By Johnathon Lee
Traditionally speaking, the Dharma wheel has turned three (or four) times.
The first turning started when Buddha gave his teachings on the Four Noble Truths, and it spans the Pali Canon. Other first turning teachings include the Three Marks of Existence, the Four Immeasurables, Jhanas, Frame of Mindfulness, the Five Aggregates and the Seven Factors for Awakening.
I know—it’s a lot of lists. I love it.
The first turning mainly focused on personal emptiness.
There’s no enduring self or soul. Instead, there’s a bundle of interacting whatnots that are distorted by ignorance. When we ignore this, we crave impermanent things, and this causes suffering.
The second turning began with the Prajnaparamita Sutras, like the Heart and Diamond Sutras. These teachings introduce Bodhisattva practice, and they expand personal emptiness to universal emptiness.
Just as what seems to be a self is really a bundle of whatnots, all things are really bundles of doodads and whirligigs too, and those whirligigs are also bundles of whirligigs to the point that really nothing comprehensible is happening at all.
The second turning introduces radical teachings such as since there’s really no craving or ignorance, there’s no suffering or freedom from suffering. Even nirvana is like a mirage or a passing shape in the clouds. This turning came about because people started getting attached to the teachings on nonattachment, which happens. It’ll happen to you too, if it hasn’t already.
The third turning came about because people got attached to the nonattachment to nonattachment, and it’s a response to charges of nihilism. The mind-only and Buddha-nature teachings took the spotlight here, along with more detailed info on the Bodhisattva Path. We can find these teachings in the Lankavatara and Nirvana Sutras.
Mind-only means that “reality” is a reflection of transforming consciousness, determined karma and fueled by—once again—craving and ignorance.
Buddha-nature is the view that all beings have Bodhi seeds in their heart/minds that will ripen if the conditions are right.
The fourth turning is sometimes included in the third, but it really deserves its own movement. The fourth turning brought us Tantric Buddhism, aka Vajrayana, which is a huge umbrella of primarily Tibetan Buddhist schools. Vajrayana teachings utilize more esoteric methods in practice, but not at the expense of ordinary life. In fact, ordinary life is sacred.
I’d go into more detail, but Vajrayana is above my pay grade.
This is where most traditional lists of the turnings stop, but Buddhism kept on going, by golly, with master works such as the Lotus and Avatamsaka Sutras.
We could say that the fifth turning is a kind of eclectic Buddhism that gave rise to schools like Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren. Zen basically took all of the turnings and distilled them into everyday life.
Now, the wheel is turning again it seems, with Secular and Engaged Buddhism joining the others on the stage. This turning is characterized by syncretism and modernization, and I think that that’s awesome. However, we have to remember where it all came from. I don’t support throwing any of the Dharma away, or twisting it and watering it down to the point that it’s no longer Buddhism at all.
I’ve tried that, and it’s silly.
It’s up to each of us to make sure that Buddhadharma finds its place in modern life, but not at the expense of the diversity and richness that’s gone into it for thousands of years. We also have to respect Buddhists from other cultures who focus more on the devotional aspects of practice. Maybe we could even try it out ourselves, I mean, they don’t do it for shits and giggles.
Please practice with a critical, open mind and a boundless heart. May you be free of suffering, and thanks for reading.
Did you like this piece? Want to tip the author? Here is his tip jar: paypalme/jpendall
Were you inspired by this? You may also like: