The following essay is the second chapter of a book on the life and teachings of
Shakyamuni Buddha according to the Pali Canon and/or the Agamas that I have been writing since college. This particular part was written in 1995. I am
restricting myself to the Pali Canon and the Agamas in an effort to present
only what is likely to have been taught by the historical Shakyamuni
Buddha. While this essay and the others which constitute this work in progress are
informed by Mahayana and Theravada teachings, my main purpose was just to present what I perceive to be the most straightforward meaning of the
canon. In the future, I hope to cover the Mahayana canon in the same way.
Ultimately, I hope to take all this material and show how it does or does
not relate to the faith, teaching, and practice of Nichiren Buddhism as a source of common sense and spiritual guidance.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Ryuei
Pali Canon >
Lotus Sutra >
The First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma
When the Buddha decided to share his awakening with the world and teach
the way to enlightenment, his first thought was to find his former
teachers, Arada Kalama and Rudraka Ramaputra. He discovered, however, that
they had died while he was undergoing his ascetic training; so, the Buddha
decided to find the five ascetics and teach them instead. He found them at
the Deer Park in Varanasi (also known as Benares). At first, the five
ascetics were not even going to greet him because they felt that he had not
kept up with their ascetic practices and had fallen away from his quest.
However, as he came closer they were struck by his dignity and serenity, so
they greeted him as they would a fellow seeker. Shakyamuni rebuked them for
this and declared that he was no longer a mere seeker, but one who had
awakened to the Truth, a Buddha. It took the five ascetics some time to
ascertain that their former companion had indeed accomplished what he
claimed; but after awhile they perceived that Shakyamuni was truly
enlightened and not a fraud. At this point, they were ready to receive the
teaching of the Buddha.
The Buddha began his first sermon by revealing the Middle Way between
self-indulgence and asceticism:
Monks, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone
forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in
sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble,
unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful,
ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes,
the Tathagata has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision,
which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge,
to enlightenment, to Nibbana.
The Middle Way as taught here by Shakyamuni Buddha indicates the best way
to live for those who look beyond the supposed satisfaction and security of
secular life in order to find liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
A life of self-indulgence is a life which may give passing pleasure, but no
ultimate satisfaction. In the face of such realities as old age, sickness
and death, no amount of money, sex, power or entertainment can prevent us
from losing everything in the end. The life of pleasure can only dissipate
our resolve and keep us distracted until the harsh reality of loss and
death catch up to the unfortunate idler.
And what, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which
gives rise to vision... which leads to Nibbana? It is this Noble Eightfold
Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action,
right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
This, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives
rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to
direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. (The Connected
Discourses of the Buddha, p. 1844)
On the other hand, the life of the ascetic is also fruitless. Strange
diets and fasts, harsh and unnecessary disciplines and other forms of
mortification do nothing but dangerously weaken the mind and body. The
practice of asceticism is often motivated by the assumption that the body
and the material world are obstacles to spirituality. The Buddha, however,
saw that this was not really the case; rather, it is the perpetuation of
self-involvement, whether as self-indulgence or self-denial, which is the
true obstacle to spiritual growth. With this in mind, the Buddha taught
that we should maintain our health in order to have the strength of body
and the clarity of mind needed to follow the path to enlightenment.
The ideal of the Middle Way is to escape from excessive self-involvement
and to live a life of harmony and equilibrium. Those who follow the Middle
Way should simply take care of their real needs, such as adequate sleep,
shelter, food and exercise. Buddhism teaches that life is very precious,
because it is an opportunity to achieve enlightenment; therefore, we should
take care of ourselves and make the most of our time in order to achieve
the ultimate freedom and happiness which comes from realizing life's
The Buddha then reveals that following the noble eightfold path is the
best way to make the most out of the precious opportunity which is our
present lifetime. This noble eightfold path is also the fourth of the four
noble truths which the Buddha goes on to explain after discussing the
Middle Way. In regard to the Middle Way, the noble eightfold path refers to
a way of life whereby every thought, word and action is authentic and in
accordance with the actual circumstances in which we live. In other words,
most of the time people try to act in accordance with some fixed point of
view or code of behavior which gives a sense of security to the self or the
larger self of the community. The Buddhist, however, should not have
preconceived notions or rigidly fixed routines. The Middle Way is a way of
living and acting which is genuine and not forced, and which takes into
account all the dynamics of the present situation in order to act in a way
that will bring the maximum benefit for all concerned. The follower of the
Middle Way avoids fanaticism, fundamentalism or legalism and acts with
genuine insight and compassion in every situation. In this way, every
aspect of life becomes an expression of the freedom and correctness of the
selflessness which is the Middle Way.
After teaching the Middle Way, the Buddha proceeded to teach the four
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering,
aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with
what is displeasing is suffering; seperation from what is pleasing is
suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five
aggregates subject to clinging are suffering. (Ibid, p. 1844)
The noble truth of suffering may strike some as too obvious to mention and
others as overly pessimistic depending on one's temperament or mood.
However, it should be pointed out that the first noble truth is not
pessimistic nor all that obvious. To begin with, the word dukkha,
which is usually translated as suffering, actually has a much
broader and profounder meaning. Dukkha refers to the impermanent and
ultimately unsatisfying nature of phenomena. It does not mean that
everything we experience is awful and worthless; it does mean, however,
that most people are engaged in a futile attempt to derive an ultimate,
eternal and unshakeable happiness from the vicissitudes of worldly
phenomena. The Buddha then lists the various inevitable forms of suffering
which prevent people from living lives of uninterrupted worldly bliss. One
might wonder why he begins with birth, which is usually taken to be a good
thing. However, if one thinks about how easy and comfortable life is in the
womb and compares it with the trauma of birth and the many ordeals which
are involved in growing up, then it becomes clear why birth was included.
The rest of the list is fairly straightforward, they are all things which
everyone has or will experience. It should also be pointed out that even
the ordinary joys and pleasures of life can be included as sources of
dukkha, because no pleasant thing is everlasting, and often when we
do get what we want, it does not meet our expectations. Even if we do
acquire something which we desire and are not disappointed, the feelings of
pleasure will usually be accompanied by anxiety regarding the loss of what one has gained.
The Buddha concludes his observations of life's unsatisfactory nature by
stating that "the five aggregates subject to clinging are
suffering." This refers to the Buddha's analysis of the five basic
components of human life and experience, which will be covered in a later
chapter in more detail. In brief, they are form, sensation, perception,
volition and consciousness. It is from these five that we derive our notion
of existence and especially our idea of selfhood. Unfortunately, none of
these components of the self provide a basis for an eternal, independent,
or completely fulfilled existence. What seems to be a self striving for an
eternal happiness or final satisfaction is in actuality the constant
interplay of these five aggregates which require constant change and
stimulation just in order to continue functioning. Therefore the idea of an
independent, changeless, or fully satisfied self is the result of mistaking
a process for a substance. Such a self could not be a product of the five
aggregates, and apart from the aggregates there is nothing that can
meaningfully be called a self. Stated simply, the Buddha's analysis of life
reveals that existence is process, and process provides no basis for an unchanging happiness.
The first noble truth, then, is not pessimistic because dukkha does
not deny that there are good and pleasurable phenomena. It simply denies
that any phenomena included within the five components of life are able to
provide abiding peace and happiness. The first noble truth is not obvious
for this same reason. The vast majority of people live their lives as if
they have been cheated of the happiness which life is supposed to have
given them. They are filled with dismay, disappointment and bitterness
because their expectations have been thwarted, and thereby commit acts
which compound the world's suffering. They react to life with covetousness,
hostility or denial in a futile attempt ease their craving for unchanging
peace and happiness. The first noble truth reveals that life simply can not
provide that kind of ultimate satisfaction. Dukkha is universal and
intrinsic to the life process because all phenomena is the fluctuation of
causes and conditions; there is nothing that one can cling to for abiding
security or happiness.
Next, the Buddha taught the causes and conditions which bring about
suffering and dissatisfaction:
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is
this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and
lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual
pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination. (Ibid, p.
Many people seem to assume that the source of their problems can be traced
to something outside themselves such as the government or the
establishment or a dysfunctional family or some religious or
ethnic minority stirring up trouble, etc., etc., ad nauseam... In this
view, suffering is inflicted upon the sufferer, who can then only react to
it with varying degrees of effectiveness. The second noble truth, on the
other hand, teaches that the true root of suffering is the craving for
happiness itself. This craving is the result of the unrealistic expectation
that life should be a source of unchangeable happiness as discussed under
the first noble truth. Craving is what transforms the sometimes painful
process of life into an ongoing cycle of agony and unbearable suffering at
worst or a life of subtle agitation and anxiety at best. Thus, while
external circumstances can indeed bring about uncomfortable or tragic
experiences, it is the internal craving which turns mere pain into
suffering. Indeed, craving can even spoil pleasant circumstances with its
incessant demands and impoverished outlook on life. All of this is not to
deny or denigrate the experiences of those who have or are experiencing
affliction, exploitation, or tragedy. The point is that when one lets
craving compound painful circumstances with emotional suffering or lets
craving spoil even pleasant circumstances, then one has truly given up
one's power and is destined for a life determined by the forces of greed,
anger and ignorance which are naturally generated in reaction to suffering.
The Buddha also reveals the further consequences of this craving when he
speaks of renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust...
or as Walpola Rahula translates it: "re-existence and re-becoming,
bound up with passionate greed" (What the Buddha Taught, p.
93). The emotional distress which is craving can be seen in the mind which
broods over or longs for the past and anxiously awaits the future with
either fearful apprehension or eager anticipation. Because this craving can
never be fully satisfied, due to the instability of the five aggregates, it
is always disappointed or bitter in regards to the past and present, and
always hopeful and fearful of what the future will bring. The mind which is
"bound up with passionate greed" is caught up solely in its own
painful memories and false speculations and can never see the truth of what
is actually present. Everything one does becomes determined by this greedy
mind trapped in past loss or failures and future fears or hopes. The result
of these acts inevitably create further disappointment and suffering since
they are based on a false mind. This vicious circle of craving, false acts
and suffering is what constitutes the cycle of re-existence and re-becoming
which the Buddha will elaborate upon later when teaching the twelve-fold
chain of dependent origination. In one sense, re-existence and re-becoming
refer to physical re-births, the results of a compulsive if futile quest
for ultimate satisfaction. On a deeper level, however, re-birth refers to
the constant perpetuation of the greedy mind which clings to its own
identity and experiences and has not learned to liberate itself from its
own compulsive brooding over the past and nervous anticipation of the future.
The Buddha then discusses the objects of such craving, namely:
sense-pleasures, existence and non-existence. Sense pleasures are a pretty
obvious and common way of appeasing craving, so no real comment needs to be
made. The craving for existence and becoming refers not only to the desire
to extend one's life into eternity in the pursuit or enjoyment of one's
goals, but it is also a craving for a stable, abiding and fulfilled self
which does not have to undergo change and is self-sufficient. Finally, the
craving for non-existence is the nihilistic desire to find peace by
destroying the impermanent self and any other entities that one is
disappointed or frustrated with. In each case, a means to avoid the
impermanence and instability of the five aggregates which make up existence
is sought. Since there is nothing that exists apart from the aggregates,
the effort is doomed to failure and only leads to increased frustration.
At this point, the Buddha teaches the possibility of liberation from
suffering and incessant craving:
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is
the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the
giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on
it." (Ibid, p. 1844)
Once one sees the true nature of life and the futility of craving, the
next step is to realize that if craving were given up then one would be
free from suffering. This is the true meaning of nirvana, the extinguishing
of the flames of passionate greed or craving. It does not refer to a
heavenly state of bliss, as this is merely the imaginary goal of craving.
Nor is it the extinguishing of the self, since the self is not a real
entity in the first place but merely a delusion projected upon the
aggregates as the result of the craving for existence. When one has
extinguished the flames of craving and been liberated from the narrow
self-consciousness which leads to misery, then one is established in
nirvana. It is not a matter of gaining something; rather, it is a matter of
ending the vicious circle of craving, false action and suffering. The life
and outlook of one established in nirvana is one that can no longer be
understood in terms of the ordinary way of life based upon the cravings for
pleasure, existence and non-existence. The liberated life no longer sees
what is not there, nor is it any longer at the mercy of memory or
anticipation. There is no longer any question of re-existence or
re-becoming because the aggregates operate naturally and fully without the
burden of self-reference. In nirvana, the selfless life unfolds with all of
its pains and pleasures without the projection of a suffering self and its
accompanying fears, regrets, disappointments, anxieties and all other forms
distress. In fact, the Middle Way is firmly established here, since there
is no longer a self to indulge or deny when the projections of craving have ended.
So how does one live the Middle Way in order to put an end to craving? The
Buddha once again returns to the noble eightfold path:
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation
of suffering: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right
intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort,
right mindfulness, right concentration. (Ibid, p. 1844)
As already stated, following the noble eightfold path is to live in
accordance with the Middle Way. Basically they are the eight aspects of a
life free of self-interest or craving. In each case, "right"
refers to the ability to perfect or complete each path, so that
self-centeredness is extinguished and one lives in accordance with reality
in thought, word and deed. The specific meaning of each path is as
Right View: In Buddhism, when one fully understands life as revealed by
the four noble truths, then one can be said to have right views.
The noble eightfold path has also been restated as the threefold training,
consisting of precepts, meditation and wisdom. Precepts refers to the
ethical demands of right speech, right action and right livelihood.
Specifically, there are five precepts which are at the heart of Buddhist
morality. The five precepts are as follows: not to kill, not to steal, not
to get involved in sexual misconduct, not to speak falsely and not to use
intoxicants which cloud the mind. Meditation refers to the cultivation of
the mind covered by right effort, right mindfulness and right
concentration. Wisdom refers to the acquisition of right view and right
intention. The Buddha taught that when precepts, meditation and wisdom are
cultivated together, one is able to shake loose the bonds of craving and
ignorance and attain the liberation of nirvana.
Right Intention (or Thought): This means to think clearly without the
distortion of greed, anger or ignorance.
Right Speech: This is the avoidance of deception, gossip, slander and
other forms of verbal abuse or dishonesty. Instead, one speaks only to
benefit others and reveal the truth.
Right Action: This refers to the cultivation of ethical conduct. One acts
to benefit others and refrains from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct
(sexual activity which is exploitive or harmful) and other forms of harmful activity.
Right Livelihood: One should be able to make a living without harming or
exploiting others. Right livelihood precludes such activities as arms
dealing, drug dealing, fraud, insider trading and any other means of
earning money which involves the exploitation or harming of others.
Right Effort: This refers to the cultivation and encouragement of good
habits on the one hand, and the curbing and prevention of bad habits on the other.
Right Mindfulness: This is the full awareness of all aspects of ones
life in all places and at all times.
Right Concentration: This is the practice of concentration techniques in
order to acquire tranquility, insight into the true nature of life, and
liberation from false views.
At this point, the eldest ascetic Ajnata Kaundinya arose and declared that
the Buddha had indeed discovered the Dharma (Truth or Law). The other
ascetics also affirmed that the Buddha had discovered and taught the Truth
which leads to freedom. They then became the first bhikshus (monks)
of the Sangha (the Buddhist community) by declaring their faith in
the three treasures. The following version by Paul Carus relates the story
of the first ordination and the formula of the threefold refuge based on
the Vinaya texts:
Then the venerable Kaundinya spoke to the Buddha and said: "Lord,
let us receive the ordination from the Blessed One."
At this point, Buddhism officially began as a religion and a way of
life. In the future, there would be many more monks and eventually a
community of nuns as well. There would also be many lay followers from all
classes of Indian society. The wealthiest of these lay followers even
sponsored the Sangha through the donation of lands and monasteries where
the monks would stay during the rainy season when they could not travel the
countryside to preach the Dharma. From those first monasteries, the Sangha
would spread throughout the world, bringing with it the seeds of the
And the Buddha said: "Come, O monks! Well taught is the doctrine.
Lead a holy life for the extinction of suffering."
Then Kaundinya and the other monks uttered three times these solemn vows:
"To the Buddha will I look in faith: He, the Perfect One is holy and
supreme. The Buddha conveys to us instruction, wisdom and salvation; he is
the Blessed One, who knows the law of being; he is the Lord of the world,
who yoketh men like oxen, the Teacher of gods and men, the Exalted Buddha.
Therefore, to the Buddha will I look in faith.
"To the Dharma will I look in faith: well-preached is the Dharma by
the Exalted One. The Dharma has been revealed so as to become visible; the
Dharma is above time and space The Dharma is not based upon hearsay, it
means `Come and see'; the Dharma leads to welfare; the Dharma is recognized
by the wise in their own hearts. Therefore to the Dharma will I look in faith.
"To the Sangha will I look in faith; the Sangha instructs us how to
lead a life of righteousness; the Sangha teaches us how to exercise honesty
and justice; the Sangha shows us how to practice the truth. They form a
brotherhood in kindness and charity, and their saints are worthy of
reverence. The Sangha is founded as a holy brotherhood in which men bind
themselves together to teach the behests of rectitude and to do good.
Therefore, to the Sangha will I look in faith.
(The Gospel of Buddha, pp.56-57)