The Dharma Wheel (Dharmachakra) Symbol in Buddhism

Golden Dharma Wheel
Frankhuang / Getty Images

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. Similar symbols are found in Jainism and Hinduism, and it is likely the dharmachakra symbol in Buddhism evolved out of Hinduism. 

A traditional dharma wheel is a chariot wheel with varying numbers of spokes. It can be in any color, although it is most often gold. At the center, there may be three shapes swirling together, a yin-yang symbol, a second 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. 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 concepts, depending on their number:

  • When a wheel has eight spokes, the spokes represent the Eightfold Path. An eight-spoke wheel is the most common form of the wheel in Buddhism.
  • When a wheel has ten spokes, the spokes represent the ten directions—in effect, everywhere.
  • When a wheel has twelve spokes, the spokes represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.
  • When a wheel has 24 spokes, the spokes 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.
  • When a wheel has 31 spokes, the spokes represent the 31 realms of existence from ancient Buddhist cosmology.
  • When a wheel has four spokes, which is rare, the spokes represent either the Four Noble Truths or the four dhyanas.

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 B.C.E.), 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.

Emperor Ashoka the Great
Emperor Ashoka the Great. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Ashoka erected enormous stone pillars throughout his kingdom, many of which are still standing. The pillars contain edicts, some of which encouraged people to practice Buddhist morality and nonviolence. There is typically at least one lion on the top of each pillar, 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 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 reminds 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.