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