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The Three Turnings of the Wheel (of Dharma) refers to a framework for understanding the sutra stream of the teachings of the Buddhism originally devised by the Yogachara school. It later became prevalent in modified form in Tibetan Buddhism and related traditions.
The distinction is, on the one hand, a historic or quasi-historic scheme by which the Buddha's first sermons, as recorded in the Pali Canon and the tripitakas of other early schools, constitute the First Turning, and the later Mahayana sutras comprise the Second and Third turnings. The schema appears in the Samdhinirmochana Sutra, a central Yogachara text, although it may predate it.
The model of three turnings of the 'Wheel' is an attempt to categorize the content, philosophical view, and practical application of the whole array of Buddhist sutrayana teachings. That is to say that the concept of three turnings exclusively belongs to the Himalayan Buddhist teachings ('Tibetan'). All other Buddhist traditions speak of one turning only, that in Mrigadaye, the Deer Park, in Sarnath, India.
The basic content and audience of the three turnings of the wheel can be summarized as follows:
The first turning is traditionally said to have taken place at Deer Park in Sarnath near Varanasi in northern India, to an audience of shravakas. It consisted of the teaching of the Four Noble Truths (Sanskrit: catvāry āryasatyāni) and the other elements of the Tripitaka – the Abhidharma, Sutrapitaka and Vinaya. The Abhidharma referred to is the Abhidharma Pitaka of the Sarvastivada school, which is a later composition not taught by the Buddha, and contains philosophy which is antithetical, one may say, to the early teachings.
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