Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)

John Powers

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)


The notion of the three turnings of the wheel of doctrine (dharma-cakra) was probably first articulated in the Discourse Explaining the Thought (Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra; Tibetan, ’Phags pa dgongs pa nges par ’grel pa’i mdo), the most important scriptural source for the Yogācāra school of Indian Buddhism. This text was most likely composed around the 4th century. In the seventh chapter, the Buddha declares that he presented certain doctrinal teachings in three cycles,or wheels. The first wheel contains discussions of core doctrines such as the four noble truths (ārya-satya) and dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda); this is the Lesser Vehicle (Hīnayāna), which is surpassed by the superior teachings of the second wheel. The second wheel is the Perfection of Wisdom (prajñā-pāramitā) discourses, which analyze previous doctrines and the phenomena of the universe and declare them to be empty (śūnya) of inherent existence. In the third wheel of doctrine, the Buddha provides further clarification regarding what is and is not being negated by the second wheel teachings. The Discourse Explaining the Thought does not specifically list particular doctrines as belonging to the third wheel, but the overall context indicates that the reader should assume these to be the doctrinal formulations of the sutra. The third wheel is declared to be the final thought of the Buddha, but it is reserved for a small elite. The Tibetan scholar Tsong-kha-pa (b. 1357–d. 1419) is probably correct in asserting that only certain teachings fall within the purview of the three wheels. Regulations regarding monastic dress and conduct, for example, do not appear to fit into this classification. The notion of three wheels of doctrine is probably linked to the title Discourse Turning the Wheel of Doctrine (Pāli, Dhammacakka-pavattana-sutta; Chese, 初轉法輪經), which, according to tradition was the first sermon taught by the Buddha. The Perfection of Wisdom discourses were presented as superseding this and other Hīnayāna teachings. The Discourse Explaining the Thought implicitly invokes this notion of successive cycles of instruction delivered for progressively more advanced audiences. (In Sanskrit, the term is tri-dharma-cakra; Tibetan, ’khor lo rim pa gsum; East Asia, 三轉法輪; Mandarin, sānzhuǎn fǎlún; Japanese, santen hōrin; Korean, samjŏn pŏmnyun; Vietnamese, tam chuyển pháp luân.)

Article.  4527 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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