The Propagation of the Dhamma

The Conversion Sermons

In the Conversion Sermons is probably to be found the nucleus and the purest form of the Buddha's own teaching, to be distinguished from the developments of his later followers. The greatest of these sermons was the First Sermon, delivered at the Hermitage (Isi-patana) in the Deer-park (Miga-daya) near Benares (Baranāsi), the famous Dhammacakkappavattana-Sutta (Sermon of the Starting of the Wheel of the Law), which sets forth the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way or Noble Eightfold Path. The First Sermon converted Gotama's five original followers ' Kondañña, Vappa, Bhaddiya, Mahanāma, and Assaji. After these the first convert was the rich merchant's son Yasa, in Benares. The number of converts in Benares soon amounted to sixty. Thereafter came the important 'conversions, of Uruvela-Kassapa, sometimes identified with Mahā-Kassapa, who succeeded to the leadership after Gotama's death, and Sāriputta and Moggallāna, the two friends who during their life-time were nearest to the Buddha in intellectual sympathy. Among the most important names after these great converts come King Bimbisāra, Anathapiṇḍika, the great merchant of Sāvatthi and, chief lay follower of the Buddha, and Gotama's father, Suddhodana, with other Sakyans, members of Gotama's own clan in Kapilavatthu, including his faithful cousin and personal attendant Ananda. Among other converts come the Brahman student Vaseṭṭha and his friend Bharadvāja, the householder Siṇgāla, Bharadvaja the farmer, Vaccha the sophist, Siha the general and Subhadda the last convert. In none of the discourses recorded as responsible for these conversions is there anything to establish that Gotama accepted the doctrine of rebirth or transmigration. The same may be said of his instructions to the first missioners, whom he sent forth from Benares when the total number of his followers was sixty; and of the famous Fire Sermon (Samyutta Nikya, Majjhima 28). The Fire Sermon is a pendant to the Second Sermon.The way of escape from the senses is the perception of the transcience of individuality and the consequent realizationof the trivilaity and utiity of the senses. The five senses and the mind together cover, from another point of view the same ground as the five Khandas. Gotama insists upon the maleficent aspect of fire, as the Jailas had dwelt upon itsbeneficent aspect. It was preached by him to the multitude on a hillside near Gaya by night in sight of one of those jungle fires that creep along the spurs of the great Vindhyan mountain range, which shut off the mysterious Southern Country from the inhabitants of the great Indian plain; and of the 'comprehensive religious discourse' so often delivered by him during his last journey; and finally of the solemn last words in which the dying Teacher addressed his followers. Even in their present form, as handed down in the tradition, these taken as a whole lay no emphasis upon, if indeed they can be said to refer to, the doctrine of rebirth.

The account of the conversion of Yasa is given in the Mahā-Vagga of the Vinaya Piṭaka, and in the Nidāna-kathā of the Introduction to the Jātaka. In, these narratives the account of Gotama's address to Yasa is given in what is evidently a systematized summary covering all such addresses delivered by the Buddha on similar occasions. The sermon is called a 'graduated discourse (anupubbi-kathā)', and then more specifically described as a discourse on giving or charity (dāna-kathā), a discourse on virtuous action (sīla-kathā), and a discourse on 'heaven' (sagga-kathā). As regards the first part of this 'graduated discourse' the word dāna meaning literally 'giving' is equivalent to altruism, that self-sacrificing charity which is the theme of the Jātaka and is the chief of the Ten Perfections illustrated in the life of the Bodhisat Sumedha, the first sage in the final series of the earthly previous-existences of the Buddha according to the Buddha-vasa, and is moreover the basis of the Four Noble Truths.

The second part of the 'graduated discourse'to Yasa deals with right or virtuous conduct (sīla) which is in effect the pursuing of the Fourth Noble Truth or Noble Eightfold Path. This virtuous conduct is set forth in a detailed manner for the guidance of laymen in the Siṇgalovāda Sutta, and is described more generally as Brahma-cāriyas or holy living, and again as the four Brahma-vihārā or holy attitudes of mind, namely friendliness or love (mettā), pity (karunā), sympathy with joy (mudita), and serenity (upekkha), all of them being characteristically altruistic.

The last section of the 'graduated discourse treats of 'heaven', but the word sagga which is translated as 'heaven' may mean and should mean the peace of enlightenment, nirvana (nibbāna), the extinction of all selfish desire here on earth during this present life. In any case a transcendent 'Heaven' as an end or object is altogether opposed to the doctrine of transmigration as referred to in the Fourth Noble Truth of the First Sermon. This contention is borne out by the words which in the narrative immediately follow the division of the discourse into three parts; these words are 'the misery, worthlessness, and painfulness of desires and the joy in renunciation', words which have no relation to a transcendent 'Heaven', but plainly refer to a present state of mind, serenity.

The Instructions to the First Missioners

The account of Gotama's instructions to the first Buddhist missioners is a very remarkable document. In the first place it is to be noticed that it contains no word regarding Sasāra (rebirth) and (personal) Karma. The goal to which Gotama points is freedom16 from the temptations arising from the bodily senses and from spiritual desires, not freedom from the terror of rebirth. The doctrine [xlii] (Dhamma, Law) which it inculcates is that of the Four Noble Truths, which reveal the origin of all sorrow in the desires of a transient Self, and show the path leading to the annihilation of selfish desire by due activity in thought, deed, and word. In effect these instructions to the first missioners merely say that having themselves attained freedom by the subjugation of the passions they should carry this freedom to all who are ready to receive it. The two bases of the Dhamma are thus selflessness and helpfulness. The whole elaborate metaphysical superstructure, built up later upon this, fades away.

In the text as we have it the missioners are bidden to go forth and teach for the benefit of ‘gods and men'. The word translated as ‘gods' is much more accurately rendered as ‘spirits'(deva, bright spirits; -devatā, divinities). Gotama's own attitude towards the hierarchy of Hindu gods is shown in the first part of the Tevijja Sutta in which he demonstrates that it is impossible to have any knowledge of the nature of Brahmā, and that therefore any attempt to attain union of spirit with Brahmā is beyond the capacity of any religious teacher. In the last part of the Sutta, however, he lays down that through the practice of the four Brahma-vihāra, namely loving-kindness, pity, sympathetic'joy, and serenity, it is possible to draw near to Brahman. It is convenient to use the term Brahman for the impersonal and Brahma for the personal deity. Unless the two parts of the Sutta are entirely contradictory, the Brahman of the latter part must be the universal impersonal divine spirit (Brahman), the Param-ātman of the Vedantists, and not the personal Hindu deity of whom he had declared that no knowledge was possible and with whom all attempts at union were consequently futile.

As regards the views of the Buddha's followers after his death, the Nidāna-kathā of the Introduction to the Jātaka shows the great gods of Hinduism and other similar deities as inferior, to, and as attending upon, the Buddha, and the Mahā-Vagga of the Vinaya Piṭaka shows them in the same subor[xliii]dinate character. Footnote Buddhism neither denies nor affirms the existence of gods . , . all gods pass away as we do ... the saint (Arahat),who hasworked out his salvation, and above all the Buddha, is superior to any god': Subhadra Bhikshu, A Buddhist Catechism(1890), p. 78. Their anomalous position as unneeded subordinates reflects them late and apologetic introduction into Buddhism from older animistic cults.

Prayer to the gods would have been entirely superfluous, since a man could attain Nirvana only by his own exertions. In the present instructions to the missioners the gods or spirits are open to teaching by the simple missioners of the Dhamma. To attain the rank of Buddhahood it was necessary for the gods to become men; as men alone could they rise to the ultimate height of Enlightenment, Arahatship. In the Maha-Vagga the most prominent supernatural figure is that of Māra, the Tempter, who clearly is a personification of those desires, grossly or more subtly selfish, which naturally arise in the human mind, and the eradication of which is the object of the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. The lower ranks of spirits haunting the earth figure also in the Book of the Great Decease, and are plainly survivals of ancient rustic animistic beliefs. That Gotama denied the existence of beings in the spiritual world does not seem provable; it is much more probable that he left such a question aside as being beyond his province, which was concerned neither with such questions nor with metaphysics, but with the Four Truths and the eradication of selfish desire. The whole tendency of his teaching was to secure emancipation, of the mind from superfluous burdens and superstitions, and to concentrate upon the plain duty of unselfish activity. The phrase ‘spirits and men' in the mouth of Gotama perhaps means ‘all classes of intelligent beings, whether invisible (if any) or visible', and such a phrase, at the opening of the career of a Hindu reformer, seems not improbable.