The First and Second Turnings

Let's look at how dependent arising manifests in two phases of Buddhist teachings known as the first and second turnings.

The First and Second Turnings

Buddhist teachings can be thought of as belonging to phases known as "turnings." This refers to a traditional phrase in which the Buddha "turned the wheel of the dharma for the first time" when he gave his sermon on the four noble truths.

The first turning

We can see dependent arising in the thread of causality that runs through the four noble truths. These truths are:

  1. There is suffering
  2. Suffering has an origin
  3. There can be a cessation of suffering
  4. There is a path leading to the cessation of suffering.

We can see that suffering depends on something for its origin. In the early Buddhist diagnosis suffering depends on craving, which is itself part of a 12-link chain of dependent arising beginning with ignorance. Likewise, the eightfold path is identified as causing the cessation of suffering. The point is that anything that exists in dependence on something else will cease or change when its causes cease or change. 

The Buddhist understanding of cause and effect at work in these teachings is the law of karma. We may have received various ideas about karma over the years but for our purposes we can say that karma is simply activity that will produce an effect. It's like a seed and the fruit that ultimately emerges.

The second turning

Later in his teaching career, the Buddha is said to have turned the wheel for a second time when he gave a sermon at Rajagriha in India. We can understand the second turning as bringing elements to the fore that were previously implicit. For example, if we're talking about a seed and its fruit: is the seed a singular thing or does it have parts? What about the other conditions that contribute to this process such as sunlight, soil, and water? Is the seed independent of our ability to perceive it or the context in which we might use it?

When we hear the word interdependence we understand what it means. We understand that cutting down the rainforests has global effects, for example. But we're looking a little deeper into things. The Buddha cautioned us not to think that we've "got it," that we know what relationship means. We are to understand that there's something very subtle and very liberating in these teachings. He is reported to have said:

"This is a matter hard to perceive, namely this conditionality, this pratityasamutpada [is] against the stream of common thought, deep, subtle, difficult, delicate."

—The Noble Search (MN 26)

We'll look at why he said this, how deep it goes, what it has to do with us, and what it has to do with freedom.