Why the Wheel Turns Three Times

A buddha is someone who sees the way things really are. When we see the way things really are, we see that we are all interdependent.

Tenshin Reb Anderson
14 May 2012
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A buddha is someone who sees the way things really are. When we see the way things really are, we see that we’re all in this together, that we are all interdependent. A great surpassing love arises from that wisdom, and that love leads a buddha to wish that all beings would open to this wisdom and be free of the misery that arises from ignoring the way things are. Buddhas appear in the world because they want us to have a buddha’s wisdom, so that we will love every single being completely and protect every single being without exception and without limit—just as all the buddhas do.

The Samdhinirmocana Sutra shows us how Shakyamuni Buddha sought to fulfill this wonderful desire, how he tries to bring us all to enlightenment. The scripture tells us that the Buddhist tradition has three phases, or as it is usually put, that there are three turnings of the wheel of dharma. What many believe to be the first scripture recording Shakyamuni Buddha’s actual words is called the Dharmachakra Parvartana, or “Setting the Wheel of the Dharma in Motion.” There were two more turnings of the wheel, and the Samdhinirmocana Sutra speaks of both of them.

Buddha taught in different ways for different audiences, and the threads of the teachings sometimes got entangled with each other because they weren’t laid out systematically. People sometimes got confused about what the teaching was. So this sutra attempts to straighten the threads out.

The First Turning

When the historical Buddha appeared in the world, there was something about him in his enlightened condition that made people ask him to teach them. People would ask him, “What’s going on with you? Why do you look so serene and joyful?” So the Buddha, with his intention to liberate all beings, interacted with people who had their own intentions and perspectives, and when they interacted, various things came up. He had to speak in a language that the people listening to him could understand, so in this first turning of the dharma wheel he offered a conceptual, logical teaching. He showed us how to analyze our experience, and he set out a path for people to find freedom and liberate themselves from suffering.

The goal of this analysis was to show us that our life experience is fleeting, impermanent, and unstable. But the Buddha didn’t usually just tell people that our life is fleeting, unstable, and impermanent. He usually emphasized a way of looking at experience so that the fleeting, unstable quality of life would be discovered. And he taught this analysis so that we would see not only that our experience is fleeting, but also that there is no receptacle, or container, or supervisor, or controller, or possessor, or pilot in addition to the fleeting elements shown by the analysis.

This process of analysis also looks at the different moral qualities of our experience to see whether our behavior is tainted or pure. Tainted means different things to different people, but the question is simply: Is our activity, our living right now, oriented toward gain and loss? We look to see whether our activity is oriented toward gain and loss or is free of concern for gain and loss. This analysis of the moral dimension also reveals that the concern for gain and loss is based on the idea of self, but there is actually no independent self in this field of experience. If I see that what I’m doing is concerned with gain, I will discover that I think there is a controller, a supervisor, a possessor, a container of the multiplicity of elements of my experience. And because I think that, I’m concerned with gain and loss for that controller, for that owner, for that independent self, and that makes me suffer.

The more we analyze our experience, the more we see this idea of an independent self that arises with concern for gain and loss, and the more we come to see that such a self cannot be detected in actual experience. There is the idea of a controller, but the controller cannot be found. There is the idea of a container of our experience, but the container cannot be found. There is an idea of an owner of our experience, but no owner can be found. “Owner” goes with concern for gain and loss and turmoil and suffering. “No owner” goes with no concern for gain and loss and with true freedom. This is what the early teachings of the Buddha were about.

We can also look at what helps us pay attention to what’s going on, and this too helps disabuse us of the idea of independent existence. This analysis purifies the mindstream. It helps us see more and more clearly the absence of anything permanent or independent. This first turning of the wheel was addressed to the person looking at self; someone looking at her own experience, purifying herself through moral analysis and through the analysis of empirical experience, and becoming personally liberated in that process. The first turning was personal and conceptual, and it produced individual liberation. As things came up in his interaction with people, the Buddha was happy to teach individual people this logical conceptual path to personal liberation. It was a path that helped people become free of suffering and live in the world as a pure experiential event. It helped them drop the belief that they were separate from other beings or, for that matter, that they had any independent existence at all. The first turning of the wheel was for the purpose of individual liberation, and the Buddha was quite successful. Many people who listened to this teaching, understood this teaching, practiced this teaching, became purified of their false beliefs, and won personal liberation.

You could say the Buddha was a revolutionary, but you could also say he was a great flowering of the Indian religious tradition. One Sanskrit scholar told me that if you look at all the words the Buddha used in his teachings, you find that almost none of them were new. Wherever he was, he used the language of the culture. The only new word the Buddha used that wasn’t just common Indian religious language was bodhisattva—that one word. Otherwise he was using the words of the culture. He shared a lot with other yogis. You can see he had great yogic powers, but others had yogic powers too. He could see where people were coming from and where they were going, but other yogis could too. But his interpretation of this process of change—particularly in terms of his understanding of the self—was a little bit different from everyone else’s. As far as we know, nothing like it had been seen before. And the way it was taught after his death became even more subtle still. People in India during Buddha’s time weren’t ready to hear all the implications of his doctrine of no self. Later, after the Buddhist community had taken deep root, we have the second turning of the wheel, which presents even more profound and more subtle teachings on selflessness.

Avalokitesvara, speaking on behalf of the Buddha in the Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra, said that “all dharmas are marked by emptiness” (sarva-dharmah sunyata-lakasana). All dharmas, all phenomena, are empty. But in the second turning of the wheel, this teaching on emptiness is vastly expanded. A hidden implication of this and all the Buddha’s other teachings is that, like all things, the teaching itself is an interdependent phenomenon. He’s giving it to you because you’re the one he’s talking to, but ultimately there’s no reality in what he’s saying. It is just something that comes up between you like a dance. And because it’s interdependently arising, it has no ultimate existential status. But he didn’t explicitly say that at first. People might have said, “Well then, why should we listen to you?” Or they might have said, “Why should we practice the moral precepts, if they have no ultimate, existential status?”

The Buddha had to establish a strong ethical foundation for his students before he could encourage them to meditate on the selflessness of all phenomena, and many people did attain personal liberation with such ethically grounded meditation. But until practitioners are deeply grounded ethically, buddhas do not bring up the more subtle wisdom teachings that might undermine the ethical foundation of the community of practitioners.

In the Buddha’s first scripture he begins with the wisdom teachings of the Middle Way and the four noble truths and not with teachings on ethical commitment and discipline. I believe the reason he could do this for his first students was that they were already very well grounded in ethical discipline, and they had realized deep concentration practices based on that ethical ground. Upon this foundation, it was appropriate for the Buddha to offer them wisdom teachings.

Over the millennia, Buddhism has become very strong in terms of ethical discipline and the monastic systems to uphold it, but the danger of losing sight of our ethical foundations remains. As we get into more and more subtle realms of truth, and realize that morality is empty of inherent existence, we might not be able to uphold the commitment and rigors of moral discipline unless that realization is mature. And if we can’t continue to be wholeheartedly devoted to ethical discipline while we go into the study of the profound emptiness of things, then we should stop opening to the ultimate truth of emptiness.

The Second Turning

When the Buddha passed into complete nirvana, the community was strong, and there were many enlightened disciples. But the Buddhist community had to become still more mature before it could withstand the impact of the second turning. It took about five hundred years before that next turning occurred. The historical Buddha was no longer alive, and so the next turning of the wheel had to use a different buddha. A cosmic buddha was going to have to turn the wheel. And the cosmic buddha did not emphasize that what is happening is impermanent, fleeting, bouncing, dancing elements, as in the first turning, but taught that these elements have no independent existence. The second turning offers no conceptual approach to reality. It refutes the previous method and the previous path based on a conceptual approach to liberation. In the Heart Sutra, the great cosmic bodhisattva Avalokitesvara tells us that form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are all empty, and in emptiness there is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no end of suffering, and no path to freedom from suffering. In other words, none of the Buddha’s conceptual teachings, such as the four noble truths and the eightfold path, really apply.

In the first turning of the wheel, things were interdependent and real. In the second turning, they’re ultimately empty and unreal because they’re interdependent. So there is no logical approach to practice, no approach to liberation, no path to freedom. Because all things are interdependent, including freedom, freedom itself is not real. Suffering is interdependent, and therefore suffering is not ultimately real. In this second turning of the wheel, bondage, turmoil, and misery are interdependent phenomena and therefore not real. Liberation and peace and joy are interdependent and therefore not real. Thus liberation and bondage have the same nature.

This kind of teaching creates problems for some people. But any problems that come up have the nature of being completely free of any problems. The way that things are is right before us, right now, and using any approach to them is a distraction.

Another big difference from the first turning of the wheel is that this pathless path is not about personal liberation. The path where we see that complete freedom and complete bondage have the same nature is not the path of individual liberation; it’s the path of liberating all beings. It’s not the path of an individual buddha, or the historical Buddha, it’s the path of a buddha that is the same as the entire universe. The entire universe, in the second turning of the wheel, is always showing us the truth, no matter what’s happening. There is no conceptual approach to the entire universe. It just immediately presents itself all the time. And because there’s no conceptual approach, there’s no difference in access for those who have received instructions about the path and those who haven’t. Those who haven’t had instructions have no path to drop. Those who have had instructions have a path to drop. The Buddhists and the non-Buddhists are on the same level with this truth. The non-Buddhists don’t have to give up Buddhism, the Buddhists do. The non-Buddhists, however, have to give up whatever they’ve got, because we have to meet what’s happening directly with no words, with no concepts. This is the path of universal liberation. This is the second turning.

The Third Turning

The next path, the third turning of the wheel, which is talked about in this scripture, resurrects the conceptual approach. It offers us a logical path, just like the first one. But this logical path is based on the refutation of the logical path. It’s based on the second path, which says, if you take the slightest step toward the truth, you move away from it; if you use any means to realize what you are, you alienate yourself. That’s the second path. The second path is actually the truest in a way. But unfortunately it seems to refute all the teachings of Buddha prior to that, and many people found those teachings very, very useful. So the third path redeems the logical approach to practice, but it is a logical approach that is based on the refutation of logic.

The first turning of the wheel constructed a path of liberation, the second turning refutes the path, and the third turning accepts the refutation of the path and redeems the path. This scripture offers a path based on the refutation of the earlier path but redeems the earlier path. Another way to say it is that the first turning gives the logic of liberation, the second condemns all logic, and the third reconstructs logic but based on the understanding that logic is ultimately completely useless. In fact, the third phase used logic more than ever before, and it could use logic more energetically because it was based on the emptiness of logic.

In this sutra, the bodhisattvas ask the Buddha: “You taught this way, the first turning way, and then you taught the second turning way. When you were teaching the second turning, what was your intention?” Then the Buddha explains his intention and that there are these three turnings. The first turning is an analytical, conceptual approach, teaching the five aggregates, the eighteen dhatus, the four noble truths, the twelve links of dependent origination, and so on. All these different kinds of teachings aimed to help people see phenomena in such a way that they would be relieved of the belief in the independent existence of the self. Then in the second turning, the Buddha taught that everything, including the teachings, lacks inherent existence, is unproduced, unceasing, and naturally in a state of nirvana. After he gave those teachings, the bodhisattvas said: “That sounds very different from the early teaching. What did you have in mind?” So he tells us what he really had in mind in both cases, which then becomes part of the third turning teaching, which is a deeper revelation of the nature of ultimate truth.

The third turning protects us from a dangerously narrow understanding of the second turning. It’s possible that some understandings of the second turning would deprecate the first turning. But a subtle understanding of the second turning enhances the first turning, so that the first turning then can be taught in a more subtle and a more selfless way than it could be taught the first time. When the Buddha Shakyamuni first taught, he allowed the illusion that there was something to get from his dharma. In order to reach some people, he needed to make the teachings look like they really existed. In the second turning, he shows that all the teachings and all the methods only have apparent existence. In the third turning, we find a presentation of the first turning that is in accord with the second turning. So in this scripture, we are offered a systematic path and a conceptual approach that are free of self.

After we realize the ultimate, we see whether we can come back into the conventional, conceptual presentation of the teaching in such a way that we don’t violate the understanding of the ultimate truth. We spiral round and round and round until all beings have a correct understanding of the teachings. The wish to do this is called bodhicitta—the Way-seeking mind—and the realization of the ability to do that is the fruition of bodhicitta.

There is a Zen saying that goes: “When I first was practicing the Way, there were mountains and rivers. After I practiced for thirty years, I understood there are no mountains and no rivers. Now, finally, there are mountains and rivers again.” But these mountains and rivers walk and talk. These mountains and rivers leap through the sky and boogie in the basement. These mountains and rivers are the fully realized mountains and rivers, because these mountains and rivers are based on the understanding that finally there aren’t any mountains and rivers. We can’t really understand that there are no mountains and rivers until we understand mountains and rivers. We can’t really understand mountains and rivers until we understand that there are no mountains and rivers.

So we need these three turnings of the wheel. We need the conceptual approach. We need to enter into an immediacy of our life that gives up the conceptual approach. And then we need a conceptual approach to test that we really have given up the conceptual approach. We need a Zen center with an address, a door, a telephone number, an email address, and a website, with buildings and gardens and robes and hats and people, and especially vegetarian feasts. We need all that, and we need the teachings of the tradition, but then we need to refute the whole thing and have people at the door saying, “This is not a Zen center. There’s no Zen center here.” Otherwise, it’s not really a Zen center. And then, just to test to see if we really understand that there isn’t any Zen center, we take care of the Zen center. But as we take care of it, we ask ourselves: “Are we taking care of it with the understanding that in ultimate truth there is no Zen?”

Of course, sometimes we notice that the way we’re taking care of the Zen center looks like we think there really is a Zen center, and there’s not much sign that we realize that there’s no Zen center. There doesn’t seem to be an understanding that this interdependent thing called a Zen center can never be found precisely because it’s interdependent. So then we confess, “We don’t understand Zen here at Zen center,” and that sounds pretty good. But then we also think: “We do understand Zen at Zen center, and we’re confident about that because our understanding is based on ‘we do not understand Zen at Zen center.’ ” And we’re kind of happy about that because we understand that it’s not just us—nobody understands what Zen is. But we may be the ones who are happy about not understanding.

The teaching of the three turnings of the wheel is a conceptual offering to help us understand a nonconceptual approach to liberation, or I should say, to understand no approach to buddhahood, no approach to freedom. It is a conceptual approach to understand no conceptual approach—a conceptual approach to immediacy. And the immediacy is not at all disturbed by being involved in a conceptual approach, because in every moment of being involved in a conceptual approach we are immediately intimate with the ultimate truth of the conceptual approach: namely, that it’s not real.

If we don’t have a conceptual approach, that’s fine, although it’s very rare. The main thing is that, as we’re involved in our conceptual approach to whatever we’re doing, we don’t miss the immediate, nonconceptual reality that we can never be separated from. Then we can enjoy ultimate truth no matter what’s happening. But this enjoyment is not for yourself. The nonconceptual approach is for the liberation of all beings. The conceptual approach, although it can be quite good, is for the conceiver, and the conceiver doesn’t exist.

We aspire to be the Buddha’s offspring, and so we are like larva bodhisattvas, but the larvae need a skin. And what’s the skin? The skin is the Buddha’s conceptual approach. We wrap that little larva in a nice silken conceptual package with neat little analytic, conceptual techniques, and we cook in this cocoon until we shed the conceptual techniques and just be butterflies. And now that we’re butterflies, we can teach other larvae about how to put a skin around themselves in a more selfless way, because we’re liberated from our conceptual approaches.

When we first come to the practice, in some sense we’re like little larvae, since we haven’t found our own inner truth yet. So we wrap ourselves in the Buddha’s teaching of the first turning. And we grow in that, and then we drop that, and then we just directly be ourselves, our butterfly selves. Then we lay the eggs of the teaching so there can be another generation.

This is the cycle of the wheel. It’s the first turning, the second turning, the third turning, the first turning, the second turning, the third turning, and so on. We need to keep cycling our conceptual activity with the immediacy of reality and then test the immediacy of reality by reentering the world of conception, the world of words. Then we drop the words, drop the signs, drop the characteristics, drop the conceptions and enter into the world of immediate freedom. Then we test it by reentering the world of the manipulation of concepts, and round and round we go.

From “The Third Turning of the Wheel” by Reb Anderson, © 2012. Reprinted by permission of Rodmell Press.