Essence of Buddhism – In the First Sutta

The essence of Buddhism (Buddha Dhamma) is in the first sutta of the Buddha, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

October 23, 2018; revised May 4, 2020; November 14, 2020; March 11, 2021; May 27, 2021; April 22, 2022; major revision July 28, 2022


1. In the very first discourse that he delivered, “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)“, 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 doubt 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.
A Sutta Is a Highly Condensed Summary

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

  • For example, the Buddha delivered Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta to the five ascetics over several days. See “The Life of the Buddha” by Bhikkhu Nānamoli.” A direct account from the Tipiṭaka at “The Long Chapter (Mahākhandhaka);” see “Section 6. The account of the group of five.”
  • Only Ven. Kondañña attained the Sōtapanna stage on the first night. Then the Buddha explained the material over several days. The other four ascetics reached the Sōtapanna stage over several days.
  • The above book contains many passages from the Vinaya Piṭaka of the Tipiṭaka, which provide many details not available in the suttā. It also provides the timeline of critical suttā and significant events.

3. Therefore, the Buddha did not recite the sutta as it appears in the Tipiṭaka. If so, it would have been recited 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 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. Only a summary of a sutta is in the Tipiṭaka. Many of the suttā are highly condensed and need detailed explanations. It is not reasonable to assume that one could understand a sutta by 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. That is a terrible practice. It is no different from just reciting a sutta!
  • Some of these deep suttā need detailed explanations.
First Noble Truth in Just a Single Verse!

5. Now, let us examine 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 dukkhāṃsaṅkhittena 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 one dislikes is suffering and separation from those one likes. If one does not get what one wants, that is suffering – in brief, the origin of suffering is the craving for the five aggregates of rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāna (pancupādānakkhandha). Pancupādānakkhandha (upādāna or craving/desire for pancakkhandha) represents all we crave in this world. 

  • (Here, I have translated upādāna as craving. However, the word upādāna cannot be translated by just one word. It is a good idea to grasp the meaning. See “Concepts of Upādāna and Upādānakkhandha.”)
  • There are four sections in that verse. I have highlighted alternating sections to explain each of the four below.

6. Many think that dukkha Sacca (the First Noble Truth, pronounced “dukkha sachcha”) says everything is suffering. That is not true; there is a lot of apparent happiness, which makes people unaware of the hidden suffering until it is too late.

  • The first seven parts of the verse in #5 that summarizes the First Noble Truth explain that there is “hidden suffering” in the world that an average person would not see. For example, people celebrate birthdays, but every birth ends up in old age and death. Another is that we pursue worldly things with high expectations but EVENTUALLY end up suffering because of such expectations. These ideas are explained in detail in Paṭicca Samuppāda and Tilakkhana.
  • The last part of the verse is the key part of the First Noble Truth. It is not a type of suffering but the root cause of (future) suffering. We become subjected to suffering because we attach to certain rupa in this world and our vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāna that arise from interactions with such rupa. That is pañcupādānakkhandhā (pañca upādāna khandhā), loosely meaning “attachment to the pañcakkhandhā.”
  • Also, see “Does the First Noble Truth Describe only Suffering?
The Key Aspects of Suffering

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

  • Every birth ends up in death. That is why birth is suffering. All births — without exception — end up in death. 
  • We also DO NOT LIKE to get old, get sick, and do not like to die. If we experience any of those, that is suffering.
  • We WOULD LIKE it to stay young, not get old, not get sick, and not die ever. If we can have those conditions fulfilled, we will be forever happy.
  • Therefore, it is clear that the Buddha focused on the suffering associated with the rebirth process in his first discourse.
Root Cause of Suffering – Not Getting What One Desires

8. Anyone can see that not getting what one desires is suffering.

  • The second part of the verse in #5 (in red) says: Having to associate with things that one does not like is suffering, and having to separate from those things one wants is suffering. 

9. That part in #8 is stated in one concise statement in the third part of the verse in #5 (in bold): “yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ.”

Yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ” is a shortened version of the verse (that rhymes).
The complete 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 says: “If one does not get what one craves or likes, that leads to suffering.”
  • That 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 stressful to be with people we do not like.
  • Furthermore, the more one craves something, the more suffering one will endure in the end. But this requires a lot of discussions.
  • Note that “iccha” (and “icca“) is pronounced “ichcha.” See “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1” and Part 2 there.
Yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ 

10. “Yampiccam nalabhati tampi dukkhaṃ” (“Yam pi icchaṃ na labhati tam pi dukkhaṃ”) verse gets us closer to the deeper meaning of the First Noble Truth on suffering.

  • Note 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.” That 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).
  • The intrinsic nature of this world is “anicca,” i.e., we will never get what we crave for, and thus in 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.”
  • To get the deeper meaning of what we have discussed so far, we need to realize that the suffering in #5 above is the FUTURE suffering in future births. That is stated clearly also in the sutta.
Rebirth Process Is Irrefutable in Buddha Dhamma

11. 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 states the outcome of that knowledge, i.e., the solution to future suffering. It is the ending of the rebirth process. It will stop those four leading causes of suffering discussed in #5 and #7.
  • So, my point is that this statement confirms 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 Brahma realm.
The Need for Detailed Explanations

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

  • For example, many humans may not experience much suffering while young. Suffering during a human life may be much less than animal life.
  • Suffering in the other three lower realms would be much higher than in the animal realm.
  • There is no realm among the 31 realms where suffering is absent.
  • The need for detailed explanations is clarified in “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – Structure.”
Saṃkhittena Pañcupādānakkhandhā Dukkhā”

13. The last part of the verse in #5, saṅkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā,” will take much more explaining. One needs to understand the five khandhas (rūpa, védanā, sañña, saṅkhāra, viññāna) first, even to begin to understand this part. See “Does the First Noble Truth Describe only Suffering?” (especially #15 – #17.)

  • 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 — or vitakka/vicāra — (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.
  • A detailed discussion at “Tipiṭaka – A Systematic Approach.”
Word-by-Word Translations Can be Dangerous

14. The other key point: Translating some key verses word-by-word can lead to dire unintended consequences. 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 attained the Sōtapanna stage by understanding the detailed description of the material embedded in this sutta. That holds today too. One MUST realize the suffering “hidden in sensory experiences.”
    By the way, nothing in this sutta 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. 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 indicate impermanence in other contexts. For example, “jeevitam aniyatam, maranam niyatam” or “life is impermanent, death is certain.”
  • As I explained above, the root cause of suffering is “icca” (or craving), according to this sutta.

15. Therefore, a lot of information is in this sutta. Further analysis of the sutta in this subsection: “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.”

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