Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0163
- LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0163
The notion of the three turnings of the wheel of doctrine (dharma-cakra) was probably first articulated in the Discourse Explaining the Thought (Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra; Tibetan, ’Phags pa dgongs pa nges par ’grel pa’i mdo), the most important scriptural source for the Yogācāra school of Indian Buddhism. This text was most likely composed around the 4th century. In the seventh chapter, the Buddha declares that he presented certain doctrinal teachings in three cycles,or wheels. The first wheel contains discussions of core doctrines such as the four noble truths (ārya-satya) and dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda); this is the Lesser Vehicle (Hīnayāna), which is surpassed by the superior teachings of the second wheel. The second wheel is the Perfection of Wisdom (prajñā-pāramitā) discourses, which analyze previous doctrines and the phenomena of the universe and declare them to be empty (śūnya) of inherent existence. In the third wheel of doctrine, the Buddha provides further clarification regarding what is and is not being negated by the second wheel teachings. The Discourse Explaining the Thought does not specifically list particular doctrines as belonging to the third wheel, but the overall context indicates that the reader should assume these to be the doctrinal formulations of the sutra. The third wheel is declared to be the final thought of the Buddha, but it is reserved for a small elite. The Tibetan scholar Tsong-kha-pa (b. 1357–d. 1419) is probably correct in asserting that only certain teachings fall within the purview of the three wheels. Regulations regarding monastic dress and conduct, for example, do not appear to fit into this classification. The notion of three wheels of doctrine is probably linked to the title Discourse Turning the Wheel of Doctrine (Pāli, Dhammacakka-pavattana-sutta; Chese, 初轉法輪經), which, according to tradition was the first sermon taught by the Buddha. The Perfection of Wisdom discourses were presented as superseding this and other Hīnayāna teachings. The Discourse Explaining the Thought implicitly invokes this notion of successive cycles of instruction delivered for progressively more advanced audiences. (In Sanskrit, the term is tri-dharma-cakra; Tibetan, ’khor lo rim pa gsum; East Asia, 三轉法輪; Mandarin, sānzhuǎn fǎlún; Japanese, santen hōrin; Korean, samjŏn pŏmnyun; Vietnamese, tam chuyển pháp luân.)
The most important classical statement of the three turnings of the wheel of doctrine is in chapter 7 of the Discourse Explaining the Thought. A detailed discussion of this concept is in Powers 1993, chapters 5 and 6. Blumenthal 2008 provides a useful general introduction to the three wheels. While many students may first encounter the Wikipedia entry on the three wheels early in their search, the article contains a number of significant inaccuracies and should be avoided. What Is and Isn’t Yogācāra is a short overview of Yogācāra in general that has a brief but useful summary of the three wheels doctrine. The Yogācāra Buddhism Research Association website is the best online source for information regarding Yogācāra; it contains several useful articles, bibliographical information, and links to pages for major Yogācāra thinkers. It also links to the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, which has a wealth of material pertinent to the study of Yogācāra doctrines. Snellgrove 1987, intended mainly for specialists, has a good discussion of the three turnings of the wheel of doctrine in India and Tibet. Buescher 2008 provides a good overview of the early origins of Yogācāra, but to date there is no comprehensive study of the doctrines, practices, texts, and philosophers of this tradition.
Blumenthal, James. “Three Turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma.” Mandala 41.3 (October 2008): 18–19.
A short introduction to the concept of the three turnings for a general readership.
Buescher, Hartmut. The Inception of Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda. Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.
A highly technical examination of texts that aims to determine the origins of the Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda school of Indian philosophy.
Lusthaus, Dan. “What Is and Isn’t Yogācāra”.
Well-written and erudite overview of Yogācāra that surveys the major doctrines of the school, the major thinkers in India and East Asia, and some important texts. Lusthaus provides a short overview of the three wheels of dharma and the importance of the concept.
Lusthaus, Dan, and Charles Muller, eds. Yogācāra Buddhism Research Association.
Outstanding collection of scholarly resources on Yogācāra. Includes the sections “Major Thinkers,” “Major Texts,” “Related Schools,” “Online Articles,” “Translations, Indexes, and Edited Sources,” “Bibliographies,” and “Selected Yogācāra Links.”
Powers, John. Hermeneutics and Tradition in the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1993.
Discusses the philosophy of the Discourse Explaining the Thought in relation to Buddhist hermeneutics. Chapters 5 and 6 have the most detailed discussion of the late 20th century in a Western language of the three turnings of the wheel.
Snellgrove, David L. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors. Boston: Shambhala, 1987.
Volume 1, pp. 79–116, contains a detailed discussion of the doctrines at dispute in the three turnings of the wheel model.
Wikipedia. “Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma”.
Contains a number of errors and is not a reliable source. Among other things, it claims that the central doctrines of the third wheel are buddha-nature and tathāgatagarbha (womb of the thus gone ones), neither of which is even mentioned in the Discourse Explaining the Thought. This piece lacks historical accuracy and has little in common with how the three turnings of the wheel of doctrine are presented in Indic sources.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- Abortion, Buddhism and
- Ajanta Caves
- Ambedkar Buddhism
- Ancient Indian Society
- Archaeology of Early Buddhism
- Art and Architecture In China, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in India, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Japan, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Nepal, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Tibet, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road," Buddhist
- Asceticism, Buddhism and
- Awakening of Faith
- Beats, Buddhism and the
- Bhāviveka / Bhāvaviveka
- Bodh Gaya
- Body, Buddhism and the
- Buddha, Three Bodies of the (Trikāya)
- Buddhism and Ethics
- Buddhism and Law
- Buddhism and Marxism
- Buddhism and Modern Literature
- Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast A...
- Buddhist Hermeneutics
- Buddhist Ordination
- Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, ...
- Buddhist Thought and Western Philosophy
- Buddhist Thought, Embryology in
- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
- Cambodian Buddhism
- Canon, History of the Buddhist
- Caste, Buddhism and
- Central Asia, Buddhism in
- China, Esoteric Buddhism in, (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
- Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
- Colonialism and Postcolonialism
- Compassion (karuṇā)
- Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
- Culture, Material
- Dalai Lama
- Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
- Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, The Philosophical Works and Influ...
- Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
- Dzogchen (rDzogs chen)
- Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
- Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
- East Asian Buddhist Art, Portraiture in
- Ellora Caves
- Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
- Environment, Buddhism and the
- Ethics of Violence, Buddhist
- Family, Buddhism and the
- Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
- Four Noble Truths
- Funeral Practices
- Gandhāra, Buddhism in
- Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa)
- Gender, Buddhism and
- Hakuin Ekaku
- History of Buddhisms in China
- Image Consecrations
- India, Buddhism in
- India, Mahāmudrā in
- Internationalism, Buddhism and
- Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
- Iranian World, Buddhism in the
- Islam, Buddhism and
- Japan, Buddhism in
- Korea, Buddhism in
- Laos, Buddhism in
- Linji and the Linjilu
- Literature, Chan
- Literature, Tantric
- Local Religion, Buddhism as
- Lotus Sūtra
- Mahayana, Early
- Mahāvairocana Sūtra/Tantra
- Malaysia, Buddhism in
- Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
- Merit Transfer
- Miracles, Buddhist
- Modernism, Buddhist
- Monasticism in East Asia
- Mongolia, Buddhism in
- Mongolia, Buddhist Art and Architecture in
- Music, and Buddhism
- Myanmar, Buddhism in
- New Medias, Buddhism in
- New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō), Buddhism and
- Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra)
- Nuns, Lives, and Rules
- Oral and Literate Traditions
- Pagan (Bagan)
- Perfection of Wisdom
- Perfections (Six and Ten)
- Philosophy, Chinese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Indian Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Japanese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhist
- Pilgrimage in India
- Pilgrimage in Japan
- Pilgrimage in Tibet
- Preaching/Teaching in Buddhism Studies
- Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism in
- Pure Land Buddhism
- Pure Land Sūtras
- Religious Tourism, Buddhism and
- Saṃsāra and Rebirth
- Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
- Shinto, Buddhism and
- Soka Gakkai
- South and Southeast Asia, Devatās, Nats, And Phii In
- Southeast Asia, Buddhism in
- Sri Lanka, Monasticism in
- Sōtō Zen (Japan)
- Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
- Suffering (Dukkha)
- Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)
- Texts, Dunhuang
- Thai Buddhism
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- Tibet, Buddhism in
- Tibet, Mahāmudrā in
- Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Tri Songdetsen
- Uighur Buddhism
- Verse Literature, Tibetan Buddhist
- Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
- Vietnam, Buddhism in
- Vision and Visualization
- Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
- Warrior Monk Traditions
- West (North America and Europe), Buddhism in the
- Wheel of Life (Bhava-Cakra)
- Women in Buddhism
- Women in the West, Prominent Buddhist
- Zen, Premodern Japanese