Essence of Buddhism – In the First Sutta

October 23, 2018

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 is some discussion about what is meant by Nibbāna, especially by “secular Buddhists” who do not believe in rebirth. 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 key aspects below.

2. Some people think that the Buddha actually recited each sutta (as it appears in the Tipitaka) when delivering a discourse.  (That could be reason that suttas 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“.
  • In the first night that it was delivered, only Ven. Kondañña attained the Sōtapanna stage. Then the material was discussed for several days, until the other four ascetics attained the Sōtapanna stage one by one.
  • Above book contains many passages from the Vinaya Pitaka of the Tipitaka, which provide many details not available in the suttas. It also provides the timeline of major suttas and significant events.

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

  • It will take many people a lifetime to fully understand what is embedded in 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 was suitable for oral transmission (easy to remember); see, “Sutta – Introduction“.
  • We must remember that all the suttas in the Tipitaka were transmitted down many generations over about 500 years before it was written down; see, “Preservation of the Dhamma“.

4. Therefore, what is in the Tipitaka are short summaries of those suttas. They are highly condensed, and need to be discussed in detail. It is not reasonable to assume that one could understand the 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 suttas need to be explained in detail. Even a single key verse needs to be explained in detail.

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

Idam kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkham ariyasaccam:

jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhāṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ 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 – Doing worldly activities (samkittena) to get all those things one craves for (pancupadanakkhandha) is suffering.

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

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

  • We may not remember, but birth is a traumatic event, just like the dying moment. Coming out of the birth canal is a traumatic event for both the mother and the baby.
  • 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.

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 AND we are forced to be associated with those four things we do not like: birth, getting old, getting sick, and dying.

8. Both those parts are combined in to one succinct statement in the third part of the verse in #5 (in bold): “Yampiccam nalabhati tampi dukkham“.

Yampiccam nalabhati tampi dukkham” is actually a shortened version of the verse (that rhymes).
The full sentence is “Yam pi iccam na labhati tam pi dukkham“.

  • Yam pi iccam” means “whatever is liked or craved for”. “Na labhati” means “not getting”. “tam pi dukkham” 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 discussion.

9. “Yampiccam nalabhati tampi dukkham” 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 attaining of 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 Tipitaka under different suttas. The word “iccha” with the emphasis on the last syllable is used to indicate “strong icca” or “strong attachment”.
  • The word “icca” (liking) is closely related to “tanhā” (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“.

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 a 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 other three lower realms would be much higher than that in the animal realm.

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, sankhāra, 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 sankhāra (because of one’s iccā), one’s tanhā 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.

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 a single English word. For example, we recently discussed why 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 key words 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 suttas in the same context. But the word “anitya” does not appear in a single sutta in the Tipitaka; “aniyata” and “addhuvan” appear in a few suttas 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.

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 for suffering discussed in #5 and #6.
  • So, my point is that this statement by itself explains that:  (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.

14. In fact, in the later 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…”

  • This is discussed in detail in: “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – Introduction“.
  • All these are realms higher than the human realm, and beings 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, the four lower realms are not mentioned in this sutta. They are discussed in other suttas. The Buddha was just listing the names of the higher realms from which beings were present there to listen to his first Dhamma discourse.

Therefore, we can see that there is a lot of information embedded in this sutta. We will discuss some of it in this subsection: “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta“.

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