Significance of Clockwise Circumambulation

I notice that though many long-time Buddhists are aware of the significance of the practice of circumambulation in Buddhism (See section on ‘Why Circumambulation’), they are not aware of the significance of doing it in a clockwise manner. Some even assume the direction is arbitrary. However, this is not really so. (See section on ‘Why Clockwise’) In fact, there are intriguing archetypal reasons for the specific direction!

Why Circumambulation?

Circumambulation is the act of going around an object of veneration, such as a stupa (a monument which houses holy relics of the Buddha or great Sangha masters), a Bodhi tree (which the Buddha sat under for shelter before he attained Enlightenment) or a Buddha image – for three times or more as a gesture of respect. It is done by walking clockwise meditatively, keeping one’s right towards the object of veneration. Doing so reminds us to keep the Buddha’s teachings in the centre of our lives.

– Excerpt from ‘Be a Lamp Upon Yourself’:

Why Clockwise?

In the Buddhist tradition, clockwise circumambulation is a sign of respect; a number of sutras describe disciples doing three clockwise circumambulations of the Buddha and prostrating to him before requesting teachings. (The word ‘clockwise’ is an adaptation of an earlier term translated from Sanskrit as ‘sunwise.’)

Lama Govinda, writing of this custom of circumambulation, notes that at the great Buddhist stupa of Sanchi [see picture above], ‘the orientation of the gates equally corresponds to the sun’s course: to sunrise, zenith, sunset, nadir,’ with each of these four being associated with one of the Buddha’s four major deeds: east for birth, south for enlightenment, west for setting in motion the wheel of Dharma, and north for his final liberation. Thus, in circumambulating such a stupa, one is both paying homage to and symbolically following the life-course of the Buddha – following the right path.

It appears that our dual association with the word ‘right’ – indicating one’s right side and also indicating what is true, moral, and just – is associated with this ancient and archetypal idea of circumambulating clockwise, with one’s right to the center. William Simpson notes that the Sanskrit term ‘rita’, originally used to identify the ‘path followed by the sun from his rising to his setting,’ later came to mean ‘the eternal foundation of all that exists,’ the ‘law in general,’ and ‘all that is right, good and true.’

Reflecting on how pervasive this archetypal idea of the auspiciousness of turning clockwise is, it is interesting to note how in our modern technology, we generally design objects so that locks, knobs, and faucets turn clockwise to let us in or turns things up or on. So, through the simple gesture of turning a prayer wheel clockwise or circumambulating a holy object, one is evoking a very ancient and pervasive level of symbolism related to paying homage, to doing what is right, and to following a true and enlightening path.

– Excerpt from ‘The Wheel of Great Compassion’:
(Lorne Ladner & Lama Zopa Rinpoche)


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