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The Four Turnings of the Wheel of Buddha Dharma
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The Four Turnings of the Wheel of Buddha Dharma (40 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing
April 14, 2013 - Clouds in Water Zen Center - St. Paul, Minnesota

Turn around and look within. Can you see the sound of silence? Can you hear the flowers smiling? Can you taste the setting sun? Do you know that I am the one? Do you know the one is you? No separation. No birth, no death. Only this moment, only this breath. No self to suffer. No gain, no loss. All is perfection, even the dross. Do you know that I am the one? Do you know the one is you?

Thank you, dear friends, for sitting and practicing with each other and with me and inviting me to come and share with you. I am Brother ChiSing, disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh, and I live in Dallas, Texas now. And we have a nice meditation center down there as well. It is really wonderful that almost every major city in this country, there is a dharma center of some sort. Just think, 50 years ago, that was not the case. Just 50 years ago. I think I'm supposed to put a microphone on.

There are a lot of changes happening in our world. I think it is important for us in our practice not to focus only on negative changes because if we do that, we are just giving in very easily to others' thoughts about what is happening, perhaps allowing our minds to be controlled by the media and all those who control the media behind the scenes, who control what is being shared. It is important not to allow ourselves to be so easily distracted or deluded. So that is why I believe it is so important in our practice to remember not just the negative aspects of change that are happening in our world, but definitely the positive changes. Otherwise, we lose sight of what is really happening.

So as I think about how it is true now, in this country at least, almost every major city has at least one dharma center, that is very powerful. That is really good news. That is something to celebrate, something to feel grateful for, and something to alert us that there are some major changes happening in the world and in history, the history of humankind. As I was meditating and just asking for inner guidance as to what to share with you today—because I only get to share with you once every couple of years on average, and so I have to choose very carefully what I share with you since it is my one chance in a couple of years. But I know I can't share everything that is on my heart, so I accept that, and I just will share from my heart a little bit.

And so what came to me as I was meditating on what to share with you, the words came up in my heart, the four turnings of the wheel of Buddha Dharma. Now for those of you who are proper Buddhist students, you know that there are only supposed to be three turnings of the wheel of Buddha Dharma. And I'm going to talk about three turnings of the wheel in my own personal life and also talk a little bit about what I believe is the fourth turning of the wheel of Buddha Dharma that is happening now in our time, in our generation, in our century. It is very exciting times we live in.

First I will talk a little bit from the more personal point of view, and then I will talk about the historical point of view. In my own life, I first encountered Buddhism through the teachings of mindfulness and meditation as taught by the venerable Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who is from Vietnam. Some of you, I'm sure, know who he is already. What a wonderful teacher he is. I am so happy that he was the one who opened the door, the dharma door, for me. I don't know that I could have entered very easily into any other dharma door at that time in my life. I probably would've been kicking and screaming through any other door, but Thich Nhat Hanh's approach was so gentle and so nonthreatening, because at the time, I was a Christian with very liberal progressive leanings.

So I was very open to all traditions, although at the time, I considered Christianity to be my root tradition, so I did not want to abandon my root tradition. Even though I was very open-minded, I thought that there was divine truth in all traditions, and in fact, more and more Christians are thinking that way. Yeah, they love being rooted in their Christianity, but they are not close minded. They think that the divine can be found in other traditions also. It is not exclusive, but they do need to have a root, so they prefer Christ as a root. Of course, over time, I have become Buddhist, but the teachings and example of Jesus have always been in my heart. I can't get rid of all of my roots. I don't think it's necessary to get rid of your roots. You just transplant them into the new garden that you create. In my case, it is the garden of Buddhism.

So, at my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, he's like, "I'm not here to convert you to Buddhism. I just want you to become a more mindful human being. If you're Christian, please be a more mindful Christian. If you are a Jew, please be a more mindful Jew. If you're a Buddhist, please be a more mindful Buddhist." Well, that made me feel very, very safe at that retreat, and I've gone to very many retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh over the years, and my heart opens every time.

And I remember one time in Plum Village in France, which is his main retreat center, I was so excited to see him, and I wanted to give him a gift. Because when I was in China, I had found a beautiful cross inside of a lotus flower, and it is a beautiful symbol of harmony between East and West and harmony between the message of Christ and the message of Buddha. I love that symbol. And so, I wanted to give it as a gift. So I made sure I sat in the front row, and as everyone stood up at the sound of the bell, as Thay—as we call him, which means teacher—or Thich Nhat Hanh walked in with all of his monks and nuns, walked very slowly, and right before he was going to get to the podium, I was in front.

And I stepped in front and out in front of him very noticeably. So I knew I was going out of protocol, and he stopped, and he had this very kind of quizzical expression on his face. Oh, what is going on? And so I immediately gave him the gift and put it in his hands. At first, he did not know what it was. He looked, and then suddenly, he smiled. And his whole heart just was so radiant. It was actually tangible for me at the time. I don't know if anyone else felt it, but I felt when he smiled as if some powerful energy just burst from his heart and hit my heart, and I started shaking all over, and I began to have tears. I was just so affected by seeing him suddenly smile, and his heart just burst into joy of seeing this beautiful symbol and gift. That is just one of many examples of how my heart has opened through this wonderful teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. He opened the door of Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings for me, the teachings of mindfulness and wisdom meditation.

Several years later, I encountered another turning of the wheel of Buddha Dharma in my life as I encountered the teachings and practices from the Pure Land tradition, and as I began to practice with the mantra Amitabha, which means infinite light, and also implies the other name of Amitabha, Amitayus, which is infinite life. Both together imply infinite love, and in Tibet there is another name, Amideva, which implies that radiant love aspect a little bit more explicitly. So for me, I am not practicing Pure Land Buddhism because what we call Pure Land Buddhism is actually a later development, especially in Japan, where it became a separate tradition.

What I am talking about is more of the earliest practices from Mahayana Buddhism in the first century onward that were part of all Mahayana Buddhist traditions available for practice, until later it maybe became a little bit more separated. But in Chinese Buddhism, it has always been the case from time to time throughout the centuries where Zen masters would advocate a little bit of Pure Land practice for some of their students, and some Pure Land masters would advocate meditation practice for some of their students. Maybe they thought that some of their students were little bit imbalanced, and so sometimes synthesizing the two for a short period of time in the practice helped to balance things out.

I certainly found this to be the case in my life. I found that this practice of devotional aspect of Buddha Dharma has helped to maintain a freshness in my heart, has helped me to open up more aspects of my heart consciousness, and I have had experiences of openings. Also, in this Pure Land practice, I have also experienced openings. In Zen practice, I had an experience once or twice of dis-identifying with the self, just for a few seconds, and in Pure Land practice, I have had a couple of experiences of completely being overwhelmed by a sense of universal love and that I do not need to struggle and worry in my practice, that my destiny is to become a Buddha. So that is a done deal. Now how long I take and how many teachers I follow, it is a done deal. All beings, no one excluded.

And that has brought more ease into my practice because before, I was very effortful and willful in my practice, and maybe at that stage in my life, it was important because we do not want to be so busy that we do not practice. So there are times in our life when we need these kinds of experiences of putting effort, but maybe, as I progress on my path, or go along on my particular path, something within knew that I needed to balance out the willfulness and the struggle and the determination with something a little more light and heart opening and devotional. So that was the second turning of the wheel for me.

And most recently, since a year ago, the third turning has been happening in my life with the practice of the Medicine Buddha of healing. Now, I had heard about Medicine Buddha from time to time. I knew that Tibetan Buddhists especially loved Medicine Buddha. I had seen some paintings of him, but I did not think much of it. But then one morning, I suddenly woke up with a start, and for some reason, maybe because I was dreaming about Medicine Buddha, in my mind, the first thought I had when I woke up was, I must learn more about Medicine Buddha. I must memorize his mantra. And so I began to do some research, and I wanted to find out what the mantra was in its long form in Sanskrit. And so, I looked it up. I thought, there is no way I will memorize all of this, and in fact it actually took me another year until I was finally willing to memorize it in Sanskrit.

And when I did, wow. I was amazed that the things that started happening in my life. There is a reason why I woke up with that idea of, I need to memorize the Medicine Buddha full dharani, and ever since then, there've been so many different healing modalities that are coming into my awareness that are so helpful to me and so helpful to others that I am helping. So I think I am entering into this phase in my life where I am much more aware of healing modalities, applying the Buddha Dharma in ways that will heal myself and help the healing of others on many different levels: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, planetarily.

One story about that is that that same week, I went to see a friend—I think it was one or two friends. We went to Barnes & Noble bookstore. We just browsed around, and I went to the religion section. I looked around, and then I went to the Buddhism section, and then I just kind of scanned visually the books, and I saw one that was a very interesting binder. So I picked it up, and it was a book called, Letting Go of the Person You Used To Be. And I thought, that is very appropriate at this time in my life. I'm approaching midlife. I know I look young, but I'm actually almost 44. The meditation has done wonders. I opened the book, and it was on the chapter on Medicine Buddha. So I knew that, yes, Medicine Buddha is calling to me, just like in the years before Amitabha Buddha was calling to me and a few years before that Shakyamuni Buddha was calling to me through Thich Nhat Hanh.

So, I believe there may be a fourth turning of the wheel in my life later on, in a few years or decades from now. I don't have any clue, and I don't need to know. It will come when it comes, but right now I'm at the beginning stages of unfolding this part of my journey of healing.

So now, I would like to share a little bit about the four turnings of the wheel of Buddha Dharma historically. The first turning of the wheel of Buddha Dharma is of course when Shakyamuni Buddha shared the teachings and practices 2,600 years ago, and the second turning occurred around the first century when Mahayana Buddhism began to flourish, the teachings on the wisdom of emptiness and the emphasis on compassion and the ideal of the bodhisattva. And then a few centuries after that, there was a third turning of the wheel. Now, what is interesting about the third turning of the wheel is that there are many understandings and versions of what that third turning is depending on which tradition you come from.

Tibetan Buddhists like to say that Tibetan Buddhism is the full expression of the third turning of the wheel in Vajrayana Buddhism, but actually, many traditions say that, not just Tibetan Buddhists. So in fact, the Zen tradition, which fully flowered a few centuries ago, many Zen masters would say that Zen is the third turning of the wheel after Hinayana and Mahayana—and I am just using Hinayana because that is what they said back then. But it is also true that other traditions, the Nichiren Buddhists, who chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, they think that they are actually the third turning of the wheel, and then the true Pure Land Buddhists, the Shin Buddhists, believe that they are the turning of the wheel for this modern time.

So, there are many understandings of what that means. I believe that the third turning basically is a more mature intensification of particular practices, but now in the twenty-first century and since the twentieth century, I believe especially because all of these different Buddhist traditions are now available, especially in America, there is a—what you call it? A melting pot? Yeah. Because of that, it is now possible for all of these different mature flowerings of Buddhism to once again see each other and learn from each other and perhaps be open to reform once again.

And in this fourth turning of the wheel, I don't know what's going to happen, because there are many different ideas of what should happen. Some believe that this just means that each tradition should stay more fully rooted in that tradition so as to not get lost and defiled by impurities of the other traditions. That is one way of thinking about it. I'm not going to say which is right or wrong. I'm just going to say, some people, that is what they believe. That has become more of a concern, to protect the purity of the dharma.

Another approach is to say that we must stay rooted in our tradition, but with the friendliness and open-mindedness to learn and appreciate other traditions, but not to get lost in the error of, say, mixing everything together, creating something that doesn't look like anything, right? But then there is another point of view that there are some who advocate that in fact there should be the abandonment of all the lineages and traditions to create some new melting pot form of Buddhism for the new era, where there is no more distinction between any traditions, but that everything is just melded into one, worked into one. Maybe there are some other versions of the same approach or different approaches. I don't know, but those are the three that come to my mind.

And if I were to share what I sort of lean more toward, I would say that I lean more towards the second option, which is to say be rooted in a tradition, to have depth in your lineage, but have an openness toward the others so that we can learn and grow and see things in perspective, from a larger perspective. That would be probably more of my approach, but we will see. I think it is very exciting today. We have the opportunity to truly practice deeply our own lineage and traditions, and we have the opportunity to listen to other traditions and lineages, and there is actually a lot of positive interactivity between the traditions right now.

For example, Zen teacher Norman Fischer from California recently wrote a wonderful book, which our center, all of the 3 or 4 sanghas at our center that meet on different days of the week, we are all going through the same book together, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. I believe that he is coming here in about a month, so I highly recommend that you get the book and read it before he comes, and he will be so happy that you already read it. It is a wonderful book, but the lojong practice comes from Tibetan Buddhism. So here is an interesting example of a Zen teacher writing a book on Tibetan practices from a Zen point of view. It's actually happening already. Does that mean that Norman Fischer now considers himself a Tibetan Buddhist? No. He is very, very much rooted in his tradition, but he is not close minded. If he sees something beautiful, he likes to look into it and deepen his understanding of it. So when he found this teaching out of all the many teachings that have developed over the centuries, he found that this one was quite profound and helpful.

My teacher Thich Nhat Hanh also does the same thing. He is rooted in a particular lineage, but he has developed a kind of practice that has a little bit of a few different traditions in it. He never says that he is a Pure Land Buddhist, but if you practice enough with him, you realize there is a devotional, powerful aspect to his approach, and every now and then, he kind of gives a little hint, saying, "Here is the Pure Land. The Pure Land is here."

So I would like to share a little bit with you in other ways besides just lecture talk. I'd like to share with you a little bit with some music and chanting and a guided visualization practice. And then I'd like to have some time for sharing and comments also. You know the last time I was here, I did not have a clock in front of me, so I just started sharing chants and songs, and then it was time to end. I kind of got so carried away by the practice and the chanting and singing that I didn't have time to give a talk. So this time I talked first. Now we're going to chant. And I also made sure I had a clock in front of me this morning. Okay.

So, some of you I think have this question in mind. What is the Medicine Buddha dharani? So I will chant it for you, perhaps before and after the visualization. So, I'm going to play a little bit of nice background meditative tones as we do this. It is only going to be a three-minute visualization. (Plays meditative tones) So, let's take a deep breath together. You can close your eyes for this meditation. And just feeling the breath, feeling the body, here and now.

Om Namo Bhagavate Bhaisajya-guru
Tathāgatāya Arhate

Tadyathā: Om
Bhaisajye Bhaisajye
Samud-gate Svāhā

Breathing in and breathing out, visualize or feel that you are in a garden of light. A very deep vortex of bright colors... grasses of light, trees of light, flowers of light, streams of waters of light in your garden, waterfalls of light, birds and butterflies of light in your garden, [guided meditation continues]

Om Namo Bhagavate Bhaisajya-guru
Tathāgatāya Arhate

Tadyathā: Om
Bhaisajye Bhaisajye
Samud-gate Svāhā

Let's take a deep breath together. In the spirit of the meditation, I would like for us to chant the brahmaviharas.

(Plays shruti box) Repeat after me. May all beings be happy.

Audience: May all beings be happy.

ChiSing: May all beings be free.

Audience: May all beings be free.

ChiSing: May all beings be joyful.

Audience: May all beings be joyful.

ChiSing: May all beings be at peace.

Audience: May all beings be at peace.

ChiSing: Thank you so much for your practice. You give such beautiful light in the Twin Cities. I sometimes feel like a missionary in Texas. And then I have to come home. Well, I would like for us to share some comments just very briefly so that as many people as possible can share in just 5 minutes, and then we will do a closing.

I'd like to mention that I brought my CD, Buddha is My Refuge, which was created during the third turning of my personal wheel, and in fact I put Medicine Buddha on the front cover of the CD. And in fact, many people have told me that they feel healing energy as they listen to it in the car driving to work or whatever. It's not a meditation CD, so you can listen to it in the car. It is actually Buddhist pop music. And I brought, I think, enough copies for each family, so one person from each family or couple can take one, but only take one if you really will listen to it. And if for some reason, Buddha forbid, you don't like it, give it to someone who does, who will like it, or give it back to the Zen center here, and they can sell it or receive donations for it. There is a little bowl if you want to give a donation for it, but you don't have to. I just want to make a gift to you, but if you do want to make a donation, great. I want everyone to take a copy. And the donations will go toward Compassionate Ocean Dharma Center to help them finally finish their building. It is a labor of love and patience.

So, very brief short sharings from some people.

Audience Member: Have you ever explored yoga, Indian traditions?

ChiSing: Yes. Mm-hmm.

Audience Member: What did you think of them?

ChiSing: I think that any kind of practice that helps you integrate body and mind is helpful, but this is not necessarily a time for questions. I'd like to hear more comments. But if you have questions, it's okay. There is someone else?

Audience Member: I have a question.

ChiSing: That's okay. That's okay. That's okay.

Audience Member: [question inaudible]

ChiSing: Do you want to explain that briefly? What your understanding of the turning means.

Female: I think she was referring to your personal turning.

Audience Member: No. No. Well, I guess personal maybe. Yeah. Personal.

ChiSing: Oh, I just think of it as a major point in my life.

Audience Member: Like an awareness?

ChiSing: Yeah. Just a very major steppingstone on my journey, just like there are major steppingstones in the development and expression of the Buddha and Buddhist teachings and practices.

Audience Member: [inaudible]

ChiSing: The what was?

Audience Member: The heartfelt place [inaudible]

ChiSing: Yeah. And you know, it is based on three practices, which I merged together. I think it is okay. It is allowed. But one was the loving kindness metta practice, one was the tonglen Tibetan compassion practice, and the other one was the devotional practices like Pure Land Buddhism, for example. And by the way, one thing I did not mention that maybe I should is that Pure Land is very misunderstood, and there are not a lot of Pure Land masters around in the West, so unfortunately, I can't really refer you very well to anyone. So maybe next century. But it is really beautiful when you actually understand the essence of it, the true essence of it.

The Pure Land comes from jingtu, which is Chinese, which was their translation of the Sanskrit term Buddha-kshetra. I don't know how you got jingtu from kshetra, but Buddha-kshetra means field of enlightenment, and the implication is that all Buddhas and bodhisattvas emanate a field of love and wisdom and peace and skillfulness to help draw and attract all beings. That makes a lot more sense to me then saying Pure Land, because we each are cultivating our own field as we awaken.

Because you know, we all have a field, and maybe it is a small field, because we are baby Buddhas. When we are fully enlightened Buddhas, our field will be so much more expansive, but we all have a field, and we all have our own Pure Land. And together we create collective Pure Lands. Each dharma center is a collective Pure Land, and each time you practice with the community, you are helping to make that Pure Land stronger and more radiant. You know, that is why group practice is so important, not just practicing meditation at home by yourself, but coming together and practicing is so important so that the field of your local Pure Land can be stronger and more supported and reach out more to all beings.

Audience Member: I was struck when you were talking about the [inaudible]. It almost feels like it is led from the hierarchical, where only the Buddha can [inaudible] truth, and in Mahayana, we're all in it together [inaudible]. It's kind of types of Buddhism [inaudible] to each one of us becoming a dharma center, almost like everything [inaudible]. So every [inaudible] chrysanthemum is a wonderful individuation [inaudible] from just one to [inaudible] to all the individual.

ChiSing: That's a beautiful way of seeing it. And that reminds me, one of the other characteristics of the fourth turning, I believe, is much more engagement in the world, much more understanding of how we must have cooperative harmony among all peoples, because it is not enough to just be enlightened just for your community or your group, but if we don't have collective, global enlightenment, we're going to destroy ourselves.

Audience Member: One of the things that I'm going to carry with me from this today is your statement that you have put your roots into a new pot. I think that's what you said. And I'm interested in your explaining a little bit just briefly how you reconcile your theist ideas with the broad ideas of Buddhism.

ChiSing: Hmm. Okay. Very briefly. I will just say that two years ago, I did not know how to reconcile them, and so I gave up trying. I was just living with the paradox, and then when I was practicing intensive practice at a Theravada monastery, one day I was doing walking meditation by myself outside, and all the sudden I understood. I saw how it all made sense. But I don't know that I can put it into words. Just practice. Okay. Others? Yes?

Audience Member: [inaudible] going to answer one of those crucial moments in your life. Is there like [inaudible]? How do you [inaudible]?

ChiSing: Oh, I don't know that you know necessarily. You don't have to look for those turning points. When you look back at life, you see that certain times were turning points. It is always 20/20 hindsight. Is that how you say it? But the important thing is to pay attention what is happening now in your life and just keep coming back to what to do now. Don't worry about the past or the future, just now.

Audience Member: [inaudible] the chanting and the elementary stages of practice of Buddhism and meditation, and I've just really learned a lot, and glad I heard the chanting. I haven't experienced chanting. And it just really opened up compassionate healing energy, and it felt really good, and just hearing the sound. So that was really powerful. Thank you for that.

ChiSing: Thank you.

Audience Member: [inaudible]. I wanted to thank everybody who was chanting for the whole ripple. When were chanting, I felt so much love.

ChiSing: Just now, just noticing how many sisters we have in the room, just reminded me of another characteristic I think of the fourth turning of the wheel is women in the role of Buddha Dharma much more profoundly than before in history and also the inclusion, equality of all types, racial, sexual orientation, etc. It's really cool. We're part of the fourth turning of the wheel. Okay. We have time for maybe one or two more. Yes?

Audience Member: I just wanted to speak to how fresh your open curiosity about your practice and sharing that with us, how grateful I was to hear you talk about that part of your practice in such a fresh way, so curious. I really liked that.

ChiSing: Thank you. Yes?

Audience Member: I wanted to thank you for your tip or your connection with Thay and Pure Land, and that really shows how heart-centered his teaching is, and it is important in our children's programming and spills over into our adult programs.

ChiSing: Thank you. We still have one more minute. Okay. So now, I do have actually five minutes, but I wanted to close with one of the songs from my CD perhaps, unless you would rather just hear something live, but at the beginning I shared a poem with you that I wrote a few years ago at a Zen sesshin, a seven-day sesshin, and that was my insight poem. And so I put it to music. So, it is song number seven. Is the sound person here?

(Song plays) Turn around and look within you. Can you see the sound of silence? Can you hear the flowers smiling? Can you taste the setting sun? Do you know that I am the one? Do you know the one is you? Do you know that I'm the one? Do you know the one is you? Turn around and look within. Can you see the sound of silence? Can you hear the flowers smiling? Can you taste the setting sun? Do you know that I am the one? Do you know the one is you? Do you know that I'm the one? Do you know the one is you?

No separation, no birth, no death. Only this moment. Only this breath. No self to suffer, no gain, no loss. All is perfection, even the dross. Do you know that I'm the one? Do you know the one is you? Do you know that I'm the one? Do you know the one is you? No separation, no birth, no death. Only this moment. Only this breath. No self to suffer, no gain, no loss. All is perfection, even the dross. Do you know that I'm the one? Do you know the one is you? Do you know that I'm the one? Do you know the one is you? Do you know that I'm the one? Do you know the one is you?

Turn around and look within.


Transcribed by Jessica Hitch