Essence of Buddhism – In the First Sutta

October 23, 2018; revised May 4, 2020


1. In the very first discourse that he delivered, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha laid out the “foundational aspects” or the essence of Buddha Dhamma.

  • These days, there are many discussions about what is meant by Nibbāna. In particular, “secular Buddhists” who do not believe in rebirth try to provide their interpretations. But as we will discuss below, Buddha’s position is crystal clear from this sutta.
  • Some people have doubts about the existence of beings in realms other than the human and animal realms, and whether life exists outside the Solar system, i.e., the Earth. This sutta clarifies both, as we will see below.
  • I will point out several such vital aspects below.
A Sutta Is a Highly Condensed Summary

2. Some people think that the Buddha recited each sutta (as it appears in the Tipiṭaka) when delivering a discourse.  That could be the reason that suttā are translated word-by-word by most people today. But that is far from the truth.

  • For example, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta was delivered to the five ascetics over several days. See “The Life of the Buddha” by Bhikkhu Nānamoli.”
  • Only Ven. Kondañña attained the Sōtapanna stage during the first night. Then the material was discussed for several days. The other four ascetics attained the Sōtapanna stage over several days.
  • The above book contains many passages from the Vinaya Pitaka of the Tipiṭaka, which provide many details not available in the suttā. It also provides the timeline of major suttā and significant events.

3. Therefore, the Buddha did not recite the sutta as it appears in the Tipiṭaka. That recital would have been finished within 15 minutes!

  • It will take many people a lifetime to fully understand this sutta.
  • It appears that the Buddha himself summarized the material in each sutta in a short concise way to a limited number of verses that were suitable for oral transmission (easy to remember); see, “Sutta – Introduction“.
  • We must remember that all the suttā in the Tipiṭaka were transmitted down orally by many generations. Tipiṭaka was written down about 500 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha. See, “Preservation of the Dhamma“.
A Sutta Needs to be Explained in Detail

4. It is only a short summary of a sutta that is in the Tipiṭaka. Many of the suttā are highly condensed and need to be discussed in detail. It is not reasonable to assume that one could understand a sutta by just reading a word-by-word translation of a few pages of the sutta.

  • However, that is what happens these days. Suttas are translated word-by-word into English. This is a very bad practice. It is no different from just reciting a sutta!
  • Some of these deep suttā need to be explained in detail. Even a single key verse needs to be explained in detail.
First Noble Truth in Just a Single Verse!

5. Now, let us look at how the Buddha summarized the First Noble Truth about suffering in that sutta.

Idam kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ ariya saccam:

jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhāṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkhoyampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhāṃ—saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā.

Translated: Bhikkhus, What is the Noble Truth of Suffering?

Birth is suffering, getting old is suffering, getting sick is suffering, dying is suffering. Having to associate with things that one does not like is suffering and having to separate from those things one likes is suffering. If one does not get what one likes, that is suffering – in brief, the origin of suffering is the craving for the five aggregates of rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāna (pancupādānakkhandha). All we crave for in this world are represented by pancupādānakkhandha (upādāna or craving for the pancakkhandha).

  • There are four sections in that verse. I have highlighted alternating sections in order to explain each of the four below.
The Key Aspects of Suffering

6. The first part in bold indicates what we consider to be forms of suffering: Birth, getting old, getting sick, and dying.

  • Each and every birth ends up in death. This is why each death is included in suffering.
  • We also DO NOT LIKE to get old, to get sick, and we definitely do not like to die. If we have to experience any of them, that is suffering.
  • What we WOULD LIKE is to stay young, not get old, not get sick, and not to die ever. If we can have those conditions fulfilled we will be forever happy.
  • Therefore, it is clear that the suffering that the Buddha focused on in his first discourse was associated with the rebirth process.
Root Cause of Suffering – Not Getting What One Desires

7. That is what the second part of the verse in #5 (not in bold) says: Having to associate with things that one does not like is suffering and having to separate from those things one likes is suffering. 

  • If we can be born instantaneously at a young age (say, 15 to 25 years), and stay at that age without getting old or sick and never die, that is what we WOULD LIKE. But no matter how much we would like to associate with such a life, we will NEVER get it.
  • Instead, we have to suffer at birth when getting old, when getting sick, and finally when dying. There is no way to dissociate from those four things that we do not like.
  • But that is not the end of it. We will keep doing this over and over in the rebirth cycle. Furthermore, things can get much worse in the lowest four realms, including the animal realm.
  • As long as we are trapped in the rebirth process, we will have to give up what we like most of the time, especially at death. Furthermore, we are forced to be associated with those four things that we do not like. Those are rebirth in undesired realms, getting old, getting sick, and dying.

8. Both those parts are combined into one succinct statement in the third part of the verse in #5 (in bold): “yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ”.

Yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ” is actually a shortened version of the verse (that rhymes).
The full sentence is “Yam pi icchaṃ na labhati tam pi dukkhaṃ”.

  • Yam pi icchaṃ” means “whatever is liked or craved for”. “Na labhati” means “not getting”. “tam pi dukkhaṃ” means “that leads to suffering”.
  • Therefore, that verse simply says: “If one does not get what one craves or likes, that leads to suffering.”
  • This is a more general statement and applies in any situation.  We can see that in our daily lives. We like to hang out with people we like and it is a stress to be with people that we do not like.
  • Furthermore, the more one craves something, the more suffering one will endure at the end. But this requires a lot of discussions.
Yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ – Most Important Verse

9. “Yampiccam nalabhati tampi dukkhaṃ” is the most important verse in the first sutta delivered by the Buddha, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. It provides the key to understanding the Buddha’s message and led to the attaining the Sōtapanna stage by the five ascetics.

  • It should be noted that icca and iccha (ඉච්ච and ඉච්ඡ in Sinhala) are used interchangeably in the Tipiṭaka. The word “iccha” with the emphasis on the last syllable indicates “strong icca” or “strong attachment.”
  • The word “icca” (liking) is closely related to “taṇhā” (getting attached). Tanhā happens automatically because of icca.
  • Not getting what one desires or craves is the opposite of “icca” or “na icca” or “anicca”. This is the same way that “na ā­gami” becomes “Anā­gā­mi” (“na ā­gami” means “not coming back”; but in the context of Anā­gā­mi, it means “not coming back to kā­ma lōka or the lowest 11 realms. Both these are examples of Pāli sandhi rules (connecting two words together).
  • The intrinsic nature of this world is “anicca”, i.e., we will never get what we crave for, and thus at the end (at least at death) we will leave all this behind and suffer, that is dukkha.
  • There is another (and related) way to explain anicca as the opposite of “nicca”; see, “Three Marks of Existence – English Discourses“.
The Need for Detailed Explanations

10. As you can see, one single verse itself takes a lot of explaining. Even the above explanation addresses only the four major types of suffering in the rebirth process.

  • One can go into much more detail. For example, suffering within a given life is discussed in, “Does the First Noble Truth Describe only Suffering?“, which is taking a different perspective than in #6 above.
  • For example, we know that during life there is so much suffering too. Suffering during a human life may be much less compared to that during an animal life.
  • Suffering in the other three lower realms would be much higher than that in the animal realm.
  • The need for detailed explanations is further clarified in, “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – Structure.”
Saṃkhittena Pañcupādānakkhandhā Dukkhā”

11. The last part of the verse in #5 (not in bold), “saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā” will take much more explaining. One needs to understand the five khandhas (rūpa, védanā, sañña, saṅkhāra, viññāna) first, in order to even begin to understand this part.

  • Note that upādāna is related closely to craving or iccaUpādāna means “pulling closer in one’s mind due to craving (iccā)”.
  • The more one does upādāna with vaci saṅkhāra (because of one’s iccā), one’s taṇhā grows. Those three words have slightly different meanings, but are closely related.
  • Until one sees this anicca, dukkha, anatta nature of this world, one will be trapped in the suffering-filled rebirth process.
Word-by-Word Translations Can be Dangerous

12. The other key point: Translating some key verses word-by-word can lead to bad unintended consequences. This is because many key Pāli words CANNOT be translated as single English words. For example, the word rūpakkhandha should not be translated as “form aggregate.” See, “Difference Between Rupa and Rupakkhandha“.

  • The five ascetics were able to attain the Sōtapanna stage by understanding the detailed description of the material embedded in this sutta. That holds true today.
    By the way, there is nothing in this sutta that says impermanence leads to suffering. The keywords are icca and anicca.
  • Anicca is not the same as Sanskrit “anitya” (which does mean impermanence), which in Pāli is “aniyata” or “addhuvan”. None of those three words appear in this sutta. In fact, I don’t think the word “anicca” appears directly in this sutta either; of course, it appears in many other suttā in the same context. But the word “anitya” does not appear in a single sutta in the Tipiṭaka; “aniyata” and “addhuvan” appear in a few suttā to actually indicate impermanence in other contexts. For example, “jeevitam aniyatam, maranam niyatam”.
  • The root cause of suffering is explained with the word “icca” in this sutta, as I explained above.
Rebirth Process Is Irrefutable in Buddha Dhamma

13. After explaining the four Noble Truths (we briefly discussed just the First Noble Truth), the Buddha says in the middle of the sutta: “Ñāṇañca pana me dassanaṃ udapādi: ‘akuppā me vimutti, ayamantimā jāti, natthi dāni punabbhavo'” ti.”

Translated: “The knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘unshakable is the liberation of my mind. This is my last birth. There is no more renewed existence.'”

  • That statement says the outcome of the discovery of that knowledge. The solution to future suffering. It is the ending of the rebirth process. This will stop those four main causes of suffering discussed in #5 and #6.
  • So, my point is that this statement by itself confirm the following facts.  (i) The Buddha was focused on stopping suffering in future lives. (Some of which in lower realms could be unimaginably harsh.) (ii) There is no “safe” rebirth anywhere in this world, whether it is a human, Deva, or a Brahma realm.
The 31 Realms of Existence

14. In fact, in the latter part of the sutta, the Buddha has listed most of those other realms that are in this world. “Pavattite ca pana bhagavatā dhammacakke bhummā devā sad­da­manus­sā­vesuṃ: “etaṃ bhagavatā bārāṇasiyaṃ isipatane migadāye anuttaraṃ dhammacakkaṃ pavattitaṃ appaṭivattiyaṃ samaṇena vā brāhmaṇena vā devena vā mārena vā brahmunā vā kenaci vā lokasmin” ti. Bhummānaṃ devānaṃ saddaṃ sutvā cātumahārājikā devā…”

  • Details at: “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – Introduction“.
  • All those realms lie above the human realm. Devā and Brahmā from those realms had come there to listen to the discourse. While only five humans attained magga phala within those few days, millions of beings from other realms from our world (associated with the Earth) — as well as from 10,000 other worlds — attained magga phala.
  • Of course, this sutta does not list the four lower realms. They are discussed in other suttā. The Buddha was just listing the names of the higher realms from which beings were present there to listen to his first Dhamma discourse.
  • The 31 realms are listed at “31 Realms of Existence.”

Therefore, we can see that there is a lot of information embedded in this sutta. Further analysis in this subsection: “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta“.

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