During his 45 year teaching career, the Buddha taught different understandings of reality according to varying circumstances and the disparate dispositions, personality types, and capacities of his students. The Buddha’s discourses are divided into 3 distinct sets of teachings or “Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma.” These 3 Turnings of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings are each considered to be complete cycles of explanation that correspond directly to the infinite diversity of individuals.
The 1st Turning occurred in Deer Park near the present-day city of Varanasi in Northern India. At this time, the Buddha described how the dependently co-arising nature of phenomena allows for the possibility of freedom from suffering. These teachings include the 4 Noble Truths and Dependent Co-arising, and were collected into the body of literature known as the Abhidharma or Science of Mind and Reality. This first Turning acts as an antidote to the obsessive habit of clinging to an independent self as ultimately substantial.
The 2nd Turning occurred at Vulture Peak Mountain near Rajagriha. The Buddha taught how all phenomena lack intrinsic or absolute existence. These teachings were collected into the body of scriptures known as the Prajnaparamita Sutras or Transcendent Wisdom Scriptures. These teachings on emptiness liberate beings from their psychological and emotional fixations on even the subtlest aspects of reality.
The 3rd Turning was delivered at Mount Malaya and Vaishali. In contrast to the second Turning, the Buddha’s third revolution elucidated how the luminous enlightened essence known as “tathagatagarbha” or “Buddha Essence” pervades all beings. These teachings were compiled into a set of sutras known as the Tathagatagarbha Sutras, or Essential Scriptures. This final cycle of teachings was taught to free beings from nihilistic beliefs about reality.