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What the Buddha Taught
The Buddha offered a progression of teachings appropriate to people's different spiritual needs. The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche outlines the three turnings of the wheel of dharma.
With great compassion and incomparable skill, the enlightened master Buddha Shakyamuni taught in any way that would lead beings on a correct path to liberation and, finally, to buddhahood. Sometimes the Buddha taught in a way that led his disciples gradually to an understanding of the absolute nature of reality, and in these situations, he taught about relative reality first. At other times he taught the ultimate nature directly and explicitly.
Over the course of his forty-five years of teaching, the Buddha turned the wheel of dharma three times, initiating new cycles of teachings for the benefit of sentient beings. These three turnings are commonly known as the dharmachakra (“dharma wheel”) of the four noble truths, the dharmachakra of essencelessness or non-characteristics, and the dharmachakra of full or thorough distinction.
The first turning of the wheel of dharma took place in Deer Park at Sarnath, not long after the Buddha’s enlightenment. At this time, Buddha presented teachings on the four noble truths, karma, and the selflessness of the person. These teachings form the basis for what is called the “common vehicle,” also known as the Hinayana, or the vehicle of the “listeners” or “hearers.”
The second and third turnings form the basis of the vehicle known as the Mahayana. The second turning took place at Rajagriha on Vulture Peak Mountain. There the Buddha taught the Prajnaparamita Sutras, or the Sutras of Transcendent Knowledge. In this phase of his teaching, Buddha emphasized the emptiness or lack of true existence of both self and phenomena. The third turning took place in various cities, beginning in Vaishali. At this time, Buddha presented the teachings on tathagatagarbha, or buddhanature. These focus on the luminous nature of emptiness and reveal that the potential for buddhahood has always been present within our hearts. At the same time, in the final turning of the wheel of dharma, Buddha clearly distinguished between the indicative and definitive meanings of his various teachings.
First Turning: The Four Noble Truths
In his first sermon, addressed to his five previous students, the Buddha taught the four noble truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to cessation. Buddha presented these four truths in sets of two: the cause and result of samsara and the cause and result of nirvana. Samsara refers to a state of existence that is characterized by a predominance of suffering, and nirvana refers to the state of liberation from suffering as well as to the cessation of its causes.
When we examine these four noble truths, we see that the first truth is the result—suffering—caused by the second truth, the origin of suffering. The third truth is the result—nirvana—which is realized through the fourth noble truth, the path that leads to cessation of suffering. We see that the four noble truths are causes and effects: the first two truths are the cause and effect of samsara; the second two truths are the cause and effect of nirvana, or enlightenment.
The Truth of Suffering
The clear message of the first noble truth is that all of samsaric existence and all of our experiences of it are characterized by suffering, regardless of the type of life we may be leading. However, as human beings, we have both the opportunity and capacity to work with our suffering.
The first step to bringing suffering onto the path is to recognize and acknowledge it, instead of denying it. Once we can do that, we have some ground for developing the further recognition that all our experiences, whether pleasurable or painful, have the same nature of suffering. Denial does not alleviate our suffering, nor does it help to free us from suffering and its causes. Obviously, if we do not recognize the presence of suffering, we will have no reason to seek liberation.
Why is suffering the nature of existence? Everything that exists or can be experienced on the level of relative reality is composite in nature; therefore, it is impermanent and subject to birth and death. The fundamental logic here is that since impermanence is found at every level of existence, accordingly suffering is inherent in samsaric existence.
It is easy to understand the coarse level of impermanence—that, for instance, the house you have built will eventually start to decay and at some point will exist no more. However, there is a very subtle level of impermanence as well. When we perceive this more subtle level, we see the impermanence inherent in continuity itself: when we look closely at our experience, we see that each moment arises, abides, and ceases. In order for the next moment to arise, the present moment must cease. When we perceive the momentary nature of all our experience, we see that we are rendered helpless in matters of choice. Do we have a choice to remain in this moment for another moment? No. We have no choice but to let go. We cannot hang on to any living experience for more than a brief moment, whether that experience is a blissful or agonizing one.
This is very difficult to understand fully and requires a gradual understanding through the threefold process of hearing, contemplation, and meditation. However, if this subtle impermanence is understood, then one is very close to understanding emptiness, which is the ultimate nature of all things.
The Truth of the Origin of Suffering
Once we have realized the truth of suffering, then the question is, “What are the causes of this suffering?” In the second noble truth, Buddha taught that our suffering originates in our false belief in a truly existent, permanent self. This fixation is the basis for the arising of certain mental afflictions, or destructive emotions, called the “three root poisons”: passion, aggression, and ignorance. From these three poisons, we experience the development of further negative emotions and all aspects of suffering. Since these poisons result from ego-clinging, the root of all our suffering is our ego-clinging.
When we examine our experience of suffering further, we also see that it is connected to our actions. Therefore, it is important to understand the relationship of our actions to our suffering. In Buddhist terminology, when we speak of “actions,” we are speaking of karma, the natural relationship of cause and effect. Simply speaking, karma, which means “action,” refers to action within our mind; it refers to the movement of thoughts, intentions, and motivations. This mental action leads us to or results in physical action—either the physical action of speech or the physical action of body. Thus, in a genuine understanding of karma, actions take place in our mind rather than on the physical level.
We are constantly involved in accumulation of karma, and in Buddhism, this accumulation is divided into three basic categories: negative actions, positive actions, and neutral actions. From this perspective, whatever thoughts we might entertain and whatever actions we might be engaged in, these will all leave a karmic impression in our mind that is either positive or negative. A negative impression is left by any action that harms either the one who commits the action or the one who is the object of the action, or both. These are generally actions arising out of hatred, jealousy, aggression, and passion—the negative aspects of our emotions. A moment when your thought is involved in aggression has tremendous energy and power, and the resultant negative seed that is planted in the mind will manifest as aggression again. This is as certain as the fact that planting the seed of a chili will lead to the result of a chili plant.
When we are under the influence of mental afflictions, we are incessantly planting the seeds of confusion and restlessness in our mindstream, which, fundamentally, is pure and without any confusion. Thus, engaging in harmful actions that leave negative impressions in our mind is like walking with dirty shoes into a beautiful, clean room. We leave our tracks all over the clean floor wherever we walk. In this analogy, our mind is the spotless floor, our karmic action is our mindless walking with dirty shoes, and the negative impressions left in our mindstream are the footprints we track across the clean floor. In this way, we perpetuate the cycle of samsara and increase our own unhappiness and suffering.