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Expound The Contents Of Buddhas First Sermon Essay, Research Paper

Expound the Contents of the Buddha s First Sermon.

Buddhism is a large and complex subject, and we should be wary of generalizations made on the basis of familiarity with any single part. In particular, statements which begin Buddhists believe or Buddhism teaches must be treated with circumspection

quote from (Keown 1996: 2)

The first sermon is extremely important within Buddhism as it is seen as the initial start that set the wheel of Dharma rolling. At the end of the first sermon one of the five ascetics became enlightened and gained the first stage of nirvana. This is an extremely important event as it proved that if people understood and followed what the Buddha taught then they could also attain nirvana.

Siddharta Gautama (563-483 BCE) was born into a wealthy family. His father, Suddhodana, owned many palaces. His birth was surrounded by mysterious events, records state that he was conceived when his mother, Maya, dreamed that a white elephant had entered her side (Nidanakatha, a biography of The Buddha) This was later translated to mean that the child would become either a great emperor or religious leader. In the Buddha s early life his father s fear that his son would leave him to pursue his destiny, made him try to protect him from unpleasantness. He ensured that the streets by the palace were filled with happy people and free from illness, disease and old age. However, many believe that, due to divine intervention on four separate outings from the palace, the Buddha encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse being taken to the cremation ground and finally a religious mendicant. These events shocked the Buddha, he thought how not even the palace walls could protect him from suffering.

This was the beginning of Buddha s recognition of the basis of change and becoming. Through meditation he came to the great realisation: All is passing, all is sorrow, all is unreal. Everything is impermanent, subject to change, decay and ultimate annihilation. His belief was that there is no lasting satisfaction to be found in clinging to sensory pleasures, for they are bound to pass; they have no basis in reality. But he recognised too that behind this change there was something permanent, an unchanging reality that gives rise to all forms, all thoughts. This he called nirvana. In this state of enlightenment, the pangs of desire, of regret and sorrow dissolve, and the selfless qualities of kindness, compassion, love and serenity blossom forth. This was a profound psychological insight with a spiritual purpose, to come to understand, and to conquer, suffering; to make peace with the way things are. Thus, the Buddha is venerated not as a god, nor as an emissary of god, but as a man who has unlocked a fundamental truth of human existence, and in doing so given other men the teaching by which they can free themselves from suffering and unhappiness.

Buddha was unsure if he should become a religious teacher, he didn t think it was possible to explain to others the profound realisation he had discovered. He changed his mind when one of the gods appealed for him to teach to others his discovery.

The Buddha s first sermon was called Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta which means the establishment of wisdom, or the Turning of the Wheel of Truth. It was preached on the full-moon day of July, called Asalha. The sermon is extremely important within Buddhism as it states the main teachings of Buddhism. The symbol of the wheel became very important within Buddhism, it represented the Dharma (Buddha s teachings) and his first sermon started the wheel in motion (Keown 1996) .

This sermon was preached to the five ascetics who were his former companions at the Deer Park in Isipatana (now called Sarnath), near Benares, India. Many devas and Brahmas (angels and gods) were present to listen to the discourse.

Buddha and the five ascetics together had tried to find enlightenment through ascetic self-mortification. They undertook meditation without breathing and eating to try and reach a deeper level of understanding. However after severe headaches, hair loss and being so emaciated that he could not stand up, Buddha remembered a meditation technique called first jhana which did not require any sense-pleasures (which he had tried to achieve by self mortification), thus he began to eat adequately. Seeing this the 5 ascetics shunned him due to the Buddha abandoning their shared conquest for a life of luxurious living. The five ascetics were obviously religious specialists hence Buddha s first sermon was delivered to help them understand and not the lay person. This, Cush (1993) believes the impression that Buddhism is gloomy, intellectual and difficult.

The Buddha started by talking about two extremes, which he advised not to indulge in. These are anything devoted to sensual pleasures and self-affliction. He advised against too much sensual pleasure because they were base, worldly, not noble and unhelpful in spiritual development. Self-affliction was painful, not noble and also unhelpful in spiritual development.

Many believe the reference to self mortification was due to the previous techniques tried by Buddha and his 5 ascetics who tried to gain enlightenment.

He suggested that the middle path was the path to follow, avoiding both of these extremes. This path is called Majjhima Patipada, and leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening and nirvana.

The Buddha spoke about the Four Noble Truths:

The Noble Truth of Stress, he said that life is full of stress (dukkha) such as birth, death and not getting what you want. The Noble Truth of the Origination of Stress, this is the craving for sensual pleasure (tanha), which causes suffering. The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Stress, by doing away with craving (nirodha) one can find release from suffering and reach a state of peace and enlightenment called nirvana. The Noble Truth of the way of practise leading to the cessation of stress, the method for achieving this goal is the Noble Eightfold Path called magga ( the middle way ) (Thompson 1997).

To be liberated from one’s cravings and attachments is a noble goal, according to the Buddha. To see this one can follow along the path of the Four Noble Truths, understand the truth of each, understand the result, and understand how that understanding produces an attachment to the further truth. The Buddha’s formula for dependant co-arising, states that craving leads to attachment which leads to suffering. If one comes to understand that objects are not worth craving then the cycle of craving and attachment can be broken. Objects of craving and attachment are the items to which the First Noble Truth is directed the five skandhas (aggregates). Attachments to any of the skandhas constitutes the essence of suffering (duhkha- also stress, pain, disease, distress and unsatisfactoriness). These are the five factors that go to make up a person. The first is rupa, material shape or form . Referring to the material aspect of living. Harvey (1990) describes how Bhudda spoke of the four basic forces/elements making the material aspect of living: solidity (literally earth ), cohesion ( water ), energy ( fire ) and motion ( wind ), and that the human body is made from these. The second factor is vedana, or feeling . These are the emotions people feel such as happiness and unhappiness. The third factor is sanna, this is the process of identifying objects both mental and physical. The fourth factor is sankhara, this gives us character and induce different states from determination to laziness. The final factor is vinnana, or consciousness.

The Buddha was not claiming that there are no happy attachments in life, simply that any attachment will be inconsistent and impermanent and hence produce suffering.

Life does have many beautiful and enjoyable aspects, but these also cause suffering because they do not last and the more beautiful and enjoyable, the more suffering occurs when they pass .This is why even people who seem to have everything are still unhappy

(Cush 1993: 28)

It’s obvious that one cannot control their comings and goings and yet these very things are those things by which we tend to identify ourselves. When we do this we mistake our self-essence for what it is not, building upon illusion after illusion.

The Second Noble Truth naturally follows – craving actually, truthfully has no object to latch onto that is not illusory so it may be abandoned. The Buddha identified three different types of craving: craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence and craving for non-existence. What we do now leads to consequences of what we are and feel later. This can happen from moment to moment or the consequences could take lifetimes to happen. The chain reaction of our desire and cravings leading to further unsatisfactory experience is called punabbhava (rebecoming).

According to Cush (1992) there are 12 basic causal links that lead to Dukkha (suffering). The main two which Buddha said could be stopped to break the chain are craving and ignorance.

Bhudda taught that since we now know what leads to suffering we can prevent suffering by breaking the links. Bhudda spoke of the cessation of suffering, the Third Noble Truth quite naturally, following upon the heels of the abandonment of craving. Of the twelve links craving and ignorance are the two which are easiest to eliminate. When craving comes to an end dukkha ceases and nibbana is attained, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. No one knows why the Buddha chose this word to describe the culmination of his teaching.. It means, literally, in Pali (nibbana) the extinguishing of a fire. In the time of the Buddha the word denoted primarily the notion of freedom. When a fire goes out it does not cease existing, according to the physics of the day, it is simply neither existing nor nonexisting, both or neither. It hasn’t gone in any particular direction. The experience of nirvana, therefore, is without predication.

Nirvana takes two forms, the first occurs during life and the second occurs at death. The definition of nirvana-in-this-life is the end of greed, hatred, and delusion (Samyutta Nikaya :38, 1). It is attained when there is total non-attachment and letting go

Nirvana is the goal and the realisation of the Fourth Noble Truth which is that the path toward this goal is the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. The eightfold path is designed to lead to a life of virtue and knowledge. It is commonly referred to as the middle way this is because it steers a course through a life of indulgence and one of harsh austerity. The eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path are not steps to be followed in sequence, one after another. They can be more aptly described as components rather than as steps, comparable to the intertwining strands of a single cable that requires the contributions of all the strands for maximum strength.

The Buddha said that he was enlightened only after he understood these Four Noble Truths. The Eightfold Path has eight parts or factors:

Right Understanding or Right View means to know and understand the Four Noble Truths. Knowledge of Karma and rebirth making people responsible for their actions.

Right view is the forerunner of the entire path, the guide for all the other factors. It enables us to understand our starting point, our destination, and the successive landmarks to pass as practice advances.

Might be compared to wanting to drive someplace without consulting a roadmap or listening to the suggestions of an experienced driver. One might get into the car and start to drive, but rather than approaching closer to one’s destination, one is more likely to move farther away from it. To arrive at the desired place one has to have some idea of its general direction and of the roads leading to it. (Bodhi 1994)

These views then condition action. They lie behind our choices and goals, and our efforts to turn these goals from ideals into actuality. The actions themselves might determine consequences, but the actions along with their consequences hinge on the views from which they spring.

Right Thought means to think three kinds of thoughts.

(i) Thoughts of renunciation or thoughts which do not have lustful desires.

(ii) Thoughts of goodwill to other which are opposed to ill will.

(iii) Thoughts of harmlessness as opposed to cruelty.

[1] The three are opposed to three parallel kinds of wrong intention: intention governed by desire, intention governed by ill will, and intention governed by harmfulness.[2] Each kind of right intention counters the corresponding kind of wrong intention. The intention of renunciation counters the intention of desire, the intention of good will counters the intention of ill will, and the intention of harmlessness counters the intention of harmfulness.

The Buddha discovered this twofold division of thought in the period prior to his Enlightenment. While he was striving for deliverance, meditating in the forest, he found that his thoughts could be distributed into two different classes. In one he put thoughts of desire, ill will, and harmfulness, in the other thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness. Whenever he noticed thoughts of the first kind arise in him, he understood that those thoughts lead to harm for oneself and others, obstruct wisdom, and lead away from Nibbana. Reflecting in this way he expelled such thoughts from his mind and brought them to an end. But whenever thoughts of the second kind arose, he understood those thoughts to be beneficial, conducive to the growth of wisdom, aids to the attainment of Nibbana. Thus he strengthened those thoughts and brought them to completion.

Right Speech deals with refraining from falsehood such as telling lies or not telling the truth, slandering or saying bad things about other people; harsh words and frivolous talks such as gossiping. On the opposite side truthful, constructive, thoughtful speech is to be enhanced.

The Buddha often stressed the value of silence, where no useful speech could be made. (Cush 1990:34)

Right Action. Unwholesome actions lead to unsound states of mind, while wholesome actions lead to sound states of mind. Again, the principle is explained in terms of abstinence: right action means 1) to abstain from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life (including suicide) and doing harm intentionally or delinquently, 2) to abstain from taking what is not given, which includes stealing, robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty, and 3) to abstain from sexual misconduct.

Right Livelihood means that one should earn one’s living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. The Buddha mentions four specific activities that harm other beings and that one should avoid for this reason: 1) dealing in weapons, 2) dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), 3) working in meat production and butchery, and 4) selling intoxicants and poisons, such as alcohol and drugs.

Right Effort has four parts using meditation:

To try to stop evil thoughts that have arisen

(ii) To prevent evil thoughts from arising.

(iii) To try to develop good thoughts

(iv) To try to continue good thoughts that have arisen

Mental energy is the force behind right effort; it can occur in either wholesome or unwholesome states. The same type of energy that fuels desire, envy, aggression, and violence can on the other side fuel self-discipline, honesty, benevolence, and kindness

Right mindfulness is also fourfold. It is mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings/sensations, mindfulness of thoughts passing through the mind and mindfulness of Dhamma. It is the mental ability to see things as they are, with clear consciousness. Right mindfulness enables us to be aware of the process of conceptualisation in a way that we actively observe and control the way our thoughts go.

Right Concentration. Concentration in this context is described as one-pointedness of mind, meaning a state where all mental faculties are unified and directed onto one particular object. The Buddhist method of choice to develop right concentration is through the practice of meditation.

The eight factors can be grouped into three smaller groups as follows:

SILA (Morality)

Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood.

SAMADHI (Concentrated mind in meditation)

Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.

PANNA (Wisdom)

Right Thoughts, Right Understanding.

Sila, Samadhi and Panna are the three stages on the Path to mental purity whose object is Nirvana. These stages are described in a beautiful verse:

To cease from evil,

To do what is good.

To cleanse one’s mind:

This is the advice of all the Buddhas.

However everything from the first sermon must be treated with circumspection. At the time of The Buddha none of his teaching were ever recorded in text. It was not until his death was anything written down. Buddhism spread through word of mouth and hence is subject to misinterpretations. (Skorupski 1990)


Bodhi B, The Noble Eightfold Path, 1994

Cush D Buddhism. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1993

Harvey P. An Introduction to Buddhism. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990

Keown D Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. New York, Oxford University Press Inc, 1996

Thompson M Philosophy of Religion. London, Hodder Headline Plc, 1997.

Skorupski T The Buddhist Forum. London, University of London, 1990

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