The Greatest Breakthrough in Religious thought:The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
Esala Full Moon Poya Day falls tomorrow
By Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa
Those who have listened to night long Pirith chantings would have noticed that some suttas are chanted in a rhythm different from the rest. Prominent among those chanted differently and thus marked out is the Dhammacakkappavattna Sutta, whose chanting occurs normally by about midnight. There is something unique with regard to the chanting of this Sutta. During the last part of the chanting there are pauses and each pause is marked by a vigorous sabda puja by the beating of drums., and devotees would utter loudly the devotional words "Sadhu!Sadhu1". There are 22 such pauses and each pause is signified by drum beats and the uttering of "Sadhu!Sadhu! " Obviously the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is unique as no other sermon chanted in the night long ceremony receives this kind of special attention. Why is that?
Obviously the ancients who devised the Pirith chanting ceremony were aware of the great significance of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta and thus used these devices to draw the unflinching attention of the devotees when listening to the night long ceremony. Dhammacakkappavattana means "the setting rolling the wheel of Truth". It was the very first sermon delivered by the Buddha after attaining enlightenment. The date was the Full Moon day of the month of Aesala, i.e. the second month after the attaining of Enlightenment. Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha - to - be, had gone forth from the luxuries of lay life searching for a solution to the unsatisfactory nature of human existence. The first teacher he met was Alara Kalama and following the instructions given by him Siddhartha was able to attain the spiritual plane of Akincayatana ( formlessness) which was the highest attainment the teacher himself had achieved. Alara Kalama was so much impressed by the commitment of the young man that he invited him to stay and be a co-teacher to other seekers after spiritual attainments. But Siddhartha was not satisfied as he had not found with this teacher the truth he was looking for. Searching further, he met Uddaka Ramaputta another teacher staying with whom he attained the plane of Nevasannanasannayatana (neither consciousness nor unconsciousness). Again the highly impressed teacher invited Siddhartha to stay and be a co-teacher which he refused again and went on his search for the supreme bliss of sublime peace.
It needs be mentioned here that these biographical details of the Buddha- to- be are given by the Buddha himself after the attainment of Enlightenment Several discourses addressed by him sometimes to his disciples, sometimes to others, contain these details in a realistic narration, starkly naturalistic, very much in keeping with the spirit of his teaching characterized by a non-esoteric and open-book quality. After leaving Uddaka Ramaputta Siddhartha arrived in Uruvela, by the river Neranajana, which appeared to him as a fit place to practice his spiritual strivings by himself. There he was met by a group of five young men who were similar spiritually minded seekers after truth. They were Kondanna,Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji. These ascetics waited upon Siddhartha, whose spiritual attainments prompted them to feel that he would one day attain the higher bliss they were searching for and help them to attain the same.Recalling the austerities he practiced during the next six years the Buddha had this to say to Ven. Sariputta, one of his chief disciples (the following passage is an abridged version of that found in The Life of the Buddha by the Venerables Kassapa and Siridhamma):
"Rigorous have I been, Sariputta, in my ascetic discipline, rigorous beyond all others. Horrible have been my ascetic practices, horrible beyond measure. Scrupulous have been my ascetic practice, to the height of scrupulousness….I have partaken of nourishment but once daily, abstaining sometimes from food for as long as fourteen days… I have fed my body on mosses, grasses, cow-dung…I have worn garments of hemp and hair, foul clothes from charnel houses…I have wrapped myself from animal hides…I was also a plucker out of hair and beard…I have taken the vow always to stand, never to sit or lie down…After this fashion have I lived in the in the strict observance of manifold bodily penances, bodily pains and torments…I have lived on a single cola fruit a day, upon a single bean a a day, upon a single grain of rice a day…Because of this daily rigor in daily nourishment my body became lean beyond measure…and as in a dilapidated house the roof-tree rafters show all aslope, so sloping showed the ribs of my body…and when I would feel my backbone, my hand encountered the skin of my belly.So cleaved the skin of my belly to the backbone.And when I would go to attend to the necessities of nature, there I would topple over for very weakness…." Practising those austerities Siddhartha tried to attain perfect enlightnment which was his goal :" With teeth clemched and tongue pressed to palate, I deliberately and of set purpose crush and force and master my mind into subjection.And as I did so the perspiration streamed from my arm-pits….When at last I had fallen and collapsed as a result of my extreme fasting…then I thought 'Of all the sharp piercing , painful sensations endured by ascetics and recluses , these must be the crown, none can have surpassed these, and yet, with all these bitter austerities, I do not reach aught beyond the human, do not attain to any sufficing pre-eminence of exalted knowledge and insight. Might there be some other way to Full Enlightenment?"
At this juncture he recalled how once during his childhood, when his father and retinue were engaged in a ploughing ceremony, how he, seated in the cool shade of a rose apple tree, secluded from sensual pleasures and from unwholesome states, entered and dwelled in the state of First Jhana. "Could this be the path to follow for attaining enlightenment" he thought . He realized however, that engaging in such a practice was not possible with a body so excessively weak and frail. Realizing this he started partaking food in order to build up enough strength for the practicing of meditation in order to reach the goal he was looking for. When the five fellow ascetics observed that Siddhartha had changed his ascetic practices, they misunderstood his intentions and left the place in disgust complaining "The ascetic Siddhartha has reverted to a life of luxury and given up his strivings"
Having regained his strength the Bodhisatva went one evening to the foot of a majestic tree and sat down facing the east with a firm determination to achieve his goal. He reached the four Jhanas, one by one. With thoughts thus steadied and purified, he applied his mind to the recollection of previous births (Pubbenivasanussati Nana) and then the Dibbacakku and Catupapata Nana (the Divine Eye and disappearing and reappearing of beings) Recalling his experience of the attainment of enlightenment the Buddhha states
"When my mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright,
unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the destruction of the taints (Asavakkhaya Nana) I directly knew as it actually is :'This is suffering. This is the origin of suffering. This is the cessation of suffering. This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.'" Thus realizing what the taints are and their origin, their cessation, and the way leading to the cessation of taints, his mind was liberated from the taints of sensual desire, from the taint of existence, and from the taint of ignorance. The Buddha recalled, "This was the true knowledge attained by me in the last watch of the night, ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose as happens in one who dwells diligent, ardent and resolute"
The Decision to Teach
That was the morning of the full-moon day of the month of Vaisakha. Seated under the majestic tree which gave him shelter on the day he attained Buddhahood he pondered: "This Dhamma which I have won is profound, only to be understood by the wise. But mankind seeks only for pleasure and they will find it difficult to comprehend this profound doctrine." Reading his thoughts, the divine being Brahma Sahampathi was greatly perturbed "The world will perish if the Accomplished One, the Exalted One were not to teach the Dhamma" and he, descending from his heavenly abode, appeared before the Buddha and appealed that since there are persons with the potential to realize the Dhamma that it is best that the Blessed one were to teach the Dhamma. The Buddha surveyed the world and found the veracity of Brahma's observation and decided to teach the Dhamma accordingly. This incident, we notice, takes a different form from the realistic mode so far followed in the of narration. Bhikkhu Bodhi describing these events has an explanation as to how a naturalistic narration is suddenly taking a supra-mundane mode at this juncture. "Should this scene be interpreted literally or as a symbolic enactment of an internal drama taking place in the Buddha's mind? It is hard to give a definitive answer… Perhaps the scene could be understood as occurring at both levels at once."(In the Buddha's Words, p.47)
The Buddha knew seven persons who were in a position to understand the Dhamma he was to preach. When he surveyed the world with his Divine Eye he found that the two teachers with developed minds he had met earlier, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta had passed away. But the five ascetic friends who had been with him at Uruvela were there, now staying in Baranasi in the Deer Park at Isipatana. This is how the Buddha narrates in the Ariyaparivesana Sutta the meeting of these five ascetics:
At the Deer Park in Isipatana
"Then monks, wandering by stages I eventually came to Baranasi, to the Deer Park at Isipatana, and I approached the monks of the group of five. The monks saw me coming in the distance and they agreed among themselves, 'friends here comes the Ascetic Gotama who lives luxuriously, who gave up his striving and reverted to luxury. We should not pay homage to himor rise up for him or receive his bowl and outer robe. But a seat may be prepared for him. If he likes he may sit down' However, as I approached, those monks found themselves unable to keep their pact. One came to meet me and took my bowl and outer robe, another prepared a seat, and another set out water for my feet, however they addressed me by name and as friend"(In The Buddha's Words, p.74)
The fact that the five ascetics could not help themselves paying due respects to the Buddha. His supreme spiritual attainment would have compelled them to do so. But as they were unaware of that they continued to address him by name and as "Friend". Then the Buddha spoke to them : "Monks, do not address the Tathagata by name and as 'friend'. The Tathagata is an Arahant, a Perfectly Enlightened One. Listen monks, the Deathless has been attained.I shall instruct you, I shall teach you the Dhamma. Practicing as you are instructed, by realizing it for yourselves, here and now, through direct knowledge, you will soon enter and dwell in that supreme goal…"
Yet the group of five were not prepared to believe what the Buddha said. "Friend Gotama, by the conduct , the practice and the performance of austerities that you undertook, you did not achieve any superhuman distinction. Since you now live in luxury, how could you have achieved any superhuman distinction?" they asked. Then the Buddha told them that the Tathagata does not live luxuriously, nor has he given up his strivings and reverted to luxury. But the Tathagata has achieved Deathlessness and is an Arahant". The group of five repeated their doubts for the second time too. Then the Buddha asked them "Monks, have you ever known me to speak like this before? They replied in the negative and again the Buddha said "The Tathagata is an Arahant, a Perfectly Enlightened One.Listen monks, the Deathless has been reached. I shall instruct you…" Having convinced them by these means, the Buddha proceeded to preach the Dhamma he had realized by his own effort, to set rolling the wheel of Truth.
Narration by Ven. Ananada
We now have before us the narration by the Venerable Ananada, who was personal attendant of the Buddha for many long years and who knew by memory most of the discourses of the Buddha and was able to recite them to be preserved for posterity when the First Council of the Buddha's disciples met at Rajagaha immediately after His demise. "Thus have I heard," states Venerable Ananada, beginning the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta,
"…the Blessed One addressed the monks of the group of five thus: 'Monks, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness, which is low,vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble,unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial.Without veering toward either of these extremes, the Tathagata has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge,and leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana." ( ITBW p.75)
We should notice here that the Buddha comes direct to the point which has been bothering the minds of the five ascetics. The five ascetics had initially refused to acknowledge the Buddha's claim to enlightenment, and spurned him as one who had betrayed the higher calling to revert to a life of luxury.Thus He had to first assure them that far from reverting to a life of self-indulgence, He had discovered a new approach to the timeless quest for enlightenment ((ITBW,p.48). It is this new approach which while remaining faithful to the spirit of renunciation of sensual pleasures, eschews also the unprofitable practices of self-mortification, that presents a practical guide which would lead to the light of wisdom, culminating in the eradication of all bondages, the attainment of Nibbana.
"And what , monks, is that middle way awakened by the Tathagata? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. This monks, is that Middle Way, awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, and leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana."
By that clear statement the Buddha was able to clear the minds of the five ascetics of their misgivings. Now it was opportune to teach them of the Four Noble Truths he had discovered on the full moon day of Vaisakha.. Not only that. The Middle Way was part and parcel of the Truths he had discovered.
The Four Noble Truths
"Now this O Bhikkhus!," continued the Buddha, " is the Noble Truth concerning suffering. Birth is painful, decay is painful, disease is painful, death is painful, union with the unpleasant is painful, painful is separation from the pleasant and any craving that is unsatisfied, that too is painful. In brief, the five groups which spring from attachment are painful."
"And this, O Bhikkhus! is the Noble Truth concerning the Origin of Suffering. - verily it is that thirst, causing the renewal of existence, accompanied by sensual delight, seeking satisfaction, now here and now there, - that is the craving for gratification of the passions, the craving for continued life, and the craving for pleasure here and now."
" And this , O Bhikkhus! is the Noble Truth concerning the Destruction of Suffering - verily it is the destruction, in which no passion remains, of this very Thirst; the laying aside of, the getting rid of, the being free from, the harbouring no longer of this Thirst"
"And this, O Bhikkhus!, is the Noble Truth concerning the Way which leads to the destruction of Sorrow. Verily, it is the Noble Eightfold Path of Right Views,Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration."
"As soon as O Bhikkhus, my knowledge and insight were quite clear concerning each of these Four Noble Truths - then did I become certain that I had attained to the full insight of that Wisdom which is unsurpassed in the heavens or on earth, among the whole race of Samanas and Brahamins or of gods or men." ( Abridged from the original Sutta -The Life of the Buddha by Venerables.Kassapa and Siridhamma,pp. 34-35)
The discourse whish was so far in the naturalistic-realistic mode now changes dramatically. There is a long passage illuminating the cosmic significance of this event. As the Buddha stated, with the realization of the Four Noble Truths "the vision, knowledge wisdom, penetration and light arose in him of a Dhamma unknown and unheard of before in this whole cosmic system of Devas, Mara, Brahma, in this population with ascetics and Brahamins and all other beings". It was the greatest breakthrough in the history of humankind. Signifying that the whole universe was to rejoice. The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta proceeds to state that when the Buddha ended his discourse the earth-dwelling Devas raised the cry "At Baranasi in the Deer Park at Isipatana, the unsurpassed Wheel of Dhammahas been set in motion by the Blessed One, which cannot be stopped by any ascetic or Brahamin or Deva or Mara or Brahma or anyone else".Hearing that cry the next level of celestial beings, the Devas of the realm Four Great Kings, and after them the Tavatimsa Devas, the Yama Devas,the Tusita Devas, the Devas of each upper realm in succession and finally the Devas of the Brahma world raised the cry "In Baranasi…the unsurpassed Wheel of the Dhamma had been set in motion…which cannot be stopped by…anyone else" The ten thousand -fold world system shook, quaked, and trembled and an immeasurable great radiance encompassed the whole universe.Finally, the narration reverts again to the realistic mode. For, it was noticed by the Buddha that Venerable Kondanna, seated before him, understood the Dhamma as promulgated by him at that moment.and uttered in admiration "Kodanna has indeed understood, Kondanna has indeed understood." And the narration ends with the words, "thereafter Venerable Kondanna came to be referred to as Anna Kondanna 'Kondanna who has come to know'.