The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

The Discourse Setting the Wheel of the Law in Motion

Samyutta Nikaya 56.11

Setting the Wheel of the Law in Motion

This is what I heard...

Bas relief of the Buddha and the five ascetics
That was the occasion when 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 ways you must not follow. One is the way of luxury and sensual pleasure, of ambition and material success. That's a crude and common way, provincial, not worthwhile, not leading to the goal.

“The other is the way of self-mortification and rigid asceticism. That is a painful way, and it too is not worthwhile, not leading to the goal.

“Monks, you can avoid both of those dead ends by following the middle way realized by The Pathfinder; this middle way is an eye-opener; following it, you will come to know. It calms you down, reveals the truth with lucid clarity; you will awaken fully, completely released from all pain and distress.

“And what is this middle way realized by The Pathfinder that brings vision and knowledge, calms you, reveals the truth, leads to awakening and complete release? It is just this Superior Eight-Part Path: rightly aligned understanding, rightly aligned purpose, rightly aligned speech, rightly aligned action, rightly aligned livelihood, rightly aligned effort, rightly aligned awareness, and rightly aligned concentration. That is the middle way 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 dominating fact of life: 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 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 dominating fact of life: the arising of dukkha. Dukkha arises from craving—endless absorption in wishful thinking; now here, now there, you crave for wishes to come true. You crave sensual delight. You crave for pleasure to go on forever. You crave for discomfort to end right now.

“This is a dominating fact of life: the cessation of dukkha. Dukkha ceases with the letting go of craving. Renounce it, relinquish it, release it, let go of it; leave no residue of craving behind.

“This is a dominating fact of life: the way that permits the letting go of craving and the consequent cessation of dukkha. It is just this Superior Eight-Part Path, the Path of rightly aligned understanding, rightly aligned purpose, rightly aligned speech, rightly aligned action, rightly aligned livelihood, rightly aligned effort, rightly aligned awareness, and rightly aligned concentration.

“Now, there is this dominating fact of life: dukkha. Realizing that fact, vision arose within me; insight, understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding one aspect of a fact of life never heard before: dukkha. Now, that fact of dukkha requires a response: it must be fully known. Realizing the need to respond, vision, insight, understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding a second aspect of this fact never heard before: dukkha must be fully known. And I knew: this fact of dukkha has been fully known by me: thus vision, insight understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding a third aspect of this fact of life, never heard before.

“There is another dominating fact of life: the arising of dukkha from craving. Thus vision, insight, understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding the existence of this second fact, that dukkha arises, from craving. 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 fact of life, never heard before.

“Again, there is this dominating fact of life: the cessation dukkha. Again, the fact requires a response: cessation must be experienced. And I knew: this fact, this cessation of dukkha, has been experienced by me. Thus vision, insight, understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding the three aspects of this fact of life, never heard before.

“And there is this dominating fact of life: the way that leads to the letting go of craving and the consequent cessation of dukkha. That way is just this same Superior Eightfold Path: rightly aligned understanding, rightly aligned purpose, rightly aligned speech, rightly aligned action, rightly aligned livelihood, rightly aligned effort, rightly aligned awareness, and rightly aligned concentration. And again, the fact demands a response—the way that leads to the cessation of dukkha must be brought to life. And again I knew: this fact of life, this Superior Eightfold Path, has been brought to life by me. Thus vision, insight, understanding, knowledge, illumination arose within me, regarding the three aspects of this fourth fact of life, never heard before.

“As long as my knowledge and vision of things as they actually unfold was not perfectly clear, each of the four facts of life 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 facts, 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, the stainless vision of the Dhamma became clear, and he uttered these words: “All that arises will cease.”

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”.

Footnotes

the Fortunate One

The Pali term is bhagavant, the most common appelation of the Buddha in the canon. It's usually translated as "Blessed One", "Lord", or "Exhalted One", but all of those terms assume a divine status for the Buddha that he not only never claimed for himself, but explicitly rejected. The word derives from bhaga, which means "luck", or "fortune", so that bhagavant might well be translated as "Lucky Guy". That seems rather flippant, so I've chosen to translate it as "Fortunate One".

dead ends

I'm indebted to Stephen Batchelor for this translation of the Pali ante anupagamma (the literal meaning, as best as I can make out, is "ends in the village cesspool")

.

The Pathfinder

This is the term I’ve used to render the Pali Tathagata, a word that has bedeviled translators. The literal meaning is “thus gone” or "thus come", and it seems to mean One who has found the Way. In many passages in the canonical texts, it seems to mean something like the term "Sage" in Taoist teaching, that is, an ideal toward which everyone can and should strive; in those contexts, I have translated it with the word "Wayfarer". But Tathagata is also the word that the Buddha most frequently used to refer to himself, and in that context it clearly refers to someone particular and special, even extraordinary; it’s not just that the Buddha has come this way, but he is the only one, or at least the first in our present age, 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 Middle Way in his life, but as the one who found the way on his own.

Superior Eight-Part Path

The commonest translation of the Pali ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo is "Noble Eightfold Path"; I wanted to avoid our Western connotations of the word "noble", for reasons outlined below. Here I've used the term "Superior", which is no less accurate but which, perhaps, carries less connotative baggage.

rightly aligned

The Pali term is samma; it is probably cognate, linked through a common Indo-European root, with our English word “same”. It's usually translated as "right", and that's not wrong. But samma means "right" in the sense of “rightly aligned”, “congruent with the Dhamma“. Think of what the word means in the phrase “right angle”. What samma most definitely does not mean is “morally sound”, as in our notion of “right” and “wrong”. In this go-around, I've chosen to use the term "rightly aligned" instead of "right", at least partly because the term "rightly aligned" more clearly implies congruence or correlation with a norm.

dominating fact of life

The term that's most commonly used to translate the Pali ariyasaccaṃ is "Noble Truth", and I'm not alone in being uncomfortable with that translation. K.R. Norman, the world's foremost scholar of the philology of Pali and the languages related to it, says that "Noble Truth" is the "worst possible translation" of the Pali term.

Ariyasaccaṃ 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) perceived themselves as racially superior—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; throughout the Teachings, when the Buddha uses the term ariya by itself, it's always clear that he's referring to superiority of character rather than superiority of birth.

The problem here is that he is not talking about ariyan behavior or ariyan values. The second part of the compound term ariyasaccaṃ, the word sacca, is very rarely used in the canonical teachings. Its meaning, when it is used in commentarial literature, is closer to our word "fact" than our word "truth". A statement that can be designated Saccaṃ is true, but it is factually true rather than profoundly true. When we translate ariyasaccaṃ as "Noble Truth", it's not that it's incorrect but that it is, to someone raised in our culture, very misleading.

Another connotation of ariya is "dominant" or "dominating"; the Aryan Brahmins were, in fact, the dominant caste within the Buddha's culture; they were "the Establishment". In one version of this translation, the term I used to translate ariyasaccaṃ was "established fact". And that's not bad. But this time around, I've settled on "dominating fact of life". It has almost the same meaning, but it also points to what I think is the most important thing about what the Buddha is pointing to here—the immediately knowable, completely undeniable, toweringly important, and omnipresent nature of the facts he lays out.

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 fact of dukkha, the arising 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 realize the four facts enumerated here, 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 in understanding 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 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.

With that

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.

Afterword

The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ("setting in motion [pavattana] the wheel [cakka] of the law [Dhamma]") is presented by the Buddhist tradition as the first discourse that the Buddha delivered after his enlightenment. I think that's unlikely; what's more likely is that the teaching emerged in the course of the Buddha's teaching career as an exceptionally succinct summary of his fundamental ideas. I also think that it's the single most important text in human history. (I realize that's a pretty strong statement, and I'm not going to defend it here, but if anyone wants to have a cup of coffee with me sometime, I'd be happy to give my reasons.)

The Buddha is said to have 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 about a month 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 ascetics 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", and "The Eight-fold Path".

In my rendering of the sutta, above, I've tried to preserve a sense of a spoken teaching, but also to hold very close to the Buddha's meaning as I understand that. Every translator struggles with those Pali terms that have a more or less technical role in Buddhist doctrine; I've tried to explain my own struggles, and to justify my particular resolution of each struggle, in the footnotes to the text.

For those who want to compare the version I've composed with other translations, there are four very good translations on the Access to Insight website, from four different translators, each an experienced practitioner and a student of Pali. Each of these translations has its own distinctive felicities, and each one falls short of the mark in its own distinctive way.

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.