Turning the Wheel of the Dharma

1980.527.4

A commentary on the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-sutta

The introduction and the conclusion of this discourse imply that the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma was the very first discourse taught by the Buddha; his opening performance, as it were, like Abba’s ‘Waterloo’; it represents the Buddha bursting onto the scene, the world’s greatest spiritual teacher making his debut. But, from a scholarly point of view, it is unlikely that this discourse is any kind of record of the Buddha’s first sermon. Firstly, it presents the doctrines of the four noble (or ennobling) truths and the eightfold path in sytematic ways, but we know from other early Buddhist texts (most notably, the Chapter of the Eights and the Chapter of the Way to the Beyond, the last two chapters of the Sutta-nipāta) that earlier presentations of the Buddha’s teaching were unsystematic and did not involve lists. One might well imagine that the Buddha developed his teaching style, involving lists and systems, over his 45-year teaching career. Secondly, the discourse presents the eightfold path as if everyone is familiar with it already. So it would seem that, in fact, the Buddha’s first sermon is a later literary construct, an idealisation – the first great teaching of the Awakened One. But this is not to demean it. Indeed, the very opposite – it is to say that this discourse presents, in a vivid literary form, the Buddha’s signature teaching; a first sermon in the sense of what the early Buddhists thought the most typical of their teacher.

The discourse is set in a deer park, known as Isipatana (which means ‘Deer Park’, in an older dialect) outside Vārāṇasi, where his five former companions are continuing their life of austerities. The place is now known as ‘Sarnath’ – it is one of the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites, and has an ancient stupa, remains of old monasteries, and guest houses for modern pilgrims. 2,500 years ago, of course, the place would have been just a clearing in the jungle. Another early Buddhist discourse, the Discourse on the Noble Quest, explains how the Buddha managed to get the attention of the five ascetics. It was difficult, because they believed that he had given up the practice of austerities, that he was a back-slider and had reverted to a life of indulgence. But he invited them to examine his words and, having done so, make a decision about whether he was a loser or not. This is another version of the argument the Buddha makes in the Discourse to the Kālāmas – stressing the importance of deciding for oneself about a teaching, not just taking someone’s word for it.

The Buddha first teaches them what he calls the ‘middle way’ between two extremes. We have to remember that the five ascetics were hardened spiritual warriors. They would have had no problem agreeing with the Buddha that the life of indulgence in sense-pleasures was not going to lead to insight and freedom. I guess none of us would be here if we really believed that a thoroughly hedonistic lifestyle was the best kind of life. We would be down the other end of the Gloucester Road in one of those restaurants for which Bristol is noted, planning a winter getaway to a Sri Lankan beach resort. But here we are. But the ascetics would have been surprised to hear the Buddha say that the life of self-mortification was the other extreme. These ascetics were a bit like the body-builders or iron-athletes of today, who seek to control the body with the mind, to be a pure will, a sort of living chisel with which to carve a way to the truth.

By contrast, the Buddha’s middle way is an alternative to both these extremes. Firstly, it is a way ­– it is a means for making a journey, from here (from this situation) to there, to awakening, freedom. Secondly, it is eightfold – in brief, it consists of wisdom (right vision and resolve), ethics (right speech, action and livelihood) and meditation (right effort, mindfulness and concentration). In short, it is way of life, a way of living here and now which is beneficial and which conduces to our well-being. By the standards of asceticism in the Buddha’s day, his teaching was a soft option – it involves actually cultivating the profound pleasures of meditation. From our point of view, however, the Buddha’s teaching also involves the systematic development of ethics and meditation – it involves a definite commitment.

The Buddha then goes on to present this middle way from another angle: the four noble truths. The Pāli here is ariya-sacca, and although we have got used to the translation ‘noble truth’, this can give the misleading impression that what is being taught is somehow super-true because is is noble. But really the point is that the truths are facts, or ways things actually are, and they are spiritually ‘ennobling’; this is a better translation really.

The first ennobling fact about things is that there is dukkha. This word has a broader connotation than ‘suffering’. It includes the sense of unsatisfactoriness, frustation and imperfection. The Buddha characterises this dukkha in three groups: there is physical suffering (sickness, birth and getting old), there is experiential suffering (association with the unloved, separation from the loved, not getting what you want), and there is a deeper structural suffering involved in our appropriating and holding on to our experience. This world, our lives, are not perfect, they involve frustation, as well as suffering and pain – this is the fact of dukkha. Later in the discourse, the Buddha goes on to characterise the significance of this fact – the ‘task’ it implies. This dukkha is to be fully known. What this means is that we should turn towards this dukkha, get to know it. This, of course, is completely against the grain of our usual strategy, and is the open secret of mindfulness meditation – we turn towards what is happening in immediate experience, with awareness and positivity.

The second ennobling truth or fact about things is that this dukkha has an origin, a causal condition, and that that cause is taṇhā, a word usually translated ‘craving’ but which could also be rendered ‘desire’, ‘wanting’. But how can this desire or wanting be the cause of dukkha? Surely, our desires represent ways to make ourselves feel better. The answer is that this ‘wanting’ is something much deeper. The word represents not so much our conscious strategies for cheering ourselves up, but the nearly-unconscious tendency to react to pain with avoidance and to pleasure with a kind of compulsion. Hence the Buddha indicates three kinds of wanting. There is wanting sense-pleasures; there is wanting to become someone, to hold on to our identity; and there is wanting to not become, to get out of the whole situation. The problem is that this reactive tendency, of whatever kind, doesn’t really work, or only works up to a point. The ‘task’ that the fact of our reactivity implies is this origin of dukkha is to be given up, let go of. Easier said than done, you might well say.

But the third ennobling truth is that there is cessation, nirodha, the fact that this dukkha has an ending. Thank goodness for that – if there were no ending to dukkha, it would hardly be worth engaging in the task of giving up wanting. But there is nirvana, the complete stopping of dukkha, the stilling and calming of reactivity. The task here is that this cessation is to be personally experienced. This is important. If we do not actually experience some calming and insight then why should we believe the Buddha’s teaching? It is important to notice whether our practice of ethics and meditation actually results in a personal experience of some calming of unsatisfactoriness, some resolution of our problems.

The fourth ennobling truth is that there is a path, magga, to the ceasing of dukkha. The idea of a path is a metaphor for a way to get to where you want to go. The eightfold path, involving wisdom, ethics and meditation, is a way of life, and this way of life is to be developed. An important point here is that this path does not really get anywhere. It’s more that fully developing the eightfold path is the end of dukkha – it is a life of awareness, of care for ourselves and others, of mental and emotional calm and insight.

The discourse ends with one of the five ascetics, Kondañña, having a breakthrough – that ‘whatever is of a nature to arise is of a nature to cease’. This is a way of saying that Kondañña had the insight that everything in experience is in a process of change. So we can change. We can learn to lean in to the dukkha quality of life, learn to give up reactivity, bit by bit, build on our personal experience of when and how dukkha ceases, and develop an awakened way of life. At this point, at the conclusion of the discourse, a shout goes up through the ranked hierarchy of deities – layer upon layer of sublime beings, up through the imaginary vastness of the Buddhist cosmos, each deity delighted that the Buddha has set rolling the ‘Wheel of the Dharma’. Again, like Abba with ‘Waterloo’, the Buddha’s first teaching is a big hit throughout the entire universe. Nothing will be the same again.

The Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma is to be found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, 56:11. My summary translation; other translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi and by Ṭhanissaro and others

This commentary is based on a talk given at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 31 October 2017.

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The Tree Shrine at Lumbini

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There was some fascinating news last Tuesday 26 November – that archaelogists have uncovered a shrine from the 6th c. BC at Lumbini, the site of the Buddha’s birth. (Here’s a link to the BBC version). It’s not often that archaeology, let alone the Buddha, gets in the news. The headlines were unfortunately a bit sensationalist, making it sound like the archaeologists had come up with some new evidence for the Buddha having lived in the 6th c. bce, which is somewhat earlier than previously thought. The original article on which the headlines were based, in the journal Antiquity, in fact tells us that the archaelogists have discovered that, underneath the brick stupa at Lumbini built by Ashoka in the 3rd c. bce, is what appears to be the traces of a 6th c. bce wooden enclosure, possibly around an old tree shrine. My friend Jayarava has already written an interesting blog going into some of the details of the scientific article. But I would like to take a different line of interpretation.

I think this new discovery is fascinating for what it tells us about how the early Buddhists understood the significance of the Buddha. I don’t believe that the discovery of a pre-Buddhist tree shrine sheds any new light on the dates of the Buddha. If we think about the Buddha’s life, it seems to me obvious that the story of his birth at Lumbini, while his mother stood holding onto the branch of a tree in the middle of the jungle during her journey back to Kapilavastu, should not be taken literally. This story about the Buddha’s birth comes from a period after the Buddha had died, when the early Buddhists were thinking about who the Buddha was, in the bigger scheme of things. They started telling stories of previous Buddhas, of the long bodhisattva-career of these Buddhas, and of the miraculous events that attended the significant moments in the lives of Buddhas. The birth of a Buddha to his mother while she stood holding a tree, its flowers raining down in worship, followed by the Buddha taking seven steps and declaring he had come, is part of a symbolic or archetypal life-story of the Buddha.

So it seems that the early Buddhists must have decided that Lumbini was where the Buddha-to-be had been born. The association of this symbolic event with an existing tree shrine obviously does not tell us anything about the dates of a historical person. Rather, the association shows us the establishment of a sacred geography. The old Ashokan stupa shows that the site was a place of pilgrimage and worship even in the 3rd c. bce. What the new discovery suggests is that the old place of worship was originally perhaps a pre-Buddhist tree shrine, where a tree, perhaps some ancient and beautiful specimen of a Sal tree was worshipped. It had a fence built around it, and people may have come to pay respects, to honour the deities and spirits that were supposed to live in the tree’s branches. We know that there were such shrines in the Buddha’s day, as the early Buddhist scriptures describe the Buddha visiting them and staying near them, such as the Sārandada shine,[i] and the Aggāḷava shrine near Āḷavi.[ii] Sometimes these tree shrines were associated with anthill shrines.[iii] Perhaps the shrine at Lumbini was somewhere that the Buddha particularly liked, or where perhaps he once gave a talk, perhaps about his birth or upbringing. This is all guesswork, of course, but in some such manner the association may have developed between the tree shrine at Lumbini and the Buddha’s birth. In time this association may have led to the establishment of that tree shrine as a site of pilgrimage commemorating the Buddha’s birth.

But the association of symbolic events in the life of the Buddha with trees is not limited to Lumbini and the Buddha’s birth. The Buddha was supposed to have become awakened under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, and he was supposed to have died between two Sal trees at Kusinagara. We thus sense an enduring symbolic connection between the Buddha and trees. What does this connection signify? I suggest that the connection is between the tree as archetypal symbol of the cosmos, and the Buddha as archetypal symbol of wisdom. Let us take two non-Buddhist examples of symbolic trees. The world-tree Yggdrasil in Norse mythology contains the universe. Its roots stretch into the underworld, its branches into the heavens. It is the tree of life, and Gods, beasts and humans have their being through it, the waters of the Well of Wyrd circulating through it.[iv] The cross upon which Christ was crucified is also called the tree of life. The cosmic sacrifice by which Christ redeems fallen humanity occurs while he is pinned to the wood of the world-tree, his flowing blood having the role of living water. The same motif occurs in Buddhism. The Buddha became enlightened sitting under the Bodhi Tree. This symbolizes his awakening taking his place at the very centre of the universe, the waters of life nearby in the form of the river Nerañjarā.

The Buddha, the enlightened being, is like the tree of life in that he has achieved complete knowledge of the heavens, the earth and the underworld, just as the tree stretches between these realms and joins them. The Buddha sits in quiet meditation, as the tree is rooted firmly in the earth. The Buddha becomes a shelter or refuge for suffering beings, as the tree is a shelter from storms. The Buddha is bestows blessings in the form of teachings, as the tree bestows shade, wood, shelter and beauty. It would perhaps have been natural to decide that a certain tree shrine that the Buddha had once known should become the place of commemoration of the birth of the Blessed One, the human being who understands the laws of the cosmos, who stands firm at the centre of the world.


[i] Mentioned in the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta, Dīgha-nikāya 16, translation e.g. at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.1-6.vaji.html.

[ii] Mentioned in the Vaṅgīsa-sutta, Sutta-nipāta ii.12.

[iii] The original article by Conningham et al refers to a fascinating paper by John Irwin, ‘The Sacred Anthill and the Cult of the Primordial Mound’, in History of Religions, 21:4 (1982), pp.339–60, in which this association of tree shrine and ant-hill is explored.

[iv] I mention Yggdrasil and the Well of Wyrd in a previous blog post, https://dhivanthomasjones.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/dependent-arising-as-pagan-philosophy/