A R T  &  C U L T U R E  ии  S Y M B O L S

   R  E  S  O  U   R  C  E  S

The Wheel

Buddha Mind - get one, be one.

INTRO | USAGE | WHEEL | BODHI LEAF | ALMS BOWL | LOTUS | LIGHTS | FOOTPRINTS



simple symbol


wheely.gif (2512 bytes)

The wheel is a symbol of the Buddha's teaching - referring directly to his first discourse; in Sarnath, India.

In Pali the wheel is called The Dhammacakka or 'Teaching Wheel'.
Dhamma is 'truth' or 'nature'; which is what the Buddha was teaching; the truth of our own human nature.
Cakka is most commonly translated as 'wheel.' Another figurative meaning is 'blessing' - of which there are four: living in a suitable place, the company of good people, meritorious acts done in the past and right inclinations, intentions.

A circle is a universal symbol of unity.
The whole universe is made up of 'wheels'.
The petals of the lotus form the shape of a wheel.

In ancient India the wheel was one of the seven precious possessions of a great world ruler - "cakkavatti: one who owns the wheel, sybmolises conquering progress and expanding sovereignty" [c.f. Digha 29].
In a Buddhist context it can be seen having several meanings:
bullet.gif (47 bytes) As the wheel of a vehicle it carries the Buddhist teachings forward in time.
bullet.gif (47 bytes) With eight spokes it is 'The Eightfold Noble Path'; part of the Buddha's teaching.
bullet.gif (47 bytes) Sometimes the wheel has up to a thousand spokes, appearing like the sun; representing the bright clear teaching that dispels the darkness of ignorance.
bullet.gif (47 bytes) As a disc used as a weapon, it is the teaching that destroys ignorance as it spins through the universe.
bullet.gif (47 bytes) As the wheel of a ship it represents the guiding influence of the Buddha's teaching.


Dhamma Wheel

The wheel is probably the simplest symbol commonly representing Buddhism; perhaps it is better called an icon (in the general sense of the word). The Buddha image is now more prominent but the wheel has been in use much longer and its simple, symmetrical form lends itself easily to a wide range of applications. Before the development of the Buddha image (approx. 1st century BCE) the wheel was used to represent the Buddha in that the wheel is a symbol of his teaching and he often said 'those who see the dhamma see me.'
It can be clearly seen on the sole of the foot in several of the 'footprint' examples.
It is found as a symbol on India's national flag (see lion capitol) and in many instances of ancient, decorative sculpture - notably stupa facings.

The two thumbnails are good examples of the aniconic use of the wheel. They are both presented as symbols of the Buddha's first sermon in the deer park. In the first the wheel is raised on a pillar. There are a large number of deer around the base with a congregation of lay folk gathered - most with their hands in the respectful gesture (anjali). In the second, two deer kneel in respect before the wheel. [another example §]

This thumbnail shows the lion capital erected by King Asoka about 250 BCE in Sarnath. It is by far the most elaborate of all the columns he raised. The capital itself is about seven feet tall and sat on top of a pillar over thirty feet high. There are four small wheels on the capital base and the lions originally supported a much larger wheel. The sculpture is now in the museum at Sarnath and is the national emblem for India.

One of the activities pages gives instructions on how to make a cut-out paper wheel and also has a few images which may be of use.
There are two wheel symbols used as presentations of the teaching - the six realms of existence and the 12 linked dependent arising.