Turning the Wheel

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
UCSC, California (Archive #116)

During the spring term of 1978, Lama Thubten Yeshe taught a course on the Buddhism of Tibet for the Religious Studies Department of the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). The following is an excerpt from these lectures, edited by Jon Landaw and published in Wisdom Energy 2 in 1979.

The subject matter of this article is taken from a lecture in which Lama Yeshe discussed the twelve deeds of an enlightened being, specifically those of Shakyamuni Buddha (sixth century, BC). These are the major events in the career of all fully awakened teachers who periodically descend to renew the spiritual life of our planet.

After discussing Shakyamuni’s previous attainment of enlightenment, his descent from the Joyous Pure Land (Tushita), his birth into a north Indian royal family and his early education and marriage, Lama Yeshe described how Buddha renounced his royal life of sense indulgence and adopted the spiritual discipline of extreme asceticism. Then followed an account of Buddha’s dissatisfaction with this path of self-denial, his adoption of a more moderate and balanced approach to the spiritual quest, and finally, his demonstration of the attainment of enlightenment under the bodhi tree at Bodhgaya.

This brings us to the point in Buddha’s life when he was ready to begin teaching the spiritual path to others.

Lama Yeshe at the University of California, Santa Cruz, USA, 1978.  Photo: Jon Landaw.

Shakyamuni next performed the supreme deed of an enlightened being: he began to give the teachings and spiritual instructions that release sentient beings from their suffering and dissatisfaction and lead them to the highest perfection of mind: enlightenment. This deed is commonly known as turning the wheel of Dharma, and Buddha performed it in various ways for the remaining forty-five years of his life.

Although anyone who strives to reach buddhahood does so expressly to benefit others—primarily through giving teachings—Shakyamuni did not begin teaching immediately after his attainment of enlightenment. By holding back at first, he showed that the profound realizations of enlightenment are not something the ordinary, superficial human mind can be expected to grasp easily. His discovery was beyond normal conceptions and words, beyond expression or description. He knew how difficult it would be for others to understand what he had realized, and so he remained silent. But after seven weeks of enjoying the bliss of enlightenment in the forest by himself, he was requested to teach for the benefit of all, and agreed to do so.

Buddha’s hesitation to teach until sincerely requested emphasizes an important characteristic of his teachings in general. They are never forced upon others against their will. ‘Here are fantastic teachings! Why don’t you come and join us?’ Neither are disciples sent into the streets to convince people how miserable they are, offering salvation to those who will come and join them. Buddha’s teachings were never presented in this way, and the Tibetan traditions still follow the custom of waiting until someone asks before giving them teachings.

Why are Buddhists specifically instructed not to thrust their beliefs at other people or to declare, ‘I have discovered the best way of life and if you don’t follow it as well, you are lost.’? According to Buddha’s teachings, this approach is both unskillful and unrealistic. When someone has a profound experience, be it disastrous or fantastically blissful, it is a completely unique and personal event. It is foolish to think that an account of such a private experience will be as meaningful to another as the experience was to oneself. Even if we tell our best friend what we have discovered, it is still impossible to convey the true essence of our experience to him. Since what we are saying is necessarily expressed through words and concepts, even a very sympathetic friend will probably not grasp exactly what we want him to feel. True communication on spiritual matters is very difficult.

What this shows is that we are all living quite different lives from one another. Though we may share similar patterns of perception and behavior, our internal experiences are unique and highly individual. We each live in the private universe of our own mind. Consequently, any attempt to force our spiritual convictions on others or share with them our devotional experiences—which, if genuine, are always of such an intensely personal nature—is misguided and can easily end in frustration and misunderstanding.

Buddha showed that there are both proper and improper times to give teachings. He always waited until he was sincerely asked before giving instruction. He knew that the very act of making a formal decision to seek help and then requesting it creates an energy within those seeking the truth that prepares them to listen intently, not merely with their ears but with their hearts as well. This is a far more effective approach than giving teachings to students who are not yet ready. In other words, the students need space. If they are not given the chance to create that space within themselves—if they are not prepared to meet the teacher halfway by opening themselves up to receiving spiritual instruction—the essence of the teachings will never penetrate their minds.

This is the enlightened being’s skillful psychology. We might even call it his politics. He understands the way people think and can take the measure of their superstitious mind. He can adjust his approach spontaneously to their limitations and make sure they are ready before showing them their individual paths. His unobstructed vision embraces all existent phenomena, including the most subtle workings of our mind, and thus he can teach us accordingly.

When an enlightened being does give teachings, the strength of his realizations lends a special power to everything he says or does. Even one word of his awakened speech can satisfy the needs of many different beings. Ordinary people are limited in what they can convey with words; their speech seldom brings a sense of fulfillment. But an enlightened being’s speech is different. No matter what the subject matter, each listener receives exactly what he needs.

Ordinarily, if we feel that someone is a good speaker, we might praise him by saying, ‘What a powerful lecture he gave!’ But from a Buddhist point of view, the true power of speech is not to be found in speech itself. Behind the words, within the mind of the speaker, must be the living experience of luminous, penetrating wisdom. This wisdom gives a Buddha’s speech its power. Such power has nothing to do with an ordinary person’s eloquence. It is solely a matter of inner realizations. Since a Buddha is one whose realizations are complete, his speech has the power to affect each listener in a profound and deeply personal way. Not only that, but an enlightened being can arouse understanding without having to use any words at all.

The first formal teachings Shakyamuni Buddha gave after he attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree were given at the Deer Park at Sarnath. He delivered these teachings to the five meditators who had followed him during his six years of ascetic practices but had abandoned him when he gave up his strict discipline of self-mortification. The subject matter of this first turning of the wheel of Dharma was the Four Truths of the Noble Ones. The first two truths reveal the existence of suffering and dissatisfaction in our lives and show how the source of all problems is to be found in the mind’s craving attachment—whether directed towards objects of sense or perverted into extreme self-denial. The latter two truths describe the state of complete cessation of all suffering and the middle path, free of all extremes, that leads to this perfect cessation.

The second turning of the wheel began at Vultures’ Peak outside Rajagriha (modern Rajgir), not far from Bodhgaya, and dealt with the true nature of reality. These discourses on the perfection of wisdom present the profound view of emptiness (shunyata) within the context of a bodhisattva’s way of life. These teachings on the lack of inherent self-existence of phenomena—their emptiness of true, substantial existence—are much more subtle than those of the first turning, and were aimed at disciples of higher intelligence and motivation.

After the first two turnings, it became necessary to clarify apparent contradictions in the teachings. While teaching the four truths, Buddha was concerned with presenting the basic path leading from suffering to liberation. Therefore he emphasized the functional nature of phenomena in these teachings. He described in detail how the mind works, how it binds us to repeated dissatisfaction and how, if properly trained, it frees us from this situation. During this first turning of the wheel Buddha spoke of the mind, or consciousness, in terms of its existence as a real entity. In the second turning, however, when he exposed the subtle misconceptions with which we view reality, he talked mainly in terms of the way things do not exist.

Buddha did not wish to confuse his followers, but he saw that the apparent contradiction between these two approaches—one emphasizing existence and the other non-existence—could cause some difficulties in the future. To avoid possible confusion he instituted the teachings of the third turning of the wheel.

When Buddha himself was presenting his teachings, even those of the very subtle second turning, he did not have to be concerned that his disciples would misunderstand what he meant. He knew the mental capacity of his audience, and was able to speak directly to each listener’s heart. But he was concerned that other disciples of lesser capacity and those who would come in the future might be confused. ‘Why did Buddha sometimes say 'yes' and sometimes 'no' about the same issue?’ they might wonder. For their sake, therefore, he provided further clarification.

A major characteristic of all of Buddha’s teachings is that they are designed to fit the needs and aptitudes of each individual. Since we all have different interests, problems and ways of life, no one method of instruction could ever be suitable for everyone. Buddha himself explained that for the purpose of reaching a particular disciple coming from a particular background he would teach a particular doctrine. Thus there could be certain times when it might be necessary to say ‘yes’ and others when it would be more appropriate to say ‘no,’ even in response to the same question.

Because Buddhism is flexible in this way and lacks a rigid, dogmatic quality, I often feel that it is more of a psychological system than a religion. By this I do not mean that Buddhism has no religious aspect to it at all. I mean that Buddhism demands intelligent inspection of the teachings rather than blind acceptance. This emphasis on personal experience and investigation makes it unique among systems of thought.

If we do not take a reasoned, investigative look at the teachings, several dangers can arise. On one hand, the apparent contradictions between what Buddha taught at different times may make us question the value of his instructions altogether. With a limited vision unable to see the singleness of purpose behind this seeming discrepancy, we may find these teachings a source of confusion rather than insight. Consequently, we may disregard them entirely. On the other hand, if we adopt a very pious, unquestioning attitude towards the teaching, accepting at face value whatever Buddha said merely because he said it, sooner or later we shall suffer grievous disappointment. Someone will question our beliefs and, since they are founded on nothing but blind faith, our convictions will crumble.

According to Mahayana Buddhism, there are two categories of Buddha’s teachings: definitive and interpretive. Definitive teachings discuss the absolute nature of reality, while interpretive teachings deal with conventional realities and therefore must be investigated properly before they can be understood. Because there are these two divisions, we should never feel that merely because something we read or hear is the word of the Buddha we must accept it literally and without question. To adopt such an uncritical attitude toward such an important matter as spiritual development is very dangerous, and completely lacking in wisdom.

For all these reasons, in the third turning of the wheel Buddha gave guidelines for reconciling the first two turnings. He explained, for those who might otherwise have misunderstood, the way in which certain aspects of things can be said to be existent and others non-existent. These guidelines show how important it is to look beyond mere words to find the true meaning of whatever Buddha taught.

Whenever Buddha spoke he stressed the importance of making a personal investigation of his words and their meaning. Only when we are convinced that the teachings are accurate and applicable to our own lives should we adopt them. If they fail to convince us, they should be put aside. He compared the process of testing the truth of his teachings with that used to determine the purity of gold. Just as we would never, without testing, pay a high price for something purporting to be real gold, we are also responsible for examining Buddha’s teachings for ourselves to see whether they are reasonable and worthwhile.

Although it is traditional to divide Buddha’s teachings into these three turnings of the wheel of Dharma, we should not think that this is all he taught. In addition to a vast body of discourses explaining the graduated path to enlightenment, he taught the lightening path of tantra, capable of bringing a disciple to full perfection within one lifetime.

There was not a single thing Buddha did from the time he came to this earth until he passed away that was done for any other purpose than leading all living beings to deliverance from their mental and physical suffering. His formal discourses were only a part of his comprehensive teachings: the way he lived his life provided a constant example to others. And because everything he thought, said or did was born from his perfect wisdom, all his deeds were transcendental, capable of bringing ultimate peace and tranquillity to those who could take these teachings to heart.