I’m thankful for the invitation from the Secular Buddhist Network to republish this essay, which argues for a less worshipful, more critical, more creative approach to the dharma than traditionalism typically allows. But I realize that—if you’ll forgive the expression—I may be preaching to the converted here. A monk doing so may be unsurprising in view of the ancient tradition of monks sharing ‘dharma talks’ with Buddhist communities. But for a secular Buddhist monk, it’s a rare treat to address a community that more or less explicitly shares my commitments to naturalism, reason, critical discussion, and other humanistic values. My approach to tradition (in the form of the canonical discourse I discuss in the essay) follows from these values. I hope my reflections will be useful in your own critical, creative, and secular engagement with ancient Buddhist ideas and practices.
This essay was first published in the Spring 2023 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. It appears in expanded form on Tricycle’s website at https://tricycle.org/magazine/translation-buddhas-first-teaching/. This is the version here. An early version appeared on the author’s website, https://findingsanti.org.
‘The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dhamma’ is a typical English translation of dhammacakkappavattana, the title of the discourse (sutta in Pali, or sutra in Sanskrit—a Buddhist scriptural text) that recounts the Buddha’s delivery of his first teaching. The elevated tone of this translation highlights the reverential image of the teaching conveyed by this discourse. And the discourse itself is revered. According to tradition, it reports the Buddha’s first teaching following his awakening, and it’s also considered first in importance among the many thousands of discourses in the Pali Buddhist scriptures. It’s a discourse with its own holiday—Asalha Puja—when some 150 million Theravada Buddhists celebrate it as embodying the Buddha’s entire teaching.
There’s an alternative translation for the title, though. This alternative is just as accurate, and no less respectful than ‘The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dhamma.’ It may be less lofty in tone, but the alternative I’m going to suggest is more respectful of the significance of the discourse. Rather than an authoritative image of the first teaching, this alternative foregrounds the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings more broadly: the view that the teachings themselves reveal the story the discourse tells and the doctrines it conveys.
But first, the image—the story and doctrines of the first teaching. The discourse begins with the Buddha addressing five former fellow renunciants from his pre-enlightenment life. Succinctly, the Buddha sets forth to these five disciples-to-be the wisdom that he attained on the night of his transcendence: the middle way, the noble eightfold path, and the four noble truths. Just hearing the Buddha synopsize these never-before-heard doctrines in bare outline immediately propels one of the five, Kondanna, into a vision that precipitates his enlightenment. The cries of celestial beings approving the teaching—and the commencement of its propagation—rise up through the eight heavenly realms. The 10,000 worlds of the universe tremble as a radiance heralding the advent of the Buddha’s teaching issues into reality.
The absolute confidence of the fully enlightened teacher, the potency of the doctrines, and the endorsement of the deities all contribute to an image of supreme religious authority. This image of the teaching implies a revealed, capital-‘T’ Truth, from an inerrant Buddha who bestows it on humanity fully-formed, inviolable and beyond question.
Beyond the portentous tone, translations of dhammacakkappavattana like ‘The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dhamma’ accord with the language and symbolism of the discourse. Pavattana means “setting in motion.” The Pali word dhamma is fairly represented, of course, by ‘Dhamma’. When dhamma refers to the Buddha’s teachings, some monastic translators always translate it as capital- ‘D’ Dhamma—not only in titles—though the earliest scripts that record Pali have no capital letters. Some monastics simply translate it as ‘Truth’ (yes, capital ‘T’), though it’s never used even to mean ‘truth’ in the Pali Canon. In our title, dhamma means ‘teachings’—specifically, the Buddha’s teachings.
Cakka certainly means ‘wheel.’ Judging by the title, the wheel was apparently as important a Buddhist symbol when the discourse was framed as now. The point of the symbolism follows from the story in the discourse: once people start to take these teachings up, they will inevitably pass from person to person due to their intrinsic value, just as a wheel, due to its shape, will continue to roll once set in motion.
And this isn’t just any wheel. The title brings to mind a great, massive, powerful wheel, an image of grandeur and majesty. This is a wheel that turns with relentless, irresistible momentum—perhaps with an extra associative push from another weighty Buddhist symbol, the wheel of dependent origination. The closed circle of the wheel conveys an impression of the teachings as unitary, complete, and perfect. The symbolism reinforces our sense of the first teaching as revelation.
So our usual English-language title for the discourse reflects its reverential image of the first teaching rather well. As I mentioned though, there’s an alternative that takes us beyond this image. Consider that pavattana means not only ‘setting in motion’ but also ‘set turning’ or ‘get rolling.’ And that cakka means not only ‘wheel’ but also ‘eye’ (and by extension, ‘vision’), ‘sphere,’ ‘circle,” ‘discuss,’ and (among other meanings) ‘ball.’ With these meanings in view, cakkappavattana can be translated literally as ‘getting the ball rolling.’
As a translation of dhammacakkappavattana, ‘Getting the Ball of the Dhamma Rolling’ has much to recommend it. It may not pack the gravitas of “The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dhamma.’ But this is what recommends it. I’m not really joking with this suggestion (though I hope you’ll see the humor)—we do well by the Buddha’s teachings to ratchet down the loftiness of our translation a peg or two.
From a broader viewpoint, we can understand the doctrines announced in the first teaching not as the foundation of the teachings that would follow—for instance, the gradual training, the dependent origination, and the three characteristics of existence—but rather as interlocking with and complementary to them (and sometimes as complicating or contradicting them). For instance, the first teaching posits the four noble truths—the Buddha’s teaching on the nature and resolution of suffering— as encompassing all of the other teachings, just as the expanse of the ‘elephant’s footprint’ (as in MN 28) accommodates the footprints of every other animal in the forest. But the doctrine of the three characteristics—the main topic of many other discourses—offers a similarly comprehensive map of our existence, one we can understand in turn as encompassing the four noble truths.
Actually, the three characteristics make an uncredited cameo in our discourse—in Koṇḍañña’s pronouncement as he opens his eyes (literally, his ‘dhamma eye’) to the Buddha’s first teaching. Koṇḍañña exclaims, ‘whatever is subject to arising is subject to ceasing’ (yaṅkiñci samudayadhammaṃ sabbantaṃ nirodhadhamman ti). With this declaration, he bears witness to anicca (‘transience’ or ‘impermanence’), the first of the three characteristics this doctrine ascribes to all phenomena. The other two, anatta (‘lack of immutable self, soul, or essence’), and dukkha (‘imperfection,’ ‘unsatisfactoriness,’ or ‘suffering’—the subject of the four noble truths), intertwine with and are entailed by this first characteristic. A key point is that these three characteristics, again, mark all phenomena.
So this teaching extends to the teachings themselves. The ideas expressed in the Buddha’s teachings—and certainly the texts that record them—are anicca, subject to change, and therefore we must consider how they may have changed since the Buddha’s time. Viewing them as natural phenomena (as opposed to supernatural ones), we’d imagine them to have evolved. In their passage through the minds of countless human beings over the course of Buddhist history—for several hundred years as oral tradition, and then for several thousand through imperfectly-transmitted manuscripts—they would have developed into just the intricate, overdetermined web of ideas that we now regard as Buddhist ideas.
From this perspective, the Buddha’s first teaching in the discourse reads less like a first presentation of new ideas than, in the words of scholar Richard Gombrich, ‘a set of formulae, expressions which are by no means self-explanatory but refer to already established doctrines’ (my italics). Johannes Bronkhorst points to versions of the discourse in other canons that omit the four noble truths entirely, arguing on this and other evidence that this doctrine represents a later addition to the Pali Canon version. The four noble truths and perhaps other core doctrines may have originated not as chronologically first or even early teachings, but as systematized formulations from a later time.
Gombrich cautions, ‘of course we do not really know what the Buddha said in his first sermon.’ This acknowledgment of uncertainty resonates with the teachings of Thai forest master Ajahn Chah, who saw uncertainty itself as an aspect of anicca. Rather than regretting or denying uncertainty, Ajahn Chah encourages us to observe it, reflect on it, and meditate on it. ‘Whatever pops up,’ Ajahn Chah teaches, ‘just stick this one label on it all—”not sure.” He explains, ‘what we call uncertainty, here, is the Buddha. The Buddha is the dhamma. The dhamma is the characteristic of uncertainty.‘
None of this diminishes the value of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta or the ideas it conveys. From the viewpoint of anicca, we don’t need an inerrant Buddha whose words are true because he said them, or because someone said he said them. We don’t need a fully-formed, beyond-question dharma. Such conceptions of the Buddha and the dharma incline us towards—as surely as they are products of—the authoritarian religious impulse. (If ‘authoritarian’ seems excessive here, reflect that authoritarianism, at root, simply means commitment to authority—typically, an idealized, original authority—as a first principle.)
Buddhist ideas, like any ideas, are true or useful not because of who said them, or how ancient they are, or whether they reflect the intended meaning of a sacred text. They are true to the degree that they correspond to how things are. And they are useful to the degree that they are beneficial. The four noble truths are both true and useful not as revealed dogma but as sources of insight to spur our own wise responses to our deepest problems. We oughtn’t to locate the truth or goodness of the Buddha’s teachings in their origins or in orthodoxy. We can have truth—if only imperfectly—for our authority, rather than authority for our truth (to paraphrase Lucretia Mott).
We are as prone to the authoritarian religious impulse as the ancient monastics who enshrined it in some but not all of the canonical teachings, as well as orthodox traditionalists through the ages who infused some but not all of our Buddhist practices and traditions with it. We can rely not on unquestioned tradition, but rather on our clear-eyed, self-aware discernment, which values tradition critically and creatively, recognizing and resisting the authoritarian impulse.
We can regard the Buddha as a wise but human teacher, an innovator who introduced a set of original, insightful, useful ideas, or perhaps just the germs of such ideas (and possibly, some less useful ones). We don’t need him to have been inerrant, omniscient, or otherwise perfect. We can understand the Buddha’s ideas as natural phenomena, rather than supernatural ones—and therefore, in dharma terms, as anicca, uncertain and subject to change.
Our English title for the discourse on the first teaching is also anicca. Where now we have ‘The Setting In Motion of the Wheel of Dhamma,’ the phrase cakkappavattana may once have had just the same idiomatic meaning in Pali as “get the ball rolling” does for us today. In English, the idiom simply means, ‘get something started.’ The narrative frame of the discourse, if not its image of the first teaching, suggests that the Pali phrase did have this idiomatic meaning. Getting something started is just what the Buddha does in this discourse. This is ample cause for celebration on Asalha Puja, also known as ‘Dhamma Day.’
To understand the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta strictly from the orthodox, authoritarian viewpoint—as announcing not just the start, but also the middle and end of the dharma (the ‘Truth’)—is to miss the point of the dharma itself. So let’s update our title here. ‘Getting the Ball of the Dhamma Rolling’ sets us up for a discourse in a modern sense of ‘discourse’: a conversation we can join.
The Buddha got the ball rolling. We can pick up the ball of the dharma and roll it further along ourselves. We can be ‘Buddhists’ as followers of a human Buddha, a teacher who offered his valuable discoveries for others who came before, and now us, to take up, practice with, benefit from, experiment with, modify, and improve.