Here comes an interesting dilemma - now that the Buddha had realized enlightenment, what should he do? (Oh, by the way, this is a continuation of a story from yesterday - the last several days, actually - not a report on recent events.) His enlightenment included the realization that all sentient beings had simultaneously achieved enlightenment with him, as there is no difference between self and others or between Buddhas and ordinary beings, and yet he also understood that not all sentient beings understood that.
To make things more difficult, what was there to say? There was nothing to teach, as his realization wasn't some sort of intellectual solving of a problem or the arrival at a certain conclusion, it was "just" an awakening. Words would only confuse the issue more. But you have to say something.
So out of his great compassion and resolve to relieve the suffering of the human race, the Buddha elected not to disappear into nirvana, never to be seen again, but to enter the world of people and words and ideas and try to share his experience, and lead others to it as well.
So he arose from under the ficus tree (or "bodhi" tree, for "wisdom") and went off at first to see his old teachers Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra. Surely they would understand his realization, and he felt he owed them the favor of sharing his enlightenment. But he learned that they both had died, so he went instead to the forest to find his old friends, the five wandering ascetics.
When they saw him approaching, they first yelled at him to go away. In their minds, he had let them down by abandoning their ascetic practices and following his "Middle Way." But as he got closer, they saw a difference in him and they instinctively knew that he was on to something.
So he assembled them all together and gave his first sermon, the Dharmachakrapravartana Sutra (spell-check that!) , or The First Turning of the Dharma Wheel. The word "sutra" comes from the same root as the word "suture," and literally translated means "string." In Buddhism, it refers to a string of words that the Buddha said, usually as a sermon or a similar formal public talk, and that have been passed down through the generations, at first orally and only much later committed to writing. Sutras can be as short as a single page or multiple volumes in length (quite the memorization feat!). "Dharma" has several meanings, but here it is referring to its simplest definition, the teachings of the Buddha. So the dharma is the teaching itself, and the sutra is the form of the lesson.
But don't get too attached to words, especially slippery ones like "Buddha" and "dharma." "Dharma," for example, also means "anything you perceive to be true or real" and "all existent phenomena." To complicate things more, these are not alternate meanings, like "rock" can mean either "stone" or a type of music, but never both; "dharma" does in fact mean all three things simultaneously all the time. So when the Buddha was first turning the string of words that constituted the first sutra, the dharma being expounded was simultaneously his lesson, that which is perceived to be true and all existent phenomena, but we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
In this first sutra, the Buddha for the first time articulated the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Before getting into these, though, two points - first, the Buddha continued to preach over the next 40 years or so, quite a long career compared to most other spiritual leaders, and stayed on topic his entire life. At the end of his life, as he lay dying those many years later, out of great compassion he permitted one last visitor to ask him a question, which was basically about whether some other teacher was trustworthy or not. Buddha replied not to judge the teacher but the teaching. "Does he teach the Four Noble Truths? Does he teach the Eightfold Path?," the Buddha advised his visitor to consider, so at the very end of his life, his last lesson was basically the same as his first - the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
Second point: the five ascetics became his first disciples and were the first to hear the dharma, but were not the first to experience enlightenment based on following the Buddha's teaching. The first passing on of actual enlightenment, the first mind-to-mind transmission of the Buddha's realization, was to his later disciple Mahakashapa, and occurred when the Buddha was on Mount Grdhrakuta (Vulture Peak). The Buddha turned a flower in his fingers and held it up before the assembled listeners. Everyone was silent, but only Mahakashapa understood, and smiled in recognition of this revelation. As described in the Chinese collection of stories, The Gateless Gate, the Buddha said: "I have the eye of the true teaching, the heart of nirvana, the true aspect of non-form and the ineffable stride of Dharma. It is not expressed by words, but especially transmitted beyond teaching. This teaching I have given to Mahakashapa."
This first transmission of enlightenment underscores that the teaching, the true dharma, transcends the words - a special teaching outside the sutras. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, then, merely describe a process, a path if you will, to help the follower get to the point of this special transmission, but are not the "thing" itself. The dharma is the teaching, which transcends all words; the sutra is the form of the lesson, the words that should never be confused with the teaching itself.
Next: The First Noble Truth.