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The Dharma Wheel

A Symbol of Buddhism

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Dharma Wheel

Dharma Wheel

Image courtesy of Osel Shen Phen Ling, copyright by Bob Jacobson

The dharma wheel, or dharmachakra in Sanskrit, is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism. Around the globe it is used to represent Buddhism in the same way that a cross represents Christianity or a Star of David represents Judaism. It is also one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism.

A traditional dharma wheel is a chariot wheel with varying number of spokes. It can be in any color, although it is most often gold. At the center sometimes there are three shapes swirling together, although sometimes at the center is a yin-yang symbol, or another wheel, or an empty circle.

What the Dharma Wheel Represents

A dharma wheel has three basic parts -- the hub, the rim, and the spokes. Over the centuries various teachers and traditions have proposed diverse meanings for these parts, and explaining all of them possibly would take a book. Here are some common understandings of the wheel's symbolism:

The circle, the round shape of the wheel, represents the perfection of the dharma, the Buddha's teaching.

The rim of the wheel represents meditative concentration and mindfulness, which hold practice together.

The hub represents moral discipline. The three swirls often seen on the hub are sometimes said to represent the Three Treasures or Three Jewels -- buddha, dharma, sangha. They may also represent joy.

The spokes signify different things, depending on their number:

  • When a wheel has four spokes, which is rare, the spokes represent either the Four Noble Truths or the four dhyanas.
  • When a wheel has eight spokes, the spokes represent the Eightfold Path. An eight-spoke wheel is most commonly used to represent Buddhism.
  • When a wheel has ten spokes, the spokes represent the ten directions -- in effect, everywhere.
  • When a wheel has twelve spokes, they represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.
  • When a wheel has 24 spokes, they represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination plus the reversing of the Twelves Links and liberation from samsara. A 24-spoke dharma wheel is also called an Ashoka Chakra, discussed below.
  • When a wheel has 31 spokes, the spokes represent the 31 realms of existence from ancient Buddhist cosmology.

The wheel often has spokes protruding beyond the wheel, which we might imagine are spikes, although usually they don't look very sharp. The spikes represent various penetrating insights.

The Ashoka Chakra

Among the oldest existing examples of a dharma wheel are found on the pillars erected by the Ashoka the Great (304-232 BCE), an emperor who ruled much of what is now India, and beyond. Ashoka was a great patron of Buddhism and encouraged its spread, although he never forced it on his subjects.

Ashoka erected great stone pillars throughout his kingdom, many of which are still standing. The pillars contain edicts, some of which encouraged the people to practice Buddhist morality and nonviolence. Typically at the top of the pillar is at least one lion, representing Ashoka's rule. The pillars also are decorated with 24-spoke dharma wheels.

In 1947, the government of India adopted a new national flag, in the center of which is a navy blue Ashoka Chakra on a white background.

Other Symbols Related to the Dharma Wheel

Sometimes the dharma wheel is presented in a kind of tableau, supported on a lotus flower pedestal with two deer, a buck and a doe, on either side. This recalls the first sermon given by the historical Buddha after his enlightenment. The sermon is said to have been given to five mendicants in Sarnath, a deer park in what is now Uttar Pradesh, India.

According to Buddhist legend, the park was home to a herd of ruru deer, and the deer gathered around to listen to the sermon. The deer depicted by the dharma wheel remind us that the Buddha taught to save all beings, not just humans. In some versions of this story, the deer are emanations of bodhisattvas.

Typically, when the dharma wheel is represented with deer, the wheel must be twice the height of the deer. The deer are shown with legs folded under them, gazing serenely at the wheel with their noses lifted.

Turning the Dharma Wheel

"Turning the dharma wheel" is a metaphor for the Buddha's teaching of the dharma in the world. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is said the Buddha turned the dharma wheel three times.

The first turning was the sermon in the deer park, after the Buddha's enlightenment. Here the Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths.

The second turning was the introduction of the perfection of wisdom teachings on the nature of sunyata, emptiness.

The third turning was the introduction of the doctrine of Buddha Nature.

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