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The Three Turnings of the Wheel

I couldn’t find a discussion on the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dhamma, so I wanted to get your opinion on it. I assume they’re not considered authentic - historically speaking - and buddhavacana? Is their content at least in line with the buddhadhamma of the EBTs in your opinion?

When I see all the great thinkers of the Tibetan tradition (Je Tsongkhapa, Milarepa, etc.) and of Mayahana in general (Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, Dharmakirti, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Shantideva, etc.), when I see the depth of their analysis, I find it hard to tell myself that there’s nothing true in these texts on which they’re based. And yet, since I don’t take them seriously historically, I don’t really know how to approach them.

:pray:

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It’s not ‘turning of the wheel,’ it’s ‘setting the wheel of the dhamma in motion’, which can only be done once:

"And when the Blessed One had set the Wheel of Dhamma in motion, the earth devas cried out: “At Varanasi, in the Game Refuge at Isipatana, the Blessed One has set in motion the unexcelled Wheel of Dhamma that cannot be stopped by brahman or contemplative, deva, Mara or God or anyone in the cosmos.” On hearing the earth devas’ cry, the devas of the Four Kings’ Heaven took up the cry… the devas of the Thirty-three… the Yama devas… the Tusita devas… the Nimmanarati devas… the Paranimmita-vasavatti devas… the devas of Brahma’s retinue took up the cry: “At Varanasi, in the Game Refuge at Isipatana, the Blessed One has set in motion the unexcelled Wheel of Dhamma that cannot be stopped by brahman or contemplative, deva, Mara, or God or anyone at all in the cosmos.”—SN 56.11

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You may find this answer by Bhante Sujato of some use.

Just coincidentally, this happened to be the very first question I ever asked on the forum :sweat_smile: :pray: :dharmawheel:

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This is actually only true of the Pali version of this sutra. The Agama version in fact describes the 12 steps of realizing the four noble truths as three turnings. It’s probably the original inspiration for the later use of “three turnings” to refer to Sravaka, Mahayana, and Vajrayana teachings.

It’s also one of the many cases I’ve seen of the Pali missing key terms or passages that became important as scriptural support for later Mahayana teachings.

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Theravada and Mahayana are separate systems, they run in opposite directions, the former towards duality. The concepts are not interchangeable. Theravada concepts are self-sufficient and minimal (SN 56.31) as a system and result in the path arising, where all the factors unify. That cannot happen with an eclectic belief where some components of one school are combined with those of the other.

Yes, that’s true. The Agamas aren’t Mahayana works, however. There’s nothing Mahayana about the three turnings in the Agama version of SN 56.11. It simply refers to the triple cycling through the four noble truths in that text. If we only read Pali, we wouldn’t know where the concept came from and think it was just made up by Mahayanists.

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saṃyukta āgama 379

dharmacakrapravartana

Turning the Dharma Wheel

thus have i heard. At one time, the Buddha was dwelling in Vārāṇasī, at the Deer Park of Ṛṣipatana. At that time, the Bhagavān addressed a group of five bhikṣus, saying:

“[1] Thus is the Noble Truth of Suffering, a dharma that has never been heard before, and which is to be contemplated. When doing so, it gives birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi. [2] Thus are the noble truths of the accumulation of suffering, [3] the cessation of suffering, and [4] the path that leads to the cessation of suffering: dharmas that have never been heard before, and which are to be contemplated. When doing so, they give birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi.

“[5] Moreover, you should fully know the Noble Truth of Suffering, a dharma that has never been heard before, and which is to be contemplated. When doing so, it gives birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi. [6] When the Noble Truth of the Accumulation of Suffering has been known, then it should be severed. This is a dharma that has never been heard before, and which is to be contemplated. When doing so, it gives birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi. [7] Moreover, from cessation of the accumulation of suffering, the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering is known, and it should be realized. This is a dharma that has not been heard before, and which is to be contemplated. When doing so, it gives birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi. [8] Moreover, from this the Noble Truth of the Path that Leads to the Cessation of Suffering is known, and should be cultivated. This is a dharma that has never been heard before, and which is to be contemplated. When doing so, it gives birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi.

“[9] Moreover, bhikṣus, when the Noble Truth of Suffering has been known, its knowledge has been produced. This is a dharma that has not been heard before, and which is to be contemplated. When doing so, it gives birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi. [10] Moreover, when the Noble Truth of the Accumulation of Suffering has been known, its severence has been produced. This is a dharma that has not been heard before, and which is to be contemplated. When doing so, it gives birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi. [11] Moreover, when the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering has been known, its realization has been produced. This is a dharma that has not been heard before, and which is to be contemplated. When doing so, it gives birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi. [12] Moreover, when the Noble Truth of the Path that Leads to the Cessation of Suffering has been known, its cultivation has been produced. This is a dharma that has never been heard before, and which is to be contemplated. When doing so, it gives birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi.

“Bhikṣus, in regard to these three turnings and twelve motions of the Four Noble Truths, if they had not given birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi, then amongst all the devas, māras, brahmās, śramaṇas, and brāhmaṇas who hear the Dharma, I could not have achieved liberation, gone beyond, and departed. I also would not have had self-realization of the attainment of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi. Yet I have, from the three turnings and twelve motions of the Four Noble Truths, given birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi. Amongst the devas, māras, brahmās, śramaṇas, and brāhmaṇas who hear the Dharma, I have gone beyond and achieved liberation, and have had self-realization of the attainment of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi.”

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Unless I’m misunderstanding you, what you refer to is found in the Pali too:

Yāvakīvañca me, bhikkhave, imesu catūsu ariyasaccesu evaṃ tiparivaṭṭaṃ dvādasākāraṃ yathābhūtaṃ ñāṇadassanaṃ na suvisuddhaṃ ahosi, neva tāvāhaṃ, bhikkhave, sadevake loke samārake sabrahmake sassamaṇabrāhmaṇiyā pajāya sadevamanussāya ‘anuttaraṃ sammāsambodhiṃ abhisambuddho’ti paccaññāsiṃ.

So long, bhikkhus, as my knowledge and vision of these four noble truths as they really are in their three phases and twelve aspects was not thoroughly purified in this way, I did not claim to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment in this world with its devas, māras, and brahmās, in this generation with its ascetics and brahmins, its devas and humans.

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Aha! I stand corrected. Thanks. Out of curiosity, is there a reason translators choose something besides “turning” for parivaṭṭa?

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Actually some Pali-English translators do render it as “three cycles” and in Thai it’s always วนรอบสาม, meaning “three loops” or “three rounds”.

I think it’s unlikely, however, that the intended meaning was “three turnings of the wheel”, for we meet with several other words consisting of a numeral followed by parivaṭṭa and whose referent is whatever series of items the Buddha has just finished teaching. So if the Mahayanists were consistent then they should also have spoken of “four turnings of the wheel” in connection with the Bahudhātukasutta (MN 115):

Tasmātiha tvaṃ, ānanda, imaṃ dhammapariyāyaṃ ‘bahudhātuko’ tipi naṃ dhārehi, ‘catuparivaṭṭo’ tipi naṃ dhārehi.

You may remember this discourse on the Dhamma, Ānanda, as ‘The Many Kinds of Elements’ and as ‘The Four Cycles’.

The “four cycles” here means the teaching just given on the elements, bases, dependent arising, and the possible and impossible. Then in the Upādānaparipavattasutta (SN 22.56) catuparivaṭṭa refers to the four phases of upādāna.

Not to mention the “eight turnings of the wheel” (aṭṭhaparivaṭṭaṃ) in connection with the Gayāsīsasutta (AN 8.64):

Yāvakīvañca me, bhikkhave, evaṃ aṭṭhaparivaṭṭaṃ adhidevañāṇadassanaṃ na suvisuddhaṃ ahosi, neva tāvāhaṃ, bhikkhave, ‘sadevake loke samārake sabrahmake sassamaṇabrāhmaṇiyā pajāya sadevamanussāya anuttaraṃ sammāsambodhiṃ abhisambuddho’ti paccaññāsiṃ.

Monks, so long as this eightfold series of knowledge and vision of the higher devas was not fully purified in me, I did not realize as one wholly awakened to the highest awakening, unsurpassed in the world of devas, with its Māras and its Brahmās, or in the world of mankind with its recluses and godly men, devas and men.

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Hmm. Here in Pali, that seems to be true. But the term tiparivaṭṭaṃ occurs only in the main body of the SN 56.11, where there’s no mention of the Dharma wheel. In the Agamas, it also occurs in the conclusion when the gods are announcing that the Dharma wheel has been turned. I guess that was the omission in the Pali I was remembering. SA 379 reads:

世尊於波羅㮈國仙人住處鹿野苑中三轉十二行法輪
“The Bhagavan has turned three times in 12 steps the Dharma wheel while staying … in Baranasi!”

So, that connection is missing in Pali. Interesting. It could, of course, be an innocent addition in the Agama tradition. It would make sense. And then it became the inspiration for later redefinitions of the three turnings.

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The SN 56.11 shows “each truth in three ways”, whereas the SA 379 shows “the four truths in each way”. This way of teaching the four noble truths is called “three-turned, twelvefold” (tipariva.t.ta.m dvaadasaakaara.m 三轉十二行) (See p. 237 in Choong Mun-keat, The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism). The two versions agree in content but differ in sequence.

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Ven. Thanissaro , in the footnotes to his translation of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, offers the following explanation :
“The discussion in the four paragraphs beginning with the phrase, “Vision arose…,” takes two sets of variables — the four noble truths and the three levels of knowledge appropriate to each — and lists their twelve permutations. In ancient Indian philosophical and legal traditions, this sort of discussion is called a wheel. Thus, this passage is the Wheel of Dhamma from which the discourse takes its name.”
:anjal:

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“The three rounds in this knowledge and vision correspond to the three levels
of knowledge for each of the noble truths: knowing the truth, knowing the duty
appropriate to the truth, and knowing that the duty has been completed. The
twelve permutations come from applying these three levels to all four of the
truths (3 x 4 = 12).

Duties appropriate to each truth:
‘This noble truth of stress is to be comprehended’ …
‘This noble truth of the origination of stress is to be abandoned’ …
‘This noble truth of the cessation of stress is to be directly experienced’ … ‘
‘This noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation
of stress is to be developed’…

—-Thanissaro

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Yes, the Agama does present it a little differently. It progresses through the four truths three times rather than applying the three phrases to one truth at a time. It’s a fairly common type of variation that I see when comparing Agamas to Nikayas. The meaning isn’t changed that much.

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Relating these duties to the fourth foundation of mindfulness (DN 22, MN 10):
Theory (Four Noble Truths) > Practice (Four Foundations of Mindfulness)

“Under the topic of the fourth frame of reference, DN 22 lists five sets of
categories to keep in mind: the five hindrances, the five clinging-aggregates, the
sixfold sense media, the seven factors for awakening, and the four noble truths.
As we have already noted, the four noble truths and their duties form the
overarching framework for understanding how right mindfulness should
function. The remaining sets of categories fall under these truths and the duties
appropriate to them. The hindrances, as a cause of stress, are to be abandoned.
The clinging-aggregates, as the primary example of the truth of stress, are to be
comprehended to the point of dispassion. As for the sixfold sense-media, the
discussion in DN 22 focuses on the fetters that arise in dependence on these
media—fetters that as a cause of stress should be abandoned. The seven factors
for awakening, as aspects of the path, are to be developed.” —Thanissaro