The end of suffering and the discovery of happiness (excerpt)

The first turning of the wheel of Dharma


Just as there are three types of training – in wisdom, concentration, and morality – the Buddhist scriptures contain three divisions – discipline, sets of discourses, and knowledge.

Both male and female practitioners have an equal need to practice these three trainings, although there are differences in the vows they take. The basic foundation of the practice of morality is restraint from the ten unwholesome actions: three pertaining to the body, four pertaining to speech, and three pertaining to thought.

The three physical nonvirtues are:

  1. Taking the life of a living being, from and insect up to a human being.
  2. Stealing, taking away another’s property without his consent, regardless of its value, and whether or not you do it yourself.
  3. Sexual misconduct, committing adultery.


The four verbal nonvirtues are:

  1. Lying, deceiving others through spoken work or gesture.
  2. Divisiveness, creating dissesion by causing those in agreement to disagree or those in disagreement to disagree further.
  3. Harshness, abusing others.
  4. Senselessness, talking about foolish things motivated by desire and so forth.

The three mental nonvirtues are:

  1. Covetousness, desiring to possess something that belongs to another.
  2. Harmful intent, wishing to injure others, be it in a great or small way.
  3. Wrong view, viewing some existent thing such as rebirth, cause and effect, or the Three Jewels as non-existent.

The morality practiced by those who observe the monastic way of life is referred to as the discipline of individual liberation (Pratimoksha). In India there were four major schools of tenets, later producing 18 branches, which each preserved their own version of the Pratimoksha, the original discourse spoken by the Buddha, which laid down the guidelines for monastic life. The practice observed in the Tibetan monasteries follows the Mulasarvastavadin tradition in which 253 precepts are prescribed for fully ordained monks, or bhikshus. In the Theravadan tradition, the individual liberation vow of monks comprises 227 precepts.

In providing you with an instrument of mindfulness and alertness, the practice of morality protects you from indulging in negative actions. Therefore, it is the foundation of the Buddhist path. The second phase is meditation; it leads the practitioner to the second training, which is concerned with concentration.


Meditation in the general Buddhist sense is of two types – absorptive and analytical meditation. The first refers to the practice of the calmly abiding or single-pointing mind, and the second to the practice of analysis. In both cases, it is very important to have a firm foundation of mindfulness and alertness, which is provided by the practice of morality. These two factors – mindfulness and alertness – are important not only in meditation, but also in our day-to-day lives.

We speak of many different states of meditation, such as the form or formless states. The form states are differentiated on the basis of their branches, whereas the formless states are differentiated on the basis of the nature of the object of absorption.

We take the practice of morality as the foundation and the practice of concentration as a complementary factor, an instrument, to make the mind serviceable. So, later, when you undertake the practice of wisdom, you are equipped with such a single-pointed mind that you can direct all your attention and energy to the chosen object. In the practice of wisdom, you meditate on the selflessness or emptiness of phenomena, which serves as the actual antidote to the disturbing emotions.

The 37 Aspects of Enlightment

The general structure of the Buddhist path, as outlined in the first turning of the wheel of Dharma, consists of the 37 aspects of enlightenment. These begin with the four mindfulnesses, which refer to mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and phenomena. Here, however, mindfulness refers to meditation on the suffering nature of cyclic existence, by means of which practitioners develop a true determination to be free from this cycle of existence.

Next are the four complete abandonments, because when practitioners develop a true determination to be free through the practice of the four mindfulnesses, they engage in a way of life in which they abandon the causes of the future suffering and cultivate the causes of future happiness.

Since overcoming all negative actions and disturbing emotions, and increasing positive factors within your mind, which are technically called the class of pure phenomena, can be achieved only when you have a very concentrated mind, there follow what are called the four factors of miraculous powers.

Next come what are known as the five faculties, five powers, eightfold noble path, and seven branches of the path to enlightenment.

This is the general structure of the Buddhist path as laid down in the first turning of the wheel of Dharma. Buddhism as practiced in the Tibetan tradition completely incorporates all these features of the Buddhist doctrine.


The second turning of the wheel of Dharma

In the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, the Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom or Prajnaparamita sutras on the Vuture’s Peak, outside Rajgir.

The second turning of the wheel of Dharma should be seen as expanding upon the topics which the Buddha had expounded during the first turning of the wheel. In the second turning, he not only taught the truth of suffering, that suffering should be recognized as suffering, but emphasized the importance of identifying both your own suffering as well as that of all sentient beings, so it is much more extensive. When he taught the origin of suffering in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, he referred not to the disturbing emotions alone, but also to the subtle imprints they leave behind, so this explanation is more profound.

The truth of cessation is also explained much more profoundly. In the first turning of the wheel of Dharma, cessation is merely identified, whereas in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras the Buddha explains the nature of this cessation and its characteristics in great detail. He describes the path by which sufferings can be ceased and what the actual state called cessation is.

The truth of the path is similarly dealt with more profoundly in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras. The Buddha taught a unique path comprising the realization of emptiness, the true nature of all phenomena, combined with compassion and the mind of enlightenment, the altruistic wish to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Because he spoke of this union of method and wisdom in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, we find that the second turning develops and expands on the first turning of the wheel of Dharma.

Although the four noble truths were explained more profoundly during the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, this is not because certain features were explained in the second that were not explained in the first. That cannot be the reason, because many topics are explained in non-Buddhist systems which are not explained in Buddhism, but that does not mean that other systems are more profound than Buddhism. The second turning of the wheel of Dharma explains and develops certain aspects of the four noble truths, which were not explained in the first turning of the wheel, but which do not contradict the general structure of the Buddhist path described in that first discourse. Therefore, the explanation found in the second is said to be more profound.

Yet, in the discourses of the second turning of the wheel we also find certain presentations that do contradict the general structure of the path as described of sutras, some which are taken at face value and are thought of as literally true, whereas others require the four reliances, we divide the sutras into two categories – the definitive and the interpretable.

These four reliances consist of advice to rely on the teaching, not on the person; within the teachings rely on the meaning, not on mere words; rely on definitive sutras, not those requiring interpretation; and rely on the deeper understanding of wisdom, not on the knowledge of ordinary awareness.

This approach can be found in the Buddha’s own words, as when he said: “O bhiksus and wise men, do not accept what I say just out of respect for me, but first subject it to analysis and rigorous examination.”

In the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, the Buddha further explained the subject of cessation, particularly with regard to emptiness, in a more elaborate and extensive way. Therefore, the Great Vehicle approach is to interpret those sutras on two levels: the literal meaning, which concerns the presentation of emptiness, and the hidden meaning which concerns the latent explanation of the stages of the path.


The third turning of the wheel of Dharma

The third turning of the wheel contains many different sutras, the most important of which is the Tathagata Essence sutra, which is actually the source for Nagarjuna’s Collection of Praises and also Maitreya’s treatise the Sublime Continuum. In this sutra, the Buddha further explores topics he had touched on in the second turning of the wheel, but not from the objective viewpoint of emptiness, because emptiness was explained to its fullest, highest, and most profound degree in the second turning. What is unique about the third turning is that Buddha taught certain ways of heightening the wisdom which realizes emptiness from the point of view of subjective mind.

The Buddha’s explanation of the view of emptiness in the second turning of the wheel, in which he taught about the lack of inherent existence, was too profound for many practitioners to comprehend. For some, to say phenomena lack inherent existence seems to imply that they do not exist at all. So, for the benefit of these practitioners, in the third turning of the wheel the Buddha qualified the object of emptiness with different interpretations.

For example, in the Sutra Unraveling the Thought of the Buddha, he differentiated various types of emptiness by categorizing all phenomena into three classes: imputed phenomena, which refers to their empty nature. He spoke of the various emptinesses of these different phenomena, the various ways of lacking inherent existence, and the various meanings of the lack of inherent existence of these different phenomena. So, the two major schools of thoughts of the Great Vehicle, the Middle Way (Madhyamika) and the Mind Only (Chittamatra), arose in India on the basis of these differences of presentation.

Next is the Tantric Vehicle, which I think has some connection with the third turning of the wheel. The word tantra means “continuity”. The Yoga Tantra text called the Ornament of the Vajra Essence Tantra explains that tantra is a continuity referring to the continuity of consciousness or mind. It is on the basis of this mind that on the ordinary level we commit negative actions, as a result of which we go through the vicious cycle of life and death. On the spiritual path, it is also on the basis of this continuity of consciousness that we are able to make mental improvements, experience high realizations of the path, and so forth. And it is also on the basis of this continuity of consciousness that we are able to achieve the ultimate state of omniscience. So, this continuity of consciousness is always present, which is the meaning of tantra, or continuity.

I feel there is a bridge between the sutras and tantras in the second and third turnings of the wheel, because in the second, the Buddha taught certain sutras which have different levels of meaning. The explicit meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom sutra is emptiness, whereas the implicit meaning is the stages of the paths which are to be achieved as a result of realizing emptiness. The third turning was concerned with different ways of heightening the wisdom which realizes emptiness. So I think there is a link here between sutra and tantra.

Different Explanations of Selflessness

From a philosophical point of view, the criterion for distinguishing a school as Buddhist is whether or not it accepts the four seals: that all composite phenomena are impermanent by nature, contaminated phenomena are of the nature of suffering, all phenomena are empty and selfless, and nirvana alone is peace. Any system accepting these seals is philosophically a Buddhist school of thought. In the Great Vehicle schools of thought, selflessness is explained more profoundly, at a deeper level.

Now, let me explain the difference between selflessness as explained in the second turning of the wheel and that explained in the first.

Let us examine our own experience, how we relate to things. For example, when I use this rosary here, I feel it is mine and I have attachment o it. If you examine the attachment you feel for your own possessions, you find there are different levels of attachment. One is the feeling that there is a self-sufficient person existing as a separate entity independent of your own body and mind, which feels that this rosary is “mine.”

When you are able, through meditation, to perceive the absence of such a self-sufficient person, existing in isolation from your own body and mind, you are able to reduce the strong attachment you feel toward your possessions. But you may also feel that there are still some subtle levels of attachment. Although you may not feel a subjective attachment from your own side in relation to the person, because of the rosary’s beautiful appearance, its beautiful color, and so forth, you feel a certain level of attachment to it in that a certain objective entity exists out there. So, in the second turning of the wheel, the Buddha taught that selflessness is not confined to the person alone, but that it applies to all phenomena. When you realize this, you will be able to overcome all forms of attachment and delusion.