finder of Aryan path(ariya pada or ariya atthangika magga ).He preferred to describe it as majjima pati pada, the middle path.
The Indian tradition describes the Buddha as the master of the analytical method (vibhajya vadin). His very first discourse is an excellent example of his consummate analytical skill.
The discourse is logically well structured. It puts forth certain postulates derived from observation and experience and seeks to construct a logical structure explaining relationship among the postulates.
The Buddha did not stop at the intellectual edification. He was moved by compassion for his fellow beings and tried to show a method for eradication of sorrow. Dhamma preached here is both a theory and a practical procedure. His postulates have therefore an operational aspect. The methods he suggested were drawn from his life and his experiences. His methods lead to a definite end (niyyana). It is like “putting down the burden” or to “cure the disease”. That is what Dharma really means.
The First Noble Truth deals with Dukkha, which, for want of a better English term, is inappropriately rendered as suffering or sorrow. As a feeling, Dukkha means that which is difficult to endure. Suffering or the removal of suffering is the leit motif of the Buddha’s message.
What is sorrow? It is a phenomenon, which is universal (sabba-satta-sadharana); and is readily identifiable (suvinneya) by the troubles (badhana) it causes. It is like the ”burning heat” (santhapana).
The first discourse of the Buddha illustrates sorrow by citing: the process of being born; getting old and worn-out; decay and death; association with the undesirables; disassociation from the desired; failure to obtain the aspired object etc.
Elimination (nirodha) of suffering has the character of quiet (santi). Nirodha is explained as absence of rodha (flood) of suffering. It is cessation (attagama), detachment (virago) and freedom from craving (mutti).
In this ancient axiomatic, happiness (sukha) is not mentioned as an opposite of sorrow (dukkha) or as an ideal state for aspiration. In the Buddha’s scheme of things, nothing phenomenal could appear to be sukha, happiness is not a reality. Suffering is a reality; and when it is removed, we find quiet, wisdom and freedom as positive gains- and not happiness.
The importance of the sermon is stressed by the fact that it occurs, in almost identical form, at as many as five times in the Pali cannon. : In the Samyuktha Nikaya of Sutta Pitaka, as an independent discourse (Sutta 11, Saccasamyuktta) ; in the Vinaya Pitaka as a part of the Mahavagga section ; in Dhigga Nikaya as an annotated passage; in Majjima Nikaya ; and in Anuguttata Nikaya. Besides, there are two versions in Sanskrit and five versions in Tibetan. There is also a Chinese version of considerable antiquity. .
As per the practice followed in the Pali cannon, the Pathama desana too commences with the words Evam me sutam. The speaker here is monk Ananda, the most intimate disciple of the Teacher. The occasion on which he recounts the discourse was the First Council (Samgiti) convened at Rajagaha soon after the Master’s death.
Ananda was the Master’s cousin. He was the son of Amrtodanda who was the brother of Shuddodhana the Master’s father. He was said to be of the same age as the Master, but lived for decades after the Master’s death. Ananda might have lived for a hundred years or a little more. He became the Master’s disciple, personal attendant and secretary when both were about fifty-six years of age. He served the Master devotedly for abut twenty-five years until the Master’s death at the age of eighty. Ananda participated in the First Council and helped editing the Master’s discourses concerning doctrinal aspects.
As regards the Pathama desana, Ananda was not present when it was uttered by the Teacher. His association with the Master started years later. He heard it from the five mendicants to whom the discourse was addressed by the Teacher. The version occurring in the Pali Cannon obviously represents what Ananda recalled from his memory, using the exact words of the Master’s speech.
As regards the First Council, it was convened at Rajagaha soon after the Master’s death, with the object of recording the teachings of the Master as uttered by the Master. The First Council was presided over by Maha_Kassapa, acting as the leader of seven thousand disciples. The Vinaya and Sutta Pitaka came in to being as the result of the First Council. About five hundred monks were engaged for seven months in its compilation.
About a century later the Second Council was convened to eliminate heresies that might have crept in to the Vinaya, the text dealing with the conduct of the monks. The schism of the Dhamma was also formalized at this council.
The Third Council was convened at the instance of the Emperor Asoka to edit and cleanse the texts.
It was not until the first century BCE that the Pali canon was rendered into writing. According to the Sinhalese sources, the canon was written down at the instance of the King Vattagamini _Abhaya (29-17 B.C.E) of Sri Lanka at the fourth Buddhist Council.
The First Discourse (pathama desana) is of unique importance in the Buddhist history. It was from here the incomparable wheel of Dhamma was set in motion by the Blessed One. The full moon of Asalha is celebrated as Dhamma Day and it marks the beginning of the annual retreat period in the monasteries for the monsoon (Vassa or chatur_masya).
The First Discourse (pathama desana) introduces the Buddhist teachings and its philosophy. Many think, it contains the essence of the literary output of the Master;” There is no teaching of the Master outside the scope of this sermon.” It also marks a watershed in the Buddha’s life. From here, the Buddha emerged as The Revered Teacher (Bhagava), as the Blessed One (Araha) and as the perfectly enlightened One (Sammaa _Sambuddha).
“The best of paths is the Eightfold Path.
The best of truths are the Four Noble Truths.
The best of states is non-attachment.
The best of bipeds is the Seeing One.”
The evening was like a lovely maiden; the stars were the pearls upon her neck; the dark clouds her braided hair; the deepening space her flowing robe. As a crown she had the heavens where the angels dwell; these three worlds were as her body; her eyes were the white lotus flowers which open to the rising moon; and her voice was as it were the humming of the bees. To do homage to the Buddha, and to hear the first preaching of his word, this lovely maiden came.
Please read: Life of the Buddha- the Pali tradition