Wisdom Publications has just released The Buddha’s Dream of Liberation: Freedom, Emptiness and Awaken Nature by long-time sangha member James Coleman, which includes a key chapter from Lama Palden on Tara practice. James has published numerous other books, including The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition. His new book explores the great teachings of the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma that are the foundations for all Buddhism. It takes key passages from the great sutras and then explains them in plain, everyday English in a way that connect us with the classic foundations of our tradition. The following except from the first chapter provides an overview of what he covers in this new book. Join James, along with Lama Palden and author Wendy Garling, for an afternoon of Dharma conversation on September 16th. Click here for more information on this free event.
THE GREAT WHEEL of Buddhist teachings has been spinning for more than two thousand years, and it has left a vast ocean of Dharma. A hundred generations of continuous practice, teaching, and reflection have left us with more treasures of wisdom than anyone can even count, let alone read and assimilate. Fortunately, there is no reason we have to. In a very real sense, the teachings simply say the same thing over and over again in endless new languages to an ever-changing audience. At the heart of all true Dharma there is a timeless wisdom beyond language or conception, and the wheel of the teachings spins round and round it, pointing the way back to its source.
Despite its jaw-breaking name, the great Samdhinirmocana Sutra (pronounced “samde nir mo chana”), or Sutra of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets, can do a lot to help us make sense of all those teachings and to see how they fit together. It tells us of three “turnings of this wheel of Dharma,” each with its own distinctive teachings building upon, but not replacing, its predecessors.
In the first turning of the wheel, the Buddha, like a doctor diagnosing a disease, spelled out the cause of suffering and what to do about it in clear unambiguous terms; these are called the “four noble truths.” The first of the noble truths he taught is that the unenlightened life is full of suffering. Second, he identified the cause of suffering: craving and attachment. Third, he made it clear that craving and attachment can be ended, and in the fourth noble truth he laid out his treatment program-the noble eightfold path. He told his followers that if they behaved with ethics and compassion, meditated diligently, and cultivated wisdom based on his teachings, they could end their suffering and achieve the ultimate release of nirvana. In these teachings, suffering is the disease; craving is the cause; the eightfold path of wisdom, ethical conduct, and meditation is the cure; and freedom is the result.
Even though the Buddha often warned his followers not to make his teachings into just something else to cling to, many people found them so profound and
helpful that they did exactly that. So in the second turning, the Buddha did something unprecedented in the history of world religion. He dropped a bombshell that blew apart that clinging and along with it everything else many of the followers of his earliest teachings believed. In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha tells us that he really has nothing at all to teach and that anyone who says he does slanders him. In the Heart Sutra, we are told that everything, absolutely everything, is empty. And in that emptiness, there is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no end of suffering, and no noble path to lead from suffering. The Buddha seemed to be denying all his own teachings!
Obviously, the radical wisdom of the second turning is, as the sutras often say, “difficult, extremely difficult to understand,” and it left a lot of people amazed and confused. The sutras even tell us that when some of the Buddha’s followers first heard those teachings they fell down, vomited blood, and died. Inevitably, some mistook those new teachings for some kind of shocking rejection of the older ones, while others fell victim to a kind of nihilism, reasoning that if everything is empty then nothing really matters and they are free to do whatever they please regardless of the consequences for others.
The third turning of the wheel sought to rectify such mistaken beliefs and provide more guidance to those who seemed to have had their feet cut out from under them. The first step was to explain the apparent contradictions between the first turning of the wheel and the second. In the Sutra of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets the Buddha tells us that words are just “conventional designations” that he uses to help free us from suffering, and that no matter how different they seem, all the teachings are of “one taste.” Like a good doctor, the Buddha gave different medicines to different patients depending on their individual needs. He might tell one person about the four noble truths, and in his next breath tell someone else that those truths were completely empty, but the goal was always the same – to free them from their suffering
The teachings of the third turning go on to give more explicit guidance to practitioners by painting a profound picture of the way the conscious and subconscious minds operate, and of the inconceivable ultimate – the awakened buddha nature – from which they arise.
Some people may take these teachings as nothing more than abstract philosophy that doesn’t make much difference in the real world, but the Buddha never really cared much about philosophy. He cared about freeing people from their suffering, and these teachings can do exactly that. Their wisdom not only provides the key to free us from our endless chains of deluded thought but also serves as a practical guide to lead practitioners to progressively deeper stages of meditation. Following the teachings of the first turning, we learn to purify and refine our behavior, release our cravings, and ultimately to see the emptiness of self. In the second turning, we go even deeper to realize not just the emptiness of self, but the emptiness of absolutely everything else as well. Finally, the teachings of the third turning point us directly to the ultimate at the source of all appearance and all emptiness – to our awakened buddha nature beyond all description or understanding.