Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Pali; Sanskrit: Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra; English: The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma) is a Buddhist text that is considered to be a record of the first teaching given by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. According to tradition, the Buddha gave this teaching in Sarnath, India, to the five ascetics (his former companions with whom he had spent six years practicing austerities). The main topic of this sutta is the Four Noble Truths, which are the central teachings of Buddhism that provide a unifying theme, or conceptual framework, for all of Buddhist thought. This sutta also introduces the Buddhist concepts of the middle way, impermanence, and dependent origination.
Context and structure of the teaching
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is said to be the first teaching given by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. It is taught that the Buddha attained enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree by the river Neranjara, in Bodhgaya, India, and afterwards, he remained silent for forty-nine days. The Buddha then journeyed from Bodhgaya to Sarnath, a small town near the sacred city of Varanasi in central India. There he met his five former companions, the ascetics with whom he had shared six years of hardship. His former companions were at first suspicious of the Buddha, thinking he had given up his search for the truth when he renounced their ascetic ways. But upon seeing the radiance of the Buddha, they requested him to teach what he had learned. Thereupon the Buddha gave the teaching that was later recorded as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which introduces the fundamental concepts of Buddhist thought, such as the middle way and the four noble truths.
The five ascetics
The Buddha addressed his first teaching, or discourse, to his five former companions, who are commonly referred to as the five ascetics. In this discourse, the Buddha addresses the ascetics as bhikkhus, a term which is normally translated as a Buddhist monk. However, Ajahn Sucitto explains that in this context bhikkhus means “alms-mendicants,” those who live on the free-will offerings of others.
Ajahn Sucitto explains:
The five bhikkhus at Deer Park were named Kondañña, Vappa, Bhaddiya, Mahanāma, and Assaji. Kondañña was the eldest. Many years previously, as a novice brahmin, he had been invited to the palace of the raja Suddhodana along with seven of his peers to see the baby Siddhattha Gotama [the future Buddha) and give predictions as to his destiny. They all agreed that this baby would be either a great emperor or a Buddha; perhaps this was why he was named Siddhattha, which means “Accomplishes the Goal.” Interestingly, it was Kondañña alone who reckoned that Siddhattha was destined for Buddhahood. Four of the brahmins who had been present at the palace later told their sons to keep their eyes on Siddhattha, as he was destined for greatness. These sons grew up to become the other four of the Group of Five.
The middle way
These five ascetics had renounced worldly life and, at the time of this meeting, they had been practicing severe austerities for many years in order to further their spiritual path and realize the ultimate truth. Therefore, the Buddha began his teaching by addressing their current situation. He affirmed their belief that indulging in sense pleasures would not lead to true freedom. He then stated that their practices of severe austerity, denial of the sense pleasures, would also not lead to the truth. Thus, the Buddha begins the teaching by asserting the position of the middle way, of avoiding extremes of self-indulgence or self-denial. The Buddha asserted that neither of these paths would lead to ultimate truth.
Ajahn Sucitto explains:
But in the case of the Group of Five, the Buddha was addressing “those who had gone forth.” They were samanas, “strivers”: they needed no recommendation that truth was worth seeking or that they had to apply themselves to it. They just needed to have the means clarified. So here the Buddha addresses them with some advice on the cultivation of right means as an expression and experience of enlightenment itself. And he begins with affirming the view that the ascetics would already have adopted—that chasing after and getting hooked on sense-pleasure is unworthy and useless. He starts where they already are—where every path should start. Then he balances that out by negating the ascetic view: saying that getting caught up with self-mortification was also useless. He thereby cuts away the ground and leaves them dangling in the middle, saying that it is in this “no position” that peace is to be found.
After rejecting the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial, the Buddha then asserts that the "middle way" is to follow the noble eightfold path—right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
The four noble truths
After presenting the middle way of the noble eightfold path, the Buddha then explains the four noble truths—the truth of suffering, its cause, its end, and the path to that end. Ajahn Sucitto explains:
The four noble truths are about “suffering,” how it arises, how it ceases, and a way to bring around that ceasing. These occupy the center of the Buddha’s teaching, because they already are central to human experience. Everyone knows the feeling of lack or loss or conflict in their lives: this is what the Buddha called dukkha, often translated as “suffering,” but covering a whole range of meanings and nuances.
The Buddha asserted that dukkha, or suffering, can be transcended by following the noble eightfold path.
No-self and dependent origination
In this sutta, after presenting the four noble truths, the Buddha then states: "My release is assured. This is the last birth. There is no further becoming.” Here the Buddha is asserting that he has realized selflessness or no-self (Pali: anatta)—the Buddhist view that what we call the "self" does not exist as a singular, independent, permanent entity, but is rather an ongoing process. Therefore, through complete understanding of the four noble truths, the Buddha has removed the causes and conditions for an ordinary rebirth (rebirth in samsara). This phrase can also be understood as an expression of dependent origination.
Realization of impermanence
This sutta then states that while listening to the Buddha's teaching, the eldest of the five ascetics, Kondañña, has the following realization: “Whatever has the characteristic to arise, all that ceases.” This is an essential formulation of the Buddhist view of impermanence (Pali: anicca). The realization of impermanence is considered an important stage on the path to enlightenment. Ajahn Sucitto explains: "... in the Buddha’s discourses, this realization of impermanence represents the first major breakthrough of stream-entry."
The wheel of dharma is set in motion
The sutta then states:
When the wheel of Dhamma had been set rolling by the Blessed One, the devas of the earth raised the cry: “At Vāranāsi, in the Deer Park at Isipatana, the incomparable wheel of Dhamma has been set rolling by the Blessed One and it can’t be stopped by any samana or brahmin or deva or māra or brahma or anyone whomsoever in the world.”
Ajahn Sucitto explains:
This section of the sutta describes the effect the Buddha’s turning of the wheel of truth had on various celestial realms. The text is noncommittal; it simply states that various divine beings, or devas, [...] hear the teaching and start proclaiming it to each other.
In Ajahn Sucitto's commentary on this sutta, he describes the various realms where the Buddha's teachings were proclaimed.
Light in the world
The sutta concludes with the following passage:
So in that instant, at that very moment, the word traveled up to the realm of the high divinities. This ten-thousandfold world system trembled and shook and resounded, and a great measureless radiance, surpassing the shining glory of the devas, was made manifest in the world.
Then the Blessed One uttered the pronouncement: “It is Kondañña who has seen deeply! Kondañña who has seen deeply.” And so it was that the name of Venerable Kondañña became “Kondañña the deep seer.”
Ajahn Sucitto explains the first part of this passage as follows:
In The Discourse That Sets Turning the Wheel of Truth, the Buddha’s teachings were set rolling and produced a great light. It’s a light that is said to have radiated through the ten-thousandfold world system: from the twenty brahma realms of the highest divinities all the way down through the eight hells. Even down there, according to the accounts, it was a great moment too. In those places of utter gloom, there was an illumination by which the poor wretches could see that there were other beings in the same predicament. By the standards of those places, this was a burst of light. For a moment, some sense of not being alone in the mess lessened the intensity of it. Others have been here, and are here, now. It’s good to remember this. This light has this broad focus and also is long lasting. It continues to shine today. Once again, if we translate cosmological events into events in consciousness, the light that we’ve seen glowing throughout the discourse is the light of wisdom.
Ajahn Sucitto explains the second part of this passage ("It is Kondañña who has seen deeply!") as follows:
At this time, the Buddha himself makes no mention of all the shining and shaking going on; more to the point, he was more concerned that the Dhamma he had taught had triggered a realization in Kondañña’s mind. If this could be communicated to one person, then there was no reason why it couldn’t be communicated to another. A big wheel of light—encompassing ethics, meditation, and wisdom—had started shining. This was a beginning, and it encouraged the Buddha to continue and develop his teaching.
Modern scholars agree that the teachings of the Buddha were passed down in an oral tradition for approximately a few hundred years after the passing of the Buddha; the first written recordings of these teachings were made hundreds of years after the Buddha's passing. Geshe Tashi Tsering explains:
The sutras we have now in the Buddhist canon come from actual discourses of the Buddha that were memorized by the Buddha’s disciples and passed down in an oral lineage. Only centuries later were they written down, retaining much of the convention of the oral tradition. The repetition of phrases and even paragraphs was designed for easy memorization, and the whole style was developed to facilitate ritual recitation. As such sutras can be difficult reading, but their content, the actual words of the Buddha, are an infallible map out of the suffering that currently traps us.
Contemporary scholar Richard Gombrich remarks:
Of course we do not really know what the Buddha said in his first sermon ... and it has even been convincingly demonstrated[a] that the language of the text as we have it is in the main a set of formulae, expressions which are by no means self-explanatory but refer to already established doctrines. Nevertheless, the compilers of the Canon put in the first sermon what they knew to be the very essence of the Buddha's Enlightenment.
Sanskrit and Pali versions of the text
Differences between Sanskrit and Pali versions
The Sanskrit and Pali versions of this sutta contain minor differences. For example, Tibetan Buddhist scholar Geshe Tashi Tsering states:
In Tibetan monasteries, as in most traditions within Mahayana Buddhism, the sutras (the discourses of the Buddha) and the shastras (the canonical commentaries) that are studied originate from the Sanskrit-language canon. In this case, however, we are using the sutra translated from the Pali language.[b] Although it differs slightly in style and structure from the Sanskrit, the differences are minor, and in the West this is the better-known version.
In the Pali Canon, this sutta is contained in the Sutta Pitaka's Saṃyutta Nikāya, chapter 56 ("Saccasamyutta" or "Connected Discourses on the Truths"), sutta number 11. (Thus, an abbreviated reference to this sutta is "SN 56:11").[c] A similar account can be found in the Pali Canon's Vinaya Pitaka's Mahākhandhaka.
In the Chinese Buddhist canon there are numerous editions of this sutra from a variety of different schools in ancient India, including the Sarvāstivāda, Dharmaguptaka, and Mahīśāsaka schools, as well as an edition translated as early as 170 CE by An Shigao.
For example, the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra can be found in the Saṃyukta Āgamad] of the Sarvāstivāda school. (See section #Translations into English.)
Parallel texts can be found in other early Buddhist sources as well, such as the Sarvāstivādin Lalitavistara; and, the Lokottaravādin Mahāvastu.[web 1]
Translations into English
There are multiple translations of the Pali version of this sutta. For example, see:
Bhikkhu Bodhi (trans.), Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma
Ñanamoli Thera (trans.) (1993). Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.nymo.html.
Piyadassi Thera (trans.) (1999). Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.piya.html.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1993). Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html.
Resources for researching the Buddha's First Sutta - contains links to seven different translations of the Pali text by notable Theravada translators
Thich Nhat Hahn (trans.) (1999). "Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dharma: Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta". Included in The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, p. 257.
Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma (trans.) (1997). "The First Discourse of the Buddha: Turning the Wheel of Dhamma". Included in The First Discourse of the Buddha, Wisdom, pp. 17-20.
Walpola Rahula (trans.) (2007). "Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth". Included in What the Buddha Taught, Kindle Location 2055.
The Tibetan ‘Missing Translator’s Colophon’ Version of the Dharma Wheel Discourse (chos kyi ‘khor lo’i mdo ‘gyur byang med pa): A New Translation into English by Erick Tsiknopoulos (2013) This is a translation of one of two versions of the Dharma Wheel Sutra in Tibetan, known as the 'Missing Translator's Colophon' version (Tib: 'gyur byang med pa). It is has a correlate in Chinese, translated into English by Lapiz Lazuli Texts and listed below.
Lapis Lazuli Texts: Saṃyuktāgama 379. Turning the Dharma Wheel. This is a translation from the Chinese canon; the Chinese version is based on the Sarvastivadin Sanskrit version of the text (Dharmacakra Pravartana Sutra).
Thich Nhat Hahn has produced a notable rendering of the fist teaching of the Buddha in his biography of the Buddha entitled Old Path White Clouds. Thich Nhat Hahn relied on multiple sources for this rendering. This rendering is also included in Thich Nhat Hahn's book Path of Compassion: Stories from the Buddha's Life. See Turning the Wheel of Dharma
The 26th chapter of the Lalitavistara Sutra contains a Mahayana version of the first turning that closely parallels the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. The following English translations of this text are available:
The Play in Full: Lalitavistara (2013), translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee. Translated from Tibetan into English and checked against the Sanskrit version.[web 2]
Voice of the Buddha: The Beauty of Compassion (1983), translated by Gwendolyn Bays, Dharma Publishing (two-volume set). This translation has been made from French into English and then checked with the original in Tibetan and Sanskrit.
Commentaries in English
Ajahn Sucitto (2010), Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha's First Teaching, Shambhala
Bhikkhu Pesala, An Exposition of the Dhammacakka Sutta
Mahasi Sayadaw (1996–2012), Discourse on the Wheel of Dharma
Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma (1997), The First Discourse of the Buddha, Wisdom, ISBN 0-86171-104-1.
Etymology of the term Dhammacakkappavattana
Dhamma (Pāli) or dharma (Sanskrit) can mean a variety of things depending on its context;[e] in this context, it refers to the Buddha's teachings or his "truth" that leads to one's liberation from suffering. Cakka (Pāli) or cakra (Sanskrit) can be translated as "wheel." The dhammacakka, which can be translated as "Dhamma-Wheel," is a Buddhist symbol referring to Buddha's teaching of the path to enlightenment. Pavattana (Pāli) can be translated as "turning" or "rolling" or "setting in motion."
Alternate translations of title
English translations of this sutta's full title include:
"Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma" (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1843–7)
"Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth" (Piyadassi, 1999)
"Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth" (Ñanamoli, 1993)
"Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion" (Thanissaro, 1993) (Geshe Tashi Tsering, 2005)
"The Discourse That Sets Turning the Wheel of Truth" (Ajahn Sucitto, 2010)
"Turning the Wheel of Dhamma" (Dhamma, 1997).
"The Four Noble Truths Sutra" (Geshe Tashi Tsering, 2005)