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Source: The Buddha, “Two Lessons,” in Alfred Andrea and James Overfield, eds. The
Human Record: Sources in Global History, Volume I, 3rd Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Co., 1998): 74-79.
Accessed online on 08/14/20 at:
https://college.cengage.com/history/world/resources/students/primary/twolessons.htm
Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Law,
Questions That Tend Not To Edification,
Siddhartha Gautama (c. 200 BCE)
In ancient India, Prince Siddhartha Gautama fled his comfortable life and eventually became an
ascetic. Unlike the Mahavira, who found victory over karma in severe self-denial and total
nonviolence, Prince Gautama found only severe disquiet. The ascetic life offered him no
enlightenment as to how one might escape the sorrows of mortal existence. After abandoning
extreme asceticism, Gautama achieved Enlightenment in a flash while meditating under a sacred
pipal tree. He was now the Buddha, the Enlightened One.
Legend tells us he then proceeded to share the way to Enlightenment, which he termed
the Middle Path, by preaching a sermon in a deer park at Benares in northeastern India to five
ascetics, who became his first disciples. Buddhists refer to that initial sermon as “Setting in
Motion the Wheel of the Law”, which means that the Buddha had embarked on a journey
(turning the wheel) on behalf of the Law of Righteousness (dharma).
Our first text is a reconstruction of that sermon. The second document is a dialogue between the
Buddha and one of his disciples. Known as “The Lesson on Questions That Tend Not to
Edification”, it deals with issues on which the Buddha refused to speculate.
SETTING IN MOTION THE WHEEL OF THE LAW
And the Blessed One thus addressed the five Bhikkhus. “There are two extremes, O Bhikkhus,
which he who has given up the world ought to avoid. What are these two extremes? A life given
to pleasures, devoted to pleasures and lusts: this is degrading, sensual, vulgar, ignoble, and
profitless; and a life given to mortifications: this is painful, ignoble, and profitless. By avoiding
these two extremes, O Bhikkhus, the Tathagata has gained the knowledge of the Middle Path
which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom, which conduces to calm, to knowledge, to the
Sambodhi, to Nirvana.
“Which, O Bhikkhus, is this Middle Path the knowledge of which the Tathagata has gained,
which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom, which conduces to calm, to knowledge, to the
Sambodhi, to Nirvana? It is the Holy Eightfold Path, namely, Right Belief, Right Aspiration,
Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Means of Livelihood, Right Endeavor, Right Memory,
Right Meditation. This, O Bhikkhus, is the Middle Path the knowledge of which the Tathagata
has gained, which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom, which conduces to calm, to
knowledge, to the Sambodhi, to Nirvana.

“This, O Bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of Suffering: Birth is suffering; decay is suffering; illness
is suffering; death is suffering. Presence of objects we hate, is suffering; Separation from objects
we love, is suffering; not to obtain what we desire, is suffering. Briefly, … clinging to existence
is suffering.
“This, O Bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the Cause of suffering: Thirst, that leads to rebirth,
accompanied by pleasure and lust, finding its delight here and there. This thirst is threefold,
namely, thirst for pleasure, thirst for existence, thirst for prosperity.
“This, O Bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering: it ceases with the complete
cessation of this thirst, — a cessation which consists in the absence of every passion — with the
abandoning of this thirst, with the doing away with it, with the deliverance from it, with the
destruction of desire.
“This, O Bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the Path which leads to the cessation of suffering: that
Holy Eightfold Path, that is to say, Right Belief, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Conduct,
Right Means of Livelihood, Right Endeavor, Right Memory, Right Meditation….
“As long, O Bhikkhus, as I did not possess with perfect purity this true knowledge and insight
into these four Noble Truths … so long, O Bhikkhus, I knew that I had not yet obtained the
highest, absolute Sambodhi in the world of men and gods….
“But since I possessed, O Bhikkhus, with perfect purity this true knowledge and insight into
these four Noble Truths … then I knew, O Bhikkhus, that I had obtained the highest, universal
Sambodhi….
“And this knowledge and insight arose in my mind: The emancipation of my mind cannot be
lost; this is my last birth; hence I shall not be born again!”
QUESTIONS THAT TEND NOT TO EDIFICATION
Thus I have heard.
On certain occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Savatthi in Jetavana monastery in
Anathapindikas Park. Now it happened to the venerable Malunkyaputta, being in seclusion and
plunged in meditation, that a consideration presented itself to his mind as follows:
“These theories that the Blessed One has left unexplained, has set aside and rejected — that the
world is eternal, that the world is not eternal, that the world is finite, that the world is infinite,
that the soul and the body are identical, that the soul is one thing and the body another, that the
saint exists after death, that the saint does not exist after death, that the saint both exists and does
not exist after death, that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death — these the Blessed
One does not explain to me. And the fact that the Blessed One does not explain them to me does
not please me nor suit me. Therefore I will draw near to the Blessed One and inquire of him
concerning this matter. If the Blessed One will explain them to me, … I will lead the religious life
under the Blessed One. If the Blessed One will not explain them to me, … I will abandon

religious training and return to the lower life of a layman.”
Then the venerable Malunkyaputta arose in the evening from his seclusion, and drew near to
where the Blessed One was; and having drawn near and greeted the Blessed One, he sat down
respectfully at one side. And seated respectfully at one side, the venerable Malunkyaputta spoke
to the Blessed One as follows:
“Reverend Sir, it happened to me, as I was just now in seclusion and plunged in meditation, that
a consideration presented itself to my mind, as follows: ‘These theories that the Blessed One has
left unexplained, has set aside and rejected — that the world is eternal, that the world is not
eternal … that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death — these the Blessed One does
not explain to me. And the fact that the Blessed One does not explain them to me does not please
me nor suit me. I will draw near to the Blessed One and inquire of him concerning this matter. If
the Blessed One will explain to me, either that the world is eternal, or that the world is not
eternal … or that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death, in that case I will lead the
religious life under the Blessed One. If the Blessed One will not explain to me, either that the
world is eternal, or that the world is not eternal … or that the saint neither exists nor does not
exist after death, in that case I will abandon religious training and return to the lower life of a
layman.’
“If the Blessed One knows that the world is eternal, let the Blessed One explain to me that the
world is eternal; if the Blessed One knows that the world is not eternal, let the Blessed One
explain to me that the world is not eternal. If the Blessed One does not know either that the world
is eternal or that the world is not eternal, the only upright thing for one who does not know, or
who has not that insight, is to say, ‘I do not know; I have not that insight.’”
“Pray Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, ‘Come, Malunkyaputta, lead the religious life under
me, and I will explain to you either that the world is eternal, or that the world is not eternal … or
that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death?’”
“No, indeed, Reverend Sir.”
“Or did you ever say to me, ‘Reverend Sir, I will lead the religious life under the Blessed One, on
condition that the Blessed One explain to me either that the world is eternal, or that the world is
not eternal … or that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death?’”
“No, indeed, Reverend Sir….”
“That being the case, vain man, whom are you so angrily denouncing?
“Malunkyaputta, any one who should say, ‘I will not lead the religious life under the Blessed One
until the Blessed One shall explain to me either that the world is eternal. Or that the world is not
eternal … or that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death’; — that person would die,
Malunkyaputta, before the Tathagata had ever explained this to him.
“It is as if, Malunkyaputta, a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison,

and his friends and companions, his relatives and kinsfolk, were to procure for him a physician
or surgeon; and the sick man were to say, ‘I will not have this arrow taken out until I have
learned whether the man who wounded me belonged to the warrior caste, or to the Brahmin
caste, or to the agricultural caste, or to the menial caste.’
“Or again he were to say, ‘I will not have this arrow taken out until I have learned the name of
the man who wounded me, and to what clan he belongs.’
“Or again he were to say, ‘I will not have this arrow taken out until I have learned whether the
man who wounded me was tall, or short, or of the middle height.’
“Or again he were to say, ‘I will not have this arrow taken out until I have learned whether the
man who wounded me was black, or dusky, or of a yellow skin.’
“Or again he were to say, ‘I will not have this arrow taken out until I have learned whether the
man who wounded me was from this or that village, or town, or city.’ …
[Many similar possibilities are mentioned.]
“That man would die, Malunkyaputta, without ever having learned this.
“In exactly the same way, Malunkyaputta, any one who should say, ‘I will not lead the religious
life under the Blessed One until the Blessed One shall explain to me either that the world is
eternal, or that the world is not eternal … or that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after
death’; — that person would die, Malunkyaputta, before the Tathagata had ever explained this to
him.
“The religious life, Malunkyaputta, does not depend on the dogma that the world is eternal; nor
does the religious life, Malunkyaputta, depend on the dogma that the world is not eternal.
Whether the dogma obtain, Malunkyaputta, that the world is eternal, or that the world is not
eternal, there still remain birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair,
for the extinction of which in the present life I am prescribing….
“Accordingly, Malunkyaputta, bear always in mind what it is that I have not explained, and what
it is that I have explained. And what, Malunkyaputta, have I not explained? I have not explained,
Malunkyaputta, that the world is eternal; I have not explained that the world is not eternal; I have
not explained that the world is finite; I have not explained that the world is infinite; I have not
explained that the soul and the body are identical; I have not explained that the soul is one thing
and the body another; I have not explained that the saint exists after death; I have not explained
that the saint does not exist after death; I have not explained that the saint both exists and does
not exist after death; I have not explained that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after
death. And why, Malunkyaputta, have I not explained this? Because, Malunkyaputta, this profits
not, nor has to do with the fundamentals of religion, nor tends to aversion, absence of passion,
cessation, quiescence, the supernatural faculties, supreme wisdom, and Nirvana; therefore I have
not explained it.

“And what, Malunkyaputta, have I explained? Misery, Malunkyaputta, have I explained; the
origin of misery have I explained; the cessation of misery have I explained; and the path leading
to the cessation of misery have I explained. And why, Malunkyaputta, have I explained this?
Because, Malunkyaputta, this does profit, has to do with the fundamentals of religion, and tends
to aversion, absence of passion, cessation, quiescence, knowledge, supreme wisdom, and
Nirvana; therefore have I explained it. Accordingly, Malunkyaputta, bear always in mind what it
is that I have not explained, and what it is that I have explained.”
Thus the Blessed One spoke and, delighted, the venerable Malunkyaputta applauded the speech
of the Blessed One.

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