“The stream of my transmigration ceases, the pure practice has been accomplished, what must be done has been done, and there will be no more future existence.”
Excerpts from Nirvana, Vol. 1
Venerable Xiao Pingshi
During the first turning of the Dharma wheel on the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha focused mainly on explaining the principles of the Path to Liberation to illustrate the connotation of the Four Noble Truths. At the same time, the Buddha showed that the Path to Liberation can be realized through cultivation and that nirvāṇa is not an imagined dharma of mere-name conceptual designation. This will inspire confidence in those who hear the teachings and will motivate them to pursue nirvāṇa. For this reason, the Buddha enunciated the dharma with a focus on guiding the five ascetics to understand the sufferings in the three realms and motivating them to strive to realize liberation. The monk Kauṇḍinya attained arhatship after hearing the Four Noble Truths expounded by the Buddha during the first turning of the dharma wheel, and is therefore called Ajñāta Kauṇḍinya, meaning “the one who understands the dharma.”
When the World-Honored One was transmitting the dharma, He urged his disciples to verify each Noble Truth when they heard it: the suffering should be identified and comprehended, the Noble Truth of the origination should be extinguished, the Noble Truth of cessation should be realized, and the Noble Truth of the path to cessation should be cultivated. He added that if the disciples were able to ascertain that every Noble Truth was true, they would be able to eliminate all attachments to the three realms, eradicate the five higher fetters, and become arhats liberated through wisdom. Thereafter, all the five ascetics attained arhat fruition. Until then, they had not yet personally heard the dharma elucidated by the World-Honored One and were still practicing non-Buddhist teachings that “took samadhi practice for Chan.” Although each of them had achieved their own level of samadhi, they remained trapped in the three realms and were unable to transcend them. It was only after the World-Honored One preached the aforementioned truths to them that they were able to sequentially achieve arhat fruition with their samadhi level as the foundation, and through the three processes of listening to the correct doctrines, diligent cultivation, and aligning with the realization. As a result, they were able to transcend the three realms of samsara.
Before the World-Honored One preached the dharma of the twelve deeds of the Four Noble Truths to the five ascetics, they had already diligently cultivated the Eightfold Noble Path, which pertains to the right action, livelihood, and intention. They lacked only the right views and mental engagement. Therefore, after the World-Honored One attained Buddhahood and went to Deer Park to deliver His aforementioned sermon to the five ascetics, all of them attained arhat fruition during the three turns of the dharma teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the twelve dharma wheels. They then knew that their transitional bodies at the intermediate state would no longer arise after death and that they had exhausted their future existence.
The “right view” involves the practice of both tranquility meditation (śamatha) and insight observation (vipassana) to directly observe one’s own five aggregates and the eighteen elements of the body and mind and to determine whether all of them are indeed dharmas arising from cause and condition. As such, all dharmas are brought forth from karmic seeds, ignorance, one’s parents, the four elements, and the fundamental cause－ālayavijñāna coming together. They are not dharmas of true reality. Thus, once all the conditions disintegrate, one’s five aggregates will be corrupted and will cease to exist, and they will no longer have properties. This is known as impermanence, selflessness, and an empty appearance in Buddhism.
In other words, what we consider the true “self” is actually illusory. It lacks the essence of a true self. By not considering any element of the five aggregates as the “true self,” and by having this correct understanding, one can truly observe and practice with a determined mind. This is known as the notion of “eliminating self-view.” By doing so, we can attain the true dharma eye and obtain the first fruition of a stream-enterer (srotaāpanna).
The Four Noble Truths are limited to observing the dharmas of the aggregates, elements, sense fields, and sense entrances within the nine stages (of mental states) of the three realms. The purpose is to observe, understand, and then confirm that all aggregates, sense fields, elements, and sense entrances of the three realms and the nine sorts of existing stages are illusory, without any indestructible essence of a self. Additionally, we should personally realize that all the dharmas of the three realms are selfless. It is necessary to confirm that after birth, we are subject to death, and that there are various sufferings related to birth and death due to transmigration within the nine stages of the three realms. Only after the extinguishment of future rebirths can we eliminate the myriad sufferings of transmigration. Furthermore, we must reconfirm that we have utterly no attachment to any future self in all the states of the three realms; this detachment involves the complete extinguishment of any future being and disassociation from the existence of any dharma of aggregates, sense fields, elements, or sense entrances. Thereafter, we can be said to have attained the remainderless nirvāṇa.
This is the “selflessness” that the Buddha explicitly elucidated in the Āgama Sūtra during the first turning of the Dharma wheel for the sound hearer arhats and the solitary realizer pratyekabuddhas to realize the Dharma of Two Vehicles, all of them have merely realized the Path to Liberation; they have not realized the Dharma pertaining to the ultimate reality of the dharma realm－the wondrous principle of reality-suchness of the tathāgatagarbha. Thus, the attainment of Path to Buddhahood is different from the Path to Liberation.