Taken from Dharmawheel:


"In the country of Benares at Rsipatana in the Deer Park, the World-honored One first turned the wheel of doctrine, [teaching] the four holy truths for those setting out in the word-hearers' vehicle. This turning of the wheel was marvelous and wonderful, such as nobody, whether gods or men, had been able to turn in the world before. Nevertheless there were superior teachings, for [this first turning] had to be interpreted and occasioned controversy. Then the World-honored One with an underlying intent turned the wheel for the second time for the sake of those setting out in the great vehicle, [teaching] that all things have no-essence, no arising, and no passing away, are originally quiescent, and are essentially in cessation. This turning of the wheel was marvelous and wonderful indeed. Nevertheless there were teachings superior to this, for it also had to be interpreted and occasioned controversy. The World-honored One then with an explicit meaning for the third time turned the wheel of doctrine for those setting out in all the vehicles, [teaching] that all things have no-essence, no arising, and no passing away, are originally quiescent, and are essentially in cessation. This turning was the most marvelous and wonderful that had ever occurred in the world. It had no superior nor did it contain any implicit meaning nor occasion any controversy." (Samdhinirmocana Sutra, ch 5, p 49; tr. Keenan, BDK edition)

So, to sum up the teachings of the three turnings:

1. four holy truths for those setting out in the word-hearers' vehicle 2. all things have no-essence, no arising, and no passing away, are originally quiescent, and are essentially in cessation 3. all things have no-essence, no arising, and no passing away, are originally quiescent, and are essentially in cessation
The definitions of the second and third turnings are identical.
The same sutra also answers the question about the nature of the unconditioned.
"Good son, the term 'unconditioned' is also a word provisionally invented by the First Teacher. Now, if the First Teacher provisionally invented this word, then it is a verbal expression apprehended by imagination. And, if it is a verbal expression apprehended by imagination, then, in the final analysis, such an imagined description does not validate a real thing. Therefore, the unconditioned does not exist." (ch 2, p 12)


Lopon Namdrol (Malcolm Smith):

While it is certainly true that many people have understood it this way, for example, the Korean master Wan tshig (sorry, did not dig up his actual Korean name):
    Indeed that Dharma of the Buddha is profound, nevertheless because there are many methods of guidance and ways of introducing it, not only one, the Sovereign of the Dharma taught three Dharma wheels. Among those the first the demonstration of cycling in the forests where wild animals roam who constantly perish and the causes and results of nirvana to those who are to enter into the Śrāvakayāna. This is called “The Dharmawheel of the four truths”. Second, is teaching the Ārya-prajñāpāramita to sixteen gatherings at Vulture Peak and so on to those who are to enter the Bodhisattvayāna. This is called the Dharmawheel of characteristiclessness. The third is the teaching of the Saṃdhinirmocana and so on to those in the pure buddhafields such as Padmagarbha, and the impure ones to those are to enter all vehicles called the “Mahāyāna of the definitive meaning”.

This is not completely certain. There is no record in any other sutra or commentary of where these sites may be. In any case, even if we accept Wan tshig's statement at face value, it still means that the Mahāyāna arose at the same time as the Śravakayāna because it was taught during the lifetime of the Buddha.

Moreover, there is no certain statement in the citation itself that this is the case. In his General Division of Tantras, Loppon Sonam Tsemo responds to the above assertion:

    If it is true those three Dharmawheels were turned for different inclinations, to claim “…they were turned in stages in different countries’” is not reasonable. If it is asked how it is not reasonable, it is because scripture and reason are contradicted, the objections of the srāvakas will not be rejected, the Sugata will come under criticism and so on. Because there will be many such faults, it is not reasonable.

He ultimately answers this qualm with the citation from the Sutralaṃkara:

    Not predicted earlier, arising at the same time.

    As the Sandhivyākarana-tantra too states:

    Non-conceptual, undisturbed,
    ...the pleasing single vajra word
    becomes many different [words]
    from the perspective of the mentalities of the trainees.

    A single statement of the Bhagavan’s will appear as many different Dharmas to many different trainees at the same time. That also does not contradict the citation of the Samdhinirmocana-sūtra explained above. Although that citation does state different Dharmas, it does not state different locations or different times. Since that is so, teaching different Dharmas to trainees with one statement made at the same time is called “the array of speech,” and demonstrating many different bodies in different locations at the same time are the beneficial deeds with an array of bodies.


There is really only one reference to the three turnings of the wheel in a single sutra. The Samdhinirmocana. The way I read the Samdhinirmocana is that it confirms the teaching found in the second turning and renders it indisputable.

The Bhagavan, well disclosing the correct entry into all vehicles, beginning from the nonexistence of the inherent existence of all phenomena, beginning from their absence of arising, absence of ceasing, being peaceful from the beginning, being parinirvana by nature, turned a third very amazing wheel of Dharma. This wheel of Dharma is unsurpassable, not circumstantial, of definitive meaning and indisputable.

This is hardly a smoking gun that confirms that you are basing your opinions on the so called third turning. Frankly, there is virtually no attention this teaching in the Indian canon, though a big deal about it is made in Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism. The idea that the three turnings are based on three distinct historical epochs is rejected out of hand by such India scholars as Dharmamitra in his Abhisamayālaṃkārakārikāprajñāpāramitopadeśaśāstraṭīkā prasphuṭapadā
Update 16/7/2021 with more quotes by Malcolm:
shankara wrote: ↑Sat Dec 05, 2020 9:31 pm I just last night read something of Taranatha on this subject. A short treatise you can find here: https://dzokden.org/read/library/study/ ... mentaries/.
What he says about the Rangtong treating the second turning of the wheel of Dharma as definitive and the third (as well as the first) as provisional is very interesting. Firstly, I would like to know if this is true? If so, it strikes me as problematic.
The whole theory of the three turnings of the wheel is problematic, actually. There isn't any agreement which sutras are "third turning."
The Indian masters paid no attention to the three turnings at all. As a doctrine it finds no place in Dzogchen teachings at all until after the thirteenth century. The Sakyapas largely ignore it.
The Gelukpas treat the second turning as definitive.
Some teachers include the tathāgatagarbha sūtras in this category (though the Indian Yogacāra master themselves were skeptical of tathāgatagarbha theory, since they advocated the theory of the icchantika, Madhyāmikas were actually more open to it than Yogacārins).
This is mostly a Tibetan trip, based on the commentary of the Korean Master Wongchuk on the Samdhinirmocana Sūtra, translated during the imperial period.
shankara wrote: The "Mahaparinirvana Sutra" is apparently of the third turning, and personally I think it is the most definitive of all Sutras (excepting perhaps the Lotus) due to it being the last preached before the death of Shakyamuni. Does the Rangtong school really regard this Sutra as provisional? 
There is no such thing as a "rang stong school," except in the eyes of gzhan stong pas.
Generally speaking, everyone in India, including the Yogacāra masters, regarded the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras as definitive in meaning. We know this for example because Virupa, who had been a Yogacāra master prior to his awakening, carried a copy of the PP in 8000 lines with him everywhere he travelled.
As for what is the definitive meaning of Buddha-Nature, the Dzogchen teacher Acarya Malcolm Smith wrote:
The term bdag nyid, atman, just means, in this case, "nature", i.e. referring to the nature of reality free from extremes as being permanent, blissful, pure and self. The luminosity of the mind is understood to be this.
There are various ways to interpret the Uttaratantra and tathāgatagarbha doctrine, one way is definitive in meaning, the other is provisional, according to Gorampa Sonam Senge, thus the tathāgatagarbha sutras become definitive or provisional depending on how they are understood. He states:
In the context of showing the faults of a literal [interpretation] – it's equivalence with the Non-Buddhist Self is that the assertion of unique eternal all pervading cognizing awareness of the Saṃkhya, the unique eternal pristine clarity of the Pashupattis, the unique all pervading intellect of the Vaiśnavas, the impermanent condition, the measure of one’s body, in the permanent self-nature of the Jains, and the white, brilliant, shining pellet the size of an atom, existing in each individual’s heart of the Vedantins are the same.
The definitive interpretation he renders as follows:
Therefor, the Sugatagarbha is defined as the union of clarity and emptiness but not simply emptiness without clarity, because that [kind of emptiness] is not suitable to be a basis for bondage and liberation. Also it is not simple clarity without emptiness, that is the conditioned part, because the Sugatagarbha is taught as unconditioned.
Khyentse Wangpo, often cited as a gzhan stong pa, basically says that the treatises of Maitreya elucidate the luminosity of the mind, i.e. its purity, whereas Nāgarjuna's treatises illustrate the empty nature of the mind, and that these two together, luminosity and emptiness free from extremes are to be understood as noncontradictory, which we can understand from the famous Prajñāpāramita citation "There is no mind in the mind, the nature of the mind is luminosity".


Partial excerpt from https://www.dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=102&t=18846

"A final example, I have shown really quite well that the thee turnings of the wheel doctrine favored by Nyingmas, Kagyus and Jonangpas really has been employed in a way completely without any consistency with what the Samdhinirmocana Sūtra actually says about it, and have pointed out that in Indian texts there was a complete lack of interest in this idea, and that the source of making fine distinctions about them all stem from a Korean commentary that was translated into Tibetan in the early ninth century. Even though I am very firmly convinced that the way Longchenpa, the Third Karmapa, Buton, Dolbupa, and so on have used this brief statement as a hermeneutical key for unlocking the meaning of the sutras (albeit in very distinct ways) is based on a total mistaken understanding, still, in reality, what do Kagyus, Nyingmapas and Jonangpas care about what some Sakya guy has to say about it? It is sufficient merely to say Kagyu, Nyingma and Jonang hold the three turnings of the wheel as very important; the Gelugpas maintain that the second turning is definitive; and the Sakyapas think that the three turning of the wheel doctrine is totally misunderstood, and even so, it is not very important at all, and that if you assert that it actually refers to three historical epochs in the Buddha's teachings, you wind up with all sorts of knotty contradictions that turn the Buddha into a liar."
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