Time for another edition of Arte-Factual! This time around, we’ll be returning to Barkhang Monastery to look at some of the other Buddhist symbols that can be found throughout the fictional monastery.
The Wheel, or “Dharmachakra”:
The Buddhist wheel, or dharmachakra, is one of the oldest and most recognisable motifs in Buddhist art. It was once used to represent the Buddha himself; human depictions of the Buddha only started appearing in art around the 1st century BC and is likely the result of Hellenistic influences in the region.
Like the Endless Knot I wrote about in Part 1, the dharmachakra is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism and is thought to have had its origins in ancient Hindu iconography. It may have evolved from an Indian solar symbol or from the Sudarshana Chakra, the disc-like weapon used by the Hindu god Vishnu to conquer demons and evil desires. It represents motion, spiritual transformation, and rebirth, concepts that lie at the centre of Buddhist thought.
The dharmachakra is commonly depicted as an eight-spoked wheel, symbolising the Noble Eightfold Path. This doctrine encourages mindfulness, ethical behaviour, non-violence, and good will towards all other living creatures. Buddhists believe that the only way to escape the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) is by following the path set out by the Buddha. The wheel is a reminder of the cyclical nature of existence and, by extension, the Buddha’s teachings.
So, where can we find the dharmachakra in Barkhang Monastery? Well, the eight-spoked star-shaped wall seen in the screenshot above almost fits the bill. It might not look like a wheel but its position on the rooftops and placed near two golden animal statues is significant. This might be a stretch but I promise it’ll make more sense later on, so keep reading.
Deer in Buddhist Art:
Have you ever wondered what the two golden animals on the monastery’s rooftops are supposed to be? They are, in fact, supposed to be deer.
The symbol of the dharmachakra flanked by two golden deer – one male, one female – could once be found adorning the rooftops of most Tibetan monasteries. It can still be seen above the main entrance to Jokhang Temple in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. One could argue that the star-shaped door and golden statues is an extremely stylized interpretation of this iconic symbol.
The golden deer symbolise fidelity, grace, and harmony and represent the site of the Buddha’s first sermon. Following his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, the Buddha went to the deer park at Sarnath near modern-day Varanasi in India. Here he shared his new-found knowledge with five of his former companions, who went on to establish Buddhism’s first monastic community.
While the deer and dharmachakra are most commonly associated with Buddhism, some archaeologists argue that these symbols may have evolved from motifs found on clay seals excavated at Indus Valley sites,. Some of these seals depict an early form of the Hindu god Shiva in his incarnation as the horned deity Pashupati, the “Lord of the Animals”, flanked by deer, tigers, and other creatures.
What’s more, the deer park at Sarnath may have once been a grove sacred to Pashupati and images of the god may have been replaced with the dharmachakra wheel, reflecting the region’s shift from Shaivism to Buddhism. While this link isn’t universally acknowledged, it does provide an interesting insight into the changing spiritual traditions of northern India in the first millennium BC.
And thus concludes our look at the Buddhist symbols of Barkhang Monastery. If you think I’ve forgotten to mention the prayer wheels, fear not! These will be dealt with in a future edition of Arte-Factual. Eventually.
Sources & Further Reading:
- Buddhist Symbols in Tibetan Culture by Dagyab Rinpoche, Wisdom Publications (1995).
- Buddhist Wheel Symbol (Dharmachakra) (Religion Facts)
- General Buddhist Symbols (A View of Buddhism)
- Holy Sites of Buddhism: Sarnath – The First Teachings (BuddhaNet)
- The Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism – A Study in Spiritual Evolution by Nitin Kumar (Exotic India)
- The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols by Robert Beer, Serindia Publications (2003).
- What is the Eightfold Path? (Secular Buddhist Association)