Source Material: The Three Turnings of the Wheel

The “three turnings of the wheel” is a Buddhist metaphor for the setting in motion of new teachings, amounting to historic paradigm-shifts within Buddhism.  While most Buddhists identify themselves, knowingly or unknowingly, with one of the three, DeepDharma sees them as a continuous philosophical development, all deserving and worthy of our appropriation, attention and study.  They are contiguous and complementary, not independent, and certainly not competitive.

Briefly, the first turning was when the historic Buddha preached the discourse on the four noble truths (setting in motion the wheel of dharma); the second turning was with the emptiness/wisdom scriptures, particularly those of Nagarjuna in the 3rd century; and the third turning can be dated from the creation of the Mind-Only school of Buddhism by Vasubandhu (and his half-brother Asanga) which dates from sometime in the 4th to 5th century.

When we look closely, we see that the first turning lays the foundation for the second turning, and the second turning (which includes the first turning) lays the foundation for the third turning. In other words, the Four Noble Truths and the Pali canon hold the seeds of the second turning, the wisdom/emptiness literature, especially The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (the MMK), and together the first and second turnings hold the seeds of Mind-Only, the third turning.

 These turnings are best understood as ongoing dharmic development, and Buddhism is best practiced when all three are part of one’s study and beliefs. That was certainly the position of Master Yin Shun, the Chinese monk who the NY Times (and others) described as the greatest intellectual Buddhist of the 20th century.  Seen this way, as Master Yin Shun would say, it is the dharma being applied to the dharma—impermanence and change applied even to doctrine.

Renowned Buddhist academic, Jay Garfield, puts it this way: “In brief, we can say that the teachings of the first turning set out for us the general characterization of the nature of reality, the general characterization of Samsara, its causes, and the means for release from Samsara; the second turning teachings set out the nature of emptiness from the side of objects of knowledge, and the third turning teachings set out an understanding of emptiness from the side of the subject of knowledge. I think that if we see things this way, we see the three sets of teachings as complementary to one another rather than as in competition with one another and therefore as important to each of us.”

Below we present some key texts representing each of the turnings. The text for the first turning is a translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. In the second, texts are presented from various translators and groups, and for the third turning, Jay Garfield’s translation are used.

We so often rely on commentarial materials, both ancient and modern, to learn about Buddhism that we risk missing the profound value of reading and studying the original texts, so DeepDharma is presenting here just the original texts, with a few introductory words. Have a looksee!

 

 The First Turning of the Wheel

  • Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion
    Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56:11)

This was the Buddha’s first discourse after his awakening. While the main topic is the Four Noble Truths, the discourse (sutta) also refers to the concepts of the middle way, impermanence, and dependent origination. At some time in their studies, every serious student of Buddhism should have at least read this short sutta. Jay Garfield describes it this way: “This is the most important sutta in the entire Buddhist literature. If you are sent to a desert island and you get to take one text with you and you are trying to decide whether to take the Heart Sūtra or the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, give the Heart Sūtra to your best friend and take the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta….”  Personally, I (Carl) think the two are so foundational that, as a serious Buddhist practitioner, one should be thoroughly familiar with both.

The translation here is by Thanissaro Bhikkhu who translates the word dukkha as “stress” rather than the usual “suffering.” I have changed the translation back to “suffering,” to make the text, I believe, more readable. Otherwise, the translation is unchanged.

 I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Vārāṇasī in the Deer Park at Isipatana. There he addressed the group of five monks:

“There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure in connection with sensuality: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathāgata—producing vision, producing knowledge—leads to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding.

“And what is the middle way realized by the Tathāgata that—producing vision, producing knowledge—leads to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding? Precisely this noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is the middle way realized by the Tathāgata that—producing vision, producing knowledge—leads to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding.

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are suffering; association with the unbeloved is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not getting what is wanted is suffering. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are suffering.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of suffering: the craving that makes for further becoming—accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here and now there—i.e., craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: the remainderless fading and cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, and letting go of that very craving.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering: precisely this noble eightfold path—right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

“Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This is the noble truth of suffering … ‘This noble truth of suffering is to be comprehended’ … ‘This noble truth of suffering has been comprehended.’

“Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This is the noble truth of the origination of suffering … ‘This noble truth of the origination of suffering is to be abandoned’… ‘This noble truth of the origination of suffering has been abandoned.’

“Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This noble truth of the cessation of suffering is to be realized’ … ‘This noble truth of the cessation of suffering has been realized.’

“Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering is to be developed’ … ‘This noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering has been developed.”

“And, monks, as long as this—my three-round, twelve-permutation knowledge & vision concerning these four noble truths as they have come to be—was not pure, I did not claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening unexcelled in the cosmos with its devas, Māras, & Brahmās, in this generation with its contemplatives & brahmans, its royalty & commonfolk. But as soon as this—my three-round, twelve-permutation knowledge & vision concerning these four noble truths as they have come to be—was truly pure, then I did claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening unexcelled in the cosmos with its devas, Māras, & Brahmās, in this generation with its contemplatives & brahmans, its royalty & commonfolk. Knowledge & vision arose in me: ‘Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.’”

That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, the group of five monks delighted in the Blessed One’s words. And while this explanation was being given, there arose to Ven. Kondañña the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye: Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.

And when the Blessed One had set the Wheel of Dhamma in motion, the earth devas cried out: “Near Vārāṇasī, in the Deer Park at Isipatana, the Blessed One has set in motion the unexcelled Wheel of Dhamma that cannot be stopped by contemplative or brahman, deva, Māra, or Brahmā, or anyone at all in the cosmos.” On hearing the earth devas’ cry, the Devas of the Four Great Kings took up the cry… the Devas of the Thirty-three… the Devas of the Hours… the Contented Devas… the Devas Delighting in Creation … the Devas [Muses?] Wielding Power over the Creations of Others… the Devas of Brahmā’s Retinue took up the cry: “Near Vārāṇasī, in the Deer Park at Isipatana, the Blessed One has set in motion the unexcelled Wheel of Dhamma that cannot be stopped by contemplative or brahman, deva, Māra, or Brahmā, or anyone at all in the cosmos.”

So in that moment, that instant, the cry shot right up to the Brahmā worlds. And this ten-thousand-fold cosmos shivered & quivered & quaked, while a great, measureless radiance appeared in the cosmos, surpassing the effulgence of the deities.

Then the Blessed One exclaimed: “So you really know, Kondañña? So you really know?” And that is how Ven. Kondañña acquired the name Añña-Kondañña—Kondañña who knows.

The Second Turning of the Wheel

  • The Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra); and
  • Nagarjuna’s “Middle Way Philosophy,” a/k/a “Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” (The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, “MMK”)

The second turning, which can be seen as beginning Madhyamika Buddhism, sets out the idea of emptiness, from the standpoint of the emptiness of Self, objects, and knowledge. In addition, it explains Buddhist ethics and morality from the standpoint of compassion grounded in the wisdom of emptiness.

The Heart Sutra is roughly 50 lines—give or take, depending on the translation– of deeply compressed ideology about emptiness. There is a much longer version, but generally when we talk about The Heart Sutra, we mean the short version. The Heart Sutra is the pre-eminent Mahayana Buddhist sutra, and is often described as the most popular and most recited sutra in the entire Buddhist canon. Translations of this sutra vary greatly, so we offer three quite different versions here for your study and contemplation. Having a variety of translations of this sutra, we believe, will help with unpacking the meaning of the text.

The Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra)

Thich Nhat Hahn Translation

Avalokiteshvara
while practicing deeply with
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,
suddenly discovered that
all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,
and with this realization
he overcame all Ill-being.

“Listen Sariputra,
this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.

“Listen Sariputra,
all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;
their true nature is the nature of
no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Purity,
no Increasing no Decreasing.

“That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.

The Eighteen Realms of Phenomena
which are the six Sense Organs,
the six Sense Objects,
and the six Consciousnesses
are also not separate self entities.

The Twelve Links of Interdependent Arising
and their Extinction
are also not separate self entities.
Ill-being, the Causes of Ill-being,
the End of Ill-being, the Path,
insight and attainment,
are also not separate self entities.

Whoever can see this
no longer needs anything to attain.

Bodhisattvas who practice
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
see no more obstacles in their mind,
and because there
are no more obstacles in their mind,
they can overcome all fear,
destroy all wrong perceptions
and realize Perfect Nirvana.

“All Buddhas in the past, present and future
by practicing
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
are all capable of attaining
Authentic and Perfect Enlightenment.

“Therefore Sariputra,
it should be known that
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
is a Great Mantra,
the most illuminating mantra,
the highest mantra,
a mantra beyond compare,
the True Wisdom that has the power
to put an end to all kinds of suffering.
Therefore let us proclaim
a mantra to praise
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore.

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”

 

The Heart Sutra – Red Pine Translation

The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita, looked upon the five skandhas
and seeing they were empty of self-existence,
said, “Here, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form;
emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness; whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.
The same holds for sensation and perception, memory and consciousness.
Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are defined by emptiness not birth or destruction, purity or defilement, completeness or deficiency.
Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no memory and no consciousness;
no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind; no shape, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feeling and no thought;
no element of perception, from eye to conceptual consciousness;
no causal link, from ignorance to old age and death,
and no end of causal link, from ignorance to old age and death; no suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment. Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment,
bodhisattvas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.
All buddhas past, present and future
also take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and realize unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.
You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita, the mantra of great magic,
the unexcelled mantra,
the mantra equal to the unequalled,
which heals all suffering and is true, not false,
the mantra in Prajnaparamita spoken thus:
“Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.”

 

The Heart Sutra – Official Soto Zen Translation

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajña paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering. Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this. Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease. Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight … no realm of mind consciousness. There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance… neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment. With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajña paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana. All buddhas of past, present, and future rely on prajña paramita and thereby attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment. Therefore, know the prajña paramita as the great miraculous mantra, the great bright mantra, the supreme mantra, the incomparable mantra, which removes all suffering and is true, not false. Therefore we proclaim the prajña paramita mantra, the mantra that says: “Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.”

 

Nagarjuna’s Middle Way Philosophy, a/k/a Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way

(The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, the MMK)

This monumental and pivotal treatise is available in Jay Garfield’s translation at DeepDharma’s site: http://www.deepdharma.org/ancient-texts/middle-way-philosophy-mmk/. In addition, there is a DeepDharma commentary for this complex and sometimes inscrutable text at the site as well: http://www.deepdharma.org/our-commentaries/middle-way-philosophy/.

 

The Third Turning of the Wheel

  • Vasubandhu’s Treatise on the Three Natures (Trisvabhāvanirdeśa)

There are a number of discourses that could fit here as key discourses for the Mind-Only school of Buddhism. We have chosen to feature this discourse because it is detailed, comprehensive, clear, and short, only thirty eight 4-line verses, making it accessible in a way that many of the longer Mind-Only texts are not. This is a pivotal Vasubandhu text for presenting the fundamental metaphysical concepts that are Mind-Only.

 

1 The imagined, the other-dependent and
The consummate.
These are the Three Natures
Which should be deeply understood.
2 Arising through dependence on conditions and
Existing through being imagined,
It is therefore called other-dependent
And is said to be merely imaginary.
3 The eternal nonexistence
Of what appears in the way it appears,
Since it is never otherwise,
Is known as the nature of the consummate.
4 If anything appears, it is imagined.
The way it appears is as duality.
What is the consequence of its nonexistence?
The fact of nonduality!
5 What is the imagination of the nonexistent?
Since what is imagined absolutely never
Exists in the way it is imagined,
It is mind that constructs that illusion.
6 Because it is a cause and an effect,
The mind has two aspects.
As the foundation consciousness it creates thought;
Known as the emerged consciousness it has seven aspects.
7 The first, because it collects the seeds
Of suffering is called “mind.”
The second, because of the constant emergence
Of the various aspects of things is so called.
8 One should think of the illusory nonexistent
As threefold:
Completely ripened, grasped as other,
And as appearance.
9 The first, because it itself ripens,
Is the root consciousness.
The others are emergent consciousness,
Having emerged from the conceptualization of seer and seen.
10 Existence and nonexistence, duality and unity;
Freedom from affliction and afflicted;
Through characteristics, and through distinctions,
These natures are known to be profound.
11 Since it appears as existent
Though it is nonexistent,
The imagined nature
Is said to have the characteristics of existence and nonexistence.
12 Since it exists as an illusory entity
And is nonexistent in the way it appears
The other-dependent nature
Is said to have the characteristics of existence and nonexistence.
13 Since it is the nonexistence of duality
And exists as nonduality
The consummate nature
Is said to have the characteristics of existence and nonexistence.
14 Moreover, since as imagined there are two aspects,
But existence and nonexistence are unitary,
The nature imagined by the ignorant
Is said to be both dual and unitary.
15 Since as an object of thought it is dual,
But as a mere appearance it is unitary,
The other-dependent nature
Is said to be both dual and unitary.
16 Since it is the essence of dual entities
And is a unitary nonduality,
The consummate nature
Is said to be both dual and unitary.
17 The imagined and the other-dependent
Are said to be characterized by misery (due to ignorant craving).
The consummate is free of
The characteristic of desire.
18 Since the former has the nature of a false duality
And the latter is the nonexistence of that nature,
The imagined and the consummate
Are said not to be different in characteristic.
19 Since the former has the nature of nonduality,
And the latter has the nature of nonexistent duality,
The consummate and the imagined
Are said not to be different in characteristic.
20 Since the former is deceptive in the way it appears,
And the latter has the nature of its not being that way,
The other-dependent and the consummate
Are said not to be different in characteristic.
21 Since the former has the nature of a nonexistent duality,
And the latter is its nonexistence in the way it appears,
The other-dependent and the consummate
Are said not to be different in characteristic.
22 But conventionally,
The natures are explained in order and
Based on that one enters them
In a particular order, it is said.
23 The imagined is entirely conventional.
The other-dependent is attached to convention.
The consummate, cutting convention,
Is said to be of a different nature.
24 Having first entered into the nonexistence of duality
Which is the dependent, one understands
The nonexistent duality
Which is the imagined.
25 Then one enters the consummate.
Its nature is the nonexistence of duality.
Therefore it is explained
To be both existent and nonexistent.
26 These Three Natures
Have the characteristics of being noncognizable and nondual.
One is completely nonexistent; the second is therefore nonexistent.
The third has the nature of that nonexistence.
27 Like an elephant that appears
Through the power of a magician’s mantra—
Only the percept appears,
The elephant is completely nonexistent.
28 The imagined nature is the elephant;
The other-dependent nature is the visual percept;
The nonexistence of the elephant therein
Is explained to be the consummate.
29 Through the root consciousness
The nonexistent duality appears.
But since the duality is completely nonexistent,
There is only a percept.
30 The root consciousness is like the mantra.
Reality can be compared to the wood.
Imagination is like the perception of the elephant.
Duality can be seen as the elephant.
31 When one understands how things are,
Perfect knowledge, abandonment,
And accomplishment—
These three characteristics are simultaneously achieved.
32 Knowledge is nonperception;
Abandonment is nonappearance;
Attainment is accomplished through nondual perception.
That is direct manifestation.
33 Through the nonperception of the elephant,
The vanishing of its percept occurs;
And so does the perception of the piece of wood.
This is how it is in the magic show.
34 In the same way through the nonperception of duality
There is the vanishing of duality.
When it vanishes completely,
Nondual awareness arises.
35 Through perceiving correctly,
Through seeing the nonreferentiality of mental states,
Through following the Three Wisdoms,
One will effortlessly attain liberation.
36 Through the perception of mind-only
One achieves the nonperception of objects;
Through the nonperception of objects
There is also the nonperception of mind.
37 Through the nonduality of perception,
Arises the perception of the fundamental nature of reality.
Through the perception of the fundamental nature of reality
Arises the perception of the radiant.
38 Through the perception of the radiant,
And through achieving the three supreme Buddha-bodies,
And through possessing Bodhi:
Having achieved this, the sage will benefit him or herself and others.