The Deer and the Wheel of Dharma

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on August 17, 2015.)

Deer and Dharma Wheel atop the gate at Shifang Tang, Wutai Shan

A lovely but enigmatic symbol sits atop the peak of many temple roofs. A large eight-spoked wheel is at the center, with two deer looking up at it with rapt attention. What does it symbolize?

In the earliest days of Buddhism, it was considered inappropriate to present the Buddha in human form. Various aniconic symbols--symbols without any literal representation--were developed. One was an umbrella, representing his royalty; another, an empty throne showing that he was "Thus Gone," as did a riderless horse; yet another was his footprints, indicated that he had passed that way--and a wheel with eight spokes.

This is called the "Wheel of Dharma," and stands for the Eight-fold Path that the Buddha taught as a means of Enlightenment. (These are: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.) In fact, the first sermon the Buddha gave was called "The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma," and it happened like this:

While seeking enlightenment, the Buddha-to-be allied himself in the forest with Five Ascetics, other seekers like himself. At one point, he abandoned the severe asceticism they practiced, and adopted the "Middle Way" between the luxury of the palace he had left and the austerities he had shared with the Five.

For this they abandoned him as "too soft," and he went off on his own--and found the Enlightenment he sought while seated alone under the Bodhi tree.

Making his way to Sarnath, he met his five former companions. At first they suspected that he had left the Path. But when they saw the radiance in his face, they were compelled to listen as he shared with them what he had learned, and they became his first five disciples.

All of this took place at the Deer Park in Sarnath, and the deer listened in--as they do on temple roofs to this day.

Deer and Dharma Wheel atop a hall at Shifang Tang

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