Drugpa Tshezhi (དྲུག་པ་ཚེས་བཞི་) or the 4th day of the 6th month is one of the holiest days in the Buddhist calendar. It is the day on which the Buddha delivered his first sermon or, to use the Buddhist idiom, turned the first wheel of dharma. Thus, the day is also known as Chokhor Duechen (ཆོས་འཁོར་དུས་ཆེན་).

After attaining perfect enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have remained in solitary retreat for seven weeks relishing the bliss of his enlightenment because he thought the ordinary world occupied by sensual pleasures would not understand his message of enlightenment which is profound, peaceful, subtle and ineffable. However, according to the Buddha’s life story, he agreed to teach after being requested by the kings of gods. The Buddha, thus, journeyed from Bodh Gaya to Benares and delivered the first sermon on the Four Noble Truths to his five former colleagues in Deer Park on Drugpa Tshezhi. In this groundbreaking sermon, he declared:

“Now this, Bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates are suffering.

Now this, Bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.

Now this, Bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.

Now this, Bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”

(Bhikkhu Bodhi (tr.), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Saṃyutta Nikāya), p. 1844.)

When the Buddha finished his sermon, all five ascetic audiences are said to have got enlightened and some 84,000 celestial beings are believed to have seen the truth. The sermon began for the Buddha 45 years of his mission. The Four Noble Truths today form the cornerstone of the Buddhist tradition and the Buddha has come to be seen as a powerful and compassionate object of refuge or divinity, whom many will worship with devotion and material offerings on Drugpa Tshezhi.

Yet, if we look closely at the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and Right Eightfold Path, they are not merely a religious sermon, which we should treat with faith and devotion. What the Buddha taught on this day was a novel strategy of solving existential problems. 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་). If we substitute dukkha with problems for our context, the Buddha rightly pointed out that life is full of problems, that the problems come from myriad 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 one 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 one 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.

Furthermore, 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 must 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 doing so maintain right mindfulness (ཡང་དག་པའི་དྲན་པ་) or awareness of the situation as our efforts can easily turn into mindless habitual drudgery. When one mindfully engages 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 one may face in life. The topic of the Buddha’s first sermon is not an esoteric and high-flying 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 in life.

Drugpa Tshezhi gives us a special opportunity to relook at the Buddha’s message of Four Noble Truths and Right Eightfold Path, and make it relevant to our wellbeing and progress, unobfuscated by religious dogma and rituals. 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 devotion and material offerings. In the midst of such habitual rituals, it is important to remember that the Buddha is first and foremost a teacher who taught on this day a pragmatic way of solving problems. In order to truly honour the teacher and carry on his legacy, we should study and apply his teachings in our life.