|The Buddha with Dharma chakra , wheel of truth, above in Thailand (Nippon_newfie/flickr)|
Perfecting profitable skill,
And purifying one’s own heart:
This is the Buddha’s teaching.
|Afghan Buddha, Gandhara (BBC)|
“That Blessed One is such since he is accomplished and fully enlightened, perfect in true knowledge and conduct, sublime, knower of worlds, incomparable leader of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, awakened and blessed… He teaches a Dharma that is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end, with its own special meaning and phrasing; he exhibits a supreme life that is utterly perfect and pure.” Now it is good to see such Accomplished Ones (MN 41).
So it was said of him at the time. But what, then, was the fundamental basis of that Dharma? Of the many ways that such a question might be answered, perhaps this is the simplest and best: “He expounded teachings peculiar to buddhas: suffering, its origin, cessation, and the direct path to its cessation” (MN 56).
The three discourses here presented display precisely, in all its incomparably serene simplicity, without assumptions, those special fundamental teachings, from which all Buddhism branches, and to which it all points back.
The circumstances that led up to the discovery of these Four Noble Truths and to the delivery of these three sutras or discourses were briefly as follows. The Bodhisatta -- as the Buddha refers to himself while striving and developing the Ten Perfections leading up to his great enlightenment -- was 29-years-old when he left the householder life, where he enjoyed the extreme of luxury. He went forth into wandering asceticism in order to find not a palliative but the true and incontrovertible way to make a complete and final end of all suffering for himself and all living beings.
This world is surely full of woe, because it is born and ages gets sick and dies. But to fall from one kind of existence only to reappear in another, again and again without end, compounds the problem exponentially. Yet, the world knows of no actual escape from this suffering, from aging and death. There are temporary respites to be sure with sojourns in various heavens (sagga). Is there an escape from disappointment and dissatisfaction, from ageing and death? (SN 12:65).
The Bodhisatta studied and practiced under two of the foremost teachers of samādhi (concentration, the absorptions, mental collectedness, calm, and serenity), and reached the highest meditative attainments possible thereby. But that was not enough: “I was not satisfied with that as a dharma; I left it and went away” (MN 36).
|The Bodhisatta Siddhartha (Lahore Museum)|
During this time he was helped along by five fellow ascetics, who hoped that if he discovered the “deathless state” (nirvana, final liberation) he would be able to communicate his discovery to them. This extreme asceticism also failed to gain enlightenment and glimpse nirvana (deliverance from suffering).
“By this grueling penance I have attained no distinction higher than the human ideal worthy of a noble one’s knowing and seeing. Might there be another way to awakening?” (MN 36).
He decided to try again the path of concentration, attained through mindfulness of breathing, though this time not pushed to the extreme of serenity, but guided instead by ordered consideration (mindful-contemplation).
|Calm/insight meditations (Ezioman/flickr)|
|Big Buddha Tian Tan, Lantau island, Hong Kong (Michael Jevons/flickr.com)|
But now abandoned and in solitude, his new balanced effort rooted in virtue, based on unifying strong concentration (absorption), and guided by the ordered (mindful) consideration of insight brought about by contemplation (anussati, mindfulness in the sense not just of bare attention, vigilance, and wakefulness but of careful consideration of the question, "Why is there this suffering?" which is contemplated in terms of directly seeing Dependent Origination), at length brought success. He discovered the way to the goal -- the complete end of all suffering -- he had sought for so long.
After invitation by first Sakka then Brahma, the Buddha resolved to communicate his discovery of liberation through wisdom (insight) to humans and devas. For his first audience he considered his two teachers of the previous six years, but they had passed into brahma worlds where liberation would not be possible for aeons (kalpas).
|Teaching the five ascetics (mahathep.exteen.com)|
This, his first discourse, made one of his hearers, the ascetic Kondañña, a “stream-enterer” [one who entered the "stream," sota, a word which also means "ear," as in one who entered upon the path-and-fruits by hearing] with his attainment of the first of the four progressive stages of enlightenment. The four other ascetics soon followed in his footsteps.
These are the first two discourses presented here, and they were the first two sutras ever uttered by the Buddha. The third, the “Fire Sermon,” was delivered some months later to an audience of 1,000 forest ascetics converted from the heaven-bent practice of fire-worship. All three discourses deal only with wisdom/understanding (paññā), among the faculties mentioned above as required to be balanced.
|Walking Buddha (Nippon_newfie/flickr)|
A high degree of concentration (though not necessarily developed to the fullness of all the absorptions, but lightly just the first four, not necessarily mastering them fully but being acquainted with them and able to enter and emerge; later this certain course was expanded with the more uncertain development of lighter versions or "access-concentration"). Only in this way can insight-wisdom reach the ultimate goal of unshakable liberation.
Now let us let these three sutras speak for themselves. Their incalculable strength rests on their simplicity and in their actuality. The profound truth is here, discoverable even through the foggy medium of translation. More