Buddhism Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
John Powers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 October 2021
  • 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.)

General Overviews

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.

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