What the Buddha Taught

The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche outlines the Buddha’s teachings, broken down by the three turnings of the wheel of dharma.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
1 May 2006

With great compassion and incomparable skill, the enlightened master Buddha Shakyamuni taught in any way that would lead beings on a correct path to liberation and, finally, to buddhahood. Sometimes the Buddha taught in a way that led his disciples gradually to an understanding of the absolute nature of reality, and in these situations, he taught about relative reality first. At other times he taught the ultimate nature directly and explicitly.

Over the course of his forty-five years of teaching, the Buddha turned the wheel of dharma three times, initiating new cycles of teachings for the benefit of sentient beings. These three turnings are commonly known as the dharmachakra (“dharma wheel”) of the four noble truths, the dharmachakra of essencelessness or non-characteristics, and the dharmachakra of full or thorough distinction.

The first turning of the wheel of dharma took place in Deer Park at Sarnath, not long after the Buddha’s enlightenment. At this time, Buddha presented teachings on the four noble truths, karma, and the selflessness of the person. These teachings form the basis for what is called the “common vehicle,” also known as the path of individual liberation, or the vehicle of the “listeners” or “hearers.”

The second and third turnings form the basis of the vehicle known as the Mahayana. The second turning took place at Rajagriha on Vulture Peak Mountain. There the Buddha taught the Prajnaparamita Sutras, or the Sutras of Transcendent Knowledge. In this phase of his teaching, Buddha emphasized the emptiness or lack of true existence of both self and phenomena. The third turning took place in various cities, beginning in Vaishali. At this time, Buddha presented the teachings on tathagatagarbha, or buddhanature. These focus on the luminous nature of emptiness and reveal that the potential for buddhahood has always been present within our hearts. At the same time, in the final turning of the wheel of dharma, Buddha clearly distinguished between the indicative and definitive meanings of his various teachings.

First Turning: The Four Noble Truths

In his first sermon, addressed to his five previous students, the Buddha taught the four noble truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to cessation. Buddha presented these four truths in sets of two: the cause and result of samsara and the cause and result of nirvana. Samsara refers to a state of existence that is characterized by a predominance of suffering, and nirvana refers to the state of liberation from suffering as well as to the cessation of its causes.

When we examine these four noble truths, we see that the first truth is the result—suffering—caused by the second truth, the origin of suffering. The third truth is the result—nirvana—which is realized through the fourth noble truth, the path that leads to cessation of suffering. We see that the four noble truths are causes and effects: the first two truths are the cause and effect of samsara; the second two truths are the cause and effect of nirvana, or enlightenment.

The Truth of Suffering

The clear message of the first noble truth is that all of samsaric existence and all of our experiences of it are characterized by suffering, regardless of the type of life we may be leading. However, as human beings, we have both the opportunity and capacity to work with our suffering.

The first step to bringing suffering onto the path is to recognize and acknowledge it, instead of denying it. Once we can do that, we have some ground for developing the further recognition that all our experiences, whether pleasurable or painful, have the same nature of suffering. Denial does not alleviate our suffering, nor does it help to free us from suffering and its causes. Obviously, if we do not recognize the presence of suffering, we will have no reason to seek liberation.

Why is suffering the nature of existence? Everything that exists or can be experienced on the level of relative reality is composite in nature; therefore, it is impermanent and subject to birth and death. The fundamental logic here is that since impermanence is found at every level of existence, accordingly suffering is inherent in samsaric existence.

It is easy to understand the coarse level of impermanence—that, for instance, the house you have built will eventually start to decay and at some point will exist no more. However, there is a very subtle level of impermanence as well. When we perceive this more subtle level, we see the impermanence inherent in continuity itself: when we look closely at our experience, we see that each moment arises, abides, and ceases. In order for the next moment to arise, the present moment must cease. When we perceive the momentary nature of all our experience, we see that we are rendered helpless in matters of choice. Do we have a choice to remain in this moment for another moment? No. We have no choice but to let go. We cannot hang on to any living experience for more than a brief moment, whether that experience is a blissful or agonizing one.

This is very difficult to understand fully and requires a gradual understanding through the threefold process of hearing, contemplation, and meditation. However, if this subtle impermanence is understood, then one is very close to understanding emptiness, which is the ultimate nature of all things.

The Truth of the Origin of Suffering

Once we have realized the truth of suffering, then the question is, “What are the causes of this suffering?” In the second noble truth, Buddha taught that our suffering originates in our false belief in a truly existent, permanent self. This fixation is the basis for the arising of certain mental afflictions, or destructive emotions, called the “three root poisons”: passion, aggression, and ignorance. From these three poisons, we experience the development of further negative emotions and all aspects of suffering. Since these poisons result from ego-clinging, the root of all our suffering is our ego-clinging.

When we examine our experience of suffering further, we also see that it is connected to our actions. Therefore, it is important to understand the relationship of our actions to our suffering. In Buddhist terminology, when we speak of “actions,” we are speaking of karma, the natural relationship of cause and effect. Simply speaking, karma, which means “action,” refers to action within our mind; it refers to the movement of thoughts, intentions, and motivations. This mental action leads us to or results in physical action—either the physical action of speech or the physical action of body. Thus, in a genuine understanding of karma, actions take place in our mind rather than on the physical level.

We are constantly involved in accumulation of karma, and in Buddhism, this accumulation is divided into three basic categories: negative actions, positive actions, and neutral actions. From this perspective, whatever thoughts we might entertain and whatever actions we might be engaged in, these will all leave a karmic impression in our mind that is either positive or negative. A negative impression is left by any action that harms either the one who commits the action or the one who is the object of the action, or both. These are generally actions arising out of hatred, jealousy, aggression, and passion—the negative aspects of our emotions. A moment when your thought is involved in aggression has tremendous energy and power, and the resultant negative seed that is planted in the mind will manifest as aggression again. This is as certain as the fact that planting the seed of a chili will lead to the result of a chili plant.

When we are under the influence of mental afflictions, we are incessantly planting the seeds of confusion and restlessness in our mindstream, which, fundamentally, is pure and without any confusion. Thus, engaging in harmful actions that leave negative impressions in our mind is like walking with dirty shoes into a beautiful, clean room. We leave our tracks all over the clean floor wherever we walk. In this analogy, our mind is the spotless floor, our karmic action is our mindless walking with dirty shoes, and the negative impressions left in our mindstream are the footprints we track across the clean floor. In this way, we perpetuate the cycle of samsara and increase our own unhappiness and suffering.

The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering

The third noble truth is the cessation of suffering. Although the Buddha taught that suffering pervades our entire experience of samsara, he also taught that this suffering is temporary and that we can go beyond it. When we have discovered the origin of suffering and have relinquished its causes, then our samsaric ego-clinging and disturbing emotions cease. “Cessation” in this context refers to the state of nirvana, in which all delusion and mental afflictions have been overcome and the mind is unconditionally liberated. It also refers to the state of meditative absorption accomplished by the arhats, those beings who attained the highest level of realization in the path of individual liberation.

The Truth of the Path

The fourth noble truth is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. When Buddha demonstrated the cause and effect relationships that pertain to the four noble truths, he showed us that neither our suffering nor our liberation is a random occurrence. There is a cause for our suffering and, equally, a cause for the end of that suffering—for liberation. Therefore, we can direct the course of our actions toward the result we wish to obtain. When we enter the path that leads directly to the cessation of suffering, we are following the methods for realizing inner peace and wisdom recommended by Buddha.

The path that Buddha presented in this context is known as the noble eightfold path. In general, the eightfold path consists of perfecting our training in the three areas of discipline, meditation, and wisdom (in Sanskrit shila, samadhi, and prajna). Specifically, the eight branches of this path are the trainings in right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Altogether, the path provides us with many methods for working with and overcoming our ego-clinging and disturbing emotions. This is called the path of individual salvation and it is the path of the arhats.

Renunciation and Egolessness

When we are following this path, it is important to develop a genuine sense of renunciation, of wanting to free ourselves from samsaric existence altogether. True renunciation is the result of understanding the truth of suffering and recognizing its pervasiveness—that wherever you are born, whatever your circumstances are, samsara is basically an experience of suffering. In the sutras, samsara is described as a “nest of poisonous snakes” and “a valley of lava.” Shantideva calls it “a party given by an executioner.”

Of course, it is not an actual physical location that we are trying to escape but a mental state—the convoluted and tortuous quality that is inherent in our individual experience of samsara. It is the wish to be free of such suffering that is the basis of earnestly seeking liberation.

While there are many practices that will lead one gradually to liberation, the Buddha said that the principal cause for achieving liberation is the realization of egolessness. That is what frees us from suffering. Therefore, without realizing egolessness, there is no way one can achieve any degree of real freedom.

In the first turning of the wheel of dharma, the Buddha began to teach the view of emptiness. When he taught the four noble truths, he said, “Suffering is impermanent, impermanence is emptiness, and emptiness is selflessness.” This can also be stated as, “Impermanence is suffering, suffering is emptiness, and emptiness is selflessness.” In this way, Buddha taught emptiness in a way that was very accessible. While it is generally difficult to experience emptiness directly, right away, it is not so difficult to recognize our own suffering, which is a very vivid experience. Once we have seen the truth of suffering, then it is also not so difficult to see its momentary, impermanent nature. This leads to a deeper understanding of the impermanent nature of all phenomena, which is the basis for realizing emptiness.

The way in which the Buddha taught emptiness in the first turning accords with the gradual, or indirect, way of understanding the ultimate nature of reality. Buddha simply taught that “the self,” or entity identified as “I,” is impermanent in nature and does not exist inherently; it is empty of any true, solid existence. Therefore, in his first teachings on emptiness, Buddha taught the nonexistence of a personal self or individual ego on the ultimate level.

Second Turning: Selflessness

When the Buddha turned the wheel of dharma for the second time, on Vulture Peak Mountain, he taught the Perfection of Wisdom sutras to an assembly of bodhisattvas. This is the turning known as the “vehicle of non-characteristics.”

At this time Buddha presented the complete teachings on emptiness: not only is the individual self empty of inherent existence, but all phenomena are empty as well. This means that the totality of our experience—both subjective and objective—is empty of true existence. All living experiences—from our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions to the appearances of external forms and events—have no solid basis in ultimate reality. Relatively speaking, things do appear and function; however, there is no self-nature anywhere to be found on the level of ultimate reality. When we fully transcend ego-clinging, when we realize the state of egolessness or selflessness, then we completely cut the root of samsara and of suffering.

The emptiness teachings of the second turning are known as “the great mother prajnaparamita” because the perfection of wisdom, or transcendental knowledge, to which they refer is nothing less than the complete realization of emptiness. This view of emptiness is taught very clearly in prajnaparamita sutras such as the Heart Sutra, which says: Form is emptiness; emptiness is also form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.

It is just this realization that is the source of all realizations, of liberation or enlightenment. Therefore, the essence of prajnaparamita is known as the mother of the four noble beings: the Shravakayana arhats, Pratyekabuddhayana arhats, the bodhisattvas on the bhumis (levels, or stages of the bodhisattva path), and the buddhas. From the perspective of some Mahayana schools, the second turning of the wheel of dharma is seen as the most ultimate, or definitive, teaching of the Buddha.

In addition to the teachings on emptiness, Buddha also presented teachings on bodhicitta, which literally means “enlightened attitude” or “awakened heart.” It is the heartfelt wish that all sentient beings—not just oneself—may be established in the state of enlightenment, and it is the commitment to help lead them to that state. Developing bodhicitta is viewed as the key to entering the Mahayana path, which is characterized by the greater vision of liberating all beings and transforming this samsaric existence into an enlightened world.

However, in order to possess such a pure motivation and such vast compassion and love for others, we must have some understanding or realization of selflessness. If we have compassion or love with an egocentric view, then that compassion and love will not be genuine. When the experience of selflessness is combined with compassion and love, it becomes the perfect Mahayana expression of bodhicitta, which is not just emptiness, but compassion and selflessness unified into one experience.

Third Turning: Buddhanature

In the discourses of the third turning, taught to a retinue of bodhisattvas, the Buddha went further into his teachings on the ultimate nature of mind. At this time, he taught that the true nature of mind is not merely emptiness, a state of nonexistence. Rather, our fundamental nature of mind is a luminous expanse of awareness that is beyond all conceptual fabrication and completely free from the movement of thoughts. It is the union of emptiness and clarity, of space and radiant awareness that is endowed with supreme and immeasurable qualities. From this basic nature of emptiness everything is expressed; from this everything arises and manifests.

With these teachings on the absolute nature of mind, Buddha introduced the notion of tathagatagarbha, or the buddhanature theory. This declares that the fundamental nature of mind is utterly pure and primordially in the state of buddhahood. It is the absolute buddha. It has never changed from beginningless time. Its essence is wisdom and compassion that is inconceivably profound and vast. The term tathagata is an epithet for the Buddha and refers to one who has “gone beyond” the ordinary world to the state of perfect enlightenment. Garbha is sometimes translated as “womb” or “seed.” Thus, tathagatagarbha points to the enlightened potential that is inherent within all sentient beings, whether they exist as humans, animals, gods, or even demons.

However, this potential is covered over by certain temporary obscurations, in the same way that the sun may be temporarily concealed by clouds. Therefore we do not apprehend it directly. Instead, we see only what is perceptible by means of our dualistic consciousness: a stream of sense perceptions, mental constructs, thoughts, and emotions that arise and dissolve ceaselessly. It is these appearances of relative phenomena that obscure the direct recognition of the open, brilliant, and dynamic reality of genuine mind. Nevertheless, our buddhanature itself has never been diminished by the presence of such adventitious phenomena, just as the sun itself is never diminished by the presence of clouds.

Indicative and Definitive Meanings

The third turning is called the dharma-chakra of thorough distinction because, at this time, Buddha made clear distinctions between his various statements. He divided them into indicative statements and definitive statements, or statements relating to relative truth and absolute truth. Statements with “indicative meaning” are those that indirectly indicate the path to awakening without being a direct or definitive statement of the final nature of awakening. These statements are not misleading; they lead you in the right direction in a manner that is appropriate to your particular concerns at that time. For example, in his initial presentation of dharma, Buddha did not present the complete teaching on the selflessness of persons; instead, he taught that the self had a composite nature, consisting of the five aggregates.

These teachings were not direct statements of or about absolute truth; they were concerned with relative truth or relative reality. By contrast, statements with “definitive meaning” are those that pertain directly to the absolute truth and do not require interpretation. They are final and, to some extent, literal. They do not indirectly lead to the meaning but are direct statements of it. Included in this category are the teachings on twofold selflessness, bodhicitta, the causes of final awakening, and buddhanature.

Three Turnings, One Path

The Buddha taught only one dharma, but people heard it in different ways. The Buddha’s teachings have been heard and repeated for many hundreds of years; different understandings have developed, and with them, more and more schools. The teachings of the three yanas (vehicles) and turnings, however, all play a vital role on the path. The path of individual liberation is the foundation for the Mahayana; Mahayana literally cannot exist without it. Similarly, Mahayana supports Vajrayana (Buddhist tantra) and is indispensable to it. The path of individual liberation also has a close and direct relationship with Vajrayana.

In terms of practice, however, we need a certain amount of structure and a clear view of this path; otherwise, we will become confused and lost. In each of the three turnings, Buddha taught the “right view” of emptiness for each stage of the path. It is necessary to understand this at the beginning because, without having the right view, we cannot find the right path. Without discovering the right path, we will not meet with the right experiences and realizations. Without realizing the nature of mind correctly, we have no way to free ourselves from samsara. This is why the correct view is so important: to go beyond conceptual understanding to the direct realization of the absolute, awakened state.

The Two Truths

The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche on distinguishing between the relative & the ultimate.

The teachings in the second and third turnings approach reality through two truths: relative truth and absolute truth. In order to understand emptiness, it is very important to distinguish between these two truths.

Relative truth, or conventional reality, is that which is in accordance with ordinary worldly usage or understanding, something on which everyone will agree. It is concerned with the things of our everyday experience and is always conceptual. The reason it is not ultimate truth is because relative phenomena cannot withstand analysis. When subjected to analysis, relative phenomena disappear, and all you find is absolute truth, or emptiness.

For example, if I asked you, “Please hand me my thermos,” you would simply pass it to me without question. We understand each other perfectly and all this works quite well. You would not ask, “Does the thermos exist or not exist? From where does it arise?” If, however, you first wanted to find its essence, its thermos-ness, then you would subject the thermos to analysis. You would look at the whole thermos and then at each of its parts to try to locate its most fundamental entity-ness. As these parts are broken down further and further, you would continue to search for the essence of the thermos until nothing is left at all. At this point, the thermos has disappeared and you have come to the realization that it never possessed any true, substantial reality. The thermos before you is only a “mere appearance,” a dreamlike object. It is perceptible to the senses but its abiding nature is emptiness. Thus the same object has two natures: relative and absolute.

This process of analysis produces a clear understanding of emptiness; however, this determination of untrue existence is not the final absolute truth because it is still conceptual. There is still an “I” with a conceptual understanding that this thermos does not exist. In order to go further, there has to be nonconceptual meditation through which one experiences directly the nature of emptiness. What is experienced through nonconceptual meditation is the true, genuine, absolute truth.

The absolute truth is the real essence, the “suchness” or “isness” of things. It is not refutable. It is not merely temporary. Therefore, it is ultimate and that ultimate nature is the main object of our realization. It is characterized as being indescribable, inconceivable, and unable to be signified by any word, gesture, or concept.

At the same time, it is important to realize that understanding relative truth is the cause of understanding absolute truth. Thus relative truth should not be thought of as being something inferior and unrelated to absolute truth. Relative truth may be conceptual, but there is no way to realize nonconceptual absolute truth without it. The understanding of either one of the two truths assists the understanding of the other.

photo of Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is founder and president of Nalandabodhi and Nitartha International, and the author of several books including, most recently, Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You.