by Marc Forest
There are many ways to deepen our practice, including studying the suttas.
With the launch of our new website, I offer you the Buddha’s first teaching.
The discourse is called Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion or, in Pali, the Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana Sutta. This discourse is one of thousands that appear in what is known as the Pali Canon. The canon is the complete and original collection of texts on what the Buddha taught.
You can read the entire Sutta by clicking the link below.
Commentary on Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (SN 56.11)
As this is the very first teaching of the Buddha, it is the most ancient and yet the most straight forward of all his teachings.
This discourse is where it all began. This was the “big reveal” of the Buddha’s awakening that came to him in meditation under the now famous Bodhi Tree. His awakening came after six years of searching for truth and liberation. He experimented with a variety of extreme teachings that were popular in his day. There were sixty-two varieties of philosophical theories that prevailed in the time of the Buddha. He experimented with extremes of austerity and sensual pleasures in his quest for freedom from what was troubling him. Buddha did not find what he was looking for in any of these teachings.
Buddha understood that his awakening was contrary to the teachings of the time and would not be easy for others understand. How could he explain illumination and liberation? At first, Buddha decided he would not tell anybody about it. As he said in his own words, he thought no one would get it:
“...If I were to teach the Dhamma, others would not understand me, and that would be wearying and troublesome for me...Considering thus, my mind inclined to inaction rather than to teaching the Dhamma” (from MN 26.19).
Luckily for all of us he was persuaded to teach the Dhamma and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Buddha delivered this first teaching to five of his best buddies - the ones he wandered with in the early days of his search for liberation. He believed these five friends would at least listen and hear him out. He also thought if anyone was going to understand this profound teaching, they would.
As it turns out, they were very skeptical. They felt Buddha had abandoned the path they had all started together years earlier and were concerned for his well being. It took some persuasion but they finally agreed to listen to what he had to say.
The Buddha’s final convincing argument was that if they could not verify the teaching for themselves, he would abandon it and continue the search for freedom with them, just like the old days.
The discourse focuses on a common feature we all share as humans - the experience of trouble and stress and the search to be free of it. This is the most central aspect of all of Buddha’s teachings.
The sutta communicates for the first time the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its origin, its ceasing, and the way that leads to its ceasing. To begin to understand the imperfection of our human existence is to begin to understand suffering - dukkha.
An important element of the discourse that is often overlooked is that there are three insights for each Noble Truth:
- Acknowledge the existence of the Truth.
- Penetrate the Truth by fully developing an understanding of it.
- Confirm you have, in fact, experientially penetrated the Truth.
The teaching of the Middle Way - avoiding extremes of indulgence and self-mortification, both of which the Buddha experimented with - is highlighted in this discourse. The teaching’s have great value for all of us. The discourse explains that these teachings are meant for us to engage fully in this world. We are not to hide from the world, but to fully partake in the world. This first discourse is filled with joy and hope.
Eventually all five of the Buddha’s friends reached full awakening. One of them actually awakened immediately upon hearing this first sermon. Lucky him!
We too can realize and verify the truth of this discourse for ourselves and not just believe what we read or hear. We need to experience for ourselves its validity, just as Buddha instructed his five friends.
Freedom is more than possible for all of us. The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths as the path to this freedom.
It is my hope that by reading and studying this sutta you come to experience a deeper and richer understanding of what the Buddha taught and incorporate your own understanding into your daily life.