Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What does the Buddha's first sutra mean?

Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, Crystal Quintero, CC Liu, Seth Auberon (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly; Ven. Narada Maha Thera, The Buddha and His Teachings (Cultural Conservation Trust)
The Buddha and the first Five Disciples (Firstfire53/charwoodland/
The First Sermon: Dhammacakkappavattana
Siddhartha and the Five Ascetics (DW)
Ancient India was noted for distinguished philosophers and spiritual teachers who held diverse views with regard to life and its ultimate goal. The "All-Embracing Net of Views" (Brahmajala Sutra) of the Collection of Long Discourses (Digha Nikaya) mentions 62 varieties of philosophical theories that prevailed at the time of the Buddha.

One extreme view that was diametrically opposed to all current religious beliefs was the nihilistic teaching of the materialists who were also termed Carvakas after the name of the founder.
According to ancient materialism which, in Pali and Sanskrit was known as Lokayata, a person is annihilated after death, leaving behind whatever force was generated by that person. In their opinion death is the end of all [quite like modern scientists today]. This present world alone is real. "Eat, drink, and be merry, for death comes to all," appears to be the ideal of this system of thought. "Virtue," they say, "is a delusion, and enjoyment is the only reality."

Religion is a foolish aberration, a mental disease. There was a distrust of everything good, high, pure, and compassionate. Their theory stands for hedonism, sensuality, and selfishness and the gross affirmation of the loud self will. There is no need to control passion and instinct, since they are Nature's legacy to humans.

Another extreme view was that liberation was possible only by leading a life of strict asceticism. This was purely a religious doctrine firmly held by the ascetics of the highest order. The five ascetics that attended on the Bodhisattva, the Buddha-to-be during his quest for enlightenment, tenaciously adhered to this view.

In accordance with this view the Buddha, too, before enlightenment subjected himself to all forms of extreme austerity. After an extraordinary struggle he realized the utter futility of self-mortification.

Consequently, he changed his unsuccessful course and adopted a Middle Way between extremes of princely pleasure seeking and ascetic self abnegation. His companion thus lost confidence in him and deserted him, saying -- "The ascetic Gautama has become luxurious, had ceased from striving, and had returned to a life of comfort." Their unexpected desertion was a material loss to him as they attended to all of his physical needs. Nevertheless, he was not discouraged. The Bodhisatta may even have felt happy to finally be left alone and undisturbed by their expectations. With enthusiasm and restored energy he persistently strove until he attained a great awakening, supreme enlightenment, the object of his life over many past lives.

Precisely two months after enlightenment on the Asalha (July) full moon day the Buddha delivered his first discourse to the five ascetics who formerly attended on him.

Dhammacakka ("Dharma Wheel") is the name given to this first sutra of the Buddha. It is frequently represented as meaning "The Wheel of Truth." According to the commentators Dhamma (Dharma) here means wisdom or knowledge, and cakka (chakra) means founding or establishment.

Dhammacakka therefore means the founding or establishment of wisdom. Dhammacakka-ppavattana means "The Exposition of the Establishment of Wisdom." Dharma may also be interpreted as "truth," and cakka as "wheel." Dhammacakkappavattana would therefore mean "The Turning or Establishment of the Wheel of Truth."

In this important discourse the Buddha expounds the Middle Path which he himself discovered and which forms the essence of the teaching. The discourse opens by exhorting the five who believed in harsh asceticism to avoid the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification as neither lead to perfect peace and enlightenment. The former slows one's spiritual progress, whereas the latter weakens one's intellect. He criticized both views as he realized by personal experience their futility and announced a most practicable, rational, and beneficial path of practice, which leads to perfect purity and absolute deliverance from all suffering.

This discourse was expounded by the Buddha while the five ascetics were residing at the Deer Park in Isipatana near Benares (Varanasi).

The intellectual five ascetics, who had been closely associated with the ascetic Siddhartha for years prior to his attainment of buddhahood were the only human beings who were present to hear the first sermon.

Five Buddhas, Amitabh Monastery, Nepal (Eliz Chastain/flickr/Pinterest Mania)
Dhyani Buddhas, Akshobhya (V)
Books, however, state that many invisible beings such as devas and brahmas (deities and divinities, fairies and gods) also took advantage of this rare opportunity to hear a fully enlightened teacher giving a sermon. As Buddhists believe in the existence of many realms other than this world with its humans. Many of those worlds are inhabited by beings with subtler light bodies imperceptible to the physical eye, and the Buddha was well aware of their presence, as he is known not only as the Enlightened One but also the "Teacher of Devas and Humans." Nevertheless, it is clear that the Buddha was directly addressing the five ascetics and the sutra was intended mainly for them to realize the truth and awaken to establish the Dharma in this world.

At the outset the Buddha cautioned them to avoid the two extremes. His actual words were, "There are two extremes (anta) which should not be resorted to by a renunciant or ascetic (pabbajitena)." Special emphasis was laid on the two terms anta, which means end or extreme and pabbajita, which means one who has renounced the world.

One extreme, in the Buddha's words, was the constant attachment to sensual pleasures (kama-sukha-llikanu-yoga). The Buddha described this extreme as base, vulgar, worldly, ignoble, and profitless.

This should not be misconstrued to mean that the Buddha expected all of his disciples and lay followers to give up material pleasures and retire to forest hermitages renouncing enjoyment of this life mired in the Sensual Realm (Kama Loka). The Buddha was not so narrow minded.
Whatever a deluded sensualist may feel about it, to a dispassionate person the enjoyment of sensual pleasures is distinctly short-lived, never satisfying (permanently satiating), but instead results in unpleasant reactions.

Speaking of worldly happiness, the Buddha says that the acquisition of wealth and the enjoyment of possessions are two sources of pleasure for a layperson. An understanding renunciate would not, however, seek delight in the pursuit of these fleeting pleasures. To the surprise of the average person, one might shun them. What constitutes "pleasure" to the former type of person is a source of alarm to the latter type for whom renunciation (letting go of clinging to objects even if such objects are still present in one's life) alone is pleasure.

The other extreme is the constant addiction to self-mortification (atta-kilamathanu-yoga). 
Commenting on this extreme, which is not practiced by the average person, the Buddha remarks that it is painful, ignoble, and profitless. Unlike the first extreme this is not described as base, worldly, and vulgar. The selection of these three terms is very striking. As a rule it is the sincere recluse who has renounced his attachment to sensual pleasures that resorts to this painful method, mainly with the object of gaining his deliverance from the ills of life. The Buddha, who has had painful experience of this profitless course, describes it as useless. It only multiplies suffering instead of diminishing it.

The buddhas (supremely enlightened teachers) and arhats (fully enlightened followers) are described as ariyas meaning "nobles." An-ariya (ignoble) may therefore be construed as not characteristic of the Buddha and arhats, who are free from passions. Attha means the ultimate good, which for Buddhists is nirvana, which is complete liberation from all suffering.

Therefore, an-atthasamhita may be construed as "not conducive to the ultimate good."

The Sutra
Gandhara Buddhist sutras (
The Buddha first clears the issues and removes the false notions of his hearers. When their troubled hearts/minds become pliable and receptive, he relates his personal experience with regard to these two extremes.

The Buddha says that he, realizing the error of both extremes, rediscovered the Middle Path (Majjhima Patipada). This new way was rediscovered rather than learned from a teacher. To persuade his hearers to heed this path, he spoke of its various blessings. Unlike the two diametrically opposite extremes, this path produces spiritual insight, emotional compassion, intellectual wisdom, and gives rise to seeing things as they truly are. When insight is clarified, and the heart is in the right place, and when intellect (right view) is sharpened, everything is a seen in its proper perspective.

Furthermore, unlike the first extreme, which stimulates the passions, this Middle Way leads to the relinquishing of oppressive passions, which results in peace. Above all and most importantly, it leads to the attainment of the four supramundane "PATHS" of enlightenment, to the penetrating understanding of the Four Noble Truths, and finally to the realization of the ultimate goal, nirvana.

The Middle Way
So what is this Middle Way? The Buddha replies: It is outlined as the Noble Eightfold Path. Its eight factors are then enumerated in the discourse.

The first factor is right view or right understanding, the pivotal point of Buddhist practice. The Buddha starts the sutra with right understanding in order to clear the doubts of his hearers and guide them on the right way. Right understanding deals with knowledge of oneself as one really is; it leads to right thoughts or right intentions of
  1. non-attachment or renunciation (nekkhamma-sankappa),
  2. loving-kindness (avyapada sankappa), and
  3. non-harming (avihimsa sankappa), which respectively are opposed to selfishness, ill will, and cruelty.
Right thoughts/intentions result in right speech, right action, and right livelihood (three expressions of karma), three factors which help perfect virtue.
The sixth factor is right effort, a fourfold process that deals with the elimination of unwholesome states and the development of skillful ones.
This self-purification is best done by careful introspection, for which right mindfulness, the seventh factor, is essential. Effort, combined with mindfulness, contribute to right concentration or one-pointedness of the mind, blissful "absorption" (jhana, dhyana, zen), the eighth factor.
A one-pointed mind resembles a polished mirror where everything is clearly reflected free of distortion.

Prefacing the discourse with the two extremes and the rediscovery of the Middle Way, the Buddha expounds the Four Noble Truths.

Sacca is the Pali language term for "truth," which means that which is. Its Sanskrit equivalent is satya, which denotes an incontrovertible fact. The Buddha expounds four such truths, the foundations of the Dharma he is teaching, which are associated with the so-called person or being. So this doctrine is humanistic, taught for the benefit of devas and humans, rather than theocentric, which would be talking to and about some distant gods or brahmas. Certainly the teaching is for the potential benefit of all living beings, but it is focused on humans and devas.

It is introvert, not extrovert. Whether a buddha, a supremely enlightened teacher, arises or not these truths exist. And one is called a "buddha" because one reveals them to the deluded world stuck in the dark.

These ennobling -- that is, leading onward to noble states of enlightenment -- do not change with time. They are eternal truths. The Buddha is not indebted to any teacher or existing teaching for the realization of them, as he explains in the discourse: "With regard to things unheard before, there arose in me the eye, the knowledge, the wisdom, the insight, and the light." Light arose, knowledge arose.

Diskit, Nubra, Himalayas (Atamvir S. Multani)
This should be enough to refute the many who claim the Buddha was an avatar (incarnation of god), a Hindu come to reform or establish the Vedas, the ancient sacred texts of the Indus Valley Civilization and India. What he awoke to was not the Vedas but a new, unknown, untaught, unrealized truth, a path to real and final liberation. Surely the Vedas and other dharmas, such as that of the many other teachers of the time like Mahavira, founder of Jainism, teach paths to what they deem "liberation," moksha. But the Buddha, the Awakened One, says that what they teach is not the same as the moksha he is pointing, so he gives what he is talking about the name nirvana. Because others hear him referring to moksha as nirvana, they assume they are synonyms. But they are different. Any claimed emancipation could be called moksha, but only the Buddhist path the Buddha is teaching leads to actual "nirvana." To call the mokshas of other dharmas "nirvana" is to be very misleading and sink the Buddha's special efforts into nothing. Nirvana is different and can be experienced here and now, in this very life while one is alive and conscious, so anyone who logically deduces or says that "nirvana is nothingness" is completely wrong, tied to an intellectual and biased grasp of the texts, of words and concepts, completely missing what the Buddha is in fact talking about. It is personally verifiable. Nirvana is real, and Bhikkhu Bodhi (in the As It Is lectures, gives a very thorough and scholarly analysis refuting the idea that nirvana is simply the absence of something. Beyond that, the Buddha in many places and in many ways says very positively what nirvana is, in addition to the many times he explains it by excluding what it is not. It is the deathless, the greatest peace, the only refuge, the further shore, the "unconditioned element" in a universe that is utterly conditioned (composed of parts).

This claim is very significant because it testifies to the originality of the Buddha Dharma, this new teaching. There is no justification in the statement that Buddhism is a natural outgrowth of Hinduism, which had not even come into existence yet (its predecessor Brahmanism and Vedantic teachings being the established religion of the temple priests of the time). But, of course, there are some fundamental doctrines common to both systems and to other dharmas being taught by various teachers at that time. (These other teachers are often referred to as "heretical teachers," which is misleading because they were not Buddhists nor Brahmins but other independent "wandering ascetic" teachers, part of what is called the shramana movement).

Many set out in search of "enlightenment," rejecting the Vedas and the temple priests, teaching their own insights. Six of these are used to illustrate various types of views. A more detailed list of the views floating around in the Buddha's day, are ennumerated in the Brahmajala Sutra, the "All-Embracing Net of Views." Of these "wandering ascetic" traditions, only Buddhism and Jainism survive, and the priestly temple religion of the Brahmins, who worshipped Brahma and/or idealized Brahman as the highest and ultimate truth. Brahmanism was revived, and Adi Shankara's formalization of disparate beliefs and principles came to be called Hinduism or the collective views of the Indus, called Hindus by the British.

The Four Noble Truths the Buddha realized and was talking about -- which are a summary of the entire teaching -- in Pali called Ariya Saccani, in Sanskrit Aryan ("noble") truths. They are called this because they were rediscovered and taught by the Greatest Ariya, the "Noble One," that is, one far removed from all delusions and passions.

The First Noble Truth deals with disappointment/unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) which, for want of a better English equivalent that encompasses all that this single word really covers, is inappropriately and most often simply rendered "suffering." The Buddha defines dukkha, and it is clear that not only annoyance or discomfort are dukkha but so is conditioned becoming, these Five Aggregates of Clinging. Pleasurable states are dukkha as well because, due to the fact of radical impermanence, they are bound to fall away, disappoint, and leave one who chases after them unfulfilled. This is their hidden nature, the potential for sorrow, even in the midst of getting what we want.

I don't mind you being rich (Occupy).
Who is more miserable, the rich who has had everything or the poor who has had nothing? Whoever craves will be miserable regardless of what s/he has had. And who is more likely to crave, the one who has had it all? Or the one who has not? At least having been rich and having had it all, one can say with certainty that it was unfulfilling; the poor person thinks, "No, it HAS to be fulfilling IF only I could get it!" And believing this, chases after things, pines, yearns, and suffers greatly. The experience person has a chance to say, "No, I HAD it and it was NOT fulfilling!" and can therefore go in search of an escape from suffering -- from greed, hatred, and delusion -- abandoning unsatisfactoriness for real peace and happiness, enlightenment and nirvana.

As a feeling or sensation, dukkha means that which is difficult to be endured. As an abstract truth dukkha is used in the sense of contemptible (du) emptiness (kha). The world rests on suffering -- so it is contemptible. It is devoid of any reality -- so it is impersonal or empty. Dukkha, therefore, means "unsatisfactory void." [The Three Marks of Existence are the characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and impersonal, and all composite-things are marked by these three.]

Average persons only see the surface. An ariya or aryan (a terrible word that can no longer be used in its original sense due to abuses in Europe in the last century) sees things as they really are.

To a "noble one" -- anyone who has glimpsed or touched nirvana and therefore seen the paths and experienced the first fruition of stream entry -- becoming is clearly unsatisfactory. But now there is something that can be done about it rather than running or denying this eternal truth. One can escape to reality. All of the rest of us, in our foolishness and ignorance of how things really are, are certain that this is real and we need to run from it, which is called escapism.

If things are suffering, one finds it easy to let go. The vision, the knowing-and-seeing, the right view that they are unsatsifactory and utterly incapable of satisfying leads one not to chase, yearn, or pine after them, at least not with the view that they could actually bring real satisfaction or fulfillment.

Drugs, sex, pleasure
Japan's sex industry (lamy/
Because one can find no real happiness in the worlds with their "things" (conditioned phenomena), which deceptive, leading living beings along with illusory pleasures, fears, and endless delusions. Temporary material happiness is what we call the gratification of a desire, but if we were "satisfied," why would we go on craving it?

For example, if heroin is so great, and it must be to see the way addicts think of it day and night and do so much to get it, giving up health and liberty along the way, why would one need it a second time? It did not satisfy, it did not fulfill, it did not lead to the end of craving-and-suffering. It gave rise to such a fierce craving and so much suffering that unless one has it, one simply cannot live.

Disney is a source of our sex mania.
Substitute romantic love, or carnal SEX, or dumbing alcohol, or euphoric drugs, or delightful sugar, or some pleasing view, and it becomes clear that craving (tanha) is the problem, so how could indulging be any kind of permanent solution? It seems to be a temporary solution, but it is not even that. Yet, it's all we have. So average persons just go chasing after them, life after life, in realm after realm, getting in a lot of trouble, experiencing a great deal of anguish and agony, and rarely if ever hearing that there is an alternative. There is a path to happiness, to fulfillment, to rest, to bliss, to peace to be experienced here and now? Where do I sign up?!

All beings (other than noble ones) are subject to endless births (jati) and consequently to decay (jara), disease (vyadhi), and re-death (marana). No one is exempt from these four causes of suffering.

Wishes that go unfulfilled are also suffering. As a general rule one does not wish to be associated with detestable things or persons. Nor does one wish to ever be separated from pleasant things or persons. (Make it be so that I never have to be around the unpleasant or apart from the pleasant!)

However, one's cherished desires, whether base or lofty, are not gratified. At times what one least expects or what one least desires is thrust upon one. Such unexpected and unpleasant circumstances become so intolerable and painful that weak ignorant people are compelled to commit suicide as if such an act would solve the problem.

Real happiness is found within, and is not to be defined in terms of wealth, power, honours or conquests. If such worldly possessions are forcibly or unjustly obtained, or are misdirected or even viewed with attachment, they become a source of pain and sorrow for the possessors.

Normally the enjoyment of sensual pleasures is the highest and only happiness of the average person.

There is no doubt some momentary happiness in the anticipation, gratification, and retrospection of such fleeting pleasures, although they are illusory, temporary, and misleading. According to the Buddha non-attachment (viragata) or the transcending of sensory pleasures is a greater bliss.

In brief, this composite body-mind (panc-upadana-kkhandha, Five Clung-to Aggregates) itself is a fundamental cause of suffering.


Glen Quagmire craves sensual pleasure.
There are three kinds of craving.
  1. The first is the grossest form of craving, which is an addiction or attachment to all kinds of sensual pleasures (kama-tanha).
  2. The second is attachment to rebirth, again becoming, rearising, a continued wandering on, to eternal life (bhava-tanha).
  3. The third is attachment to non-existence (vibhava-tanha).
According to the Commentaries the last two kinds of craving are attachment to sensual pleasures connected with the clinging to the wrong view of Eternalism (sassata-ditthi), and that which is connected with the belief of Annihilationism (uccheda-ditthi).

Attachment or clinging to renewed existence, bhava-tanha, may also be interpreted as attachment to rebirth in Realms of Form whether Sensual or Fine-Material (Kama and Rupa Lokas) and non-existence as attachment to Realms Beyond Form in the Formless Sphere because form-desire (rupa-raga) and formless-desire (arupa-raga) are treated as two fetters (samyojanas).

This craving is a powerful force latent in all, and it is the chief cause of most of the ills in life. It is this craving, gross or subtle, that leads to repeated births in the Wheel of Rebirth, samsara, and it is what makes one cling to all forms of life, even painful ones.

The grossest forms of craving are attenuated on attaining once-returning, the second stage of enlightenment, and are eradicated on attaining non-returning, the third stage of enlightenment. The subtlest forms of craving, particularly to clinging to becoming, are eradicated on attaining full enlightenment.

Right understanding of the first noble truth leads to the eradication (pahatabba) of craving. The second noble truth thus deals with the mental attitude of the ordinary person toward the external objects of sense.

The third noble truth is that there is a complete cessation of suffering, which the Buddha called nirvana, the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path. It can be achieved in this life by insight into the true nature of things, which temporarily releases the heart/mind from craving -- a power fetter keeping us sunk in desire, aversion, and delusion -- so that we directly see Dependent Origination, how everything comes to be by depending on causes and conditions with only one exception. And by glimpsing this one exception, nirvana or the "unconditioned element," right view is established and we are destined to be forever free.

This nirvana is to be comprehended (sacchikatabba) by the mental eye by the falling away (temporary suspension) of the Five Hindrances so that the mind can comprehend the world (elements) and the self (the aggregates) for the first time.

This first truth of suffering, which depends on this sense of "self" and various aspects of life, is to be carefully perceived, analyzed (deconstructed), and examined (parinneyya). This examination leads to a proper understanding of oneself as the "self" (atta, atman, soul) really is.

The cause of this suffering is [ignorance and delusion that give rise to] craving or attachment to illusory things. This is the second noble truth.

The Dhammapada, the famous collection of Buddhist aphorisms and their origin stories, states: "From craving springs grief, from craving springs fear; for one who is wholly freed of craving, there is no grief, much less fear" (Verse 216).

Craving, the Buddha says, leads to countless repeated births (ponobhavika). This Pali term is noteworthy as there are some scholars who state that the Buddha did not teach the doctrine of rebirth. This second noble truth indirectly deals with past, present, and future births.

The third noble truth has to be realized by developing (bhavetabba) the Noble Eightfold Path. This path is the direct way to nirvana. This is the fourth noble truth.

Expounding the Four Noble Truths in various ways, the Buddha concludes the sutra with the powerful words: "As long, O meditators, as the absolute true intuitive knowledge regarding these Four Noble Truths with their three aspects and 12 modes was not yet perfectly clear to me, so long I did not consider that I had gained the incomparable supreme enlightenment.

"But when the absolute true intuitive knowledge regarding these truths became perfectly clear to me, then only did I consider that I had gained incomparable supreme enlightenment (anuttara samma-sam-bodhi)."

Buddhist cosmology depicted in the Buddhist Museum, Bangkok, Thailand (uwebkk/flickr)
"And there arose in me this knowledge and insight: Unshakable is this deliverance of mind, this is my last rebirth, and now there is no more becoming."

At the end of the discourse Kondanna, the senior of the five ascetics, understands the Dharma and attains the first stage of enlightenment, stream entry, realizing that all that is subject to origination is subject to cessation: Yam kinci samudayadhammam sabbam tam nirodhadhammam.

When the Buddha expounded the discourse of the True Wheel, the Dharma-chakra, the earthbound devas exclaimed: "This excellent Dharma wheel, which could not be expounded by any wandering ascetic, Brahmin priest, deva, Mara, or Brahma in this world-system, has been expounded by the Awakened One at the Deer Park in Isipatana near Benares!"

Hearing this, devas and brahmas, the "shining ones" and divinities, of the other planes of existence also raise the same joyous cry. And a radiant light, surpassing the effulgence of the devas, appears throughout the world-system.

The light of the Dharma illuminated the entire world-system (galaxy, cosmos, section of the universe), and momentarily brought peace to all beings.

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