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
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
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?
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.