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The text of the first four sections of the Great Chapter in the Discipline collection Vinaya Piṭaka, Mahāvagga, Mahākhandhaka, bhāṇavarā 1-4.01 traces the life and career of the Buddha for a period of about one year after the Complete Awakening, and is one of the earliest sources we have for this period in the Buddha's life. Other sources include the Mahāvastu, the rescension of which is probably around the same time as the Pāḷi text, and the Lalitavistara, which, though in the form we have it is undoubtedly much younger, nevertheless still contains much material that is old and bears all the signs of authenticity.02 This section of the text forms a continuous narrative before it is replaced with a detailing of the various duties incumbent on monastics, and other rules for the monks and nuns. Even these texts are interspersed with many interesting stories from the life of the Buddha, which I hope to collect together at some point.03
As the text forms an integral part of the Discipline Collection it appears that it was originally meant to show how the monastic life was established in the first place, how and why it evolved, and what is the relationship between lay supporters and monastics, and only incidentally does it thereby reveal the early part of the Buddha's career.
Although many of the discourses that have been preserved provide contextual information on such matters as where the discourse was given, to whom and for what reason, very few indeed can be placed within a reliable time frame, The commentaries go some way to providing this framework, but their reliability is many times questionable.04 and the only other comparable text we have is The Discourse about the Great Emancipation (Mahāparinibbānasutta), which provides a more-or-less continuous narrative detailing the last year of the Buddha's life. A text and translation of this important work was made available last year on this website.05
Our present text opens some time after the Awakening, According to the much later Introduction (Nidāna) to the Jātaka this would have been about four weeks after the Awakening, but there are a number of differences between the earlier and later texts which would make a reconciliation between them difficult, if not impossible, so we cannot rely on this timing.06 with the Buddha still at the foot of the Bodhi Tree, enjoying the bliss of liberation and reflecting to himself on Conditional Origination through the three watches of the night. It may have been the strength of this remembrance that formed the basis for the later anachronous tradition that the Buddha spent some time in the first few weeks reviewing in detail all seven books of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka.07
His first encounter with another person only comes when he moves to another tree in the same area, where he meets someone significantly enquiring about the real meaning of being a brāhmaṇa. It is here that we see the Buddha for the first time explicitly redefining the given terms of his day by explaining the true meaning of being a brāhmaṇa, which has nothing to do with the pretensions of birth, of course.
There is no record of the brāhmaṇa's response to the teaching but he evidently did not become a lay follower at the time, otherwise it would have been recorded, so we can perhaps infer that he was unconvinced.
The Buddha's next meeting was at the root of another tree in the same vicinity, and this time with the Dragon-King Mucilinda, who protected him from unseasonable weather. These first 3 sections are parallel to five discourses in the Udāna 1:1-4, and 2:1, which all end in an exalted utterance being made by the Buddha.
The next section tells how the Buddha met with two merchants, Tapussa and Bhallika, who were apparently traveling north to Magadha. At the culmination of the story the merchants go for refuge to the Buddha and the Dhamma Although in Mahāvastu they go for the three refuges there was still no Saṅgha at that time, and it seems that must be an anachronism.08 and became the first of the Buddha's followers in the Dispensation. Perhaps it is significant that the first people who gain faith in the Buddha and his Teaching were not professional religious, but simple merchants, as that section of society was to provide crucial support to the fledgling Teaching.
The scene then changes to the root of another tree, still in the vicinity of Uruvelā, where the Buddha ponders on whether it is really possible to teach such a deep and profound doctrine to people when they have so little inclination towards spiritual things and such attachment to material pleasures. He is ultimately persuaded by the Mahābrahmā Sahampati, who points out that there are some with little dust on their eyes and that they will understand.
The Buddha therefore agrees to teach, but just who to teach is the next question. He first thinks of his former teachers, Āḷāra and Uddaka, In Mahāvastu the order in which he thinks of these teachers is reversed, perhaps because as Uddaka was the more highly developed he was thought of first.09 but they had recently passed away, so then he recalled the group-of-five ascetics who had been helping him during his six years of austerity. Seeing that they were now in the neighbouring State of Kāsī, Uruvelā, where the Buddha attained Awakening, was in the south-western reaches of Magadha. Kāsī was to the west of there.10 he decided to walk across the countryside for the approximately 200 km in order to teach them.
A meeting on the way with the Abstainer (Ājīvika) Upaka is recorded at this point. Many other meetings and happenings have been recorded in the Mahāvastu, which are excluded from our text, see Uruvilvāto Ṛṣipatanaṁ Gamanaṁ, the Journey from Uruvilvā to Ṛṣipatana eslewhere on this website for the relevant stories.11 Again the Abstainer, like the brāhmaṇa earlier, was unable to grasp the message or to gain faith in the Buddha, and went away, ‘shaking his head and taking the wrong path (ummagga)’, as the text says.
The Buddha eventually reaches the Deer Park at Isipatana, a few kilometres from the capital of Kāsī, Bārāṇasī. Although the group-of-five have been chosen for the first formal teaching of the new school, they are anything but impressed when they see their former associate coming. Indeed they make an agreement amongst themselves not to honour him in any way, although as he is a member of the Khattiya class they agree to put out a seat for him.
As the Buddha approaches though they are unable to keep to their agreement and they rise up, prepare a seat, take his bowl and robe, put out water for him, and so on. But still they are not quite ready for the new teaching and the Buddha will not teach them until they acknowledged his declared status. Eventually they are convinced by his earnestness and stop addressing him in a familiar way and speak to him with all due reverence. This is signalled in the text by the change of address from Āvuso to Bhante.12
It is only then that the Buddha deigns to teach them the discourse that is famous now for Setting the Dhamma-Wheel Rolling. The Discourse itself is as revolutionary as it is simple. It basically only consists of an outline of the Four Noble Truths with short definitions of each. However the approach to the spiritual life that it signifies must have been felt to be quite extraordinary.
The prevalent religious teachings of the time stressed either correct ritual observance or extreme asceticism. The Buddha knew that neither led to the desired goal, and started his teaching career with a completely fresh look at the problem of existence. First he had diagnosed the problem: suffering; then he had found the cause: craving; then he had seen that its end (nirodha) was possible, and to the group-of-five monks he taught the Path to that goal, the eightfold noble Path which went, contrary to their expectation as ascetics, by the middle way.
For religious steeped in extreme asceticism, that must have been revolutionary indeed, and one of them, Koṇḍaññā, did indeed attain to the first stage of sainthood on that very teaching, and all of them were ordained as monks by the Buddha. But for their further progress many more teachings would be required.
Unfortunately for us the teachings during those first few days have not been preserved in any of the traditions that have come down to us, but over the next few days the Buddha did give them the necessary basis upon which they gradually made successively deeper attainments until they stood on the brink of full liberation. They were technically non-returners (anāgāmi) when the Buddha taught the following discourse.13
It was then that the Buddha taught the second recorded discourse containing the profound teaching about non-Self, which demonstrated that there was no Self or Divinity to be found in any of the constituents that make up the human personality, and that none of them were worth clinging to. It was on the basis of this teaching that the group-of-five monks fulfilled the teaching and attained to such a state of purity that they would never be reborn again, and it is this teaching that closes the first section for recital (bhāṇavāra).
The next section is easier to summarise: it traces the progress the Dispensation made during the first Rains Retreat, which was spent in the Deer Park after the initial teachings. First Yasa, a wealthy young man from the capital, meets up with the Buddha and becomes a monk, and eventually a Worthy One. His Father, He was the first lay-follower to take the threefold refuge.14 Mother and former Wife all go for refuge to the Three Treasures as lay followers committed for life. Then four of his good friends, and fifty more friends all become monks and attain full liberation.
At that point there were sixty-one monks and Arahats in the world, and at the end of the Rains Retreat the Buddha sent them out to the four directions to teach to all who would listen. They go and start making their own converts and the Buddha eventually initalises a procedure whereby they can administer ordination themselves, rather than bringing the aspirant to him personally. The curious thing is this: with only one or two possible exceptions, See the discussion about Assaji below.15 we never hear of any of these monks again, and not even one appears to accompany the Buddha when he sets out to return to Uruvelā, where he had initially attained Awakening.
Before he sets out on that journey the Buddha apparently had one or two encounters with Māra, who according to the traditions was still pursuing the Buddha for up to one year after the Awakening. I say one or two purposely, because it is not clear from the text whether we are dealing with two different visitations, or with two rescensions of the same encounter. I tend to think the latter, which is strengthened by there being two rescensions of the next but one story in the text.
We next have the curious story of the Buddha's encounter with the good group of 30 friends while traveling back to Magadha. Apparently out for a picnic, one of their number has his belongings stolen by a prostitute he had brought along for the day. The group goes off in search of the miscreant, but come across the Buddha instead who teaches them Dhamma so effectively that they all attain at least the first stage of sainthood and request and receive ordination, but once again it appears none of the group accompany the Buddha on his further journeying into Magadha.
The third section for recital finds the Buddha back in Uruvelā, but now somewhat north of where he had Awakened, in the Ashram of the fire-worshipper Uruvelā Kassapa, who is living there with his five-hundred disciples. This Kassapa is one of three brothers who are living in the area engaged in the same practice, with three hundred and two hundred disciples each.
The Buddha asks if he can stay for the night in the firehouse. At first Kassapa refuses, fearing that a Dragon (Nāga) who is living there would harm him, but eventually the Buddha persuades Kassapa to let him stay. During the night there is a fiery contest with the Dragon, which the Buddha wins.
Kassapa is impressed by this, but he still believes that the Buddha is not at the same standing as he is himself, still he offers to provide food for the Buddha if he stays on in the Ashram, and the Buddha agrees. This exact same story is told twice in the text, first in prose and then in verse. The commentary specifically states that the verses came later and were inserted after the prose. There is yet another rescension of the same story in the Mahāvastu, but there it occurs not as the first but as the last of a series of miracles that are different from those recorded in the Pāḷi.
The Pāḷi text then has a series of miracles performed by the Buddha, but none of them succeed in convincing Kassapa of the Buddha's superiority, so eventually the Buddha tells Kassapa straight that he is neither a Worthy One nor is he on his way to becoming one. Kassapa is convinced and asks for ordination, and both he and his followers and afterwards his brothers and their followers are ordained.
At this point the Buddha gives the famous Instruction about Burning, showing that the true fires are burning in our hearts, and rather than leading to release they are keeping us entrapped in the round of birth and death, and all 1,000 yogis attain to Worthiness upon hearing the discourse, which closes the third section.
Note that the time must now be sometime towards the end of the Winter period, which is perhaps six months after the Buddha gave his first discourse, and up and till now only three discourses have been recorded, though it is evident from the text, which explicitly says as much, that he had taught many more.
Following the conversion of the Kassapas and their one thousand followers, the Buddha goes with them to Rājagaha, the capital of Magadha. King Bimbisāra hears that he has come to his Royal Capital and along with twelve thousand of his fellow citizens he goes out to meet him, fulfilling some wishes he had made while still a prince.
The Buddha teaches them a discourse at this point, but only a synopsis is given in the Pāḷi text, while in the Mahāvastu the full discourse is given. See Utpadyananirudhyanasūtram, the Discourse on Arising and Ceasing elsewhere on this website.16 After the discourse the King goes for refuge to the Three Treasures and invites him for a meal on the following day, after which he donates the Bamboo Wood to the Buddha, thus ensuring the material establishment of the Dispensation.
There follows the conversion of the Wanderers Sāriputta and Moggallāna. They were followers of Sañjaya (apparently to be identified with one of the Six Heretical Teachers), and had previously made a promise to each other that if one of them attained the Deathless state, that he would immediately inform the other.
Sāriputta sees Assaji, one of the Buddha's disciples, on almsround and is immediately inspired with confidence and asks what teaching he knows. Assaji replies that he is new to the teaching, that he doesn't know much, but he recites a verse which was enough for Sāriputta to attain to the first stage of Sainthood (Sotāpatti). This verse became very famous later and is found in inscriptions all over India and Asia.17
This Assaji is normally identified with the Assaji who was one of the group-of-five monks. I question this though, as Assaji characterises himself as one who was new to the teaching and not long gone forth. But the group-of-five Assaji was hardly new to the Sāsana, indeed he stands right at the source. He had also heard some of the most important teachings that the Buddha had given, and had attained full liberation. There is also no record of any of the monks from the Bāṇārasī period following the Buddha over from Kāsī to Magadha. Assaji must have been a common name at the time and given the weight of the evidence I am inclined to believe that the Assaji Sāriputta met was not the same as the one in the group-of-five, but was as he characterised himself, one newly gone forth.
In any case on the strength of this encounter Sāriputta does see the Deathless and tells his friend Moggallāna about it, and they both leave Sañjaya, together with another 250 of his followers, and join the Buddha and become his chief disciples. This causes something of an uproar around the capital as many of their finest young men are going-forth. But the Buddha teaches a verse to the monks that convinces his critics that he is teaching true Dhamma and the uproar dies down. It is at this point in the text that the narrative ends.
Comparison with other Texts
In preparing this text and translation of the Great Chapter I have made a careful comparison with other records of the same events, both in the Canon and the commentaries, together with texts like the Mahāvastu and Lalitavistara, which belong to other sects, so as to supplement the information given in the text itself.
This has involved making a number of other translations that are parallel to this text, and which are now published elsewhere on the website, and which can be read in their own right as well as supplementary to the present work:
Uruvilvāto Ṛṣipatanaṁ Gamanaṁ - The Journey from Uruvilvā to Ṛṣipatana (from Mahāvastu pp. 322-329)
Dharmacakrapravartanasūtram - The Discourse that Set the Dharma-Wheel Rolling (from Lalitavistara)
Utpadyananirudhyanasūtram - The Discourse on Arising and Ceasing (The Fourth Discourse of the Buddha) (Mahāvastu pp. 443-9)
I have also included many notes drawn from the commentary, and comparisons with the Jātakanidāna, a full text and translation of which I hope to prepare at some time.
I am very grateful indeed to Rod Bucknell who has made many contributions to this project by reading this work through for me and making many useful suggestions and corrections, which has gone a long way to improve the accuracy and usefulness of this works. He has been a true kalyāṇamitta.
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last updated: August 2009