Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Third Turning of the Wheel

Buddhism is a vast, evolving organism that often appears more plural than singular. Cultural manifestations aside, the term "Buddhism" refers to so many contrasting doctrines and practices that it's often hard to see the connection between these seemingly disparate approaches. 

For instance, how does Pure Land fall under the same rubric as Zen or Vajrayana? Do koans and Tantra result in the same Enlightenment experience?  How does sunyata of the Prajnaparamita sutras relate to Tathagatagarbha or Buddha nature? 

The Samdhinirmocana Sutra, a rather obscure scripture dated to the second century CE, tackles that last question by bridging the gap between the Second and the Third Turnings of the Dharma Wheel. Reb Anderson Roshi, senior Dharma teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center, explores this sutra in his newest work, The Third Turning of the Wheel

In his words, "The teaching of the three turnings of the wheel is a conceptual offering to help us understand a nonconceptual approach to liberation." He goes on to explain that the three turnings respectively offer us a logical framework (Four Noble Truths, Dependent Origination, Eightfold Path) to ground us in the practice, which then evolves into a refutation of all logic (sunyata of the Prajnaparamita sutras), and then finally a return to logic in the Third Turning. But this logic is free from the limitations of the First Turning of the Wheel, in that it recognizes that all concepts are mental constructs, upaya or skillful means. So it is a freedom within words, akin to Dogen I suppose, a wisdom that recognizes the power and usefulness of language to Awaken others.

The Samdhinirmocana Sutra--and thus Anderson's book--explores everything from the alaya-vijnana (storehouse consciousness), the Three Nature of Phenomena, to a very in-depth explanation of the Lack of Own Being of Phenomena. Like many stutras, the Samdhinirmocana can be dense, and so an explication from a skilled practitioner like Anderson Roshi is invaluable.

I really appreciate that The Third Turning of the Wheel is written from a practitioner's rather than a scholar's perspective. Anderson Roshi draws upon more than 40 years of Buddhist practice and study, all of which is evident in his passionate writing and deep personal understanding of the sutra's teachings.

As I alluded to above, historically Buddhists have had a hard time reconciling the disparate Buddhist doctrines that emerged over centuries of sutra composition. The Samdhinirmocana Sutra's central aim is to explain how these pieces fit together. Anderson Roshi does a remarkable job of elucidating the text in down-to-earth prose and through accessible analogies.

My favorite part is when Anderson compares Buddhist practice to surfing. Our world may often feel like a sea of chaos, with nothing solid to grab hold of. Which is where Buddhist practice comes in. Meditation, study, and practice in general, teach us how to remain still like a surfer in the midst of uncertainty and tumult. We just surf  on through the chaos, abiding nowhere and in nothing.

This was such a visceral, practical metaphor that it still sticks in my heart.

The Third Turning of the Wheel is true Bodhisattva action, and I commend and thank Anderson Roshi for his hard work and commitment to the Dharma. I highly recommend that you explore this book for yourself this summer. It may not be beach-reading material, but it's certainly worth the read.

Thanks to Rodmell Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Anyone interested in reading the Samdhinirmocana Sutra can find a reasonably priced copy in Cleary's "Classics of Zen and Buddhism: Volume 6," entitled "Buddhist Yoga."