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The Three Turnings of the Wheel

The Zero Turning


In the Hua Yen tradition it is said, that the Buddha first laid out the complete picture by way of
the ekayana in the Avatamsaka sutra. Since no one was able to get it, he then went back to the
first turning.
The First Turning
Time: a few days after the Buddha’s enlightenment
Place: at the deer park in Sarnath near Varanasi (the modern Benares).
Teacher: the Buddha when he first decided to teach
Dharma: Sutra: in a narrow sense it was set out in the Dharmachakra-pravartana-sutra1, the
Sutra Setting in Motion the Turning of the Wheel.
In a wider interpretation it includes the whole Pali canon and the Sanskrit agamas.
Shastra: the original early root texts of the Vaibhashika and Sarvastivada; the great
abhidharma compendia such as the Mahavibhasa, Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma-
kosha & Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga.
Schools: Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Theravada
Content: the sixteen divisions of the four noble truths, which includes: the three
marks of existence, the four seals, the five skandhas, the twelve ayatanas, the
eighteen dhatus and the twelve nidanas.
Audience: an assembly of gods and humans. The ascetic Kaundinya and his associates
Ashvajit, Bashpa, Mahanaman and Bhadrika; an assembly of gods presented a gift
of a golden wheel with a thousand spokes and a conch; when the Buddha started
teaching, two deer came and sat in front of this golden wheel, a male and a female
deer.
The Second Turning
In the Astasahasrika-Prajñaparamita-Sutra the gods rejoice at the Buddha’s teaching and they
proclaim:
We now, indeed see the second turning of the wheel of dharma taking place. 2
Name: The dharmachakra of no characteristics3
Time: 16 years after the enlightenment of the Buddha. As for the western view: Edward
Conze posits four phases in the development of the paramita sutra: a. the
elaboration of the basic text, the Astasahasrika-prajñaparamita (around -100 -
+100); b. the expansion of the text (100-300); c. the restatement of the doctrine in
short sutras and verse summaries (300-500) and finally d. a period of tantric
influence.
Place: Vulture Peak (Grdhakuta) Mountain near Rajagriha
Teacher: the Buddha at a later age *research*
Dharma: Sutra: the sutras of the Prajñaparamita, along with many more mahayana sutras.
According to Buston all the major versions of the prajñaparamita, the editions in
8000, 10,000, 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 verses were spoken by the Buddha simulta-
neously; others say that the Buddha did not speak at all but was heard by everyone
according to capacity.
Shastra: the teachings of the Madhyamaka schools, especially the Mula-madhya-
mika-karikas, the Madhyamakavatara, etc.

1 Pali version in Vinaya, I. Sanskrit in Mahavastu III. Commentary in Nyanatiloka: Fundamentals of Buddhism.
2 Conze, The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary, p.150
3 Tenet Sourcebook, p.212.
Schools: all the schools of the Rangtong Madhyamaka , such as the Prasangika, the
Svatantrika-Madhyamaka, the Yogachara-Madhyamaka, etc.
Content: the teachings on the lack of inherent characteristics, the sixteen modes of
emptiness. In addition, the ‘hidden topic’ of the second turning is the five paths
and the ten bhumis.
Audience: a vast assembly of bhikshus and bodhisattvas.
The Third Turning
The Samdhinirmocanasutra says:
First the four truths,
In the middle, the absence of characteristics
Finally, the turning that excellently and thoroughly distinguishes [the provisional from the
definitive and the completely false from the actual and genuine].4
Name: The dharmachakra of thorough distinction
Time: (not specified). The Samdhinirmocana is dated at around ***
Place: Shravasti (but also Vaisali, Mount Malaya, Bodhgaya, and others).
Teacher: (not specified)
Dharma: Sutra: those sutras which distinguish between neyartha & nitartha. These include
the Samdhinirmocana-Sutra, the Lankavatra-Sutra, the Samadhiraja-Sutra, the
Avatamsaka-Sutra and the ten Tathagatagarbha-sutras such as the Mahayana
Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Tathagatagarbha-Sutra, the Shrimaladevi-Simhanada-
Sutra so on5;.
Shastra: the writings of Asanga & Vasubandhu, especially the five works of
Maitreyanatha. The works of Dolpopa, Rangjung Dorje and Taranatha.
Schools: the Yogachara, the Shentong or Mahamadhyamaka; Hua-Yen and other
schools connected with the
Content: the three natures, the three turnings, the distinction between nitartha &
neyartha; buddha nature, the eight consciousnesses.
Audience: an assembly of bodhisattvas.
Sources
Buston: History of Buddhism in India.
Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche: Tenet Sourcebook, Introduction
Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thaye: Gaining Certainty about the Provisional and Definitive Meanings in the
Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma, The Two Truths and Dependent Arising. (Treasury of
Knowledge, Chapter VII, Section 2).
Khedrub Je: Fundamentals of the Buddhist Tantra, pp.43ff (Gelug view)
Tarthang Tulku: Lineage of Diamond Light, pp.98-103.
Thrangu Rinpoche: On the Meaning of the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma, Showing that they
are not Contradictory. In: Nalandakirti Journal.
Thrangu Rinpoche: The Open Door to Emptiness, pp.1-5.
Reginald Ray, Indestructible Truth, pp.363-447.

4Kongtrül, p.26.
5The ten Tathagatagarbha-sutras are: Tathagatagarbha-sutra, Dharanishvaraparprccha (=Tathagata-mahakaruna-
nirdesha-sutra), Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Arya-Angulimala-Sutra, Jñanalokalamkara-Sutra, Shrimaladevi-
Simhanada-Sutra, Anunatvapurnatvanirdesha-Sutra, Mahabheriharaka-Sutra, Avikalpapravesha-dharani and the
Samdhinirmocana-Sutra.