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Tibetan Buddhists often talk about the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma...

What are the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma according to Tibetan Buddhism?

Where did they take place according to Tibetan Buddhists?

How do Tibetan Buddhists interpret these Three Turnings?

Is there disagreement within Tibetan Buddhists schools about which teachings are definitive and which are provisional?

Do Tibetan Buddhists think these Three Turnings are contradictory?

  • According to Prasangika, or Svatantrika? – Tenzin Dorje Apr 21 '18 at 18:21
  • I attempted in my answer below to represent the parts where the different Tibetan subschools agree and where they disagree. Please let me know if I made any errors! – Yeshe Tenley Apr 21 '18 at 18:28
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    FWIW, I just learned that posting a question+answer on this site is frowned upon. This was motivated by a specific request, but will take care when doing this again. – Yeshe Tenley Apr 23 '18 at 12:50
  • @TenzinDorje if i wanted to contact you over email would I send an email to Kopan Monastery or Nalanda? – Yeshe Tenley Apr 25 '18 at 13:20
  • That would be Nalanda. But you can simply write at tenzin.dorje.pt@gmail.com – Tenzin Dorje Apr 25 '18 at 14:37
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What are the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma according to Tibetan Buddhism?

Where did they take place according to Tibetan Buddhists?

The Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma according to Tibetan Buddhists are broadly speaking three different categories of teachings the historical Buddha gave as recorded in various Sutras.

The First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma is said to have been given at Deer Park in northern India. Here is an article cited by the FPMT which describes what Tibetan Buddhists believe constitute this first turning:

The first turning includes those teachings given by the Buddha in the earliest historical period of Buddhism in general, and Buddha Shakyamuni’s teaching career in particular. Many of these teachings are fundamental to all schools of Buddhism such as the four noble truths, the eightfold path, selflessness (anatman), dependent-arising, impermanence, the five aggregates, etc. Perhaps the most famous of the many discourses (Pali: sutta, Sanskrit: sutra) of the Buddha from the first turning is the one that records the Buddha’s very first teaching at Deer Park to the first five disciples entitled The Turning of the Wheel of the Dhamma Sutta. In actuality, virtually all of the contents of the Pali version of the Buddhist canon, that version utilized by Theravada Buddhists of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia today, are considered by Tibetans to be teachings from the first turning of the wheel.

The Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma is said to have been given at Vulture Peak Mountain in Rajagriha, India. The Sutras which record this turning are broadly given the title of Perfection of Wisdom Sutras or prajnaparamita the most famous of which are likely the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Cutter Sutra.

The Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma is said to have been given in numerous locations and generally comprise those Sutras making up what is called the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine.

How do Tibetan Buddhists interpret these Three Turnings?

Is there disagreement within Tibetan Buddhists schools about which teachings are definitive and which are provisional?

Among the various subschools of Tibetan Buddhism there is broad agreement about these Three Turnings. In other words, the subschools generally agree that these are valid and authentic teachings of the Buddha. However, there are some disagreements.

I'm not aware of any disagreements about the First Turning which are widely considered provisional in meaning, but there is some contention about the status of the Second and Third and which Sutras are said to be definitive in meaning and which are provisional.

The Gelug school as founded by Je Tsongkhapa and which forms the root lineage of His Holiness the Dalai Lama believe the Second Turning to be definitive in meaning while the Third is said to be provisional or at least that it needs to be interpreted with the wisdom realizing emptiness. According to the Gelug viewpoint the Third Turning was motivated to dispel the fear that some generated upon hearing the teachings of the Second Turning. That is, some listeners had an incorrect understanding of the Second Turning and developed a nihilistic view and so out of compassion the Buddha gave the Third Turning with a sheen of essentialism to dispel this nihilism which leads to the avici hell.

Tsongkhapa gave his viewpoint in his Essence of True Eloquence.

Here is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama has to say about this:

"At a time when Tsongkhapa's work ‘Essence of Good Explanation’ on the provisional and definitive meaning of the Sutras was translated into Hindi at Varanasi, the pandits Tripathi and Upadhyaya were involved. I asked Tripathi to consider Je Rinpoche's work in the context of the great Indian classics and wondered whether he might be classed among the scholars of Nalanda. Tripathi responded that he would not only hold his own among them, but would be classed among the most excellent."

It is important to understand that the Second and Third Turning teachings predate Tibetan Buddhism. These teachings were recorded and came from India before Buddhism was ever introduced to the land of snow. However, the Second and Third Turnings were not recorded in the Pali Canon and thus properly belong to the Mahayana.

Do Tibetan Buddhists think these Three Turnings are contradictory?

No.

There is very wide agreement that these teachings - when interpreted correctly and with a proper view of which are provisional and which are definitive - do not contradict each other.

  • So, do you think Buddha was talking about eternal subjective self? – user10804 Apr 22 '18 at 15:21
  • Hi Rohith, I'm not sure what is meant by "eternal subjective self"? To first reading, I'd say that "eternal" and "subjective" seem in some conflict to each other. – Yeshe Tenley Apr 23 '18 at 12:49
  • My own viewpoint is that Prasangika-Madhyamaka is the most subtle and correct view of the wisdom realizing emptiness as explained by Buddha -> Nagarjuna -> Aryadeva -> Buddhapalita -> ChandraKirti - Je Tsongkhapa however, it is very difficult even to get an inferential understanding of emptiness. That is, I think all phenomena lack inherent existence including nirvana, samsara, and emptiness itself. There is no existent whatsoever that has inherent existence even the slightest bit. That is every existent is completely and thoroughly dependent. And truly realizing this can give liberation. – Yeshe Tenley Apr 23 '18 at 12:55

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