The Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma

There are many ways of classifying Buddha’s teachings. One of the more well known schemes is the “three turnings of the wheel of Dharma” or “three rounds of transmission of the Dharma.” Each round was taught at a different place and different time in Buddha’s life, though some later scholars, such as Tsongkhapa, differentiate the three according to their content and not simply according to their chronological order.

The First Round of Transmission

The first round of transmission took place at the Deer Park in Sarnath. Buddha went there with his five companions right after his attainment of enlightenment and gave them his first teaching. In it, he laid out the basic structure of his insight: the Four Noble Truths. These four are true sufferings, their true cause, their true stopping or cessation, and the true path or pathway of mind that leads to their true stopping and which results from it.

The word “noble” is a translation of the word “arya,” from which the terms “Aryan” and “Iran” also derive. The Aryans were an Indo-European tribe from Central Asia that had conquered India about 2,000 years before the common era and had declared themselves superior to the local natives and culture.

An arya, within the Buddhist teachings, is a highly realized being, someone who has had non-conceptual cognition of these four truths. The four noble truths, then, are four facts that an arya non-conceptually sees as true, although ordinary people and followers of the other Indian philosophical systems of the time do not see them as true at all.

It is interesting that Buddha used the term arya, connoting a member of the nobility, yet abolished the caste system and hierarchical structure within the monastic community he founded. Being a Buddhist arya, however, was not based on birth, clan or race, entitling someone to political power or economic status; instead, it was based on spiritual attainment. Therefore, in keeping with the mentality of the society in which he lived, Buddha used this term to indicate that those who realized the truth of these facts rose above the masses in the sense that they freed themselves forever of some level of suffering.

Further, the deer is noted as a gentle, peaceful animal. By teaching in a Deer Park, Buddha symbolically indicated that understanding his teachings bring about a peaceful state, free of suffering.

The Second Round of Transmission

Buddha delivered the second round of transmission of his teachings at Vulture’s Peak in the kingdom of Magadha just outside the capital, Rajagaha. This took place at a particularly difficult point in his life. War was raging in his homeland, Sakya; and in Magadha, the crown prince had thrown his father in prison, usurped the throne and starved his father to death. It was also the time when Devadatta, Buddha’s cousin, was trying to kill him and create a schism in the Buddhist monastic community. Further, when Buddha was on his way to Magadha, he had been denounced and discredited in Vajji and so he had gone to live in the caves at Vulture’s Peak.

The second round deals primarily with what is known as the Prajnaparamita Sutras, The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. They deal with the topic of voidness – emptiness – and the stages for gaining the discriminating awareness of it. Voidness is the total absence of impossible ways of existing, such as concrete, independent existence. Although everything may appear to be self-established, independent of causes and conditions, this projection of fantasy does not correspond to reality. To gain liberation and enlightenment, we need to discriminate correctly between fantasy and reality. We need non-conceptual cognition of voidness.

Teaching this topic makes a great deal of sense in the context of this moment in Buddha’s life. So many terrible things were happening personally to him and in the world around him that his monastic order needed a method to comprehend and deal with the shock and horror of it all. The understanding of voidness was to help them deconstruct this difficult situation and understand that the tragedies of war and so on did not exist like solid monsters, but arise dependently on numerous causes and conditions. If we look at the second round of transmissions in this light, then the fact that Buddha taught voidness at this point in his life makes a great deal of sense.

The Third Round of Transmission

The third round of transmission took place in Vesali, the capital of the Vajji Republic. Buddha passed through Vajji a number of times on his way back and forth between Kosala and Magadha, and it was in this place where he finally agreed to start the nun’s order. Vajji was a poor republic so it is significant that the nun’s order began in an egalitarian environment, a place in which the elitist and conservative brahmin order was not so strong.

There are two ways of delineating the content this third round of teachings. According to one of them, the third round refers to teachings of the Chittamatra Mind-Only school of Mahayana. The main philosophical point of this school is that the content of our perception and the mental factors with which we perceive it do not come from difference sources. They all come from the same natal source – a karmic seed or tendency on our foundation consciousness. Because of that, we can only establish the existence of anything in relation to a mind that is either thinking about it, seeing it or describing it, etc. So when two people are viewing something, for instance a member of the newly established community of nuns, there is no common denominator, objective person that both are looking at. The way that the nun appears to each person arises from the karmic tendency in the viewer’s mind. Therefore, if someone sees being a nun as something improper for a woman, this was not objective reality, just that person’s subjective view.

According to the second way of defining the content of the third round, Buddha now taught about Buddha-nature, the innate factors that everyone has that will enable them to become enlightened Buddhas. Because of Buddha-nature, all beings are equal, and this includes both men and women. Teaching about Buddha-nature would be of great help to the male members of his monastic community for accepting the new institution of nuns and it would also encourage the nuns to strive hard for enlightenment. It is significant, then, that Buddha taught this topic in Vajji, an egalitarian state, where it had a better chance of making sense to the public as well. Moreover, it would be helpful to everyone to realize that despite all the conflicts and wars going on, the basic nature of everyone’s mind is pure –­ including the minds of our enemies.


Buddha skillfully taught different topics and in various ways at different times in his life. He crafted his teachings and chose the topics to suit the place and times of the occasion, and meet the needs of his audience in dealing with them. In this way, Buddha was indeed a master of skilful means.

Original Audio from the Seminar