According to the sutra, “a truly enlightened mentor is very difficult to encounter.” How much more difficult it is then to encounter a buddha! Imagine yourself in the shoes of the five ascetics. Would you stay and contemplate the teachings, feel indifferent toward them, or walk away? The disciples who pursued the teachings of the Buddha provided us with an encouraging example of how one can achieve nirvanic liberation by following a virtuous and wholesome mentor. Let us think about what we would do if we encountered a buddha in our life.
The Buddha preached his first sermon to the five ascetics in the Deer Park who had previously repudiated him for abandoning the practice of austerity, and it was to this group that the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths (S:catvāryāryasatyāni). The Buddha concentrated His teaching on the suffering in the three realms and explained the true meaning of each Noble Truth. He demonstrated that the Path to Liberation can be realized and that the notion of Nirvana is not an imagined term or a mere conceptual designation. His teachings to the group were meant to build their confidence and to inspire them to pursue the Path to Liberation. The disciple Kauṇḍinya was instantly inspired to strive to attain arhatship and became the first person to understand the Buddha’s teachings upon hearing His full insights regarding the Four Noble Truths. He is also called “He Who Knows” (S: Ajñāta-Kauṇḍinya), meaning the one who understands the Dharma.
While He was teaching, the World-Honored One urged His disciples to verify each constituent of the Four Noble Truths upon hearing it, and to contemplate whether it was true and correct. Below are the Four Noble Truths.
* the Noble Truth of suffering
* the Noble Truth of origination
* the Noble Truth of cessation
* the Noble Truth of the path to cessation
Therefore, 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. By ascertaining that every single aspect of the Four Noble Truths is true and correct and must be practiced according to the Buddha’s teachings on them, practitioners can eliminate all their attachments to the three realms and can eradicate the five higher fetters (craving for material existence, craving for rebirth in the formless realm, restlessness, conceit, and ignorance, which bind sentient beings to samsara) to become arhats liberated through wisdom. At the final moment of the Buddha’s sermon, all the five ascetics attained arhatship. The fruitions achieved by them with the help of the Buddha illustrated that liberation from the stream of transmigration is indeed feasible for us even in the Dharma-ending era.
Even if the five ascetics were previously non-Buddhists and were equipped with a certain level of meditative concentration, they mistakenly took samadhi (meditative concentration) as Chan (unique contemplative wisdom). The five ascetics still went through the three cultivation processes of listening to the correct doctrines, engaging in diligent practices, and truly accepting and abiding by the Buddha’s teachings to attain the fruition of arhat. In other words, despite their proficient level of samadhi, they were still unable to transcend the three realms, meaning they were still trapped in the samsara. It was only when they heard the essential wisdom preaching of the World-Honored One that they were able to achieve transcendence over the three realms. Thus, we need to gain the required wisdom for our cultivations rather than focusing on meditative concentration alone.
Therefore, by following a truly enlightened mentor, we can realize that all the elements of our five aggregates (self) are illusory, without an intrinsic nature. We can thereby conclude that the five aggregates are not the true Self. In this way, our mind accepts the contemplative outcome with firm conviction, which completes the training process of eliminating the notion of self-view. At this point, we have attained the purity of the Dharma-eye; that is, we have obtained the first fruition of a stream-enterer (srotaāpanna).
The teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the five aggregates can thus guide us in searching for a true mentor who can help us achieve true liberation and transcend the cyclic samsara. Hence, the notion of selflessness is the explicit essence that the Buddha elucidated in the Agama Sutras during the first turning of the Dharma Wheel.