Deer Symbol, also known as “Twin Deer Dharma Wheel”, in almost any main hall entrance of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, you can see the “Deer Symbol” above. In its center, there is a “golden Dharma wheel,” with a golden deer kneeling on each side, their ears raised and heads tilted as if listening attentively. The male deer is on the right, and the female deer is on the left. Sometimes, the male deer is depicted as a rhinoceros with a single horn. Both the Dharma wheel and the deer are positioned on a lotus pedestal, aligned in a straight line. This is the iconic emblem of Buddhist monastery
According to Buddhist scriptures, at the age of 35, Siddhartha Gautama, later known as Shakyamuni Buddha, attained enlightenment after 49 days of meditation and contemplation under the Bodhi tree. Upon the request of the gods Brahma and Indra, he gave his first sermon at Sarnath in Isipatana (one of the four major Buddhist pilgrimage sites), near Varanasi (in present-day southeastern Uttar Pradesh, India). This sermon is also known as the “First Turning of the Dharma Wheel.”
During this sermon, Shakyamuni Buddha taught the “Four Noble Truths” (the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering) and the doctrine of the “Eightfold Path” (the eight methods and practices leading to the highest ideal state of Buddhism, Nirvana). As a result, the five followers who were present attained the state of Arhat and became the first disciples of the Buddha.
It is said that during the Buddha’s teachings, not only humans and celestial beings were attracted to listen, but even deer and other animals came to hear the Dharma.
Later, the Buddha held two more important preaching events in Rajgir and Sravasti, known as the “Second Turning of the Dharma Wheel” and the “Third Turning of the Dharma Wheel,” respectively.
In Buddhist history, the “First Turning of the Dharma Wheel” at the Sarnath is considered the founding moment of Buddhism. The Sarnath is revered as a sacred Buddhist site, and the “First Turning of the Dharma Wheel” is regarded as one of the significant events in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, alongside his birth, enlightenment, and attainment of Nirvana.
As a symbol of the Buddha’s teachings, the gilded three-dimensional emblem of the “Twin Deer Dharma Wheel” is traditionally placed at the front of monastery roofs. This emblem also appears on the four gateways of the sacred Mandala
The origin of the emblem of the “Deer Symbol” may predate the emergence of Buddhism. On clay seals unearthed from the ancient Indus Valley Civilization (2500 BCE), the emblem of the “Wheel” and the accompanying figure of the “Shiva” deity have been found. These ancient seals may represent the early connection between the Shiva cult and the Buddha’s first disciples.
After attaining enlightenment in Bodh Gaya (one of the four major Buddhist pilgrimage sites), the Buddha returned to the Sarnath and gave his first sermon there. This location may have been a sacred forest associated with the deity Shiva (one of the three major gods in Hinduism, originally a deity associated with animals). The yogis of Shaiva sect (one of the three major sects of Hinduism,primarily worships the god of destruction, Shiva. This sect considers cows as sacred and asserts that followers can attain ultimate liberation and purify their souls only by worshiping Shiva.) reside here and engage in their spiritual practices.
Sarnath is located near the ancient city of Kasha (present-day Varanasi), also known as the “City of Light.” For the followers of Shiva, this place is equally sacred. As massive towers and Buddhist monastic institutions were built in Sarnath, it is possible that early Buddhists incorporated the image of the Twin Deer with Shiva as their deity, replacing the central Shiva figure with the Buddhist Dharma Wheel. Over time, the design of the Twin Deer Dharma Wheel surpassed the earlier Shiva cult patterns and became the authoritative symbol of the Buddha’s teachings. The Dharma Wheel also continuously spins, symbolizing the perpetuation of Buddhist teachings within monasteries
Meaning of Deer Symbol
The Dharma wheel represents the teachings of Buddhism, and its rotation symbolizes the preaching and expounding of the Dharma. The continuous rotation of the Dharma wheel signifies the eradication of afflictions and the expulsion of evil for sentient beings. It also symbolizes the eternal nature of the Buddhism teachings.
The twin deer symbolize the skillful means (Bodhicitta) and wisdom (emptiness) taught in Buddhism. They also represent the disciples who always accompany the Buddha, as well as the faithful followers. The twin deer also symbolize the unwavering devotion and eternal refuge of sentient beings towards the Buddha.This is the fundamental need and essence of propagating the Dharma (teachings of Buddhism) and the mutual process of “delivering” and “receiving” sentient beings.
Therefore, the “Deer Symbol” also signifies the homage of all beings to Shakyamuni Buddha when he first turned the Dharma wheel in Sarnath.
Architecture and Significance
The Golden Wheel, known as “chakra” in Sanskrit and “vkhor-lo” in Tibetan, was originally a symbol of the sun in ancient India. It first appeared on clay seals unearthed from the Harappan civilization in the Indus River Valley. The “wheel” was also the main object associated with Vishnu, the protector deity, during the Vedic period. The six-spoked flaming golden wheel represents the wheel of the universe. It symbolizes movement, continuity, and change, constantly rotating forward like celestial bodies in the heavens. As a weapon, the wheel without a hub can have six, eight, ten, twelve, or eighteen sharp blades that can rotate or swing like a wheel.
In Buddhism, the Wheel is regarded as a primary symbol of the “Wheel-turning King,” representing the universal ruler or emperor, and is identified as the Dharma Wheel in the teachings of the Buddha. The Tibetan term for the Dharma Wheel, “chos-kyi-ykhor-lo,” literally means “wheel of the teachings” or the transformation of the mind. The rapid spinning of the Wheel represents the swift spiritual transformation revealed in the Buddha’s teachings. The Wheel has the power to overcome all obstacles and delusions. It consists of three parts: the hub, spokes, and rim, symbolizing the ethical conduct, wisdom, and meditation that form the foundation of Buddhist teachings. The central hub represents ethical guidelines, positioned in the center to bring stability and tranquility to the mind. The sharp spokes represent wisdom and consciousness, capable of dispelling ignorance. The rim represents meditation and concentration. The rim surrounding the Wheel drives its rotation. The thousand-spoked Dharma Wheel radiates like the rays of the sun, symbolizing the Buddha’s numerous activities of teaching and spreading the Dharma.
The “Wheel of Auspiciousness,” also known as the “Eight-Spoked Golden Wheel,” symbolizes the Buddha’s “Eightfold Path” and the spreading of these teachings in all eight directions. It is made of pure gold from the Tsanpu River in “Jambudvipa.” Traditionally, the Wheel of Auspiciousness is depicted with eight spokes in the shape of vajras (indestructible diamonds), and the central hub has three or four rotating “joyous wheels.” If there are three joyous wheels on the central hub, they represent the “Three Jewels” of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, as well as the victory over the “Three Poisons” of ignorance, attachment, and aversion. If there are four joyous wheels, their colors usually correspond to the four cardinal directions and the four elements, symbolizing the Buddha’s teachings based on the “Four Noble Truths.” The rim of the wheel may be depicted as a simple circle, often adorned with small circular golden ornaments facing the eight directions. Sometimes, the rim is also depicted within an ornate pear-shaped frame made of gold and adorned with jewel inlays. A silk ribbon hangs behind the wheel, and the bottom of the wheel is usually inserted into a small lotus pedestal.
Deer, known as “mriga” in Sanskrit and “sha-ba” in Tibetan, are often depicted in landscapes with auspicious deities. At such times, they represent the harmony of nature and the fearlessness of the pure land of the deities, as well as symbolize the Buddha’s “First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” in Sarnath. Like the solitary rhinoceros, the deer also symbolizes cessation, as it never stays in the same place for two consecutive nights. Male deer can also be depicted as a unicorn. In Tibetan painting, deer are often depicted as male and female appearing in pairs, representing harmony, happiness, and loyalty. Deer skins can be used to make meditation cushions for Buddhist yogis or accomplished practitioners like Milarepa, Jigme Lingpa, and Tertön Dorje Drakpa. It is believed that sitting on a deer skin cushion can enhance one’s stability and awareness as practitioners can absorb the energy of the deer. The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, known for great compassion, has a green turquoise-colored deer skin draped over their left shoulder and chest. This type of skin symbolizes the beloved, compassionate, and gentle nature of the deity.
Sarnath is only 10 kilometers away from Varanasi, but the two places have very different atmospheres. The holy city of Varanasi is a carnival of gods, always bustling and lively, while Sarnath can be described as serene and tranquil.
During the time of the Peacock Dynasty, Buddhism was the state religion of India, and as one of the four major Buddhist holy sites, Deer Park naturally had many related structures built during that time. However, with the invasion of the Aryans, the temples within the Varanasi area were almost completely destroyed. The only remaining ancient structure that can be seen today is the Dhamekh Stupa, built by King Ashoka. The Dhamekh Stupa is a symbol of Deer Park and was first built during the 6th century by the Peacock Dynasty. It underwent significant restoration during the Gupta Dynasty. The diameter of the base is 26 meters, the height is 13 meters, and the total height of the stupa reaches 31 meters. The pillar of the stupa is adorned with exquisite patterns. Around the Dhamekh Stupa, there are monks prostrating themselves, reciting scriptures, and giving teachings. There are followers contemplating in front of the stupa. Each person communicates with their faith in their own way, with utmost devotion.
At first glance, apart from the majestic Dhamekh Stupa, the remaining buildings are only low foundations. Reading the explanations on the plaques, one can imagine the grandeur of the past and understand that prosperity will eventually fade, and liveliness will eventually turn into silence. Desolation is the ultimate outcome, even for the sacred land of the Buddha.
The Diamond Sutra says: “All conditioned phenomena are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, and a shadow.”
The Bible says that everything is vanity, like chasing after the wind.