The title Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta has been translated as “The Sutta that Set in Motion the Wheel of the Truth,” and, rather oddly, as “The Sutta on the Foundation of the Kingdom of the Norm.” “Sutta” literally means “a thread” and is the usual way that a discourse of the Buddha is titled. It is a metaphor that suggests that what follows is an account of the gist of what may have been a longer or more loosely structured talk that the Buddha gave to a religious seeker. As I have previously commented, these are oral recitations that have been compiled in formulaic style for easier memorization. They may also have been categorized and summarized for more succinct appreciation.
At any rate, this “thread” is what the word suggests—the main strand of a teaching, given to a group of religious seekers over a period of time. In the Vinaya account of this discourse, the Sutta is followed by a comment that the Buddha then exhorted the four disciples who had not realized Truth with further instruction. One can only surmise, as the talk is not recorded, that it was a talk of similar nature, of which the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta conveys the core meaning.
The word “Dhamma” (Dharma in Sanskrit) has a number of meanings that all imply a universal rather than a personal viewpoint. In one sense, it just means things, as part of a universal structure—all things from bicycles to thoughts are dhammas. Generally, when used in this context, a lower case “d” is used. When thoughts are referred to in the purely personal context, identified with as my thoughts, they are called sankhara. This gives a useful reflection on the way that terms are designated: often what appears to be the same thing will be referred to by different words. It depends on our way of looking at it.
Another meaning of dhamma is the proper order of things. This is a central concept in the Vedas. It is the duty of each person to live in accordance with dhamma, which may mean his or her profession, religious observance, or the social mores of that particular society, village or family. This is close to the meaning of dhamma as a teaching. When encountering one of these wandering teachers, people might very well inquire, “What is your dhamma?” i.e., “What are your principles?”—Be they doctrine or observance. In the Buddhist sense, the teaching of the Buddha is a dhamma, but it is elevated as it is seen to be not just a conventional system, but a universal teaching that relates to principles which abide in the makeup and the activities of human beings and celestial beings too. Hence in our linguistic conventions, we give it a capital letter.
Ultimate Truth, realized through liberation from every form of attachment, is also called “Dhamma:” the Universal Truth, the Law, The Way It Is. In such contexts, it"s probably best just to adopt the word Dhamma into the English language.
The Dhamma of the Buddha has a “conventional” application that creates order and harmony on the plane of everyday social life, and a “transcendent” teaching that focuses on individual liberation from attachment. In the Buddha"s teaching, the conventional and the transcendent do not conflict; the transcendent realization of Ultimate Truth relies upon the conventional observance of morality and conduct. One result of this is that the Buddha"s teaching transformed the tradition of independent, almost anarchic, truth seekers into an Order—the Sangha. The Sangha exists within a high degree of uniformity, discipline and an infrastructure based upon dependence and unanimous agreement.
Furthermore, the Buddha presented a teaching that illuminated a way of experiencing Ultimate Truth which householders could realize for themselves without relying on the interpretations of brahmins. In the full practicing system of Dhamma, the “gone forth” religious seekers and those living the family life support and encourage each other. No wonder that this teaching can be applied anywhere at any time. The Buddha called it: “The Elephant"s Footprint:” every other religious teaching fits inside it.
The next element of the title is the word cakka. This word also has several meanings. Its root meaning is that which is always turning. So it can mean a wheel, or a cycle; it can also mean a vehicle, or, in another sense, a sphere—hence a region or realm (a sphere of influence). When used in the formulaic epithet of the raja cakkavattin—the Wheel bearing Monarch—it implies one who rules over a vast territory, the known world, the universe, or the continent. So “Dhammacakka” can either be the vehicle of the Truth, or the Realm where the Norm of the Universal Truth holds sway. This realm is, to most of us, not a place in space and time, but a sense of community with all practitioners of the Dhamma.
This sermon is also called “-ppavattana,” which means it starts the Wheel turning. All followers of the Buddha, no matter what their denomination or beliefs or style of practice, can relate to this Sutta. And one never really outgrows it; it always remains a touchstone for practice because it reflects on the spiritual path in such fundamental terms. It is that which establishes the main theme of the Dhamma, and the community of Sangha—those who practice the Way.
As this Realm is vast in letter and spirit, this will be an ant"s meanderings along its main street, sometimes drifting a little this way and that, but at least indicating that the Realm is worth visiting. I hope the reader is more amenable than the original Group of Five ….