The five monks were inspired by Shakyamuni's virtuous mien and paid him homage despite their initial reaction, but they did not consent immediately to listen to Shakyamuni's teaching. In fact, at first they did not want to hear it. However, Shakyamuni, ardently desiring to enlighten them, addressed them three times, saying, "I will now preach the Law to you. Come and listen to me." Three times they refused to heed him. Finally he said to them sternly, "Monks! Have I ever spoken untruthfully to you? Have I?" They recalled that he had always taught them with honesty, and they were moved by his compassionate wish to save all sentient beings from their sufferings. As they reflected on these things, a desire to hear Shakyamuni's message gradually arose in them.
Shakyamuni had reached Deer Park in the afternoon, and he spent the hours from early evening onward alone in silent meditation. At midnight, when the sounds of the day had died away, a serene air stole upon the surroundings and Shakyamuni at last began to preach his epochal sermon.
The mound built at the site of Shakyamuni's cremation
"Monks! In this world there are two extremes—that of self-mortification and that of self-indulgence—that must be avoided. By avoiding these two extremes and following the Middle Path, I have attained the highest enlightenment." Thus Shakyamuni began his first sermon.
He then preached the Four Noble Truths, teaching that man must recognize that life is filled with suffering (the Truth of Suffering), grasp the real cause of suffering (the Truth of Cause), and by daily religious practice (the Truth of the Path) extinguish all kinds of suffering (the Truth of Extinction). Shakyamuni went on to expound the Eightfold Path—right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right living, right endeavor, right memory, and right meditation—as the Truth of the Path leading to the extinction of all suffering. First Ajnata-Kaundinya and then each of the other bhikshus, or monks, reached the first stage of enlightenment, becoming free of all illusions. Speaking of this first sermon Shakyamuni says, in Chapter Two of the Lotus Sutra,
The nirvana-nature of all existence,
Which is inexpressible,
I by [my] tactful ability
Preached to the five bhikshus.
This is called [the first] rolling of the Law-wheel,
Whereupon there was the news of nirvana
And also the separate names of Arhat,
Of Law, and of Sangha.
The expression "rolling of the Law-wheel" requires some explanation. In Indian mythology the ideal ruler, known as a wheel-rolling king, was supposed to govern by rolling a wheel and to rule not by armed might but by virtue. In Buddhist terms there are four such kings, each with a precious wheel of gold, silver, copper, or iron, in accordance with how large a portion of the world he rules. The king of the gold wheel unites and rules the entire world.
The Buddha's Law is like the wheel of gold. When a great sage preaches this Law it is as if he had rolled the gold wheel: all come to respect and honor him and his rule, or teaching. Thus "to roll the Law-wheel," or the "wheel of the Law," means to teach the Buddha's Law.
During the forty-five years between his first sermon and his death, Shakyamuni ceaselessly rolled the Law-wheel in the villages and countries of northern and central India, and that Law-wheel continued to roll even after his death. In one direction, it rolled through Central Asia into China and Korea and on to Japan; in another direction, it rolled throughout Southeast Asia.
Nikkyo Niwano, winner of the 1979 Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion, is president of Rissho Kosei-kai, an organization of lay Buddhists. Reprinted with permission from Shakyamuni Buddha: A Narrative Biography, by Nikkyo Niwano (Kosei: Tokyo, 1981), 46-59. (c) 1980 by Kosei Publishing Company.