Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma

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The Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma (Sanskrit: tridharmacakra-pravartana, Tibetan: chos kyi 'khor lo gsum) is a Mahāyāna Buddhist framework for classifying and understanding the teachings of the Buddhist sutras and the teachings of the Buddha in general. [1] [2] This classification system first appears in the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra and in the works of the Yogācāra school. [1] This classification system later became prevalent in various modified forms in Tibetan Buddhism as well as in East Asian Buddhism.


According to the three turnings schema, the Buddha's first sermons, as recorded in the Tripiṭaka of early Buddhist schools, constitute the "first turning" (which include all śrāvakayāna texts). The sutras which focus on the doctrine of emptiness (śūnyatā) like the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra corpus, are considered to comprise the "second turning" (which in this schema is considered provisional) and the sutras which teach Yogācāra themes (especially the three natures doctrine), like the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, comprise the final and ultimate "third turning". [2]

In East Asian Buddhism, this classification system was expanded and modified into different doctrinal classifications called "panjiào" (判教) which were developed by different Chinese Buddhist schools. [3] [4]


A century century Gandharan depiction of the Buddha's first sermon at Sarnath (in which he taught the Dharmacakrapravartana Sutra). Buddha's first sermon at Sarnath. Gandhara.Met.jpg
A century century Gandharan depiction of the Buddha's first sermon at Sarnath (in which he taught the Dharmacakrapravartana Sūtra ).

First Turning

The first turning is traditionally said to have taken place at Deer Park in Sarnath near Varanasi in northern India. It consisted of the teaching of the four noble truths, dependent arising, the five aggregates, the sense fields, not-self, the thirty seven aids to awakening and all the basic Buddhist teachings common to all Buddhist traditions and found in the various Sutrapitaka and Vinaya collections. [5] [6] [7] [8] These teachings are known as the "Hinayana" teachings (lesser or small vehicle) in Mahayana. [8] In East Asian Buddhism, it is called "the teaching of existence" (有相法輪) since it discusses reality from the point of view of phenomena (dharmas) which are explained as existing. [9]

The Abhidharma teachings of the various śrāvakayāna (i.e. non-Mahayana) traditions (such as Vaibhasika and Theravada) are generally also placed into this category.

Second Turning

Vulture Peak (Grddhakuta) where some of the second turning sutras like the Prajnaparamita sutras are said to have been taught. Mulagandhakuti in Vulture Peak.jpg
Vulture Peak (Gṛddhakūṭa) where some of the second turning sutras like the Prajñāpāramitā sutras are said to have been taught.

The second turning is said to have taken place at Vulture Peak Mountain in Rajagriha, in Bihar, India. The second turning emphasizes the teachings of emptiness (Skt: śūnyatā) and the bodhisattva path. [8] [5] The main sutras of this second turning are considered to be the Prajñāpāramitā sutras. [5] In East Asian Buddhism, the second turning is referred to as "the teaching that the original nature of all things is empty, that signs are not ultimately real" (無相法輪). [9]

The second turning is also associated with the bodhisattva Manjushri. [5] The analytical texts of the Madhyamaka school of Nagarjuna are generally included under the second turning. [10]

Third Turning

Yogācāra sources

16th century Japanese scroll of bodhisattva Maitreya, who is considered to be an important source for the third turning teachings. MET 1991 384.jpg
16th century Japanese scroll of bodhisattva Maitreya, who is considered to be an important source for the third turning teachings.

The first sutra source which mentions the "three turnings" is the Ārya-saṃdhi-nirmocana-sūtra (Noble sūtra of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets), the foundational sutra of the Yogācāra school. [1] Major ideas in this text include the storehouse consciousness ( ālayavijñāna ), and the doctrine of cognition-only (vijñapti-mātra) and the "three natures" (trisvabhāva). The Saṃdhinirmocana affirms that the teachings of the earlier turnings authentic but are also incomplete and require further clarification and interpretation. [11] According to the Saṃdhinirmocana, the previous two turnings all had an "underlying intent" which refers to the three natures (and their threefold lack of essence), the central doctrine of the third turning. [12]

The Saṃdhinirmocana also claims that its teachings are the ultimate and most profound truth which cannot lead to a nihilistic interpretation of the Dharma which clings to non-existence (unlike the second wheel, which can be misinterpreted in a negative way) and is also incontrovertible and irrefutable (whereas the second wheel can be refuted). [13] As such, the third turning is also called "the wheel of good differentiation" (suvibhakta), and "the wheel for ascertaining the ultimate" ( paramartha-viniscaya). [14] In East Asian Buddhism, the third turning is referred to as “ultimate turn of the Dharma wheel” (無上法輪). [9]

Tibetan depiction of Asanga receiving teachings from Maitreya. Asanga.JPG
Tibetan depiction of Asanga receiving teachings from Maitreya.

Other Mahāyāna sutras are considered to be associated with the Yogācāra school, and thus, with the third turning (though these sutras themselves do not mention "three turnings"). These include the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and the Ghanavyūha Sūtra, both of which discuss Yogācāra topics like the ālayavijñāna, the three natures and mind-only idealism as well as tathāgatagarbha ideas. [15] [16] [17] [18]

The teachings of the third turning are further elaborated in the numerous works of Yogācāra school masters like Asaṅga, Vasubandhu, Sthiramati, Dharmapāla, Śīlabhadra, Xuanzang, Jñānaśrīmitra and Ratnākaraśānti.

In his Commentary on Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes ( Madhyāntavibhāga-bhāṣya), Vasubandhu comments on the three turnings and how they relate to the three natures. According to Vasubandhu, the first turning teaches the non-existence of the self (atman) through an analysis of the five aggregates. The second turning then establishes how the very (false) appearance of a (non-existent) self comes about from its aggregate parts through dependent arising. The third turning then, explains the fundamental nature of emptiness itself, which is how the non-existence of the self exists, i.e. the existence of the non-existent as explained by the three natures. In this sense, the ultimate truth in the third turning is said to be both existent and non-existent. [19]

In his Commentary on the Cheng weishi lun (成唯識 論述記; Taishō no. 1830), Kuiji (a student of Xuanzang), lists the following as the most important sutras for the Yogācāra school: [20] [21]

  1. Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra (華嚴)
  2. Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra (深密)
  3. *Tathāgata-utpāda-guṇa-alaṃkāra-vyūha (如來出現功德莊嚴)
  4. Mahayana-abhidharma-sutra (阿毘達磨)
  5. Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra (楞迦)
  6. Ghanavyūha Sūtra (厚嚴)

In Chinese Yogācāra, important treatises for the third turning included the Yogācārabhūmi-śastra , Xuanzang's Cheng Weishi Lun , and the Daśabhūmikasūtraśāstra (Shidi jing lun 十地經論, T.26.1522, also called Dilun), which is Vasubandhu's commentary on the Daśabhūmika-sūtra (Shidi jing 十地經). [22] [23]

Buddha-nature teachings

The Indian Yogācāra tradition eventually developed various works which synthesized Yogācāra with the tathāgatagarbha thought found in various Mahayana sutras. [24] This synthesis merged the tathāgatagarbha teaching with the doctrine of the ālayavijñāna and the three natures doctrine. Some key sources of this Indian tendency are the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra , Ghanavyūha Sūtra, and the Ratnagotravibhāga. [24] [17]

This Yogācāra-Tathāgatagarbha tradition became influential in East Asian Buddhism and in Tibet. The translator Paramārtha (499-569 CE) was known for promoting this syncretic Yogācāra and for defending the theory of the "stainless consciousness" (amala-vijñāna), which is revealed once the ālaya-vijñāna is purified. [25]

As noted by Jan Westerhoff, the identification of buddha-nature teachings with the Yogācāra's third turning happened not only because several sutras (like the Laṅkāvatāra) explicitly synthesized the two doctrines, but also because:

the notion of the tathāgatagarbha lines up more naturally with the characterization of ultimate reality we find in Yogācāra than with what we find in Madhyamaka. The latter's characterization of ultimate reality in terms of emptiness is primarily a negative one, it describes it in terms of what is not there (a substantially existent core, svabhava ), while the former's is more positive, postulating a foundational consciousness that is the source of all appearance. [26]

Due to the influence of Yogācāra-Tathāgatagarbha thought, some Buddhist traditions also consider the tathāgatagarbha (also known as buddha-nature) teachings as part of the third turning. For example, the Jonang master Dölpopa Shérap Gyeltsen (1292-1361) held that the Tathāgatagarbha sutras contained the "final definitive statements on the nature of ultimate reality, the primordial ground or substratum beyond the chain of dependent origination." [27]

For Dölpopa, some of the key “sutras of definitive meaning” included: the Śrīmālādevī Siṃhanāda Sūtra , Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra , Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra , Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra , Ghanavyūha Sūtra , Buddhāvataṃsakasūtra , Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra , and the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra. [28] Dölpopa's classification of Tathāgatagarbha sutras was influential on numerous later Tibetan authors. [29] The Rime master Jamgon Kongtrul (1813–1899) also held that these buddha-nature sutras belonged to the definitive third turning. [30]

The teachings found in several of the "treatises of Maitreya", such as the Madhyāntavibhāgakārikā , Ratnagotravibhāga and the Dharmadharmatāvibhāga are also considered to be part of the third turning by several schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Furthermore, in Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhist tantra and its associated scriptures are sometimes considered to also be part of the third turning. [31]

Definitive and provisional

The schema of the three turnings found in Yogācāra texts identify Yogācāra teachings as the final and definitive interpretation of the Buddha's teaching. However, the schema was later adopted more widely, and different schools of Buddhism, as well as individual Buddhist thinkers, give different explanations as to whether the second or third turnings are "definitive" (Skt: nītārtha) or "provisional" or "implicit" (Skt: neyārtha, i.e. requiring interpretation). In the context of Buddhist hermeneutics, "definitive" refers to teachings which need no further explanation and are to be understood as is, while "implicit" or "provisional" refers to teachings which are expedient and useful but must be further interpreted and drawn out. [32]

In the Tibetan tradition, some schools like Nyingma hold that the second and third turnings are both definitive. Nyingma works tend to emphasize the complementarity of the second and third turning teachings. [33] Meanwhile, the Gelug school considers only the second turning as definitive. The Gelug founder Tsongkhapa rejected the definitive nature of the Yogācāra texts and instead argued that the definitive sutras are only those which teach emptiness as the ultimate meaning. On this, he relies on the Teachings of Akshayamati Sutra. [34] The Jonang school on the other hand, see only the third turning sutras as definitive, and hold the texts of the second turning as provisional. [8]

Similar ideas in other sūtras

Other Mahāyāna sutras also mention a similar idea of the Buddha teaching in different phases, some which are provisional and others which are considered final.

The Dhāraṇīśvararāja sūtra (also known as the Tathāgatamahā­karuṇā­nirdeśa), mentions that it is part of the “irreversible turning” and uses the metaphor of the gradual process of refining beryl to describe the way the Buddha teaches in three phases of teaching: 1. "discourses on impermanence, suffering, no self, and unattractiveness, which provoke revulsion", 2. "discourses on emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness" and finally 3. "discourses known as The Irreversible Wheel of the Dharma and The Purification of the Triple Sphere." [35] Tibetan exegesis has generally seen this passage as referring to the three turnings (though the sutra itself does not use this terminology). [35] The Dhāraṇīśvararāja is also important because it is a key source for the Ratnagotravibhāga , an influential buddha-nature focused treatise. [35]

The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra states that its teachings are the highest and ultimate Dharma. [36] It also states that teachings on not-self and emptiness are provisional skillful means. [37] The Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra considers the highest teachings to be those of the "vaitulya" ("well-balanced", or "extensive") Mahāyāna sūtras (such as the Mahāparinirvāṇa itself) which teach the eternal nature of the Tathagata, and how "all living beings possess buddha-nature." [38]

Similar classifications

Fourth Turning

Vajrayana schools sometimes refer to Buddhist tantra as the "fourth turning." As explained by Lama Surya Das, some traditions consider Dzogchen as a fourth turning. [39]

East Asian Madhyamaka school

According to Japanese scholar Junjirō Takakusu, the Sanron (Sanlun) Madhyamaka school divided the teaching into three dharmacakras as well, but with different definitions for each: [40]

  1. The root wheel of the Avatamsaka sutra.
  2. The branch wheel of Hinayana and Mahayana texts.
  3. The wheel that contracts all branches so as to bring them back to the root, the Lotus sutra.


The Chinese Tiantai school developed a doctrinal classification schema (panjiào) which organized the Buddhas teachings into five periods (五時): [41]

  1. Flower Ornament period 華嚴時, The sudden teaching is delivered as the Avatamsaka sutra, containing the direct content of the Buddha’s enlightenment experience. Few can understand it.
  2. Deer Park period 鹿苑時 (represented by the Āgama sūtras 阿含經), represent a gradual and simpler teaching.
  3. the Vaipulya period 方等時 (represented by the Vimalakīrti Sūtra 淨名經 and so forth); this and the next period represent gradually deeper teachings.
  4. the Prajñā period 般若時 (represented by the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras 般若經).
  5. Lotus-Nirvāṇa period 法華涅槃時, Lotus sutra and Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra, a teaching that is neither sudden nor gradual.


Likewise, the Huayen school had a five period panjiào of dharma teachings. According to patriarch Zongmi: [42]

  1. The Hinayana-teachings, especially the Sarvastivadins
  2. The Mahayana-teachings, including Yogacara, and Madhyamaka
  3. The "Final Teachings", based on the Tathagatagarbha-teachings, especially the Awakening of Faith
  4. The Sudden Teaching, "which 'revealed' (hsien) rather than verbalised the teaching"
  5. The Complete, or Perfect, Teachings of the Avatamsaka-sutra and the Hua-yen school.

See also

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  39. Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha Within: Eight Steps to Enlightenment, p. 63.
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  41. A. Charles Muller (trans), Outline of the Tiantai Fourfold Teachings 天台四教儀 Compiled by the Goryeo Śramaṇa Chegwan 高麗沙門諦觀
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