The correct use of the 'Dharmachakra'

The Esala Full Moon day falling on Thursday, July 14, is of special significance this year since it marks the 2600th anniversary of the day on which the Buddha preached the Dhammachakkapavattana Sutta' – the first sermon after attaining Enlightenment. The commonly used 'Dhammachakra' (the Wheel of the Dhamma) dates back to this event. Even after 2600 years, the 'dhammachakra' is often used incorrectly. Back in February 1978, the Most Venerable
Madihe Pannasiha Maha Nayaka Thera drew the attention of President J. R. Jayewardene when the 'dharmachakra' was used incorrectly in the Presidential Standard. The letter written by the late Maha Nayaka Thera is reproduced here.

I congratulate Hon J R Jayewardene on being elected by the people to the National State Assembly and thereafter being appointed Prime Minister and Executive President and wish him long life. I am also pleased that he has decided to use the 'dharmachakra' – the Wheel of the Dhamma – as the symbol in the Presidential Standard.

I wish to kindly request His Excellency not to consider it a nuisance to raise the issue of the 'dharmachakra' at a time when he has to concentrate on solving a lot of problems relating to the development of the country. His Excellency is a politician who declares that he is trying to correct the earlier wrongdoings by amending earlier legislation and bringing in new legislation.

Because of this interest, when the newspapers pointed out that it was wrong to have the spokes in the wheel jutting out, it was reported that he summoned the officials of the Archaeological Department and discussed the problem and that the learned officials had pointed out that it was not wrong.

'Chakra' is a wheel. Even a little child knows what a wheel is. While the word 'chakka' ('chakra') appears in numerous places in the Tripitaka text, special mention must be made of four. Chakkavatti Seehanada Sutta refers to the 'ratnachakra' and Lakkhana Sutta mentions the 'lakshnachakra'. 'Dharmachakra' is referred to in the Dhammachakkapavattana Sutta. Patticcasamuppada mentions the 'samsarachakra'. Let me explain what 'Dharmachakra' means.

The term 'Dhamma' in the Dhammachakkapavattana ('Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma') refers to the knowledge of realisation and the knowledge of instruction. 'Chakka' means 'wheel'. 'Pavattana' is 'turning' or 'rolling' or 'setting in motion'.When the Blessed One was staying in Isipatana, the deer sanctuary near Benares, he spoke to the group of five bhikkhus. He preached the Four Noble Truths that lead to one's liberation from suffering, just like a wheel is set in motion.

The 'dharmachakra' was first used in the time of King Dharmashoka. The 'chakra' seen in Asoka pillars bears testimony to this. What is seen in them is a full wheel. It has 24 spokes. That is to signify the 24 items related to the Four Noble Truths. The noble truth of suffering has 12 items; the origin of suffering comprises three including the craving for sensual desires; cessation of suffering refers to fading and ceasing; and the way leading to cessation of suffering, teaches the noble eightfold path. Although the number of spokes has changed from time to time, the formation of the circle remained the same.

'The pictorial 'Way of the Buddha' published by the Indian government to mark the 2500th Buddha Jayanthi carries a number of 'dharamachakras' seen at different locations: Nagarjuna konda (page 80), Sanchi (p 82), Saranath (p 83), Bharutha (p 94), Mathura (p 129), Saranath (p 137), Amaravati (p 154). Although there are certain changes in the size of the spokes and the circle, the circular pattern has not changed. It is possible that the differences in the circle may have been due to the myths of the artists.
A hundred 'sesath', ' mal pethi' (flower petals) and 'adayati' (spears) have been mentioned as companions of the 'chakraratna' (wheel jewel). On this basis, 'schetra' (canopies), flower petals and spears were added to the outer circle of the 'chakraratna'. It was a custom among Buddhists to use canopies as a mark of respect. Since there were no statues in the early period, the 'Bodhi' (Bo-tree), Sri Pada (Holy Footprint) and the 'dharmachakra' were used as symbols to depict the Buddha. There is a canopy adorning the rock where the Footprint was etched.

The rock murals show that a canopy had been used even in the 'dharmachakra' as a mark of respect. It is possible that having noticed the 'sesath' round the 'chakraratna', the canopy used over the 'dharmachakra' was later transformed into a collection of canopies right round. However, the wheel shape was not altered.

The oldest 'chakra' was the natural imprint of a 'chakra' in the Buddha's sole. Since it was a physical feature, no one had used it for purposes of external beauty. The 'samsara chakra' in the Paticcasamuppda has also not changed. Although unnecessary decorative symbols like the canopies were used in the 'dharmachakra', its original form was not changed.

Designing the 'dharamachakra' with the spokes sticking out of the circle is a more recent development. The world renowned archaeologist, Professor Senerat Paranavitana did not accept this design. He categorically stated that the 'dharmachakra' should remain like a wheel. Several other intellectuals have pointed out that it was wrong.

India used the 'dharmachakra' in the centre of the national flag when the country gained independence. That was the genuine Ashoka Dharmachakra. Not that Shri Nehru and other intellectuals were unaware of the later designs used in Sanchi, Bharut and Amaavati. But they wanted the genuine 'dharmchakra'.
Our new President also wanted to use a genuine 'dharamachakra' in the centre of the Presidential Standard and not a distorted one. It is well known that those who know the Dhamma at least to recognise the 'dhammachakra' as well as everyone from a carter upwards is aware that the opinion of high officials of the Archaeological Department is wrong. Whether a wrong has been committed in Tibet or in Tuticorin, it is still a wrong!

If canopies or spears had been used with the edges sticking out, it is not a 'dharmachakra' or a wheel. It is then a steering wheel in a ship. In a cartoon published recently in a newspaper, the President was shown steering a ship named 'Dharmachakra'. This is how they ridicule the 'dharmachakra'.
Your Excellency, the Buddha Dhamma is well spread throughout the world. Most of the educated people know the 'dharmachakra'. Everyone knows a wheel. Those who come to the President's House, particularly educated persons from India, may not comment when they see the 'Dharmachakra' in the Presidential Standard. Yet they will laugh about it.

Your Excellency, you know the Dhamma. You know the 'dharmachakra' and the wheel. So without accepting that the eight corners in the 'dharmachakra' symbolising canopies, I appeal to you to kindly remove the wrong design and start using the correct one.

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