The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta — First impressions

 The Pāḷi word of the day is dhamma, which corresponds to the Sanskrit dharma, and basically means “the way things are.”

I thought a discussion of the Buddha’s first discourse, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (“Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion” in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation,) would make an ideal first post for this blog. I was so excited to craft a thoughtful essay on the sutta, its context, and its meaning…but the harder I tried to tackle it with my intellect, the more artificial and disingenuous my writing got. I really wished that I had the ability to explain, intelligently and fluidly, how much this sutta means to me, the richness and the power of it. Then I remembered a quote from one of Access to Insight’s articles on how to read the suttas: “…it is the heart that is to be transformed by these teachings, not the intellect.” So I’m going to try something else: total sincerity.

I’ve spent a couple of days reading the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta in different translations, trying to get as familiar as possible with it. After all, it’s a written record of the Buddha’s very first teaching, the first expression of some of the most fundamental Buddhist ideas. I wanted it to become a part of me, to change me from the inside, and I thought that I could accomplish that by devouring the text. I do think it was a good thing to do, but no matter what, the words just didn’t jump off the page. It somehow didn’t feel real to me.

Tonight I gave it another shot, using the above-mentioned article as a guide. This time I wanted to keep the setting in mind. According to the sutta’s opening lines, the Buddha delivered this discourse to a group of five ascetics in the deer park at Isipatana, near Varanasi. I looked it up, and sure enough, Isipatana is a real place — it’s become a major destination for Buddhist pilgrims, and deer still live there in an area behind one of the monastery buildings. I found some photographs, and I tried to paint a picture in my head: the teacher seated in front of five attentive young men, surrounded by the same lush greenery and charming animals I saw in the pictures. I thought to myself, “These were real people, speaking to one another in a real place.”

I remembered that when I was a child I loved to read, but I loved being read to even more. My parents would act out the stories with their voices, and I was able to relax, listen, and let my imagination go to work. I wondered if listening to the sutta might give me a similar experience, so I found a recording of it on suttareadings.net. It was discouraging to find out that hearing the text spoken didn’t really affect me the way I’d hoped; it just sounded like words being read off of a page, rather than a real story. Finally, as per the ATI article’s recommendation, I decided to read it out loud myself. “This helps in several ways,” the article assured me. “It encourages you to read every single word of the sutta, it trains your mouth to use right speech, and it teaches your ears how to listen to Dhamma.” It sounded corny, but what did I have to lose?

It’s hard to explain what happened to me when I read the text aloud. I tried to read naturally, using the same inflections I would use in everyday speech. Suddenly, the sutta’s opening words — “I have heard that on one occasion…” — didn’t sound like a formulaic introduction anymore. It sounded like the “Once upon a time…” that began all of my favorite childhood fairy tales. The Buddha didn’t sound like a college professor presenting systematic arguments on a slide with bullet points; instead, what I heard was a thoughtful and methodical teacher trying to explain something profound and important in the gentlest and most accessible way he could. Somewhere around the line, “And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving,” I was starting to tear up. The Buddha’s style of teaching wasn’t motivated by an obsession with logic and organization, but by compassion for his audience.

Generally, whenever I used to reach the part where the Buddha describes how his understanding of the Four Noble Truths grew gradually, unfolding into what he describes as a “three-round, twelve permutation knowledge,” I found it hard to maintain focus. The division of the Four Truths into these three stages of knowledge always seemed so OCD to me. This time was different. Hearing my own voice, and imagining the voice of the Buddha, I read:

‘This is the noble truth of stress.’ Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This noble truth of stress is to be comprehended.’ Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before:’ This noble truth of stress has been comprehended.’

I immediately felt that I had misunderstood the structure of this passage, and the three similar ones following it. This is no anal-retentive diving and subdividing of ideas. This is the description of an experience familiar to anybody who’s passed sleepless nights wrestling with a difficult problem, whether it’s personal or theoretical: the recognition of the problem, and the desire to tackle it; the struggle to solve it; and finally, the elated feeling that comes with knowing you’ve finally figured it out.

With this still in mind, I reached the last part of this section of the sutta:

But as soon as this — my three-round, twelve-permutation knowledge & vision concerning these four noble truths as they have come to be — was truly pure, then I did claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening unexcelled in the cosmos with its deities, Maras & Brahmas, with its contemplatives & brahmans, its royalty & commonfolk. Knowledge & vision arose in me: ‘Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.'”

The epiphany in the last line — Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is no further becoming — jumped out at me. The Buddha had realized that, after giving up everything he loved — his wife, his child, his family and friends — and struggling for six years to find a way to alleviate the suffering and unhappiness that lies at the root of all existence, he had actually done it. I can’t imagine the relief he must have felt, knowing that the sacrifices he had made weren’t for nothing, or the joy of knowing that the battle was won, and that he was finally free. What had previously seemed a dull moment in a dull exposition, the period at the end of a very, very long sentence, had suddenly bloomed into a beautiful moment of human triumph.

According to the sutta itself, hearing this teaching leads one of the ascetics, Kondañña, to attain the first stage of awakening; it goes on to describe the cosmic effects of this event, how the universe shakes and radiates a beautiful light as all the devas rejoice, but it doesn’t end there. It says that the Buddha exclaimed “So you really know, Kondañña? So you really know?”

Exclaimed? For some reason, the idea of the Buddha — the very model of tranquility and equanimity — exclaiming something seemed odd to me. Then I remembered a passage from another sutta, which described the Buddha’s encounter with the Ajivaka Upaka, whom he met while he was on his way to deliver the first discourse to the five ascetics. Upaka could tell there was something special about him. He wanted to know who the Buddha’s teacher was. The Buddha took this opportunity to tell Upaka who he really was — a Tathagata who had realized the goal without a teacher.

“‘From your claims, my friend, you must be an infinite conqueror.’

‘Conquerors are those like me who have reached fermentations’ end. I’ve conquered evil qualities, and so, Upaka, I’m a conqueror.’

“When this was said, Upaka said, ‘May it be so, my friend,’ and — shaking his head, taking a side-road — he left.

(Ariyapariyesana Sutta, or “The Noble Search”)

A phrase from the narration of the PBS documentary The Buddha sprung to my mind: “On his first attempt to teach, the Buddha had failed.”

What did the Buddha feel when Upaka walked away? Did he feel that, by not being able to give Upaka the gift of the Dhamma, and of happiness, he had failed him? I had previously read the phrase “So you really know, Kondañña? So you really know?” as though the Buddha were a kind of clinical observer, or being critical — “Do ya get it, Kondañña? You’re sure? You’re POSITIVE?” But when I read it tonight, I heard in my head a voice full of nervous excitement. It’s not a skeptical voice, or even the voice of a teacher. This is an anxious and hopeful voice, the voice of someone who yearns for a sincere “Yes”…and, after hearing it, utters a cry of joy.

There’s one other thing I think is curious about this scripture: at the very end of the sutta, we discover that this isn’t just the story of a sermon or lecture; it’s actually a kind of just-so story. It’s the story of how Kondañña got the name Añña Kondañña — “Kondañña-Who-Knows.”

So at the end of the night, the simple exercise of reading aloud had totally changed my relationship with this discourse. It’s not just a series of lists, or a long explanation of lofty concepts. It’s at once cosmic and human drama, a fable, and the story of living, breathing people. By the time I was done with my reading, I had been touched deeply by the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. It makes me want to have a better understanding of its contents. It makes me want to read other suttas, and explore the Buddha’s teachings further. More than anything else, it makes me want to be like Kondañña — it makes me want to be someone who knows.

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