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The birth of Buddhism

“Oh Supreme! Let thy Great Law be uttered!” Whereupon the Master cast His vision forth on flesh, saw who should hear and who must wait to hear. Then spake divinely smiling, “Yes, I preach. Who so listen let him learn the law!”

Light of Asia – Sir Edwin Arnold


The Buddha's first sermon to the Five Ascetics

Ascetic Siddhartha attained Supreme Enlightenment 2602 years ago at Buddha Gaya, under the sheltering Bo tree. In such a sacred context, it may seem quite intriguing to pose the question, “When was Buddhism born?”

In terms of popular belief, Buddhism was born at the moment of the attainment of Supreme Enlightenment by Ascetic Siddhartha.

On further thought, anyone will see clearly that the attainment of Supreme Enlightenment was a personal spiritual triumph of Ascetic Siddhartha.

Born as Prince Siddhartha, he spent 29 years of his life in the lap of ultra-royal luxuries and privileges. But the enigma of human existence troubled his inner being no end. In his Great Renunciation, he left for ever, the life of palatial pleasures.

For six long years, he inflicted excruciatingly painful physical tortures upon himself, seeking realisation through wrenching austerities. Discarding those as ineffective, he sought the Middle path.

This exceptional human being sat under the Bo tree and grappled with his mind in an unprecedented spiritual conflict.

The Supreme Truth dawned on him at last, transforming the Ascetic into the conqueror and the Supremely Enlightened Buddha.

The Supremely Enlightened Buddha spent the first seven weeks of His Enlightenment in deep contemplation, pondering the unparalleled victory He had own.

Transcendental wisdom

The Supreme Buddha was hesitant. “Could there be others, who will be capable of realising the transcendental wisdom I achieved?”. The Maha Brahma intervened with an entreaty: “Please Supreme, declare your Great Dhamma Law to the waiting world.”

The Buddha received His first meal after Enlightenment from the two merchant brothers – Tapassu and Bhalluka.

They took the two refuges Buddha and Dhamma and received a few strands of the Buddha's Hair Relics, as mementos. The Buddha did not declare His spiritual system to them, though He esteemed their devotion.

The Buddha thought of those who should receive this Immortal Gift of Dhamma. He knew that His former Gurus, Alara Kalama and Uddakarama Putta were no more.


The site of the Buddha's first sermon

Then, He turned His divine eye to His five co-seekers of the truth. These five-fold ascetics – Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji had left Him, when Ascetic Siddhartha gave up his austerities.

The Buddha knew that these five ascetics were at Isipatana at Benares, preaching their religious rituals.

The Supremely Enlightened Buddha decided that He should declare to these five-fold ascetics, the transcendental outcome of His spiritual quest, since they were co-seekers of the Truth with Him for quite some time.

When the five ascetics saw the Buddha approaching, they thought that Ascetic Siddhartha was coming back to them as His quest has failed. They were all in one mind: “We will not show him any deference. We will treat him merely as a visitor”. However, when the Buddha came closer, they were overwhelmed by His serenity of appearance.

A spiritual glow emanated from Him. Their initial resolve was gone. They hurried about to offer Him high deference and received Him with great cordiality.

Tranquil atmosphere

In the calm and tranquil atmosphere of Isipatana (the assembly place of sages), the Supremely Enlightened Buddha made the first official declaration of His spiritual system. In effect, at this place, Buddhism was formally born.

The Buddha's initial sermon, the Dhamma Cakkapavattana Sutta (The discourse on the turning of the Wheel) is the supreme manifesto of the religious system known as Buddhism.

This is a profound religious charter that receives the concerned attention, not only of Buddhists, but of all those devoted to a spiritual way of life.

This discourse sets down the Four Noble Truths that govern the totality of human existence. Here, the Buddha indicates the five-fold process of acquiring knowledge, in the following words: Cakkum Udapadi (The Eye arose), Nanam Udapadi (Recognition arose), Panna Udapadi (Wisdom arose), Vijja Udapadi (Analysis arose) and Aloko Udapadi (Total Light arose).

These five steps leading to the process of understanding is quite close to the scientific thinking, even of the 21st century.

The Buddha declared that this was a system of thought that was totally unknown previously and that no one can reverse this wheel (the process).

Spiritual thought

This way, the system of spiritual thought known as Buddhism was formally born 2,602 years ago at Isipatana in Benares. The declaration of the Buddha reached the highest areas of the universe, in a series of relays - according to the text of this Discourse.

A word is due about the venue where this discourse was first preached. The area is described in the text as Migadaya. The present English rendering of this word as Deer Park is thought to be a misnomer. Migadaya implies animal sanctuary, as the ancient word ‘Miga’ meant all animals.

Besides, it is quite reasonable to assume that if a ruler were to declare a place to be an animal sanctuary, it is a sanctuary for all animals and not only for deer.

To mark the exact spot where the discourse was held, Emperor Asoka set up an edifice. This is not a conventional stupa, but a memorial structure. It has been described as Damek all along. It is an ancient version of Dhamsak. We could compare this with the Sinhala version ‘Damsak'.

At this sanctuary, there was a special area set aside for the feeding of squirrels (this area is known as Kalandakanivasa).

To my mind, some of the animals that roam around Migadaya today could very well be the descendants of those ancestors, who heard the sonorous tones of the Supremely Enlightened Buddha, when He presented the Dhamma Cakkapavattana Sutta originally.

After the discourse, one of the five-fold ascetics, Kondanna, realised the Truth, becoming the first individual to achieve that spiritual distinction.

The total outcome of all this is that Buddhism was formally born with the Buddha's presentation of the Dhamma Cakka Discourse, which is one of the earliest religious charters of mankind.

 

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