Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma

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|BookTitle=Books/Creation and Completion (2002)
 
|BookTitle=Books/Creation and Completion (2002)
 
|AuthorPage=People/Harding, S.
 
|AuthorPage=People/Harding, S.
|TopCitation=Excerpted from Jamgön Kongtrul and Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. ''Creation and Completion: Essential Points of Tantric Meditation''. Translated by Sarah Harding. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002 (First published 1996.), pp. 2-4.
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|TopCitation=Harding, Sarah, trans. "Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma." In ''Creation and Completion: Essential Points of Tantric Meditation'', 2–4. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002.
 
|Content='''The First Turning'''<br>
 
|Content='''The First Turning'''<br>
 
The great variety of Buddhist teachings that arose in India over the next millennium are classified into the three "turnings of the wheel of Dharma."<ref>''chos 'khor rim pa gsum'', Skt. ''triparivartadharmacakrapravartana'': the early, the middle, and the last (''snga bar phyi gsum'') "turnings of the wheel of Dharma" are called, respectively, the Dharma turning of the four truths (''bden pa bzhi'i chos 'khor''); of absence of defining characteristics (''mtshan nyid med pa'i chos 'khor''); and of thorough distinction (''legs par rnam par phye ba'i chos 'khor''). The wheel is a metaphoric reference to the legendary universal king whose instrument of sovereignty is a wheel that subdues any territory without violence.</ref> They are all said to originate with the Buddha Shakyamuni during different phases of his teachings, at different places, speaking to different audiences, sometimes simultaneously to different audiences. In the first phase, the four noble truths<ref>''phags pa'i bden pa bzhi'', Skt. ''catvāryasatya'': first recorded in the first sermon of the Buddha, ''Dharmacakrapravartana Sūtra'', "Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma."</ref> were emphasized: the truth of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Since the first pair describe the reality of our experience of life—cyclic existence (''samsara'')— and the second pair encompass all the modes of transcendence of it (''nirvana''), there is nothing not included in this simple classification.
 
The great variety of Buddhist teachings that arose in India over the next millennium are classified into the three "turnings of the wheel of Dharma."<ref>''chos 'khor rim pa gsum'', Skt. ''triparivartadharmacakrapravartana'': the early, the middle, and the last (''snga bar phyi gsum'') "turnings of the wheel of Dharma" are called, respectively, the Dharma turning of the four truths (''bden pa bzhi'i chos 'khor''); of absence of defining characteristics (''mtshan nyid med pa'i chos 'khor''); and of thorough distinction (''legs par rnam par phye ba'i chos 'khor''). The wheel is a metaphoric reference to the legendary universal king whose instrument of sovereignty is a wheel that subdues any territory without violence.</ref> They are all said to originate with the Buddha Shakyamuni during different phases of his teachings, at different places, speaking to different audiences, sometimes simultaneously to different audiences. In the first phase, the four noble truths<ref>''phags pa'i bden pa bzhi'', Skt. ''catvāryasatya'': first recorded in the first sermon of the Buddha, ''Dharmacakrapravartana Sūtra'', "Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma."</ref> were emphasized: the truth of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Since the first pair describe the reality of our experience of life—cyclic existence (''samsara'')— and the second pair encompass all the modes of transcendence of it (''nirvana''), there is nothing not included in this simple classification.

Latest revision as of 22:50, 31 July 2020

Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma

Harding, Sarah, trans. "Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma." In Creation and Completion: Essential Points of Tantric Meditation, 2–4. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002.

The First Turning
The great variety of Buddhist teachings that arose in India over the next millennium are classified into the three "turnings of the wheel of Dharma."[1] They are all said to originate with the Buddha Shakyamuni during different phases of his teachings, at different places, speaking to different audiences, sometimes simultaneously to different audiences. In the first phase, the four noble truths[2] were emphasized: the truth of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Since the first pair describe the reality of our experience of life—cyclic existence (samsara)— and the second pair encompass all the modes of transcendence of it (nirvana), there is nothing not included in this simple classification.

      Among the important concepts revealed during this phase was the explanation of the totally dependent and interrelated nature of all phenomenal reality.[3] This is said to be the overarching vision that the Buddha experienced during the night of his awakening. If one can understand the intricate relationship of all phenomena, and particularly of one's own emotional and conceptual patterns, then the cycle of suffering can be broken. An in-depth analysis of the process of suffering also reveals that the notion of an intrinsically, independently existing "self is at the bottom of it. This is considered to be a false notion, since upon direct examination through meditation and analysis, such a self cannot be found. Ignorance is the belief in this myth of the self and the dualistic thinking that it spawns. In protecting the self and distinguishing what is other than it, the emotional reactions of attachment and aversion along with many other "afflictive emotions"[4] occur. These in turn give rise to actions and their consequences (karma). These are the sources of suffering. So the idea of nonself[5] is another crucial idea presented in the first turning teachings. These concepts form the basis for all further developments in Buddhist thought.

      The people who received, practiced, and accomplished the teachings of this early phase of Buddhism were called arhats.[6] This group includes most of the earliest disciples. The lifestyle that was stressed was one of renunciation and moral discipline, and the goal was to attain one's own liberation from the cycle of existence. These teachings developed over time into at least eighteen separate schools. Today they are represented by the School of the Elders (Theravada), prevalent in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. This path was later called the "Lesser Vehicle" (Hinayana) by other traditions.


The Second Turning
The second phase of teachings coincided with the wisdom literature,[7] a new phase of literature that began to spread between 100 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. and continued to develop for centuries. The two great ideas emphasized in this phase were emptiness and compassion.[8]Emptiness is a further development of nonself and of the interdependent nature of phenomena. Not only was the self discovered to be empty of any independent existence, but so too was all phenomena. The lack of independent existence of phenomena is emptiness, and this truth is called the absolute truth.[9] On an ordinary level, the interrelated existence of phenomena and the functioning of cause and effect (karma) are considered the relative truth.[10] To comprehend these two truths simultaneously is to maintain a "middle path" without falling into extreme notions of either existence or non-existence. With no ground to stand on and no concepts to cling to, the causes of suffering are no longer operating. This is wisdom, the opposite of ignorance, which must be perceived experientially through meditative practice, not only by philosophical contemplation.

      Compassion is the recognition that other beings are embroiled in lives of suffering exactly because they lack this understanding of emptiness. Their suffering is not inevitable, but it is self-perpetuating unless insight into the cyclic pattern arises. The person who begins to comprehend the true nature of emptiness naturally feels less self-cherishing and develops concern for others who exist interdependently. Compassion in turn promotes the experience of selflessness. Thus compassion and emptiness, or wisdom, are seen as the two necessary qualities to cultivate together on the Buddhist path, like the two wings of a bird.

      The people who received, practiced, and accomplished these teachings were called bodhisattvas.[11] The lifestyle emphasized was one of great compassion and good deeds for the sake of others, as well as meditative discipline. For this, a monastic life was not necessarily relevant, so laypeople could be equally involved. The goal was the full enlightenment of all sentient beings, and thus it came to be called the "Great Vehicle," or Mahayana.


The Third Turning
The third phase was again based on these same concepts, but with a further development, that of buddha nature,[12] the inherent potential for enlightenment. This seemed to spring out of the meditative experience of a radiant awareness, or knowing capacity, inherent in the mind that could not exactly be just empty. Speculation on emptiness can lead to the question of whether the essential nature of everything is empty of a concrete self and other dualistic notions, or whether everything is truly empty in and of itself. The direct experience of intrinsic awareness would tend to indicate the former, and this essence that could be experienced came to be called buddha nature. This nature is an integral part of every single sentient being and endows that being with the opportunity to become enlightened. Enlightenment then comes to mean the recognition and full realization of this true nature of the buddha that one already is.

      The goal is still the liberation of all sentient beings, and so the teachings of this turning belong to the Mahayana, and the practitioners are bodhisattvas. The literature connected with this phase as well as with the first two turnings are called sutras,[13] the discourses attributed to Buddha Shakyamuni. The idea of buddha nature that developed in this last phase is crucial for an understanding of another kind of literature that existed in Buddhist India, that of the tantras.


Tantra
Tantra[14] refers to a special kind of literature of esoteric teachings and also to those teachings themselves and their practice. The path of tantra is also called Vajrayana,[15] the "Indestructible Vehicle." Thus it is often classified as a third vehicle, although it is actually part of the Mahayana since the intention is the liberation of all beings. Another name for it is the "secret mantra,"[16] reflecting the widespread use of special sounds and syllables called mantras. There were both Hindu and Buddhist tantras in ancient India, and it is unclear how much one influenced the other. The Buddhist tantras are said to have been taught by the Buddha Shakyamuni manifesting in various forms on specific occasions to special groups of adepts. The main emphasis in Buddhist tantras is the natural purity or intrinsic perfection of all being. The method for realizing this is to cultivate pure vision,[17] or sacred outlook, at all times. The lifestyle tends to emphasize the unconventional in order to break through ordinary barriers and personal inhibitions to a nonconceptual understanding of true nature. The techniques that are taught in the tantras are visualization of enlightened forms (deities and mandalas[18]) and cultivation of the subtle energies of the psychophysical body, along with recognition of the ultimate inherent nature. These two are the stages of creation and completion that are the subject of the text translated here.

  1. chos 'khor rim pa gsum, Skt. triparivartadharmacakrapravartana: the early, the middle, and the last (snga bar phyi gsum) "turnings of the wheel of Dharma" are called, respectively, the Dharma turning of the four truths (bden pa bzhi'i chos 'khor); of absence of defining characteristics (mtshan nyid med pa'i chos 'khor); and of thorough distinction (legs par rnam par phye ba'i chos 'khor). The wheel is a metaphoric reference to the legendary universal king whose instrument of sovereignty is a wheel that subdues any territory without violence.
  2. phags pa'i bden pa bzhi, Skt. catvāryasatya: first recorded in the first sermon of the Buddha, Dharmacakrapravartana Sūtra, "Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma."
  3. rten cing 'brel bar 'byung ba, Skt. pratītyasamutpāda: the interdependent relationship, or "dependent origination," that is the nature of all phenomena. This idea is at the core of all Buddhist philosophy.
  4. nyon mongs pa, Skt. kleśa: the definition in the Great Tibetan Dictionary (bod kyi tshig mdzod chen mo) is: "mental events that incite one to unvirtuous actions and cause one's being to be very disturbed," (mi dge ba'i las bskul bas rang rgyud rab tu ma zhi bar byed pa'i sems byung), vol. 2, p. 970. The three main afflictive emotions, or "poisons," are desire, hatred, and stupidity.
  5. bdag med, Skt. anātman.
  6. dgra bcom pa: one who has conquered (bcom) the enemy (dgra) of afflictive emotion.
  7. shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa'i mdo sde, Skt. prajñāpāramitāsūtra: the teachings on the perfection of transcendent intelligence first appeared in India beginning around 100 B.C.E., according to Edward Conze. There are about forty texts, varying in size from 100,000 verses to a single letter: A. They represent the evolution of the emphasis on emptiness and compassion.
  8. stong pa nyid, Skt. śūnyatā and snying rje, Skt. karuṇā.
  9. don dam bden pa, Skt. paramārthasatya.
  10. kun rdzob bden pa, Skt. saṃvṛtisatya': these two truths (bden pa gnyis, Skt. satyadvaya), the absolute and the relative, are to be understood as inseparable.
  11. byang chub sems dpa', Skt. bodhisattva: "hero of awakening," the ideal Mahāyāna paradigm, who is completely devoted to the awakening of all sentient beings.
  12. de bzhin gshegs pa'i snying po, Skt. tathāgatagarbha; or bde bar gshegs pa'i snying po, Skt. sugatagarbha: literally, "the essence or womb of the one gone to suchness (or bliss)," in other words, a buddha.
  13. Sutras (mdo) are the discourses attributed to the Buddha Śākyamuni. They include the early teachings spoken directly by the Buddha, collected and preserved in the Pali canon during the early Buddhist councils, and texts that appeared much later, usually in Sanskrit, Prakrit, or Buddhist-hybrid Sanskrit, that are attributed to the influence of the Buddha and included in the Mahāyāna canon.
  14. rgyud, "continuity": refers both to the class of literature, both Hindu and Buddhist, and the teachings contained in that literature.
  15. rdo rje theg pa, Skt. vajrayana.
  16. gsang sngags, Skt. guhyamantra.
  17. dag snang: the vision or outlook that recognizes the innate perfection or purity of all phenomena. In tantra, this means specifically regarding all beings as deities, the surroundings as the pure lands of the buddhas, all sound as mantra, and all thoughts as intrinsic awareness. Also to always see one's spiritual teacher as a buddha.
  18. dkyil 'khor, Skt. maṇḍala: literally, center and circumference. A stylized configuration of peaceful or wrathful deities, or enlightened attributes, usually formed by a circle with a four-doored square within, representing the pure abode of the deities; may also represent the universe, psychic energy centers, and other correspondences.