Friday, September 8, 2023

3 turnings, 4 aspirations, 1 vehicle


Haven't written much in the last several years.  I've mostly been listening.  Feeling now more of a movement towards articulation, more for the sake of my own ongoing integration.

Today, I'm sharing my reflections on Buddhism, not as a monastic but as a sincere layperson who has been fortunate to dip my toes into multiple lineages, through teacher and scripture, with a particular focus over these last few years. I offer these thoughts in the hope that they might resonate with others on a similar journey, fully acknowledging that the path is as individual as the person walking it.

Of course I'm also not a monastic - my experience is that of a sincere layperson who is motivated to offer an articulation that may not be available as readily elsewhere for my community.  It is also an articulation borne of exposure to multiple lineages and a curiosity towards integration.  For this particular share, I've de-emphasized the Buddhism-flavored rhetoric as from my lens this is simply a framework for living into/discovering nature that one can experiment with personally.

The 3 Turnings

Depending on who you talk to, Buddha said different things.  In fact, who the Buddha even was is different based on interpretation (ie, not just a singular human born 2500 years ago).  To that end, I've been exposed to different lineages of teachings that I've seen defined as 3 turnings.

The first turning is spoken of as foundational.  It is the turning that outlines what virtue is (and the importance of practicing it), what concentration is, how wisdom can be a practice.  It is the place where foundational concepts such as 'no self', 'discomfort', and 'constant change' are outlined.  Frameworks such as the 4 noble truths, 8 fold path.  And more subtle teachings around deep mental states, the ties that bind us to conventional paradigms.

The second turning is fundamentally spoken of as ''emptiness teachings."  This is where the outlines of the implications of the first turning are named.  Where paradox becomes visible.  The possibility of 'sudden enlightenment' as concepts of time unravel, along with designing for causes and conditions towards a 'gradual enlightenment.'  Articulations of what it means to live deeply into the path, as framed under the idea of the Bodhisattva path.

The third turning builds on the first two.  It's primary concern is an articulation of what lies beyond the 'covered' perception that is ordinary consciousness (clouded by our afflictions).  It also articulates a 'Buddhist unified field theory' of sorts - connecting the mundane experience of consciousness through to primary ground (the 3 natures, 'consciousness-only').  There are also deeper explorations into specific aspects of that mundane experience - in the collective sense (time/space, big bang, broad forms of sentience) and the personal sense (death, sexuality). 

The first turning seems to be focused most strongly in traditions most held in Southeast Asia.  The second turning in East Asia.  And the third turning in Central Asia.  To be clear, this is not to say there isn't intermixing, there is plenty, but more describing the 'center of gravity.'  The idea here is not fundamental disagreement, just nuance and focus - one of my teachers named that Buddha's intention was for the teachings to find themselves in the hands of a practitioner in order - first, then second, then third - as a skillful means.  

One story that helped me understand the reasoning behind this felt like it was worth sharing.  Important to name that it is just a helpful framing, not deeply real.  Imagine a Buddha explaining the nature of a car to enterprising monastic mechanics :)

In the first turning would be comments such as 'what is a car?  a car is an idea in the mind.  and when one looks into the idea, one simply sees parts - one sees engine, tires, seats - and it's only the integration in a particular way that creates the idea of the car.  how many pieces need to be taken away before the idea breaks?  look into that inquiry yourself.'  

A super meaningful teaching to help guide the understandings of the first turning!  But there's a limit.  Imagine the monk mechanics response - 'oh!  I get it now!  there IS NO CAR!  there's only engine, tires, seats...'  It is partially that sentiment that the 2nd turning teachings are a response to.  Imagine the Buddha now saying 'while there is no car - there is also no tires, seats, engine.   look deeply into it and you may find nothing anywhere to hold onto.'

Again, quite meaningful, cutting essentialism out at the core - no place to cling.  And yet a limit here as well.  Imagine a response as 'thank you!  I see - there is no car, there is no engine, tires, seats... there is nothing!'  and this creates another pitfall.  the clinging to nothing - the path of nihilism.  And so Buddha's response is the third turning - 'whatever is on the other side of what you can perceive, I cannot tell you and you cannot know, and yet, that does not imply nothing.'

The purpose of this story, as I understand it, is simply to outline 1 key reason why each turning was articulated (at a highly simplified level).  the first in order to pierce solidity, the second to address essentialism, and the third to address nihilism- the middle way.

Who cares???  Well, for me, these approaches continue to be foundational, with one reason named in the next framework...

The 4 Aspirations

Being a former consultant, I much appreciate coming across frameworks that are MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) - that's what was articulated in this framing of the 4 aspirations.  It states that all life fits into at least 1 of 4 categories of aspiration (conscious or not):

1-A better life.  more money. more fame. more pleasure. less pain.  less obstacles.  less confusion/dis-ease.  Most all life would fit into this.

2-A better birth.  some say heaven.  or to be born in a 'higher caste,' whatever that means in your society. or to be a God (perhaps a lesser God, but regardless).

3-Personal liberation.  a response to seeing conditions of cyclic existence.  ups and downs forever, and having an intention to get off the ride.

4-Collective liberation.  the intention that supporting all 'life' (to the extent it is perceived as separate) in getting off the ride, at their pace, is worth prioritizing over priors.

One could even frame the blurring between 3 and 4, as the idea of a separate self may get fuzzy as one cultivates - and yet the lineages specify the difference at the level of intention - that the generation of compassion for all beings is specifically what is invited in that 4th aspiration, and of course that has far-reaching effects.

Mahayana is that which keeps the 4th aspiration as primary - that is not a religious comment, as I believe it applies to framework for living, it's simply a precise articulation of meaning.  Mahayana means 'great vehicle,' and what makes it great isn't that the people are chosen or similar, it's the aspiration.  

Buddhism is a framework of understanding life such that no matter which of the 4 speak to you, it'll support your wishes.  It just so happens that getting out of the way such that life unfolds may have certain characteristics...

One Vehicle

My practices over the last few years have brought focus to this key teaching.  It is part of what makes the path so inclusive, although it may also be perceived as daunting.  The idea is 

-that all life is enlightened - whole in wisdom and compassion - but clouded due to patterns of attention

-the patterns of attention are bound to end, wholly and completely, at some point - every sentient being you come across is future Buddha, fully manifesting what may currently be clouded

-there is no other path.  all other paths named (the 4 aspirations, etc) are skillful approaches towards one vehicle, wherein YOU are manifesting collective liberation

Of course the specifics of this can be articulated over eons :)  I recently heard from a teacher that for all the scriptures/sutras out there, only <5% have been translated into English.  We are still at the forefront of discovery of some of the most ancient and comprehensive frameworks of life we have.  

And for me, what I've articulated here is a sort of high-level only, a map of how one may engage with the inner life - of course there are so many directions of inquiry.  In future shares, I hope to articulate more about teachers and lineages, along with my personal grappling's.  The primary lineages these articulations are from are Thai and Burmese (Theravada) traditions, Chinese (Guiyang Chan) tradition, and Tibetan (Jonang Vajrayana) tradition.

May whatever good that comes of this articulation be for the benefit of all.  And may I become more skillful in articulating through the practice!