Monday, July 26, 2010

The Buddha's First Sermon

The Buddha delivering the First Sermon
Today is Asalha Puja, when Buddhists recall the giving of the first sermon of the Buddha, called ‘The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma Sermon’ (in Pali, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta). In this sermon, the Buddha presents the basic teachings of Buddhism in the form of the Four Noble Truths, which include the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to complete enlightenment. He also sums up this Path in terms of the Middle Way, an avoidance of the extremes of self-indulgence and self-torture. Not only is this sutra recited on Asalha Puja Day, but it is frequently chanted and reflected on by Buddhists across the world, for it contains the very heart of Buddhism. It is, therefore, well worth spending a few moments of our time reflecting upon this seminal teaching of the Buddha.
“These two extremes, bhikkhus, should not be followed by one who has gone forth: sensual indulgence, which is low, coarse, vulgar, ignoble, and unprofitable; and self-torture, which is painful, ignoble, and unprofitable. Bhikkhus, by avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata has realized the Middle Way, which gives vision and understanding, which leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana.”
That the Buddha is addressing monks – both ‘bhikkhu’ and ‘one who has gone forth’ refer to monks - should not be interpreted that the teachings themselves are not intended for nuns and laypeople; it’s just that when he delivered this sermon it was to five fellow monks. For, although it is often argued that the Buddha’s teachings are more easily lived in a monastic setting, many householders have also benefitted from them, realizing Nirvana just as their baldheaded brethren had done. The word Tathagata is a title the Buddha often used to refer to himself in the scriptures, and it is usually rendered in English as either ‘the Thus Come One’ or ‘the Thus Gone One’, both suggesting a being that is spontaneously living in the moment.
As to the Buddha’s description of the two extremes that we should avoid, they are both described as being “ignoble and unprofitable.” They are ignoble in that they are not worthy of someone endeavouring to lead an enlightened life, and unprofitable in that they will prevent us from leading such an existence. Self-indulgence is singled out for further criticism; the Buddha stating that it is “low, coarse, and vulgar.” That lax morals and their resultant actions are not conducive to living an enlightened life is no big surprise, for even in more worldly lifestyles they are generally considered undesirable, so even more so for one walking the Path of the Buddha.
This avoidance of self-indulgence and self-mortification is dubbed by the Buddha “the Middle Way.” If perfected, this way of living “gives vision and understanding” and “leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment” and “Nirvana.” These benefits are listed in this order deliberately; it is no accident that vision precedes understanding and that both come before calm, which is followed by penetration, enlightenment, and finally Nirvana. Again, it is worthwhile giving our attention to this process so that we at least have a broad understanding of what the Buddha was getting at. In doing so, we may gain the insight needed to progress along the Middle Way far enough to meet the Buddha himself, for as he famously declared, whoever sees the Dharma sees the Buddha.
The first step in awakening to the Dharma (the truth of the way things are) is to obtain the vision that sees life as it really is, and not as we usually misperceive it. This involves a radical shift in our awareness, a kind of profound simplification that opens us up to be able to understand the Dharma, the way life is. This understanding, which is not intellectual, but can be expressed intellectually at least to a degree, is a wisdom that arises out of direct perception of the Dharma.
With this understanding comes the calmness that Buddhists are often – correctly and incorrectly – attributed with. This calm arises from knowing the way things are which allows for a certain acceptance of life as it is. For, if we know and accept life, then we will not be upset by its challenges and problems, but simply recognize that this is the way it is and act appropriately. Resting in this calm wisdom, we will then penetrate to the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, indeed we will fly like an arrow straight to the bull’s eye of the universe, seeing and knowing people and things just as they are, all flowing out of that which is neither a person nor a thing.
Next in the Buddha’s description the fruits of the Middle Way comes enlightenment, which is not so much seeing things as they are, but seeing ‘No-thing’ as it is. That is to say, it is seeing and living from the naked awareness of a Buddha. In this enlightenment, not only is the Dharma the Buddha, but so are we; there is no thing to separate “us” from “him.” Finally, the Buddha talks of Nirvana, a state of being that is literally beyond words, out of reach of the intellect, and so sublime that to even label it “Nirvana” should only be done with the knowledge that it is just a pointer and nothing more. Indeed, many Buddhist masters have often avoided mentioning Nirvana altogether, fully aware that much misunderstanding can arise from such talk. So, let’s swiftly move on to the next part of the sermon!
“And what, bhikkhus, is the Middle Way realized by the Tathagata, which gives vision and understanding, which leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana?
It is just this Noble Eightfold Path, namely: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.”

Where the Buddha’s teaching on the Middle Way gives us a broad outline, the Noble Eightfold Path is a more detailed exposition of the route to enlightenment. Too detailed to go into here, the Eightfold Path is often summarized into the three trainings, Morality, Concentration, and Wisdom. Morality comprises Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood, and details how to live in harmony with the society and world we live in. Concentration includes Right Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration, and guides us how to cultivate both peace and focus, and includes meditation amongst its tools. Wisdom is made up of Right View and Intention, and it appears at the beginning of the Path, when we learn of the Way, and at the end of the Way, when it is an expression of our own understanding. To perfect the Eightfold Path is not to be fully enlightened, but to be perfectly ripened awaiting “it” to occur spontaneously.

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow, and despair are dukkha, association with the disliked is dukkha, separation from the liked is dukkha, not to get what one wants is dukkha. In brief, clinging to the five aggregates is dukkha.”

Here, the Buddha introduces the notion of dukkha, or suffering, which is a central idea in his teaching. Life is full of suffering, in the many ways that he describes above, and even when we are enjoying ourselves, suffering is waiting for the good times to end, so it can rear its ugly head. It has many levels of intensity, from mild irritation all the way up to full blown-agony, and from the egoistic point of view it is impossible to completely eradicate from our lives. The Buddha, however, is suggesting that a life without suffering is realizable, if we walk the Path, and the reason is that dukkha has a cause:

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the cause of dukkha: The craving which causes rebirth and is bound up with pleasure and lust, ever seeking fresh delight, now here, now there; namely, craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence, and craving for annihilation.”

Craving is the cause of our suffering; because we desire life to be certain ways, when it doesn’t live up to our expectations we experience dukkha. Three basic kinds of craving are listed by the Buddha: craving for sense pleasure, for existence, and for annihilation. It’s pretty clear why desiring certain forms of pleasure will inevitably result in suffering, for as the Buddha stated earlier in the sermon, when we do not get what we want, we will suffer. As to craving for existence, this doesn’t only mean desiring to be alive, but also includes wanting to exist in a particular way or form, and when this is threatened or absent, we will suffer. Craving for annihilation causes suffering because while we are alive, the desire not to be, or not to be the way we are, will create dukkha. Furthermore, if we accept the theory of rebirth, even suicide is not a way out of suffering, for we will face the consequences of our actions in our next birth.

“This, bhikkus, is the Noble Truth of the cessation of dukkha: The complete cessation, giving up, abandonment of that craving, complete release from that craving, and complete detachment from it.”

This may sound a bit of a tall order, to say the least, for while we are alive as human beings, we will surely have desires that will sometimes be fulfilled and sometimes not, resulting on suffering. The Buddha, however, teaches that it is indeed possible in this very life to achieve “the complete cessation” of dukkha, for whilst on the conventional level of experience we are human beings, at the “deeper” or more fundamental level of being, we are ‘No-thing’ at all. It is human ‘things’ that experience dukkha, so if we let go of identifying with being these ‘things’, and realize the ‘No-thing’ that we truly are, we are realized from suffering, for ‘No-thing’ has no desires whatsoever, and therefore no suffering. And how are we to achieve this? The Buddha has already told us: the Noble Eightfold Path:

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the way to the cessation of dukkha: Only this Noble Eightfold Path; namely, Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.”

 The Buddha goes on in the sutra to explain in some more detail how he used the Four Noble Truths as reflective tools to meditate on and achieve full enlightenment, but the gist of his teaching is contained above, and it is this which is recalled on Asalha Puja. If we can appreciate these teachings and then put them into practice, we will be walking the Middle Way of the Buddha established roughly two thousand years ago. This Path has many interpretations from Thailand to Japan, Tibet to Vietnam, not to mention all the newer forms arising across the globe today. If they keep to the well-trodden Path that the Buddha taught all those centuries ago, they will lead to the same place: no place at all. For, it is as this ever-present ‘No-thing’, this ‘Buddha Space’ that contains all, that we are freed from our desires and the suffering that arises from them. May all beings be truly happy!

For a previous reflection on the Buddha's first sermon, please click here: Dharma Day


Jack said...

Hi Gary,great post.


jack said...

There is a very simple little saying that I think totally encapsulates the very ground truth not only of Zen Buddhism but also of Christianity as well: " Love begins at home!" One may ask what exactly does that statement pretend to signify?

Home is where one lives and a man can have any number of different types and levels of homes. However Buddhism and Christianity both have a laser like focus on a home of the most intimate kind and its name is Buddha or spirit.

There are two basic ways that man can live at home, either in disunion or communion and the sad truth is that man is not at home with his very own self and In fact he is at war with himself.

Modern man is evermore living life as if looking through a telescope ( far away ) instead of a microscope ( close at hand. ) Man is more and more in dire need of returning home and being in loving communion with himself for love begins at home

G said...

Thanks Jack and Jack!

Jack: Glad you enjoyed the post.

Jack: Yes, our real home is the peaceful, nonjudgmental awareness that is the 'No-thing' that things to occur in. Union and disunion alike arise in it, but can never disturb its serenity: if human beings really want true peace, then it is Here that we should look for it.

Was Once said...

Wasn't he addressing aesthetics.....not monks?

G said...

No, he wasn't addressing 'aesthetics' because that is the appreciation of beauty! I think you meant 'ascetics', Was Once.

Well, if you take the Pali Canon as literal historical truth - which I don't - technically you may be correct, because the five ascetics became Buddhist monks after the Buddha delivered the first sermon.

However, in the Pali itself, even prior to their conversion, the sutra refers to the five ascetics as "pancavaggiye bhikkhu", which if my Pali is up to scratch, means 'group of five monks'. Furthermore, the Buddha himself constantly addresses them with "bhikkhave" in the sutra, which is "O Monks" in English.

It may be that the word 'bhikkhu' had a more general meaning at the time of the Buddha and meant 'ascetic' or 'monk' rather than a specifically Buddhist monk, as it does today. Alternatively, this could be a cock-up on the part of the Tripitaka compilers, and goes to show we shouldn't take everything in it literally, but reflect wisely.

Was Once said...

That what I assumed that Bhikkhu refers at that time to ascetics or sadhus( sorry about the typo, but it threw some humor into it). This came about reflecting...not wanting to find mistakes.

G said...

Enjoyed the typo, Albert, whether it was intended or not. Looking for mistakes is sometimes a healthy thing to do if done in a positive mindset. Then, it becomes a kind of reflection, doesn't it?

What are your thoughts on the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta itself, Albert; has it played an important role in your practice? Also, what is your view on how literally you take the narrative contents of the Pali Canon? It would be very interesting to read your thoughts - I sound like a telepathist now!

Was Once said...

Reflecting on your post(thank you) and Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta with the Nuns last English and Pali.

I am still most amazed at Buddha's teaching or at least the Pali retelling of it. To have something that works as well as it did over 2500 years ago as it does today is just a miracle. Looking at society then and now. It is very wise and simple and the foundation of all the teachings, but I have not quite figured out the levels of devas. Probably because I have had only touched the jaunas perhaps twice in meditation, and they are probably revealed best in the higher jaunas. And I am not talking about beautiful painted versions of them. :)

Having only moved to Theravada 1 year ago from Mahayana after becoming a novice in Thailand. I knew of the teachings more from basic dhamma talks and books instead of the actual Sutta.

G said...

Thank you, Albert.
Yes, I think that your appreciation of the timeless nature of the Buddha's teachings is a reminder to us all that gratitude for his life and teachings is an important quality to cultivate. No him (the Buddha), no us (Buddhists).

isis de la noche said...

Great post..

It's always important to remember what we musn't forget ;)

G said...

Well put, Isis!

Anonymous said...

Can you give me an answer to these questions please ..Just to compare with your opinion..............following questions came from one of my friend..

"Rebirth takes place immediately" <<=== There's no doubt about it, but to where first? The rotation or cycle of the 6 realms act upon our own karma. We may be in hell for 10 trillion years before coming back to this world, to be just an ant, or a duck.
The easiest way to achieve Buddha hood, is to be human again. Okay now, let's say we reincarnated into this world as a human again. 1) While being reborn as a wealthy, happy human, will we believe in Buddha again, for we have got everything & would not need any religion of gods to help us then. 2) If when reborn to be a poor, hungry beggar, will we be finding food, or have extra time to look for gods or Buddha?
The conclusion is that, we must grab this very opportunity to achieve Buddha Hood after this life. But how? How many life time can a person have to go thru, to attain that perfection? Do remember, life is short. Even when we start to read all the Buddhist scriptures from birth until a hundred years old, we cannot even finish reading half of it. So, by reading or knowing all of Buddha's scriptures, will bring us to nowhere. Basically in Buddhism, there are 2 ways to achieve Buddha Hood. First, is the hard or difficult way, while the second one, is the easy way. Most Buddhist followers tends to do it the hard way, by reading scriptures everyday & night, be a vegetarian, making lots of donations to charity & by going to "every" monastery they came across. Doing all these things in life ,may be just a gateway to Nirvana, for we are no really going thru it. Forever we will just be standing on the same spot.
Want to know the easy way? (Lots of people don't believe that, there is any easy way)

Anonymous said...

Lord Buddha given a guidance of how to attain nibbana. <<==
3)What is the success rate for those which follows? Who could follow 100% of his teachings today? If we failed with even a 99% score, would it be a waste for this life (AGAIN)?
you cannot achieve anything from one or two days.(nirvana)<<==
4)Do U mean that a near dying man has got no more hope~? In Buddhism, we may be practicing a million years without success, but in just a split second, we may be into Nirvana.
Its enough to understand the base we called it as "EMPTINESS".. <<== How do we define "emptiness"? Empty mean nothing. When we make nothing out of something, it also means that we are making something into nothing. In Buddhism, it's easy to say that we have to go into "emptiness". But in reality, who can achieve that? Take for example, when one is hungry or thirsty, can we treat it as if nothing happened? Even if we can do it now, for how long can we last? "Emptiness" also could mean that, we will not care about everything around us. We will just be ignoring everything. This is not reality, where humans should do~! Only Buddhas or Boddhisatvas can go into that dimension of "Emptiness", not humans. Buddhist followers tends to make these kind of mistake for they often mixed up between monks & home practitioners, even disguise as a Buddha themselves, forgetting that they are just a normal human being.

Anonymous said...

it's really messing up the thinking of all Buddhist this way..... On one side, it calls for the pursue for "emptiness", but on the other hand, it says that it's already there. Why does those so-call-masters, make Buddhism in such a way that's so complicated? Buddhist followers tends to get into "evil cults" because of some twist & turns in Buddhism. The basic fundamental in Buddhism according to Buddha himself, is to tell every one of us to get out of reincarnation FIRST. Whatever abilities we need to have, is to be accomplish in his Nirvana, NOT here in this world & with this filthy, non reliable body that we are having now. Most of the things in his scriptures are mainly for information purposes only, for he knows that, we as a human, will never achieve its ultimate perfection now. Buddhist tends to walk a never ending circle with all those complicated unachievable doctrines. To cut everything short I often have 2 questions for our Buddhist followers. 1) Is Buddha compassionate? Everyone answer will definitely be a "YES", right? If he is so compassionate, will he be just passing down some scriptures without caring much, on whether we can achieve its purpose or not? 2) If the possibility of being a Buddha is so unachievable or just a limitation to a few, how can he be a fair Buddha, where he often tell us that "ALL humans are equal"?
There are lots more to be shared, just that people tends to look at his scriptures blindly, without accepting reality. There are 3 eras which we have to consider, where most of the teachings he made was for the generation which was about 3,000 ago. If we check carefully in his scriptures, he did mentioned that Buddhism will change form after his 1,000 years, & it'll change again after the 2nd 1,000 years. We are in its final 3rd 1,000 years now, & whatever things taught earlier cannot be use now.

G said...

Thanks for the extensive comments, 'Anonymous'.
Here is a (brief) response to your main two questions:

1) Is the Buddha compassionate?
Yes. His compassion is a natural expression of his wisdom, and it is not only contained in the scriptures and teachings of the masters, but also in each of us. We need to cultivate wisdom through meditation to realize the Buddha within, then his compassion will flow through us, also.

2) If the possibility of being a Buddha is so unachievable or just a limitation to a few, how can he be a fair Buddha, where he often tell us that "ALL humans are equal"?
He is "fair Buddha" because he did all he could to help us help ourselves. He couldn't do more than that! It is up to each and everyone of us to sort ourselves out, not rely on someone else, even the Buddha. In this, we are all equal. Also, realizing enlightenment is not as "unachievable" as you appear to think, 'Anonymous.' Just turn your attention around and attend to the emptiness at the heart of your own being. If you find this difficult to do, then you need to practice meditation & mindfulness on a regular basis. You are an incredible being whether you realize it or not - awakening is within your grasp!

treederwright said...

I started a new blog called active bodhichitta. its based upon patrul rinpoche's instruction to practice the teachings.

I wanted to see what would happen if i actually followed the sage's great advice. So i commited myself to a year of practice on the Bodhicharyavatara and its commentary Nectar of Manjushri's Speech

Also i have made a new Guest Blog. Where my friends and those who are practicing similarly can write a essay and i'll publish it under guest blogs with your name and a link that you would like backlinked.

Mine is If you'd like write me and maybe you can do a guest blog for me.

G said...

Have taken a look at your blog, Treederwright; it looks good!

When time permits, I may well write a guest post for it. Thank you for the invitation.

Muskaan said...