On the full moon of July Buddhists across the world celebrate Asalha Puja, or Dharma Day, commemorating the occasion of the Lord Buddha’s first Dharma discourse called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, or ‘The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma Discourse’. This discourse followed the Buddha’s Enlightenment, and was given to five ascetics that were former disciples of the Blessed One. Upon hearing this teaching, one of the five ascetics called Kondanna had his spiritual eye opened, and became the first disciple of the Buddha to enter the Noble Path of Awakening. In recognition of this realization, his name was changed to Annata-Kondanna: ‘Kondanna-That-Knows (the Dharma)’.
So, what exactly was the Dharma taught by the Buddha on this full moon day in ancient India that led the ascetic Kondanna to see life in a radically different manner to before? As it exists today, the sermon is a brief but systematic description of the very heart of the Buddhadharma. To begin with, the Buddha talked of the
“And what is this
It is the Noble Eightfold Path, that is to say:
Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. This is the
The Buddha’s description of the Path begins with Right View for a good reason, for it is with Right View that the
- Life is suffering
- Suffering is caused by desire
- Ending desire ends suffering
- The Path leading to the ending of suffering
The Path that leads to the ending of suffering is in fact the Noble Eightfold Path itself, so the Four Noble Truths contain the Path and vise versa, which a neat interdependence of the two aspects of Right View. Many people think that the Truths are negative with their focus on suffering, but Buddhists would respond that in the spirit of mindfulness – one of the eight aspects of the Path – recognizing the universal nature of suffering is simply seeing things as they really are, rather than through the rose-tinted glasses of naïve optimism. In any case, taken as a whole, the Four Noble Truths lead to the ending of suffering, so in fact they are a positive in that they point out the Way to the true happiness of Enlightenment.
Of course, the Buddhadharma is a highly-evolved set of teachings that include much, much more than the
- Form: the body
- Feeling: good, bad, & indifferent feelings
- Perception: memory & recognition
- Formations: thoughts & other mental objects
- Consciousness: that which is aware of the above
Here, the Buddha taught that all five aggregates are not self in that they cannot be made to be the way we might like them to be; they belong to nature, not us. Also, the Blessed One revealed that they are not self because they lead to suffering, and are impermanent. He taught that every one of the aggregates, whether internal or external, coarse or fine, inferior or superior, far or near, should be understood with Right View as “This is not mine, this is not what I am, this is not my self.” (Samyutta Nikaya 22:59, Pali Tripitaka)
Letting go of the delusion of selfhood is what the
Getting to the heart of the matter, as one might expect from its title, the Heart Sutra describes much the same teaching as contained in the Anattalakkhana Sutta, with an emphasis on the fact that all phenomena are empty of substance or self. An extremely popular and influential yet brief teaching from the Chinese Tripitaka and the Tibetan one, it has inspired countless East Asian Buddhists to reflect on the true nature of things as no thing at all. It does so in a style very different to the more systematic and logical language of the Pali Tripitaka:
“Form does not differ from emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from form. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form; the same is true for feelings, perceptions, formations and consciousness.”
All things are without self: they are empty. In this way, they are emptiness, and emptiness is also all things or selves. This understanding of emptiness is applied to all five aggregates of being, revealing the self-idea as a folly based on identifying with one or more of the aggregates as comprising a self, rather than recognizing that in fact they are empty of any such thing. Such threads of teaching run throughout the Buddhist scriptures, transcending differences of time, culture and place. Whether it is the Buddha’s first sermon or whether it’s a much later Sutra, the core of the teachings are derived from the Dharma itself, reflecting its brilliant light across the world. Here’s an extract from one of those later Sutras, which continues the themes found in the above examples:
Then Mahamati to the Blessed One, “Why is it that the ignorant are given to discrimination and the wise are not?”
The Blessed one replied, “It is because the ignorant cling to names, signs and ideas; as their minds move along these channels they feed on multiplicities of objects and fall into the notion of ego-soul and what belongs to it; they make discriminations of good and bad among appearances and cling to the agreeable. As they cling thus, there is reversion to ignorance and karma born of greed, hatred and delusion is accumulated. As the accumulation of karma goes on they become imprisoned in a cocoon of discrimination and are thenceforth unable to free themselves from the round of birth and death.”
(Chapter One, the Lankavatara Sutra, the Chinese Tripitaka)
Again, in this teaching there is much to found in common with the basic teachings found in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. When referring to “names, signs and ideas” leading to “the notion of ego-soul”, this Sutra echoes the Buddha’s teachings on the five aggregates, once more drawing our attention to the fact that our apparent selves are in reality composite of various parts, and when this self-centered view is let go of, the light of Nirvana shines through the illusion of self. Wisdom is here represented as the non-discrimination between this and that, between you and me, between self and not-self; without clinging and the desire that causes it, there is no ego-soul left to suffer.
The Dharma is an amazing gift that the Buddha and his successors have left to the world. It illumines the darkest aspects of our lives with the wisdom that can help us to free ourselves of the attachment to the idea of self that blights human existence. Dharma Day is great opportunity to reflect on this wondrous gift and how best we can respond to it, not just today but over the coming years of our lives. For, without the Buddhadharma where would we be? We’d be caught in the trap of delusion, being born life to life without any idea how to escape this suffering existence. Homage to the Dharma!