January 16, 2016; revised February 20, 2020
You may want to download and print the pdf of the sutta for reference.
1. In the above document, I have divided the sutta to 13 sections, and I will go through some parts in this essay. There are more posts on other sections of the sutta; see, “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta“. As explained in the “Sutta – Introduction” post, a sutta gives only a summary of the original dēsanā. It needs detailed explanations.
- It may be helpful to listen to the chanting of the sutta by the venerable Thero, as it gives the correct pronunciations, and also how to chant it without “too much dragging” as done commonly (which will diminish its effects).
- It is also a good idea to learn the convention adopted by the early European scholars to WRITE Pāli suttā with the English (or Roman/Latin) alphabet. See, ““Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1″ and ““Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 2.”
2. Sutta chanting can be much more effective if one recites it the right way AND also understand the meaning at least to some extent.
- It is possible that even a single sutta can provide Dhamma knowledge that one needs to attain a magga phala. However, it must be analyzed correctly in detail (patiniddesa version); see, “Sutta – Introduction.” Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is especially important since it lays out the “blueprint” of Buddha Dhamma.
The Framework of Buddha Dhamma
3. Of course, this was the first sutta delivered by the Buddha, to the five ascetics Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama, and Assaji. Thus it has the framework or the foundation of Buddha Dhamma.
- The name of the sutta comes from the combination of three terms: Dhamma, Cakka, and Pavattana. Dhamma here means the Buddha Dhamma or the true nature of existence. Cakka means “wheel.” Pavattana means to “set in motion” AND to “maintain.”
- Therefore, this first sutta “gets the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion.” It has all the key ingredients of Buddha Dhamma.
- As in many Pāli terms, the word “dhammacakkappavattana” comes from the combination of three above words, with an additional “p” just before pavattana. As we discussed before, pancakkhandha is the combination of panca with khandha with an extra k in tying up the two words.
- Sometimes the sutta is also called the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta, without combining those three words.
Opening the “Dhamma Eye” to the World
4. A Buddha discovers the true nature (Dhamma) upon attaining the Enlightenment (the Buddhahood.) Only a Buddha can discover true nature, which remains hidden in the absence of a Buddha. That is why Buddha Dhamma is a “previously unheard Dhamma” (or “pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu” as stated in the sutta.
- The Enlightenment is referred to as “cakkhuṃ udapādi” in that same verse. That cakkhu is the “vision to the true nature of this world with its 31 realms.”
- However, an average human can comprehend it, once explained. But the name of the sutta becomes quite apparent when one looks at section 9. In section 9 (see the pdf), dhamma cakkhuṃ udapādi means “eye to see the Dhamma was born” for the ascetic Kondanna (āyasmato Koṇḍaññassa).
Four Stages of Nibbāna
5. This sutta lays out the basic structure of Buddha Dhamma. Then it explains how one attains release from this world of 31 realms via successively reaching four stages of Nibbāna. That happens by getting through “three rounds” of bondages (tiparivaṭṭa) to this world: “ti” means “three,” “vatta” means “vataya” in Sinhala or “circle” in English.
- In section 8, it says, “..imesu catūsu ariyasaccesu evaṃ tiparivaṭṭaṃ dvādasākāraṃ yathābhūtaṃ ñāṇadassanaṃ..”. Here “catūsu” means “four” and “ariyasaccesu,” of course, means the “Noble Truths.” By comprehending the Four Noble Truths, one can overcome the three rounds of bondage and fulfill the 12 factors (“dvādasākāraṃ.”) Those 12 factors discussed in “Tiparivattaya and Twelve Types of Ñāna (Knowledge).”
- Imagine three concentric circular walls, with a living-being trapped inside the innermost wall. To get to freedom from suffering (Nibbāna,) that living being must climb over the three walls.
- Note that the main summary of the sutta ends with section 8. Subsequent sections provide the following information. One is that the ascetic Kondanna attained the Sōtapanna stage. The second is a description of various types of Devā and Brahmā who attended the delivery of the sutta; see #6 below. A large number of them attained various stages of Nibbāna.
Three “Rounds” or “circular Walls” to Overcome
6. “Tiparivaṭṭa” means the three rounds of bondage. The first is to be released from the apāyā (four lowest realms), via the Sōtapanna stage, by removing the wrong views about existence in the 31 realms.
- In the second round, one overcomes the kāma lōka (realms 5 through 11, which include the human realm and 6 Deva realms). That happens via two stages. A Sakadāgāmi will not be reborn with bodies subjected to diseases. Thus there will be no more rebirths for a Sakadāgāmi in the five lowest realms (apāyā and the human realm.) Then, at the Anāgāmi stage, kāma rāga and paṭigha go away and one is released from births anywhere in the kāma lōka.
- In the third round, any linkage to anywhere in the 31 realms removed. The mind becomes free of attachment to any trace of matter, and the Arahant stage attained. See, “What Are Rūpa? (Relation to Nibbāna).”
The 31 Realms of Existence
7. Section 11 is long and takes a significant part of the sutta. That section names the 6 Deva realms and 15 out of 16 rupi Brahma realms. Most of this section has been truncated in many published versions of the sutta. However, this section is important for a couple of reasons.
- First, it clearly shows that the Buddha indeed described a “wider world” than experienced by us, consisting of 31 realms; see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma” and “31 Realms of Existence.”
- Second, it says that beings from many those realms were present when the Buddha delivered the dēsanā overnight (over many hours) to the five ascetics. Starting from the 6 Deva realms, it lists 15 rupi Brahma realms (except the asañña realms, where beings have only a physical body and thus cannot even listen to a dēsanā). It is said that numerous Devā and Brahmā attained various stages of Nibbāna.
- Section 11 starts with “Bhummānaṃ devānaṃ saddaṃ sutvā cātumahārājikā devā sadda manussāvesuṃ ..”. Here “Bhummānaṃ devānaṃ” means “bhummatta Deva”. They are part of the Cātumahārājika Deva realm but are located at the Earth’s surface with humans (even though we cannot see them). They first became aware of the dēsanā and notified their higher-lying main realm. Section 11 lists how the news progressively propagated to higher-lying realms and eventually Devā from all those 21 realms came to listen to the dēsanā.
- As you can see those realms match the names listed in the following post on the web (note that all of them are referred to as Devā in the sutta, regardless of whether they belong to the 6 Deva realms or the rupi Brahma realms): “31 Realms of Existence.”
- Of course, only 5 humans (the five ascetics) were present. Any being in the lowest four realms cannot comprehend Dhamma. Also, the Brahmā in the 4 arupi realms do not have ears to listen to. Thus section 11 lists 21 realms. Not listed are the four lowest realms, the asañña realm, and the four arupi Brahma realms. They appear in many other suttā.
The Sutta Provides Only a Summary
8. As I mentioned above, the sutta gives only a brief outline of the dēsanā. It was delivered over many hours, and the sutta is just an outline of that delivery.
- The sutta starts off with the customary “Evaṃ me sutaṃ” (thus I heard) uttered by Ven. Ananda at the Dhamma Sangayaṃa where these suttā were categorized into sections in the Tipiṭaka.
- Section 1 is about the two extremes to be avoided: kāmasukhallikānuyogo (excess sense pleasures) and attakilamathānuyogo (engage in useless activities that make one go through hardships).
- Note that both extremes are labeled “anattasanhito”. This means anyone who follows those two extremes are unaware of the “anatta” nature. Thus they have saññā, or perceptions, that will LEAD TO “anatta” or being helpless in the rebirth process.
- And they both are “dukkho” and “anariyo”: they will be subjected to suffering and thus they are not Ariyā or Noble Ones.
- In addition, the extreme of kāmasukhallikānuyogo is also labeled hīno, gammo, pothujjaniko. Here, “hino” means lowly; gammo means “uneducated” or “crass”. “Pothu” means bark or the outer shell of a tree trunk (which is of no value), and “janika” means to produce. Thus, a “pothujjaniko” means a person who is engaged in useless and unproductive activities. The Buddha often used the term pothujjaniko (or pothujjano) to describe a person who values and craves sensory pleasures.
The Middle Path
9. Most people are in the kāmasukhallikānuyogo mode, even if not in extreme. In fact, one gets closer to “middle” as one progressively become a Sōtapanna anugami, Sōtapanna, Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi. Then the “true middle” found only at Arahanthood.
- Thus majjhimā paṭipadā has a deeper meaning than just “middle path”. One has to realize the dangers of “getting drunk” (“majji” or intoxicated with sense pleasures). Here, “ma” means “getting released from,” just like in “samma” means “san” + “mā”; see, “What is ‘San?’ Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.
- This is why the kāmasukhallikānuyogo mode has the additional “labels” of hīno, gammo, pothujjaniko. Anyone “intoxicated” with sensory pleasures is a hīno, gammo, pothujjaniko. That mindset can be changed only by comprehending the “..Dhamma that has never been known to the world..” or “..pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu..”. That phrase is repeated many times in sections 4 through 7 for a reason.
- This is the reason why one cannot comprehend this Dhamma in a conventional way. One has to realize the true nature of the world: anicca, dukkha, anatta; see, “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart“.
More posts on the sutta at, “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta“.