It is widely recognized that the first teaching of Reverend Gotama was given in the deer park at what was then called Isipatane and is now called Sarnath outside the ancient city of Benares (now Varanasi.) The discourse is given to the five kinsmen with whom Gotama has performed ascetic practices for six years in a cave across the river from Gaya. The discourse is in the second section of the last chapter of the Samyutta Nikaya, page 420 in the Pali Text Society Edition. He here proclaims the Four Noble Truths:
The true reality of suffering
The true reality of the origin of suffering
The true reality of the cessation of suffering
The true reality of the way leading to cessation of suffering
Before doing so he tells the five kinsmen that they should avoid the two extremes: pursuit of sensual happiness on the one hand and pursuit of self-mortification on the other. Gotama and his five companions have just gone though a strenuous six years of ascetic practices. He leaves the cave and makes his way (with the help of a bowl of rice pudding from the lay woman Sujata) across the river to Gaya, where he achieves his famous enlightenment. Gotama, with reluctance, is convinced that he needs to tell the world of the truths which he has discovered in his time of meditation at Gaya. He starts with the group with whom he has spent so much time, and they do not initially embrace his views.
I must note that this background is not contained in this sutta. The story has been collected from other sources, some of them of questionable verity. Some of the background in contained in Digha Nikaya 14, The Mahapaddana Sutta, which is the story of past Buddhas. This is the sutta that contains a description of the 32 marks, an example of the parts of the Pali Canon that stretch the credibility of a modern reader.
Since there has been much discussion of the nature of Gotama’s views about the soul, “attan” in Pali, I would like to point out the two mentions of atta in this seminal sutta. The first mention of atta is in the reference to self-mortification. This seems to me an innocent reference, certainly not one which would contribute to a view that Gotama thought that atta was eternal. The second reference to atta is near to the end of the sutta where the term attamana is mentioned. The Chatta Sangayana Tipitika dictionary list this as “Rapt, delighted, joyful” which I take to be part of the linguistic background of the term attan in Pali and not an assumption or suggestion of Eternalism.
Back to the main storyline: the way recommended is the middle way between the extremes of self-indulgence and asceticism, the “majjhimà patipadà” This middle way is said to produce knowledge, which leads to nibbana. It is a noble path with eight factors:
He then goes on to explain what suffering (dukkha) is: birth, old age, sickness, death, being joined to what is not dear, not to obtain what one longs for; in brief, the five khandhas that provide fuel for attachment. Then he explains how suffering arises: that craving which leads to continuation in existence, craving for continuation, craving for discontinuation. The third truth is the truth of cessation of suffering; the complete fading away and cessation without remainder of that craving. The last truth is proclaimed to be the practice leading to the end of suffering: the eight factors mentioned above. These are not further explained in this sutta. He says that these truths were previously not heard. Only after discovering these four did Gotama declare that he was fully awakened. Sure he is, he says, that this is his last rebirth. Then Kondanna, one of the five, arises and says that he understands: that “whatever is patterned with an origination, all that is patterned with a cessation.” This ties dependent origination in with the Four Truths.
This is the end of the sutta. No eternal soul, just the empirical discovery of the nature of suffering and its cause: craving. By giving up that craving, the reward is not eternal life, but an end to rebirth, “Unshakable is the liberation of my mind. This is my last birth. Now there is no more renewed existence” in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation. Not a terribly bracing prospect compared to the eternal rewards promised by almost all of the world’s religions, but one which nevertheless provides the justification for ethical behavior (the eightfold path) here in this dusty world.