Before Turning the Wheel of Dharma and delivering the teaching on the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha had to convince the five ascetics who attended him prior to his enlightenment that he was worth listening to.
While approaching the Deer Park at Isipatana, the five ascetics saw the Buddha. Still wary of the Buddha’s supposed indulgence and turning away from ascetic practice, they decided they would prepare a seat for him but would not honor or rise up for him. Nonetheless, as soon as the Buddha arrived, they found that they could not hold to their words. They went to meet him, took his bowl and robe, prepared a seat for him, and set out water and a footstool and a towel.
They addressed the Buddha by name and as friend, but the Buddha interjected. He told the five ascetics not to call the Perfect One ‘friend’ or by name. He continued:
Listen, bhikkhus, the Deathless has been attained. I shall instruct you. I shall teach you the Dhamma. By practicing as you are instructed you will, by realizing it yourselves here and now through direct knowledge, enter upon and abide in that supreme goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the house life into homelessness.
But the five ascetics merely questioned how the Perfect One could have attained any such distinction after giving up ascetic practice to indulge in luxury.
The Buddha responded by saying that he was not self-indulgent and had not reverted to luxury, that he was accomplished and fully enlightened. He then repeated his same injunction that he would teach them and they would learn. But again the five ascetics questioned the Perfect One’s distinction, given his reversion to the life of luxury.
And again, in response to the ascetics second questioning, the Buddha repeated his denials of self-indulgence, his claim about being fully enlightened, and his injunction that he would teach them the Dhamma. A third time, the five ascetics questioned the Buddha again, doubtful that someone who had reverted to luxury could attain enlightenment.
Finally, the Buddha changed his discourse and asked whether the five ascetics had ever known him to speak in such a way as he was speaking then. They responded, “No, Lord.” The Buddha then repeated his claims as he done before.
Eventually, the five ascetics were convinced by the Buddha. Their hearts opened to the Dharma. It was at this time that the Buddha Turned the Wheel of Dharma at the Deer Park at Isipatana.
Even at this important juncture, when the Wheel of Dharma was turned for the first time in our era, we see a clash of personalities: the ascetics holding on to their view of the Buddha as indulgent and the Buddha unable to say more than his repeated claims to attaining the Deathless. We also see the patience of the five ascetics, who could have turned away from the Buddha like Upaka, but stuck it out with their wary questioning.
The Buddha’s enlightenment testifies to the potential for Awakening within each of us, the potential to manifest Buddha-action and Buddha-mind moment after moment.
But it was the open hearts of the five ascetics, their willingness to wait out what the Buddha had to say, that helped to make the initial transmission of the teachings possible.
And from that small gathering of wary, excited, questioning, blissful, and doubtful spiritual seekers, the Wheel of Dharma was turned for the benefit of all beings.
(Note: This story of the Buddha and the five ascetics at the Deer Park at Isipatana is paraphrased from Bhikkhu Nānamoli’s The Life of the Buddha, pages 41 – 42.)