The Majjhima Nikāya, which consists of 152 discourses of Buddha and his chief disciples, states, “A monk called Gotama, it seems, a son of the Sakyans, who went forth into homelessness from a Sakyan clan, has come...He teaches a True Idea that is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end…”
The anointed prince of a rich kingdom, Siddhartha Gautam had everything a person could conceivably want and desire. But, after realizing the reality of the real world outside the palace walls, he chose the path of renunciation so as to discover answers to the three questions uppermost in his mind: Why does suffering exist? What causes suffering? What will end suffering?
After a long period of sacrifice and meditation, he gained enlightenment and became the Buddha, or The Awakened One, and came to the conclusion that suffering is universal; that everyone suffers from birth, sickness, old age, death, and grief; that ignorance and greed are the causes of suffering; and that it can only be ended by denouncing greed and ignorance, and by following the noble eightfold path of right view, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Indeed, the ideas of Buddha brought about a great change in the world, with millions being influenced by them. It was soon after his enlightenment that he started giving his earliest discourses, which have been narrated in great detail in the sutras. Among his first discourses, four stand out: “Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth”, “The Not-self Characteristic”, “The Fire Sermon”, and “The Discourse on Arising and Ceasing”, because they were the foundations of all his later teachings.
In “Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth”, he talks about the impermanence of anything of conditioned origin, and lists the Four Noble Truths, that is, suffering, arising of suffering, cessation of suffering, and the practice that results in cessation of suffering. He emphasizes that it is essential for seekers to realize the Four Noble Truths by themselves, and that too in the present moment. This is a basic tenet of all of Buddha’s teachings.
In “The Not-self Characteristic”, he discusses the idea of not-self. According to him, not-self means that anything, whether animate or inanimate, cannot be permanent or remain unchanged. He describes the three characteristics of existence as not-self, impermanence, and dissatisfaction, which he says are inter-related. To realize this better, he urges seekers to understand that only five aggregates (material form, feeling, perceptions, volitional states, and consciousness) make up the sentient being.
The three evils afflicting all beings are passion, anger, and delusion, which he reveals in “The Fire Sermon”. These, he says, traps them in the vicious cycle of birth, death, and suffering. This sermon was given to a group of fire-worshippers, hence the name, and he declared to them, “…The eye, the forms, the eye-consciousness, the impressions, and whatever sensation…they are all on fire…And with what are they on fire? I say with the fire of lust, of aversion, and passion; with birth, with old age, with death, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair…”
In his fourth discourse, “The Discourse on Arising and Ceasing”, Buddha discloses the chain of events leading to sorrow and despair. Ignorance leads to volitional processes to consciousness of mind and body and the six sense spheres, resulting in contact, which leads to feeling, craving, and attachment. This, in turn, leads to continuation, birth, old age, death, sorrow, and pain.