The Dharma Wheel is the most recognized symbol around the world as representing Buddhism. As such, it is a powerful tattoo design, potent with symbolism.
The Buddha’s teachings are known as the ‘dharma’. Early Buddhists visualized their master’s teachings as a wheel that would roll through a person’s life inspiring radical spiritual change. The Wheel would also roll from one end of the known world to the other, spreading the dharma teaching as it went. And in truth, it did, starting in India and moving into Central Asia, then South East Asia, and Japan – and it hasn’t stopped yet.
The Dharma Wheel is also described as ‘turning’, by which is meant an ‘advancing’ from simpler to more complex phases of the teachings. The first turning is synonymous with Buddha’s initial gathering with disciples after his enlightenment. Here, Buddha laid down the ‘Four Noble Truths’ (see below). The second turning is referred to as the ‘Perfection of Wisdom’, which inspired the Mahayana school of Buddhism. The third turning forms the basis of Tantric Buddhism.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dharma Wheel is one of their Eight Auspicious Symbols. It’s also known as the ‘wheel of law’ or the ‘wheel of transformation’, among other ‘wheels’. It also represents the ‘cycle of samsara’ (suffering through endless lives), which can only be escaped, they say, by the particular prescriptions of Buddhism.
If we deconstruct the Dharma Wheel into its main parts, we have the hub, the spokes, and the rim. The hub symbolizes the moral discipline necessary to calm the mind – the spokes represent the wisdom needed to combat ignorance – and the rim suggests the concentration or mindfulness that holds the whole psychic assembly or structure together. Putting the wheel back together again, we recognize first and foremost its circular shape, which signifies the perfection of the dharma itself.
The hub contains a swirl reminiscent of the Chinese yin-yang symbol. This gankyil or ‘wheel of joy’ is interpreted in many ways, one of them being a victory over the ‘three poisons’ that occupy the centre of the Tibetan mandala known as the ‘Wheel of Life’.
The Dharma Wheel’s eight spokes represent the Buddha’s ‘Noble Eightfold Path’, and the spokes are thought of as weapons to ‘cut through’ the ignorance that causes suffering. Each spoke carries further significance – for correct thought, speech, actions, livelihood, understanding, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
As with any circular graphic, this is going to make a strong tattoo. But be aware that while Buddhism is widely known, it is not yet universally well known. If you live in the West, be prepared to have your Dharma Wheel misconstrued as a nautical symbol, especially if you place it on your forearm. It bears an uncanny resemblance to a ship’s wheel.
In the first centuries of Buddhism – starting about 2500 years ago – the wheel symbolized not only the dharma but the Buddha himself. Images of Buddha were not encouraged in accordance with his caveat not to confuse his personality with his teachings. Although we now regularly see the Buddha pictorialized, the wheel can usually be found in the palms of his hands and on soles of his feet. Buddha images show him making hand gestures (mudras), often in the form of this wheel.
A little background on Buddhism may well be helpful at this point – and although Buddhism’s symbols are rich and evocative, the religion is based on these famous ‘Four Noble Truths’, which anyone contemplating a Buddhist tattoo ought to be familiar with:
1. Life is filled with suffering – Or, all life is suffering.
2. Craving is the source of suffering.
3. If we cease craving, we can end our suffering.
4. Following the ‘Eightfold Noble Path’ is the way to end suffering.
These ‘truths’ describe the mechanics of attachment, desire, suffering, and liberation via the Eightfold Path.
The Dharma Wheel may be seen as a simpler form of the Wheel of Life that is also found in Hinduism and Jainism, the other dharmic religions.