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Deer Park and the first Buddhist Sermon

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The Buddhist emblem of a golden eight-spoked wheel flanked by two deer represents the Buddha's first discourse, which he gave in the Deer Park at Sarnath, near Varanasi. This discourse is known as the 'first turning of the wheel of dharma', when the Buddha taught the doctrines of the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Noble Path to five Indian mendicants. As a symbol of the Buddha's teachings a gilded three-dimensional wheel and deer emblem is traditionally placed at the front of monastery and temple roofs, from where it shines as a crowning symbol of the Buddhadharma. This emblem similarly appears over the four gateways of the divine mandala palace. 


The origin of the wheel and deer emblem probably predates Buddhism, as both the insignia of the wheel, and the motif of two deer flanking the deity Shiva Pashupati, have been found on clay seals unearthed from the ancient Indus valley civilization (circa 2500 BCE). These ancient seals of Shiva as Pashupatinath, the 'Lord of the Animals', probably form a link between early Shaivism and the first disciples of the Buddha. 


The Deer Park at sarnath, to which Shakyamuni Buddha returned after his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, and where he delivered his first discourse, was probably a sacred grove dedicated to Shiva Pashupati where Shaivite yogins lived and practiced. Sarnath is very close to the ancient city of Kashi (modem Varanasi), the 'City of Light', which was primarily sacred to Shiva. With the establishment of the great stupa and monastic academy at sarnath, it is possible that the early Buddhists took the iconic image of Pashupati flanked by two deer, and replaced the central figure of Pashupati with the iconic symbol of the Buddhist wheel. The wheel and deer motif then became an emblem of the supremacy of the Buddha's teachings over its early Shaivite predecessor. 


The monastic academy at Kushinagara, where the Buddha was cremated, is believed to have had the emblem of a funeral pyre between two sal trees over its gateway. It may have been that each of the sacred sites connected with the major events in the Buddha's life displayed specific emblems to commemorate these events. However, the wheel and deer emblem eventually became the enduring symbol of an establishment where the Buddha's teachings are transmitted, and where the endless wheel of the dharma continues to turn. 


The two deer peacefully rest in attentive obedience on either side of the golden wheel, with the male deer to the right and the female to the left. The male deer is sometimes depicted with the single horn of the sew deer (unicorn) or rhinoceros, and on gilded bronze sculptures the sexual organs of the two deer may be shown. The gentleness and grace of the deer represent the qualities of the true Buddhist mendicant. 

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