A fresh look at the Buddha’s message on Drugpa Tshezhi

Today is Drugpa Tshezhi, the fourth day of the sixth lunar month according to the Bhutanese calendar. It is believed to be the day on which the Buddha gave his first sermon or turned the first Wheel of Dharma, to put it in the common Buddhist idiom. Having come out of forty-nine days of silence since attaining full enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have given his first teachings on Four Noble Truths and Right Eightfold Path to a gathering of five monks in Varanasi. I have already written about the significance of the day and the teachings in another article for Kuensel. What I wish to do today is suggest a different way of looking at the Buddha’s message and observing Drukpa Tshezhi.

Many of us will be visiting temples, making prostrations, lighting butter lamps, offering cash and food as a way of commemorating this important event. We will not fail in seeing the Buddha as a powerful and compassionate object of refuge or divinity, and worship him with respect and material offerings. Yet, if we look closely at the teachings, which the Buddha is said to have given on this day, his discourse on Four Noble Truths and Right Eightfold Path is not merely a religious sermon, which we should treat with faith and devotion.

What the Buddha taught on this day was a practical strategy of problem solving, which formed the corner stone of his entire spiritual system. The Buddha was not a god or deity; he was in effect a management guru, an existential strategist and an extraordinary teacher.

He declared that the world we live in is full of dukkha (སྡུག་བསྔལ་) which is roughly translated as suffering in English. He taught that dukkha has its origins, and that there is cessation of dukkha and the path to cessation. These are the Four Noble Truths (བདེན་པ་བཞི་). For our context, we can substitute the word dukkha with problems. The Buddha rightly pointed out that life is full of problems, that the problems come from myraid causes, and that there is also a solution to the problems and ways to seek the solution. The Four Noble Truths is thus a mechanism of problem solving and paradigm for Buddhist spiritual and social development.

The Buddha instructed that we must first recognize dukkha (སྡུག་བསྔལ་ཤེས་པར་བྱ་) or, in other words, identify the problem. Just as a physician needs to diagnose the illness, it is important to understand the problem in order to overcome it. In understanding the problem, the Buddha argues that we must trace its causes. One must eradicate the cause of dukkha (ཀུན་འབྱུང་སྤང་བར་བྱ་) or the source of the problem in order to overcome the problem. Thirdly, the Buddha declared that one must attain the cessation of dukkha (འགོག་པ་མངོན་དུ་བྱ་) or the solution to the problem. This, one does, by following the path to the cessation (ལམ་བསྟེན་པར་བྱ་) or adopting the techniques and methods for solving the problem. The Buddha proclaimed to his disciples that if a person managed to do these four successfully, there is nothing further to be done to solve all problems in life.

On Drugpa Tshezhi, it is appropriate that we not only carry out our religious rituals and rounds of worship but also reflect on the true purport of his first sermon. It is an opportunity to identify the problems in our life, from general existential concerns such as rebirth and dissatisfaction in the world to small immediate ones like health or social issues. We ought to think of the causes of such problems and then actively seek a solution by following the various methods and paths.

In his first teaching, the Buddha laid out a pragmatic process of following the path. He instructed his disciples to firstly have the right view (ཡང་དག་པའི་ལྟ་བ་) or understanding of the situation or context including knowing the problem. With such understanding, they must then generate the right intention (ཡང་དག་པའི་རྟོག་པ་) and aim to reach the goal of freedom from problems. It is important then to communicate the intention or plan through the mode of right speech (ཡང་དག་པའི་ངག་). Words then must be followed by right action (ཡང་དག་པའི་ལས་) and such action has to be repeated as a way of life or right livelihood (ཡང་དག་པའི་འཚོ་བ་). One must follow one’s righteous way of life with much enthusiasm and right effort (ཡང་དག་པའི་རྩོལ་བ་), while also maintaining right mindfulness (ཡང་དག་པའི་དྲན་པ་) or awareness of the situation. When one does this without distraction but with right concentration (ཡང་དག་པའི་ཏིང་འཛིན་), one completes the eight stages of the path, which are required to reach the goal.

The Noble Eightfold Path, formulated by the Buddha, is thus a practical way of solving problems, and applicable to all issues we face in life. The topic of the Buddha’s first sermon is not an esoteric and highflying philosophy or mystical principle but a management device, and perhaps the world’s oldest strategy for problem solving we can all use today to deal with the various problems and issues we face in life. Drugpa Tshezhi is a good time for us to have a fresh look at the message the Buddha shared on this day and make it directly relevant to human wellbeing and progress, unobfuscated by religious dogmas and rituals.

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