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date: 08 December 2022

Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)locked

Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)locked

  • John PowersJohn PowersProfessor of Religious Studies, Deakin University


The three turnings of the “wheel of doctrine” (dharma-cakra) is a Buddhist concept that has its origins in the Discourse Explaining the Thought (Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra), a 3rd–4th century Indian Mahāyāna work. According to the schema described in this text, in the first turning the Buddha laid out fundamental precepts such as the four noble truths and dependent arising. The Buddha subsequently taught a second wheel, comprising the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñā-pāramitā) discourses and related works, in which the teachings of the first wheel were subjected to the critique of emptiness (śūnyatā): the Buddha corrected the false impression some followers had developed that his words have a privileged truth status and transcend the limitations of mundane words and concepts. But in so doing he moved some followers toward an extreme of nihilism. And so in the third wheel he differentiated what is and is not being negated. This framework, only sketchily outlined in the Sūtra, was later extended and reinterpreted by Buddhist exegetes, most often as a polemical and sectarian strategy by which they valorized their own doctrines and preferred scriptures and relegated those of rivals to lower status while still acknowledging them as valid teachings of the Buddha delivered for the benefit of particular types of trainees with specific proclivities. In some tantric sources, Vajrayāna is characterized as part of the third wheel. As with the Discourse Explaining the Thought’s formulation, the tantric version of the three wheels presents them as sequential, with each requiring the others. Subsequent wheels build on and correct misconceptions in earlier ones, and the schema construes each successive dispensation as more profound than the preceding one(s) and as better representing the Buddha’s final thought.


  • Buddhism

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