From Bodh Gaya, the Buddha walked west nearly two hundred miles and crossed the Ganges River. He was still searching for a way to explain to others what he feared was unexplainable: the path to the enlightenment he himself had experienced. In a deer park in nearby Sarnath not far from the Ganges, he would try again. His five former companions were still practicing the austerities he himself had abandoned. The Buddha recalled:
"From far off they saw me coming and, on seeing me, made a pact with one another. 'Friends, here comes Siddhartha, living luxuriously, straying from his ascetic practice. He doesn't deserve to be bowed down to.’”
D. Max Moerman, scholar: "These are his buddies who were just disappointed and disgusted with him for giving in after they’d all been trying to starve themselves into enlightenment. So they’re a little distrustful at the beginning."
Kevin Trainor, scholar: "They refer to him as an equal and he then tells them, “No, that’s not the term you should use when you refer to a Tathagata, a being who’s gone beyond”, and so he sets them straight and they then become the first people to hear the content of what he realized under the Bodhi tree."
His first teaching would later be called, "Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma" because it brought the Buddha’s message into the world for the first time. He did not propound a dogma. Instead, he spoke from his own experience, out of his own heart. He had known the abandon of the sensualist and the rigors of the ascetic. Now, he would disavow both of them.
Mark Epstein, psychiatrist: "The Buddha said, 'I’ve discovered a new way to go and it’s not the path of asceticism, and it’s not the path of sensory indulgence. It’s the Middle Way.' What the Buddha was always doing was saying, 'everything needs to be balanced'. So the Middle Way was always balancing between excesses on this side, excesses on the other side.
“Fair goes the dancing when the Sitar is tuned.
Tune us the Sitar neither high nor low,
And we will dance away the hearts of men.
But the string too tight breaks, and the music dies.
The string too slack has no sound, and the music dies.
There is a middle way.
Tune us the Sitar neither low nor high.
And we will dance away the hearts of men.”
The path to enlightenment lay along the Middle Way, the Buddha taught, and the ascetics listened. Now, he would answer the question that six years before had provoked his spiritual journey—the question of suffering.
Moerman: "Buddhists don’t have a creation story. There is no creator deity. It’s not really of interest. It’s not an issue. What’s of interest is the problem of human suffering and the solution to human suffering. Pretty much everything else is beside the point."