The Buddha’s First Teaching (1)

In this, the Buddha’s first teaching2 he expounded on the middle way between asceticism and indulgence, and also taught the Four Noble Truths. With this teaching he set in motion the Wheel of the Dharma--the teachings of Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths are thus the foundation of the Buddhadharma. Tounderstand, to practice, and to realize the Four Noble Truths is to realize the whole of the Buddhadharma. While most Buddhists may understand the Four Noble Truths to some degree, not everyone may be clear about all their implications. Therefore beginning today, I will explain and try to clarify these four truths as spoken by the Buddha.

When the Buddha expounded on the Four Noble Truths, he first stated what they were. They are, he said, the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the way out of suffering by means of the eightfold noble path3. This is the first of the “three turnings and twelve processes”4 of the Dharma Wheel.

What does that mean? As taught by the Buddha, each of the noble truths implied three turnings or aspects. Within each noble truth, the three turnings or aspects were: first, understanding that noble truth; second, putting into practice one’s understanding of that noble truth; and third, accomplishing the results, or realizing, that noble truth. Thus, the sequence is from understanding, to practice, to realization. The complete practice of the Four Noble Truths thus consists of twelve processes5, which when completed, assured one entry into nirvana.

Therefore, understanding the meaning of the Four Noble Truths is the first turning. As a result of the first turning, the ascetics understood the nature of suffering and its causes. The Buddha further explained the need to go beyond just understanding the Four Noble Truths, and putting that knowledge into practice. For example, knowing the origins of suffering, we need to abandon the kinds of actions that cause the accumulation of suffering. One has a firm conviction that cessation is possible, and practices the path to accomplish this. Thus the second turning is belief in and acting on the truths.

The Buddha told his disciples that he himself, realizing the four truths, had in fact accomplished cessation, and had fulfilled the path away from suffering, and become liberated. And now he was teaching them how to achieve liberation for themselves. The existence of suffering, the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way out of suffering were fully understood, practiced, and suffering itself was ended. Thus the third turning is the realization, the result of practicing the truths.

《Setting in Motion the Dharma Wheel》p. 0002-0004

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