Many years ago, Venerable Sucitto began to write out in calligraphy the first sermon of the Buddha, the “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta” or the “Discourse on Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma.” His original intention was to present me with an esthetically pleasing gift as a gesture of his gratitude and appreciation.
The Sutta is one that most monks and nuns have memorized and chant regularly, as we used to do and as is still done regularly in monasteries in Thailand. In this discourse, the Buddha offers the teaching of the Four Noble Truths: the Truth of Dukkha, Suffering or Unsatisfactoriness; the Truth of Samudaya, the Cause of Suffering; the Truth of Nirodha, the Cessation of Suffering; and the Truth of Magga, the Path leading to the Cessation of Suffering.
This is the essential teaching of the Buddha which leads his followers to liberation from ignorance and it is the ground of our practice. We reflect on the Four Noble Truths until we have insight and profound understanding, and the realization of these Truths for ourselves is the aim of Buddhist meditation. All Buddhists agree that this is the fundamental teaching, and, at inter-Buddhist meetings, we can avoid emphasizing the differences between the Mahayana and Theravada traditions through references to the Noble Truths.
In spite of this, or maybe because of it, the teachings seem to be taken for granted or treated as basic material for beginners. In Thailand, the Four Noble Truths are frequently recited and pronounced in perfunctory references in which they are reduced to the seemingly insignificant words of Duk-Samuday-Nirodh-Mag (Thai derivations of the Pali). Then a more advanced teaching is announced or other aspects of Buddhism are described, commented upon and debated at length. So the essential teaching is given cursory acknowledgment but is not properly understood. This seems to happen to many religions: the heart becomes hidden under many added layers; the original jewel is smothered under filigree.
And yet the marvel of this essential teaching is that it stands alone and really needs no other comments or additions. As a tool for practice, it is perfect. If one reflects and investigates one’s own experience of life in the context of these Truths, then delusion disappears and profound insight into the Truth is realized.
Art can be a means to point to Ultimate Truth, the way to that Truth and the myriad obstacles that cover and hide it; highly personal images can take us to the impersonal Truth. In this way, Venerable Sucitto’s work began to take on various unique elaborations which illuminate the text. Over the years, he developed a style that reflects his own deep understanding and his ability to manifest ideas in forms that arouse our own interest in studying and investigating the Four Noble Truths. The images range from minute squiggles, Celtic knots, dots, stars, flowers and knotted roots; to empty landscapes, sun rays and light; to the countless forms of beings from hell to heaven. All the images and his stylized calligraphy are spontaneous creations from his mind.
Venerable Sucitto’s series of paintings starts with the statement: Evam me sutam (“Thus have I heard”) placed at the centre of the Dhammacakka, the Wheel of Dhamma, that was set rolling through the recitation of this sermon. The Wheel, which is the main feature of this painting, is covered in traditionally auspicious symbols. From the bottom border which is filled with tortured hell beings ascend coarse, twisted, serpent-shaped roots. These change as they rise up the sides into leaf and flower designs, which in turn give way to more angelic shapes on the top border. The cosmos with its infinite variety of permutations and convolutions is now to be reflected upon in terms of the liberating Dhamma rather than grasped and rejected according to humanity’s desires and fears. All conditions are impermanent: the abstract concepts of nothingness or “neither-perception-nor-non-perception,” the coarse, perverted insanities of hell, and all of the possibilities in between these extremes. “All conditions are impermanent” is a reflective statement that encourages us to look at the conditioned realm as an object, no longer blindly becoming hypnotized by or absorbed in it. Enlightenment is in the Right Knowing.
One of my favorite frames is found in the chapter entitled, “Light in the World.” It portrays the scene after the Buddha’s sermon was delivered: “And a great measureless radiance surpassing the very nature of the devas was displayed in the world.” The painting is of two bhikkhus receiving alms at sunrise. Indeed, there is a measureless radiance in the freshness of the sunrise and purity and generosity of both the monks and the lay people making the offering—a timelessness and humility in the goodness of human life in ordinary daily activity.
The last painting, “Dhammacakkappavattana suttam nitthitam,” mirrors the Wheel with the footprints of the Buddha. The Dhammacakka that was set rolling is still rolling. The Sangha is still listening, contemplating, reflecting and practicing accordingly.
I have encouraged Venerable Sucitto to write a commentary on the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta to accompany his fine paintings as an expression of an individual human being who has contemplated this Sutta in his own practice. Venerable Sucitto’s ability to describe his insights in words is equally impressive. The formed and formless realms are explained in words as well as in pictures, and, of course, it is the mind of Venerable Sucitto that is being exposed for our interest and inspiration, or our bewilderment. They are all there, from “Evam” to “Nitthitam,” in vibrant color: the six realms of existence—celestial Brahmas to hideous hell beings—all arising and ceasing in the mind.
I wish to express my gratitude to Venerable Sucitto for making the offering and to Khun Vanee Lamsam, a longtime and dedicated supporter, for sponsoring the printing of a special edition of this marvellous work for free distribution so that many beings may benefit from it.
The Dhammacakka is still rolling on.
Venerable Sumedho Bhikkhu
Amaravati Buddhist Monastery