Mapping the Buddhist Holy Land

First Teaching of The Buddha

Picture from Sarnath

To Buddhists, this site is of such importance because it is the location of the Buddha’s first teaching. That pivotal event in the development of Buddhism, known as setting the Wheel of Dharma in motion, is recorded in the Dharmacakrapravatana Sūtra.[1]iv The Dharma of the Buddha would be constantly in motion, turning round and round, mimicking the cycles of life, death, and rebirth in which living beings are trapped due to their cravings and desires. The wheel, depicted in the upper left corner of each page of this website, has become symbolic of the teaching of the Buddha. In his first discourse, the Buddha unveiled the idea of the middle way to his ascetic companions, a path leading to enlightenment and nirvāṇa through a balanced and structured life, a middle between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial. His distinct view charted a new pathway that was different from the prevalent concepts of religion in India at the time.

During this period, the strict ritual observance and priestly control of society set forth in the Vedas (circa 1500-1200 BCE) had been challenged in favor of new ideas that promoted a more democratic access to religiosity. These innovations were articulated in a set of teachings known as the Upaniṣads (circa 600-300 BCE).[2]v That new class of literature was motivated by and became popular among people from the castes below the priestly Brahmin caste, which had previously had primary access to the sacred life. These teachings introduce a range of new ideas, such as the notion that through the accumulation of good karma acquired through virtuous acts, one could achieve spiritual harmony and mokṣa, an end to the cycles of life death and rebirth (saṃsāra). The Upaniṣads also assert that mokṣa can be realized through a variety of other routes, including through extreme asceticism, bodily deprivation, yogic practices, breathing exercises, the attainment of wisdom, and the like.

The Buddha taught that neither by living a life of sensual pleasure, as he had in his youth, nor through self-denial, as he did among his fellow ascetics, could one find the proper balance to achieve nirvāṇa. Instead, he advanced the idea that the real path lay between the extremes, in moderation. He taught his disciples that the noble eightfold path defined this middle way leading to nirvāṇa, the ultimate goal of Buddhism. The training in wisdom consists of the first two of these eight guidelines for life, right view and right intention.[3]vi These directions, given by the Buddha to his disciples, would lead to harmony among both the individual and the saṅgha (Buddhist community) by promoting wisdom within the Buddhist practitioner. Right speech, right action, and right livelihood, the training in ethics, make up the next three parts of the Buddha's eightfold path; they underlie the ethical orientation that is thought to promote enlightened states.[4]vii The last two parts of the eightfold path, right mindfulness and right concentration, constitute the training in meditation; those practices provide Buddhist practitioners with the contemplative fortitude to lead them to attain nirvāṇa.[5]viii This combination of the cultivation of wisdom, ethics, and meditation, are key to promoting mental discipline among Buddhists to this day. In the Dharmacakrapravatana Sūtra, the Buddha also outlined one of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings, the Four Noble Truths. These principles characterize the problem of life and its solution as follows: that there is suffering in life; that this suffering has a cause, which is afflictive attachment; that suffering can be brought to an end; and that the way to eliminate this suffering is to follow the eightfold noble path.[6]ix Through these profound ideas, people were inspired to implement a community of devout followers, lasting over 2,500 years.