Dharma Wheel

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The Dharma Wheel

It is easy to understand how the Sun in its apparent rounds is a symbol of cosmic order, and it is this fact, along with its illuminating glory, that contributes to its being worshipped as a deity in so many cultures.  But the sun in its seasonal journey is itself a symbol of the circling heavens with their myriad stars and planets, and the cosmic order that all that, in turn, represents.

The golden wheel that drives the universe is the seal of Buddha Dipamkara (Lamp-lighter.)  The great Buddhist teacher, Atisha (early 11th C.) is called Shrijnana Dipamkara after him.  

Dharma in the sense of cosmological pattern, order or Universal Law is sometimes represented by a multi-spoked wheel in which each line actually represents ten, so the wheel is referred to as made of a thousand spokes.  In an account of Buddha Shakyamuni's Awakening (or, Enlightenment,) Brahma makes him a gift of that great thousand-spoked wheel, which then becomes his seal. 

The Dharma Wheel has become the universal symbol of the Buddhist system.  Besides incorporating the two major aspects -- order and brilliance -- it alludes to other, more particular, concepts. 

Ven. Tenga Rinpoche explains that the wheels that appear as marks on the soles of Buddha Shakyamuni's feet are related to his generosity in exerting himself to accompany others on their way.

Buddha's teachings are represented by this wheel sometimes in the form of a studded chariot wheel, or at places of instruction, as a wheel framed by a pair of deer.

That symbol refers to his visit at Sarnath near Varanasi where Buddha delivered his first sermon that is described as the initial "setting in motion of the Wheel of the Law " (Skt. dharma-chakra-pravartana).  

Later this chakra (Sanskrit word for wheel) came to resemble the ship's navigational wheel, for a ship is the emblem of prosperity.  However, the eight spokes stand for the Eightfold Path as well as the 8 directions.  Sometimes, the spokes have the form of vajras.

"A friend of mine told me she liked to think of the Hinayana as the hub of the wheel, because it was central to all the teachings; the mahayana as the spokes, of the wheel because they radiate from the center in the same way that the bodhisattva path radiates out to reach all beings; and the vajrayana as the rim of the wheel because it picked up everything in its path) as pebbles, bits of glass, etc. might get stuck in a tire) without stopping! . . .   ." ~ Kagyu email list, Sept. 2005.

A dharma wheel with many more spokes is found on the proclamation pillars of the Buddhist convert king, Ashoka (3rd-century  BCE.)  It is a metaphor of the divine chariot that symbolizes the Chakravartin or World Emperor -- one whose earthly influence is comparable to that of a deity.

Some 200 years later, another Buddhist king, the Greek Menander (reigned 160–135 BCE), employed the 8-spoked Dharmachakra on his coinage.  (In Buddhist scripture he is known as "King Milinda.")

By the Power of the Wheel

At the Kagyu email list, Ani Trinlay, quoting another person, passed this on:

So what is a Dharma Wheel? It is an analogy to the wheels on a cart possessed and used by a Chakravartin . . ., one whose progress is unimpeded. The symbolism of such a wheel is that it can go where the king wishes without challenge from his enemies. These king's wheels can go on the road [. . .]  throughout his domain -- go where they need to go without resistance.  Every place he travels will be brought into his domain and . . . into a good state.

Likewise, the Buddha's teaching is all-pervasive and extends out into the world, and wherever the teachings reach will be improved and brought into a positive state.

The image of a wheel also tells us something about the Dharma itself. The hub is the basis of the wheel; the spokes are like weapons; the rim is what holds it all together. To correlate this with the Dharma: the hub is like the Vinaya; the spokes are like the Abhidharma; and the rim is like the Sutra basket.

To correlate this with the three turnings: the hub is like the first turning; the rim is like the second turning; and the spokes are like the third turning. When you have all three parts at the same time, you have the wheel of the Dharma. The Buddha taught many teachings, but no single one can be considered the entire Wheel of Dharma, only all together are they the Wheel of Dharma.


  • The Wheel as one of the 8 auspicious Buddhist symbols.

This wheel has figured prominently in Indian culture for hundreds of years. For example, a coin of South India was known as the chakra.  We learn that in 1738 Alexandre Dumas  negotiated the purchase of Karaikal, a town near Pondicherry, for 400,000 chakras.

The 24-spoked wheel on the Triranga -- the Indian flag -- besides bearing all the connotations already mentioned, also evokes the 16-spokes of Gandhi's economic liberation and independence movement -- the spinning wheel (Hindi: charkha) used to produce thread for the weaving of "homespun" cotton fabric (khadi.)


The practice of home spinning in India had been banned by the British to protect the textile industries of England.   Therefore Gandhi-ji set an important example by spinning, in symbolic protest of colonial rule.


The Romani Wheel

A sixteen-spoked chakra was adopted as the international Romani ("Gypsy") symbol at the First World Romani Congress in London in 1971.   A green and blue flag with a red
chakra in the center was adopted as the Romani flag, along with the motto Opré Roma (Roma Arise.)  The song Djelem, djelem was selected as the anthem, and April 8 was proclaimed International Romani Day. ~ "History," Patrin web site


culture hero: Any legendary figure credited with bringing civilization to a land or society.


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