The Discourse Setting the Wheel of the Dhamma in Motion

The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (“setting in motion [pavattana] the wheel [cakka] of the law [Dhamma]“) is the first discourse that the Buddha delivered after his enlightenment.

The Buddha delivered the discourse to the five ascetics with whom he had been traveling and practicing for the several years prior to his enlightenment. Those five had abandoned him a few months earlier when he decided that the extreme asceticism he’d been practicing was not getting him closer to his goal, and he took a little solid food; the monks felt that he was selling out, indulging in sensual pleasures, and they’d walked away. But the Buddha understood that they were good men, advanced on the path, committed to their practice—as he put it, they were men “with little dust on their eyes”. The discourse he delivered to them was dense with meaning; it lays out, in just a dozen or so short paragraphs, the foundational concepts for all the teaching that came later: the concept of “the Middle Way”, “the Four Noble Truths”, “The Eight-fold Path”, and Conditioned Emergence.

In my rendering of the sutta, below, I expand the Buddha’s telegraphic delivery a bit, to help a modern audience understand the message a little more clearly. And I’ve changed some of the traditional translations of Pali terms, for reasons that I explain in the footnotes to the rendering.
For those who want to compare the version I’ve composed with more literal translations, there are four very good such translations on the Access to Insight website, from four different translators, each an experienced practitioner and a student of Pali:
• Peter Harvey
• Ñanamoli Thera
• Piyadassi Thera
• Thanissaro Bhikkhu
The sutta is short enough so that it would take less than half an hour to read all of those, and that would be a worthwhile exercise.

This is how I’ve heard that it happened.

On that occasion, the Fortunate One had come to Varanasi, to the Game Park at Isipatana. There he addressed the five ascetics:
“Monks, when you’ve gone forth into the world, there are two paths you must avoid. One is the path of luxury and sensual pleasure, of ambition and material success. That path is crude and common, unworthy, not leading to the goal.
“The other is the path of self-mortification and rigid asceticism. That is a painful path, and it too is unworthy, not leading to the goal.
“Monks, you can avoid those two extremes by following the Middle Path realized by The Pathfinder; this Middle Path is an eye-opener; following it, you will come to complete knowledge. It calms you down, lightens your load, reveals the truth with lucid clarity; you will awaken fully, completely released from all pain and distress.
“And what is this Middle Path realized by The Pathfinder that brings vision and knowledge, calms you, reveals the truth, leads to awakening and complete release? It is a Path with eight factors: right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right concentration. That is the Middle Path realized by The Pathfinder: producing vision and knowledge, it will calm you, reveal the truth, and wake you up so you will attain complete release.
“This is a Noble truth: dukkha. Birth is dukkha, aging and death are dukkha; sorrow, grief, hurt and despair are dukkha; dealing with hateful people and events is dukkha; separation from what you love is dukkha; not getting what you really want is dukkha. In fact, everything you experience—every sensation, every perception, every emotion you feel, every belief you maintain, every thought you have—all that is dukkha.
“This is a Noble truth: the arising of dukkha. Dukkha arises from craving—creating an image of something you don’t have and wanting that. You imagine something full of passion and delight; now here, now there, you crave that. You crave sensual delight. You crave for pleasure to go on forever. You crave for discomfort to end right now.
“This is a Noble truth: the cessation of dukkha. Cessation of dukkha is just the cessation of craving; cease it completely, leaving no residue. Renounce it, relinquish it, release it, let go of it: all that craving.
“This is a Noble truth: the way to the cessation of dukkha. It is just this eight-factored Path, the Path of right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right concentration.

“Now, here is dukkha. Recognizing that first truth, vision arose within me; insight, understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding one aspect of an essential truth never heard before: dukkha. Now, the fact of dukkha imposes a demand: it must be fully known. Recognizing that demand, vision, insight, understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding a second aspect of this truth never heard before: dukkha must be fully known. And I knew: this essential truth of dukkha has been fully known by me: thus vision, insight understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding a third aspect of this truth, never heard before.

“Now, here is the arising of dukkha from craving. Thus vision, insight, understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding the existence of this second truth, craving as the condition for the arousal of dukkha. And again, I saw what must be done: craving must be let go of. And I knew: craving has been let go of by me. Thus vision, insight, understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding two other aspects of this truth, never heard before.

“Now, here is the cessation of dukkha. With the complete cessation of craving, there can be no arising of dukkha. Again, this truth imposes a demand: the cessation of dukkha which accompanies the complete cessation of craving must be experienced. And again I knew: this truth of the complete cessation of dukkha has been experienced by me. Thus vision, insight, understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding the three aspects of this truth, never heard before.

“Now, here is the way to the cessation of dukkha. It is just this same eight-factored Path. This truth also imposes a demand—the Path that leads to the cessation of dukkha must be brought to life. And again I knew: this true eight-factored Path has been brought to life by me. Thus vision, insight, understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding the three aspects of this fourth truth, never heard before.
“As long as my knowledge and vision of things as they actually unfold was not perfectly clear, each of the four truths in each of its three aspects – twelve turns in all – I could not claim to have realized the incomparable supreme enlightenment in this universe with its gods, its destroyers and its creators; in this generation with its recluses and its Brahmins, its spirits and its humans. But when my knowledge and vision of things as they actually unfold became perfectly clear – four truths, each with three aspects, making twelve turns in all – then I did claim to have realized the incomparable supreme enlightenment in this universe with its powers, its destroyers and creators; in this generation with its recluses and Brahmins, its spirits and its humans. Then knowledge and insight arose in me: nothing any longer holds me here; this is the last birth; there will be no more becoming.”

That is what the Fortunate One said. The five ascetics, attending, were thrilled with his words. And in one of them, the Venerable Kondañña, the last vestige of dust fell from his eyes and the stainless vision of the Dhamma became clear: “Whatever can come to be, all that will end.”
With that, a great cry went up from the gods of this earth, “In Varanasi, in the Game Park at Isipatana, the Fortunate One has set turning the unparalleled Dhamma wheel that once in motion cannot be stopped by any priest or yogi, by any god or devil, by any creator or destroyer, by any force or being in the universe.” Hearing that cry, the gods right above this earth, in the heaven of the Four Great Kings, themselves cried out, “In Varanasi, in the Game Park at Isipatana, the Fortunate One has set turning the unparalleled dhamma wheel that once in motion cannot be stopped by any priest or yogi, by any god or devil, by any creator or destroyer, by any force or being in the universe.” And the gods above them took up the cry, and the gods above them again, and all the way up to the gods of Brahma’s realm: “In Varanasi, in the Game Park at Isipatana, the Fortunate One has set turning the unparalleled dhamma wheel that once in motion cannot be stopped by any priest or yogi, by any god or devil, by any creator or destroyer, by any force or being in the universe.”
And in that very instant, with that joyful cry, the ten-thousand-fold cosmos shivered and trembled and shook; and a measureless great light, surpassing the radiance of all the gods, filled the universe.
The Fortunate One exclaimed, “Kondañña! You get it! You really get it!” And that is how the Venerable Kondañña became known as Añña Kondañña – “Kondañña Who Gets It”.
“right”
The Pali term is samma; it is probably cognate with our English word “same”. It does mean “right”, but more in the sense of “rightly aligned”, “congruent with the Dhamma“. Think of what the word means in the phrase “right angle”. What it most definitely does not mean is “morally or factually correct”, as in the notion of “right” and “wrong”.

“The Pathfinder”
This is the term I’ve used to render the Pali tathagata, a word that has bedeviled translators. It is the word that the Buddha most frequently used to refer to himself. The literal meaning is “thus gone”, and it seems to mean the one who has travelled the path. But it also has connotations of something special, even extraordinary; it’s not just that the Buddha has travelled this path, but he is the only one, or at least the first, to have done so. The term “pathfinder”, it seems to me, conveys enough of the literal meaning to satisfy, but it also points to the Buddha’s role, not just as one who has realized the Eight-Factored Path in his life, but as the one who found the Path on his own.

“Noble Truth”
This is the term that’s most commonly used to translate the Pali ariyasaccaṃ. This is a compound term, the first element of which, ariya, was used by the top tier of the social order in the Buddha’s time, the priests and the rulers, to refer to their culture. As they used it, it has racial connotations; the Aryans (ariyans) were perceived as racially distinct—lighter-skinned, handsomer, stronger, smarter—than members of the lower tiers of society. One clear mission of the Buddha’s teaching is to re-frame the term in a way that it loses its racial connotations and its implications of cultural superiority; “noble”, a common translation of ariya was used by the Buddha to refer to nobility of character, noble behavior, or, as here, a knowledge or understanding that conferred nobility. Stephen Batchelor suggests that the term “ennobling” might be better than “noble” in translating ariyasaccaṃ. In my first attempt to render this sutta, I translated the term as “essential truth” in a misguided attempt to evade the racial implications of ariya. But the Buddha clearly taught that nothing, not even something as fundamental to the Dharma as these four truths, had an “essence”. The term “essential truth” is not only incorrect; it points in a wrong direction. So I’ve returned to the common term here and hope that we can follow the Buddha’s lead and understand nobility as a quality that anyone can realize with right understanding and practice. Right understanding is just the understanding of the Four Noble Truths, and the way to that understanding is a practice bringing the Eightfold Path to life.

“dukkha“
In my first rendition of this sutta, I translated dukkha as “pain and distress”. I’ve come to feel that the term is, in truth, untranslatable, and I’ve chosen, this time around, to not translate it, but to let the Buddha himself, in the long list that follows of all that comprises dukkha, tell us what he means by the term. The literal meaning of the term is “pain”, and when speaking of ordinary events, that’s what it refers to: “the man was shot by an arrow and experienced dukkha“. But when the Buddha speaks of the truth of dukkha, the cause of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, he is speaking of something much more complex than simple physical pain, something with universal implications; he’s announcing the existential foundation of our human condition. If we integrate the Four Truths enumerated here into our lives, it becomes clear that a full knowledge of dukkha—a recognition of dukkha in all its innumerable forms, an unflinching acceptance of the dukkha at the core of even the most rapturous experience—is the starting point on the path to Awakening. Once we fully know dukkha, it follows naturally that we will let go of the attachment that conditions the emergence of dukkha; we become open to experience the reduction of dukkha that follows on the abandonment of craving, and the Path comes to life, right here and right now.

“all that”
In this sentence, I’ve introduced significantly more verbiage than there is in the original. In the Pali text, the Buddha concludes his list of what is dukkha with the terse phrase, saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā, “in summary, the five clung-to khandas are dukkha“. Khanda is another term that’s impossible to translate with one or two words; the terms used by most translators—including “aggregates”, “heaps”, “bundles”— are literal and, in my way of thinking, confusing. At a number of places in the teachings, the five khandas are enumerated as material form (rūpa), sensation (vedanā), perception (sañña), response (saṇkhāra), and consciousness (viññāṇa). I follow many modern scholars of early Buddhism to understand these as referring to the five components of experience: the material forms which are the objects of experience (including, importantly, the body), the raw sensations—vision, sound, odor, taste, and touch—by means of which we encounter those objects; the perception of the objects as distinct from one another, with various attributes; our mental response to those perceptions, including the ideas we conceive, the patterns we compose, our feelings, impulses, opinions; and our consciousness of all that as something we are experiencing. In several other places on this website, I’ve translated khandas as “components of experience”; in this rendering of the Dhammacakkappavatthana Sutta, I’ve chosen to expand that to refer explicitly to each separate component.

“craving”
The Pali word is taṇhā, which literally means “thirst”. Just as he did with the common term dukkha, the Buddha takes a term that everyone is familiar with, that is commonly used to refer to an experience that everyone has occasionally, and uses it in a much less common way to refer to an experience that everyone has all the time. The expansion in meaning of the term “thirst” to refer to an unquenchable compulsive desire is also part of English usage; any alcoholic will understand how the Buddha is using the term “thirst” here. I’ve chosen to translate taṇhā as “craving”, which is stronger, I think, than the term “desire” which is sometimes used to translate it, but less clinical and reductive than “addiction”, which might also do.

“brought to life”
In Pali, the term is bhāveta, which means “grown” or “cultivated” as one would grow a flower or cultivate a field of crops. It comes from an Indo-European root bhū, which means “to become”; it’s related to the Sanskrit bhūmi, “earth”. All of the translations on Access to Insight translate it as “developed”; other translators use the term “cultivated”, or “brought into being”. I feel that the term “brought to life” captures all of those meanings, and that it implies the personal responsibility that each one accepts, not just to follow a path that someone called the Buddha mapped out, but to create the Path through his or her own life.

“the stainless vision of the Dhamma became clear”
Note that it was not the Buddha’s revelation of the Dhamma that was significant, but the fact that someone else realized it. It was the transmission of the Dhamma that set the Wheel in motion, not its explication.

“the gods of this earth”
Buddhist cosmology is complex, with multiple heavens and multitudes of gods dwelling in each heaven. The heavens are hierarchical, with the closest heavens containing gods who are still something like humans in how they think and in their emotions, while the gods of the highest heavens are rarified beings, with enormously long life spans, living with virtually no trace of attachment to any vestige of being. Below the realms of the gods are the human realm, the animal realm, and the “hell” realms, whose residents are plagued by unsatisfied greed, continuing anger and resentment, and unfulfilled sensual desire.

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