Sunday Reflection: Setting In Motion the Wheel of Truth
The First Sermon of the Buddha
Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth
(The First Sermon of the Buddha)
Thus have I heard. The Blessed One was once living in the Deer Park at Isipatana (the Resort of Seers) near Baranasi (Benares). There he addressed the group of five bhikkus [disciples]:
‘Bhikkus, these two extremes ought not to be practised by one who has gone forth from household life. What are the two? There is devotion to the indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, common, the way of ordinary people, unworthy and unprofitable; and there is devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy and unprofitable.
‘Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata has realized the Middle Path: it gives vision, it gives knowledge, and it leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. And what is that Middle Path…? It is simply the Noble Eightfold Path, namely, right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is the Middle Path realized by the Thathagata, which gives vision, which gives knowledge, and which leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.
‘The Noble Truth of suffering (Dukkha) is this: birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering – in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.
‘The Noble Truth of the origin of suffering is this: It is this thirst (craving) which produces re-existence and re-becoming, bound up with passionate greed. It finds fresh delight not here and now there, namely, thirst for sense-pleasures; thirst for existence and becoming; and thirst for non-existence (self-annihilation).
‘The Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very thirst, giving it up, renouncing it, emancipating oneself from it, detaching oneself from it.
‘The Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of suffering is this: It is simply the Noble Eightfold Path, namely right view; right thought; right speech, right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; right concentration.
‘ “This is the Noble Truth of Suffering (Dukkha)”: such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light, that arose in me with regard to things not heard before. “This suffering, as a noble truth, should be fully understood”: such as the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light, that arose in me with regard to things not heard before. “This suffering, as a noble truth, has been fully understood”: such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light, that arose in me with regard to things not heard before.
‘ “This is the Noble Truth of the Origin of suffering”: such was the vision… “This Origin of suffering, as a noble truth should be abandoned”: such was the vision… “This Origin of suffering, as a noble truth, has been abandoned”: such was the vision,… with regard to things not heard before.
“This is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering”: such was the vision … “This Cessation of suffering, as a noble truth, should be realized”: such was the vision, … “This Cessation of suffering, as a noble truth, has been realized”: such was the vision, … with regard to things not heard before.
‘ “This is the Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of suffering”: such was the vision … “This Path leading to the cessation of suffering, as a noble truth, should be followed (cultivated)” such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light, that arose in me with regard to things not heard before.
‘As long as my vision of true knowledge was not fully clear in these three aspects, in these twelve ways, regarding the Four Noble Truths, I did not claim to have realized the perfect Enlightenment that is supreme in the world with its gods, with its Maras and Brahmas, in this world with its recluses and brahamanas, with its princes and men. And a vision of true knowledge arose in me thus: My heart’s deliverance is unassailable. This is the last birth. Now there is no more re-becoming (rebirth).
This the Blessed One said. The group of five bhikkus was glad, and they rejoiced at his words.
One of the more off putting concepts about Buddhism is the seeming contradiction of simultaneously not believing in a Soul while having the concept of re-birth. I have found that in order to better understand this philosophy, one must use a different definition for “birth.” I don’t believe that perceiving the concept of rebirth as literally being pushed out of the womb of a woman again helps us as adults brimming with desires and pains. Rather, “re-birth” should be considered to be every time opinionated thought occurs, and is allowed to grow and control our actions. What do I mean by thoughts that occur and are allowed to grow? Using myself as an example, I have been “re-born” several times in my life, and each time was just another route of suffering brought upon myself. The most egregious examples were my heavy addiction phases, particularly with alcohol. It was not only the drink that consumed me, but my own thoughts of it. I lost my way to the extremity of my desires, I needed to drink. It was as if I could not quell my suffering without a drink. This was more than just addiction, it was a way of living taking over my own. In hindsight, it feels as though I was deeply possessed by some demon, but the reality was that I was overwhelmed by the folly of thinking drinking could make me feel better. In this way, I was re-born an alcoholic, and have since let my alcoholic die.
The reality of the Buddha’s Middle Path is that you will not feel better by doing anything in particular. Our culture thrives on the perpetuation of activities and consumption being the way to happiness. The Buddha tried to explain thousands of years ago that happiness will never be reached through pursuit in the external world, but rather discipline of the internal mind. When you begin to desire sensual comforts, or when you dwell on your discomforts, you are re-born. When I began to depend on comforts to slake my unhappiness, it only resulted in a deepening of my resting suffering. If I feel lonely and unhappy, how would it truly benefit me to masturbate or shovel my face with candy? Without even discussing the hormonal damage that occurs, I would only be giving birth to the idea that I am dependent on these things for my contentment, and each time that idea dies with each surrender, only to repeat ad infinitum. These are thirsts we give ourselves, in a world where it can feel that we already need so much.
We must find ways to relieve our dreams and fears in this realm of profound and shallow experiences. We must needs find a way to exist comfortably without craving for more, without being led astray, without ruining our own sanity, without losing our agency, or simply without making things worse. Perhaps the Eightfold Path may be our way towards such an existence. A future reflection will definitely delve deeper into the Eightfold Path and how we can begin cultivating the cessation of our suffering. Remember, your suffering will not end until it is understood.