Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – Introduction

January 16, 2016

Please download and print the pdf of the sutta (or open in another window) to refer to, as you follow the discussion. You may need to click the link on the new page again:

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

I have divided the sutta to 13 sections, and I will go through some sections in this essay, but those that need detailed discussion will be covered in future posts. As explained in the “Sutta – Introduction” post, a sutta gives only a short summary of the original desana. It needs to be explained in detail.

  • It may be helpful to listen to the chanting of the sutta by the venerable Thero, as it gives the correct pronnciations, and also how to chant it without “too much dragging” as done commonly (which will diminish its effects).


1. Sutta chanting can be much more effective if one recites it the right way AND also understand the meaning at least to some extent.

  • A given sutta can provide Dhamma knowledge that one needs to attain magga phala, if it is analyzed correctly in detail (patineddesa version); see, “Sutta – Introduction“. Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is especially important since it lays out the “blueprint” of Buddha Dhamma.

2. Of course this was the first sutta delivered by the Buddha, to the five ascetics Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama, and Assaji. 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 here means “seeing” or “to see”. Pavattana here means to “set in motion” AND to “maintain”.

  • Therefore, the sutta is meant to convey the way to “see” the true nature of existence with wisdom, not with the physical eye. Only a Buddha can discover the true nature, but a human can comprehend it, once explained.
  • As in many Pali terms, the word “dhammacakkappavattana” comes from the combination of three above terms, with an additional “p” just before pavattana.  As we discussed before, pancakkhandha is the combination of panca with khandha with an additional k in tying up the two words.
  • Sometimes it is also called the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta.

3. Let us address a common mis-translation of the name of the sutta. The most common is “Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion”. Here cakka (which is pronounced “chakka”), is translated as “wheel”. But the name of the sutta becomes quite clear when one looks at section 9.

  • In section 9 (see the pdf), dhammacakkhun udapadi means “eye to see the Dhamma was born” for the ascetic Kondanna (āyasmato Koṇḍaññassa).  There is no way to associate a “wheel” here.
  • It is also to be noted that the main summary of the sutta is finished with section 8. What is described in the following sections is to note that the ascetic Kondanna attained the Sotapanna stage, and to describe various types of devas and brahmas who attended the delivery of the sutta; see #6 below. It is said that a large number of them attained various stages of Nibbana.

4. This sutta lays out the basic structure of Buddha Dhamma and how one attains release from this world of 31 realms via successively attaining four stages of Nibbana by getting through “three rounds” of bondages (tiparivattaya) to this world: “ti” means “three”, “vattaya” means “vataya” in Sinhala or “circle” in English.

  • In section 8, it says, “..imesu chatūsu ariyasaccesu evaṃ tiparivaṭṭan dvādasākāran yathābhutan ñāṇadassanan..”. Here “chatusu” 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 (“dvadasakaran“); these 12 factors will be discussed in a future post.

5. The three rounds of bondage are collectively called “tiparivattaya“. The first is to be released from the satara apaya (four lowest realms), via the Sotapanna stage, by removing the wrong views about existence in the 31 realms.

  • The second round is to be released from the kama loka (realms 5 through 11, which include the human realm and 6 deva realms). This is achieved via two stages: At the Sakadagami stage, one is released from births with bodies that are subjected to diseases, i.e., the five lowest realms (satara apaya and the human realms). Then, at the Anagami stage, kama raga and patigha are completely removed and one is released from births anywhere in the kama loka.
  • At the third round, any linkage to anywhere in the 31 realms is removed by dissociating from all 20 rupi and arupi Brahma realms, and the mind becomes free of attachment to any trace of matter, and the Arahant stage is attained.

6. 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“.
  • Second, it says that beings from many those realms were present when the Buddha delivered the desana overnight (over many hours) to the five ascetics. Starting from the 6 deva realms, it lists 15 rupi  brahma realms (except the asanna realms, where beings have only a physical body and thus cannot even listen to a desana). It is said that numerous devas and brahmas attained various stages of Nibbana.
  • Section 11 starts with “Bhummānan devānan saddam sutvā Cātummahārājikā devā sadda manussāvesun..”. Here “bhummanan devanan” means “bhummatta deva“. They are part of the Catummaharajika deva realm, but are located at the Earth’s surface with humans (even though we cannot see them). They first became aware of the desana and notified their higher-lying main realm. Section 11 lists how the news progressively propagated to higher-lying realms and eventually devas from all those 21 realms came to listen to the desana.
  • 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 devas 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 brahmas in the 4 arupi realms do not have ears to listen. Thus section 11 lists 21 realms. Not listed are the four lowest realms, asanna realm, and the four arupi brahma realms;they are named and described in many other suttas.

7.  As I mentioned above, the sutta gives only a brief outline of the desana. 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 Sangayana where these suttas were categorized into sections in the Tipitaka.
  • Section 1 is about the two extremes to be avoided: kāmasukhallikānuyogo (excess sense pleasures) and attakilamathānuyogo (engage in useless activities that makes one go through hardships). 
  • Note that both extremes are labelled “anattasanhito“. This means anyone who follows those two extremes are unaware of the “anatta” nature. Thus they have sanna, 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 Ariyas or Noble Ones.
  • In addition, the extreme of kāmasukhallikānuyogo is also labelled hīno, gammo, pothujjaniko. Here, “hino”  means lowly; gammo means “uneducated” or “crass”. “Pothu” means bark or the outer shell of a tree trunk, and “janika” means to produce; thus a “pothujjaniko” means a person who is engaged in useless and unproductive activities. This is how the Buddha described those who value and crave sense pleasures.

8. Most people are in the  kāmasukhallikānuyogo mode, even if not in extreme. In fact, one gets closer to “middle” as one progressively become a Sotapanna anugami, Sotapanna, Sakadagami, Anagami, and then the “middle” is 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” there means “getting release from”, just like in “samma” means “san” + “ma“; see, “What is ‘San?’ Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.
  • This is why the  kāmasukhallikānuyogo mode has the additional “labels” of hīno, gammo, pothujjaniko. When one is “intoxicated” with sense pleasures, one becomes a hīno, gammo, pothujjaniko. And this mindset can be changed only by comprehending the “..Dhamma that has never been known to the world..” or “..pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu..”. This 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“.

Next post on the sutta, “Majjima Patipada – Way to Relinquish Attachments to this World“.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email