The wheel of Dharma explained
by Geshe Lobsang Jamphel (as translated by Venerable Tharchin)
This wheel of Dharma is a symbol. What kind of symbol? A symbol that indicates something about the place in which it is found.
For instance, here in France, all the different town halls have the same image of Marianne (you can see her image on the back of the French coins as well). Like this, it is understood that where there is this statue of Marianne, we find a town hall – that is to say, an official building. This is an example of a symbol representing something. In the case of the Dharma wheel, it is a symbol that this place is a monastery.
Within this ensemble of the Dharma wheel flanked by the two deer, the actual wheel itself indicates how, in the beginning of Buddhist history, the Buddha turned the three wheels of Dharma. To the left and right of this wheel there are two deer, there are different explanations as to what they symbolize.
One of them is that the Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma for the first time in Varanasi. The legend goes that at that time, there were always three deer present. Even though there are only two deer shown, in fact there were three of them. But the third one is not depicted because there is no space – the space where it should be is replaced by the wheel of Dharma.
Another way of explaining these two deer is that actually one of them is a buck, another is a doe. The buck represents the ordained audience, and the doe, the lay audience; and this expresses that when the Buddha was teaching the Dharma, there were both lay and ordained amongst the audience. Another thing is that both the buck and doe are in a position of being very intent on the wheel. This represents the fact that the audience was very focused and concentrated on the teachings, listening attentively with respect, faith and without distraction. The meaning is that we ourselves should also have these factors present when listening to the Dharma.
The benefit of placing this symbol is to remind anyone who sees it that the Buddha taught the Dharma, and to recall his teachings. At the same time, people have an indication of how they should listen to the teachings. In this way, someone who has sponsored this should keep in mind that this symbol is there so that people can recollect the teachings of the Buddha, listening to them with great faith and respect.
Like this, for the normal followers of Buddhism who see this symbol and know its meaning, a recollection of the Buddha will be generated in their minds. They will be reminded about how precious these teachings are, and how they should be focused on them with respect and faith. In this way, great merits will also be generated in their minds.
There is a lot more to be explained, such as the meaning of the wheel itself. For instance, the eight spokes symbolize the eightfold noble path. Teachings on this and other symbolisms can be found in the fourth chapter of Maitreya’s Ornament for Clear Realization.
Geshe-la’s answers to questions by Vens. Drolma and Irene