The philosophy of Buddhism is over 2500 years old. In this time, it has undergone three significant incarnations. Traditionally, each of these is signified by a turning of the wheel of dharma. The dharma is the teaching or the path and each turning represents a new approach to the same goal, liberation from suffering.
Why A Fourth Turning?
Buddhism is a truly remarkable philosophy. Its core purpose is to free humans and all other beings from needless suffering. By helping people to “wake up,” Buddhism is a pragmatic approach to training the mind to see through the conditioned illusions that cause us to perpetuate suffering.
While it does have some theoretical aspects, Buddhism is empirical at its core. It encourages people to try it themselves to see if it works. This empirical approach is compatible with rational thought and the scientific method. The core teachings are entirely compatible with a 21st-century worldview.
Despite its core compatibility, Buddhist thought hasn’t had a major upgrade in almost a thousand years. In the interim, humans have discovered science, renounced slavery, given women equal rights, created computers, and the internet, and created a global environmental catastrophe.
Buddhist philosophy is well aware of the progressive and ever-changing nature of human culture. It includes a mechanism for an upgrade, the doctrine of skillful means. At its core, skillful means asserts that all teachings are approximations of the truth at best, and whatever message can awaken awareness to its true nature is useful.
Skillful means was used as a justification for the second and third turning of Buddhism. It follows to use this approach again to make Buddhism accessible to the billions of people on earth who could benefit from its teachings.
Before exploring what a fourth turning might look like, let’s examine the first three turnings.
The First Three Turnings
There is some disagreement on whether Buddhism has already undergone three or four turnings, but the majority of scholars characterize it as three turnings. For our purposes, the exact number is less important than illustrating the evolution of Buddhist thought over time. We’ll give a brief summary of the important contributions of the first three turnings.
The First Turning
Gautama, the historical Buddha, had a profound realization about the causes and antidote to human suffering while meditating under the bodhi tree. He summarized his teachings into four principles, known as the four noble truths. They
- Life is full of suffering.
- The cause of suffering is ignorance and craving.
- There can be an end to suffering.
- The path to alleviate suffering.
The practice of Buddhism lies in the dharma, the path to alleviating suffering.
The style of Buddhism characterized by this first turning is typically referred to as Therevada. Its practices are the basis for much of the modern mindfulness training in the west. Therevandin Buddhism is characterized by a focus on the impermanence of phenomena and a progressive path of insight toward enlightenment.
The Second Turning
The second turning of Buddhism is commonly attributed to the teachings of Nagarjuna. He taught that all phenomena are essentially empty, without essence. This was an expansion on the Buddha’s insight that the self is an illusion. Nagarjuna extended this to all things and phenomena.
The emphasis on emptiness is counterbalanced by a focus on compassion. The recognition of emptiness and the cultivation of compassion combine to produce bodhicitta, or awakening mind. Compassion is a tool to calm and focus the emotionally reactive mind. As the mind calms and attention steadies, it becomes possible to see that the true nature of the mind and everything else is emptiness.
The Third Turning
The third evolution of Buddhism is widely attributed to the advent of the Yogachara school. It is actually the Yogachara school’s foundational sutra, the Noble sūtra of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets, that first details the three turnings. The sutra makes such humble claims as its teachings are the final and ultimate truth.
Yogachara attempted to integrate the diversity of Buddhist thought that existed at the time into one unified philosophy. Paradoxically, the ideas it presents are complex even for the philosophically minded, all the while it celebrates immediate non-conceptual awareness at the goal of practice. This focus on the unconstrued present moment became an important inspiration for Zen.
What Is The Fourth Turning?
Formally planned or not, the fourth turning of Buddhism is happening right now. Buddhism has captured the imagination of the global consumer culture. This is a culture that is looking to satisfy its every desire and it has little care for doctrine or tradition. It’s captivated by the promises that modern Buddhist teachers have made about meditation.
- It can relieve stress
- It can guide one to find peace and happiness
- It can help focus and increase performance
- It can connect one to non-sectarian spirituality missing in modern culture
Can the dharma deliver on these promises? Perhaps, but likely not in the ways that the people asking them are hoping. In a culture addicted to the aggrandizement of the self, the idea that the self is an illusion is a tough sell. As many healthcare providers have discovered, the modern sapien is more interested in a miracle pill than lifestyle change.
The modern commodified mindfulness movement reflects this dissonance. Apps promise to bring you calm and focus with a few minutes a day of focused breathing. There’s nothing wrong with teaching people to find a bit more calm and focus through a breathing practice. This isn’t really Buddhism though. It won’t lead to transformative insights into the nature of suffering.
In the 21st century, how can we best help others escape the causal chain of suffering? What tools can we modern people bring to bear to alleviate human suffering?
New Tools To Incorporate
There have numerous significant developments in human culture, understanding, and technology since the advent of the Yogacara school, some two thousand years ago. These elements would necessarily need to be incorporated into a modern reinvisioning of the dharma.
The scientific method has radically transformed human life. It has also provided a powerful empirical tool to test our beliefs about the material world. Scientific studies showing the benefits of mindfulness meditation have helped to spurn the new growth of interested practitioners.
Neuroscience is probing the depths of the human mind itself and attempts to find the neural correlates to consciousness. With modern imaging tools, we can see in real-time the differences between the brain activity of trained and novice meditators.
Some scholars have argued that psychedelic sacraments like the cubensis mushroom may have been important parts of early Hindu and Buddhist practices. What is undeniable is that a majority of the esteemed meditation teachers in the west were inspired to delve deep into practice after powerful psychedelic experiences in their youth.
Emerging science suggests that these transformative substances can have a powerful synergy with meditation, acting as catalysts for ralization.
Forms of modern psychology like IFS (Internal Family Systems), work to help clients realize their true selves and transform their conditioned natures. By cultivating a relationship between these conditioned states and ones unconditioned, Buddha nature, it becomes possible to release the conditioned karmic suffering that these states can perpetuate.
Brain Computer Interfaces
Neurofeedback technology is still very new and it might not deliver on its promises, but it could become an invaluable tool to help train meditative states. Much like having an athletic coach make adjustments in real time, neurofeedback could help to guide the mind toward more useful states as soon as it wanders.
We are in the midst of a global environmental collapse. The causes mostly trace back to greed and ignorance. We are entirely dependent on our natural environment for survival. Pretending that the mass extinction and climate crisis that are currently underway is no big deal is insanity.
As we use the tools of Buddhism to transform and help others, we must also help the ecosystem that supports us all.
Though not always, Buddhism has largely remained apolitical. This can no longer be reconciled with its ethical principles. How can we espouse the desire to end suffering for all sentient beings while doing nothing to change political structures that cause so much suffering?
Karl Popper’s idea of negative utilitarianism provides a great starting point.
“Philosophers should consider the fact that the greatest happiness principle can easily be made an excuse for a benevolent dictatorship. We should replace it by a more modest and more realistic principle: the principle that the fight against avoidable misery should be a recognized aim of public policy, while the increase of happiness should be left, in the main, to private initiative.”
The fourth turning of Buddhism is upon us. It’s happening right now. Here are the questions I think that it’s most important to ask?
- How can each of us best reduce the suffering of all the sentient beings on earth?
- How can we do this without incurring more karmic debt?
- How can we tranform our culture and politics so that we treat all creatures and the planet ethically and sustainably?