(623 B.C. – 543 B.C.)
When his strength returned, Gautama traveled to Gaya. On the way, he met a straw-peddler named Sotthiya and accepted from him an offering of a bunch of straw. So, Gautama made a seat with the straw and sat under a large Bodhi tree, facing east. With complete faith in himself, he began to meditate. He resolved, “I shall not move from here, even at the cost of my life, until I have attained Full Enlightenment,” and he spent the whole evening in this meditation posture. Many thoughts came to distract him from his goal. There were thoughts of his beloved wife and child, and memories of his parents and friends. All these flashed before his eyes. But he was not tempted. With determined will, he continued to meditate until his mind became pure and clear.
Through this deep contemplation, he first saw all of his countless past lives. Then, he realized the non-duality of birth and death. With his wisdom-eye, he saw sentient beings within the six realms of existence suffering endlessly from karmic cause and effect. In the third realization, he came to understand the Law of Dependent Origination. After realizing the Truth of the universe, Gautama continued to meditate and contemplate under the Bodhi tree. At the first light of dawn, he finally awakened to the root of suffering – ignorance. Thus, he found the way leading to the cessation of this suffering.
The search of six long years had ended. It was on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month when the full-moon shone, casting a bright silver light on the whole countryside, Gautama attained Full Enlightenment. From this moment forth, he was known as Shakyamuni Buddha – the Sage of the Shakyas. The Buddha was thirty-five years old, and, for a week, following Enlightenment, he sat under the tree enjoying the state of perfect happiness that he had achieved. The tree later became known as The Tree of Enlightenment or the Bodhi-Tree and the place is till known as Buddha-Gaya (Bodh-Gaya). He spent a further six weeks near the tree. It is said that for a whole week, he gazed at the tree with gratitude for having sheltered him.
At the end of the seventh week, he decided to teach the Truth (the Dharma) he had discovered. He knew that the Dharma could not be easily understood and that it had little appeal for ordinary people. Nevertheless, he felt that it was his duty to go forth, for there were many whose minds were ready to receive his message. Then he remembered the five ascetics who had broken away from him. He walked for many days on foot over one hundred miles, to the Deer Park at Isipatana, near Benares, where the ascetics still practiced their extreme discipline.
Seeing him at a distance, the five ascetics resolved to ignore him. But, as the Buddha came closer, they noticed that he had changed. He was majestic and commanding. There was a certain radiance about him. They went forward and greeted him, offered him a seat, and in the customary manner, fetched water to wash his feet. That evening, on a full-moon day in the month of Esala (July) the Buddha gave his First Sermon. He said to the five ascetics, “Monks, a recluse should avoid the two extremes. The Middle Way, as I understand and practice it, gives vision and knowledge, and leads to Enlightenment.” Then, the Buddha said that all sentient beings possess Buddha Nature, and the Buddha Nature of all sentient beings are equal. Ignorance is not our true nature, one needs to develop awareness and practice mindfulness. Pure mind is our innate goodness, one has no need to seek it from outside. This realization brings hope and light to suffering beings.
Thus the event of Buddha’s First Sermon to the five ascetics was later recorded as the Buddha turning the Wheel of the Dharma, the Unsurpassed Wheel of the Law, for the first time.
The Buddha then explained to them the Four Noble Truths, which form the basis of his teaching.
(1) There is suffering in the world, like sickness, old age, death, parting from loved ones, and not getting what you want.
(2) The cause of suffering is desire or craving based on greed and selfishness. The more we crave, the more unsatisfactory life is.
(3) To end suffering, desire must be removed. (Just as a fire dies when no fuel is added, so unhappiness will end when the fuel of craving is removed).
(4) The Way to end suffering is to follow the Middle Path or the ‘Noble Eightfold Path’, namely: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
The five ascetics who had highly developed minds understood his teaching and became his first disciples; the Sangha or Community of Monks was thus formed. The sermon on the characteristic of Not-Self, or Non-Ego, was the second sermon after Enlightenment, preached by the Buddha to his first five disciples, who after hearing it attained to perfect holiness (Arahatta).
The Buddha said, “Go forth, Monks. Teach this Dharma which is excellent in the beginning, in the middle and at the end. There are some people who have only a little ‘dust’ in their eyes; they will understand.” So they set out to spread the Dharma. The Buddha himself walked from village to village.