The Deer Park Sermon:
First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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.
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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.

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)
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.

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 ultimate aim.

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 noble truths:
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. 1844)
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 follows:
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.

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 one’s 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.
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.

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."

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)
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 Buddha’s Dharma.


Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.

Carus, Paul. The Gospel of the Buddha. Rockport: Oneworld Publications, 1994.

Dhamma, Rewata. The First Discourse of the Buddha. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1997.

Rahula, Walpola, What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press, 1974.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1995, 2002. > Historical Buddha > Next Page > Questions?


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