The Evolution of Buddhism
by Tom Neilson
The “Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma” is a traditional way of understanding the development of Buddhism from the Yogacara school of Buddhism. The first turning of the wheel is the foundation for all of Buddhism and includes the Four Noble Truths and the teachings of Theravada Buddhism. The first turning emphasizes impermanence and the individual’s escape from samsara.
The second turning emphasizes emptiness and compassion, which together form bodhicitta, the motivation to seek enlightenment. A full articulation of nonduality is also characteristic of the second turning. The ideal of the second turning is the bodhisattva, who seeks enlightenment for the sake of all beings, rather than the Theravada ideal of the arhat, who seeks enlightenment largely for him or herself. The third turning consists of the development of the concept of Buddha Nature, the idea that we are all inherently unrealized Buddhas who simply need to discover our true nature. The second and third turnings together make up Mahayana Buddhism.
Sometimes Vajrayana schools refer to tantra and Vajrayana Buddhism as the fourth turning. Vajrayana Buddhism differs from earlier forms of Buddhism in its greater emphasis on ritual and its greater emphasis on upayas, skillful means for achieving enlightenment. Vajrayana is often referred to as the “fast path” to enlightenment by it’s adherents because of its emphasis on esoteric and highly effective meditation techniques.
Each turning of the wheel of dharma builds on the previous turnings, and can be understood as a step in the evolution of the dharma. From this perspective, each is valuable and complements the others. Taken together, they offer a breathtaking array of practices for the attainment of enlightenment and a comprehensive set of philosophies that address suffering and the existential struggle of being human.
One Dharma can be considered the uniquely Western integration of all four turnings of the wheel of dharma.