Views & Practices

The Three Turnings

During his 45 year teaching career, it is said that the Buddha taught different degrees of reality according to varying circumstances and the disparate dispositions, personality types, and capacities of his students. In general, the entirety of the Buddha’s sutra discourses are divided into 3 distinct sets of teachings or “turnings of the dharma wheel.” These 3 “turnings” or revolutions of Shakyamuni’s teachings are each considered to be complete cycles of explanation that correspond directly to the infinite diversity of individuals. Here is a brief overview of these 3 “turnings”:

  1. Shakyamuni Buddha’s 1st “turning” was in Deer Park near the present-day city of Varanasi in Northern India. At this time, the Buddha described how the dependently co-arising nature of phenomena allows for the possibility of freedom from suffering. These teachings include the 4 Noble Truths and Dependent Co-arising and were collected into the body of literature known as the Abhidharma or Sciences of Mind and Reality. This first revolution acts as an antidote to the obsessive habit of clinging to an independent self as ultimately substantial.
  2. Shakyamuni’s 2nd “turning” was at Vulture Peak Mountain near Rajagriha. There, the Buddha taught how all phenomena lack intrinsic or absolute existence. These teachings were collected into the body of scriptures known as the Prajnaparamita Sutras or Transcendent Wisdom Scriptures. In particular, these teachings on emptiness were taught in order to liberate beings from their psychological and emotional fixations on even the subtlest aspects of reality.
  3. The 3rd set of the Buddha’s discourses were delivered at Mount Malaya and Vaishali. In contrast to his second turning, the Buddha’s third revolution elucidated how a luminous enlightened essence known as “tathagatagarbha” or “Buddhanature” pervades all beings. These teachings were compiled into a set of sutras known as the Essence Sutras. This final cycle of teachings was taught by the Buddha in order to free beings from their obsessive tendencies of holding onto nihilistic beliefs about reality.

The Great Madhyamaka

It is understood that there were three “Great” systems of the Buddha’s teachings that were transmitted from Indian masters into Tibet. These three are:

1) Great Perfection or Dzogchen;
2) Great Seal or Mahamudra;
3) Great Madhyamaka or Zhentong.

The Great Madhyamaka or Great Middle Way zhentong (shentong) system of the Jonang is in contrast to the General Madhyamaka system known as “Rangtong Madhyamaka.” General Madhyamaka includes both Svatantrika and Prasangika Madhyamaka. Indian masters of this rangtong system include Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka, Chandrakirti, Shantarakshita, and their disciples. Early Great Madhyamaka figures include the Regent Maitreya, Arya Asanga and his brother Vasubandhu, Dignaga, Dharmakirti, and their disciples. Though Nagarjuna explicitly taught Rangtong General Madhyamaka in his Collections of Reasoning, he also clearly expressed Zhentong Great Madhyamaka in works such as his Praise to the Ultimate Dimension of Reality.

As Jetsun Taranatha writes in his text titled, An Ascertainment of the Two Systems,

Accordingly, those who adhere to rangtong take the first wheel of the Buddha’s teachings which is the Wheel of Dharma that teaches the Four Noble Truths to be provisional in meaning, the middle Wheel of Dharma that teaches the absence of characteristics as ultimately definitive in meaning, and the final excellently distinguished Wheel of Dharma as teaching the circumstantial definitive meaning, which is provisional in meaning. Those who uphold zhentong take the first Wheel of Dharma to be provisional, the middle Wheel of Dharma to teach the circumstantial definitive meaning, and the final Wheel of Dharma to teach to ultimate definitive meaning.

Taking the final wheel or third “turning” of the Buddha’s teachings as definitive, the Great Madhyamaka system emphasizes the yogic or meditative approach while General Madhyamaka emphasizes an analytic approach.

Primary Sutra Sources

The most important sutras or scriptural discourses of the Buddha for understanding tathagatagarbha or Buddhanature are the ten “Essence Sutras.” These ten sutras serve textual basis for zhentong. The Sanskrit names of these sutras are:

  1. Tathagatagarbha Sutra
  2. Arya-dharanish-vararaja Sutra [also known as the Tathagata-maha-karuna-nidesha Sutra]
  3. Maha-pari-nirvana Sutra
  4. Anguli-malya Sutra
  5. Shri-mala-devi-simha-nanda Sutra
  6. Jnana-loka-lamkara Sutra
  7. Anuna-trapur-natva-nirdesha-parivarta Sutra
  8. Mahab-jeri Sutra
  9. Avi-kalpa-prave-sha-dharani Sutra
  10. Samdhi-nirmochana Sutra

Among these Essence Sutras, the Tathagatagarbha Sutra appears to be the earliest occurrence of the Buddha’s teaching on Buddhanature. The Maha-pari-nirvana Sutra, Shri-mala-devi-simha-nanda Sutra, and Samdhi-nirmochana Sutra were highly influential though appear to be rather late. In addition to these Essence Sutras, the Avatamsaka Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra also explain Buddhanature.

The Zhentong Meditative View

According to the Great Madhyamaka tradition, there is sutra zhentong and tantra zhentong. In accord with sutra zhentong, the Great Madhyamaka system of the Jonang emphasizes Shakyamuni’s 3rd “turning” or final set of discourses. This understanding of mind and reality seeks to reconcile the paradox of a lack of any permanent essence (sunyata, emptiness), and that of an ever-abiding permanent enlightened essence (tathagatagarbha, buddha-nature).

Zhentong,” (gzhan stong, “shentong”) “extrinsic emptiness” or “other-emptiness” is a view of how the ultimate nature of reality is free from or empty of everything “other” than its absolute nature. In other words, a zhentong view understands how one’s own enlightened essence is empty of everything false in superficial relative reality.

Zhentong as a view for meditation practice regards relative reality as empty of its own intrinsic existence. This emptiness of inherent substance or “rangtong” is considered to be solely the nature of relative reality while ultimate reality is understood to be empty of everything other than itself. Accordingly, transient tangible experiences remain devoid of inherent substance as the boundless luminous nucleus of Buddhahood within all beings remains intangible and invariant.

This enlightened essence is regarded as an indwelling permanently pure nature of awareness. It is the mind devoid of its distorted perceptions. Likened to an embryo or a womb, this essence (garbha) provides the potentiality for living beings to be reborn into completely awakened Buddhas.

The Kalachakra Tantra

The Jonang emphasize the view of the Buddha’s 3rd turning sutra discourses as definitive, and the meditation practice of the Kalachakra Tantra. Based upon a zhentong view, the Jonang consider one’s enlightened essence or “buddha-nature” as the foundation upon which all spiritual transformation occurs.

In general, Buddhist tantric practice has two stages of actualizing oneself as a sublime form or deity. These two stages of tantric meditation are: 1) “generation stage”; 2) “completion stage.”

The entire Kalachakra Tantra including its generation and completion stage practices were sustained in India before being transmitted into Tibet. From the 11th century onwards, there are said to be 17 distinct Tibetan lineages of the Kalachakra Tantra. Among these transmissions of the Kalachakra that spread throughout Tibet, two main lineages have survived: the Rwa lineage and the Dro lineage.

Though there are minor branches to these two main transmission lineages, the Dro lineage is upheld primarily by the Jonang tradition while the other traditions of Tibetan Buddhism have generally upheld the Rwa lineage. As the Rwa lineage continues to transmit the empowerments and sustain the generation stage practices of the Kalachakra, the completion stage practices known as the 6-fold vajrayoga (“six yogas,” sbyor drug) of the Kalachakra have only been preserved within the Dro lineage of the Jonang tradition.