Buddhism is one of the most established world religions that history has ever seen. Over the great expanse of time, it has quietly established its own set of symbolisms – symbols that are as old as time itself. This is only but natural with all the religions of the civilized world. And as such, many of these Buddhist religious symbols are considered recognizable icons of Buddhist Art and Tibetan Art. The more prominent symbols have entered the consciousness of the people from the Western world as well.
The thing about popular symbolisms is that many people know of its existence, and many people may even use it freely; but no one really knows how the said symbols came to existence and what the symbols initially meant.
Buddhist art symbols are quite rich in spiritual overtones, regardless of the fact that this religion has already given way to varying factions and sects. Some of these symbols have literally crossed boundaries; and so there are Buddhist religion symbols that share the design as Zen Buddhist symbols, but may have varying meanings or interpretations.
For purposes of clarity, though, this article will focus on the greater lot of Buddhist symbols art forms that are universal or almost universal in nature. The most prominent of all Buddhist symbols and images is of course, the very image of Buddha himself.
Siddhartha Gautama Buddha
The man’s figure has been depicted in various forms, during various stages of his life. His image can be seen almost in almost all corners of the globe, from eastern temples to permanent arm tattoos, and even elaborate cake designs. Even the conventional man on the street can often recognize the iconic image as something taken from the East. But many do not know that what they are seeing are actual depictions of the founder of Buddhism.
A number of iconic images of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha represent him as a man undergoing his earliest starvation period – all skin and bones sitting in a very upright and rigid position. His robe has fallen off his shoulders and draped almost piteously against his small, malnourished waist. This representation is said to have been taken from historical accounts, about the time when Buddha was trying to achieve the very basis of his dharma: the keystone to his teachings which would eventually preach abut the ultimate reality of the universe.
In other exemplars of Buddhist symbols and images, Buddha is depicted as a smooth faced young man, his hair coiled tightly on top of his head, his ear lobes long (as was the fashion for the affluent people of his time.) Often too, he is represented as the sitting Buddha: a figure whose hands are clasped in prayer while sitting in the lotus position. In this symbol, Buddha is often shown as someone well-dressed, and evidently at the peak of health.
Needless to say, there are so many sitting Buddha statues in the world. Some of them are made entirely of gold, while others are created out of less costly materials but scaled to gigantic heights.
Interestingly enough, most Buddhist art forms represent Siddhartha Gautama as a laughing, carefree figure, rotund in shape, and somewhat on his way to old age; (he is usually depicted with a hairless scalp, long droopy earlobes, and sagging pectorals.) Undeniably, this representation of Buddha is the most iconic symbol of all Buddha representations.
However, the truth of this matter is that this image is not at all based on any historical account. Rather, this is a mere translation of Buddhist symbols. According to the prominent dogma of Buddhism, this laughing, carefree and aging image of Buddha is what enlightened entities should look like after they achieved all their highest spiritual attainments and have given up his worldly body for a divine one.
In Christian retrospect, this is what we should look like in heaven.
In other words, one of the most prominent Buddhist symbols is not based on accurate details; but rather, based on creative interpretations of a mere translation of Buddhist dogma.
Other Recognizable Symbols of Buddhism
There are also a number of symbols in the Buddhist tradition that has no resemblance to the image of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. Some of them include: the 8-spoked wheel; the parasol; the lotus flower; the white conch shell; the endless or eternal knot; the victory banner, twin golden fishes and the treasure vase.
8-Spoked Wheel (Dharmachakra)
One of the most prominent Buddhist language symbols is the 8-spoked wheel. This is a 2-dimensional representation of the dharmackra, or the wheel of dharma. In other sects, the 8-spoked wheel is also known as the wheel of doctrine and the wheel of law. All of them pertain to the established teachings of Buddha.
The 8-spoked wheel symbol is considered language-based because it represents part of Buddha’s teachings. To be more precise, it is an iconic symbol for the “Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism:” the much needed texts in order to finally achieve enlightenment.
The 8-spoked wheel is comprised of 4 things:
1. The center of the wheel or hub represents the need for moral discipline, the most elemental requirement for meditation.
2. The spokes which stands for the very things that limits man from moving towards enlightenment. According to Buddhist dogma, when wisdom is correctly applied in limiting situations, man has the tendency to eventually end ignorance. Ignorance is the source of man’s suffering.
3. The rim where the spokes are attached symbolizes attentiveness to the other parts of the wheel. This is needed in order to hold things together. And finally,
4. The circular shape represents:
a. The endless cycle of life
b. The perfection of Buddha’s dharma teaching; that it is complete and whole by itself.
If you want to see an image of the 8-spoked wheel, you can look at the figure right in the middle of the flag of India. The circular figure is based on ancient depictions of the wheel of dharma.
A parasol may seem like an unlikely candidate for Buddhist symbolism. As such, many of us recognize this small umbrella as part of Japanese culture. Yet, the origin of the parasol symbolism actually comes from India – the birthplace of Buddha himself. The parasol eventually evolved to represent Ashtamangala or the Eight Auspicious Signs from the doctrines of the Tibetan monks. Known as the Chhatra, this is considered as a precious parasol umbrella associated with equality and universality among men. It is also often included in the thangkas depicting Traditional Tibetan medicine.
Originally, the parasol was utilized to symbolize its protective qualities. It is supposed to shield the bearer from the heat of the sun. With the passing of time, the meaning eventually came to signify general protection against defilements or any element that may cause spiritual retardation.
Lotus Flower (padma)
Another example of Buddhist art symbols is the innocuous but ubiquitous lotus flower. The lotus flower has come to mean a lot of things, but according to the earliest Buddhist teachings, this piece of white flora represents the practice of attaining the full potential of the mind through meditation. In other sects, the lotus flower simply means peace. With others, it has come to mean forgiveness and compassion. And yet, with other sects still, the lotus flower means pureness of intention, or charity without the need for payment.
Often, this flora is associated with the bodhisattva Chenrezig, who in turn is a representation of the compassionate side of Buddha.
White Conch Shell (shankha)
The white conch shell too is highly symbolic in nature. Normally, people associate the conch shell with the bounty of the oceans and seas. In Tibetan Buddhist religion, however, it has come to represent the flowing of good energy or “chi.” It is said that when good energy flows freely it, it is often followed by good karma.
Tibetan monks have fashioned the white conch shell as a sacred wind instrument that is supposed to call for peace and good karma. This is only played in very sacred but select ceremonies.
Twin Golden Fishes (matsya)
The twin golden fishes have come to mean abundance, fertility and happiness in Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Unlike the yin and yang, where opposing forces are said to “balance” each other out, the twin golden fishes stand side by side as equals. The usual representation of this is two fish standing face to face, vertically out of the water. Both are of equal size and both are facing inwards.
According to historical accounts, many people noticed that golden fishes usually swam in pairs. Eventually, the symbolism of the twin golden fishes suddenly turned to fidelity between conjugal partners.
Here are an interesting bit of trivia about the twin golden fishes. When it was fully established among the populace that twin golden fishes are the symbol for fidelity, people in China and Tibet begun giving newly weds a pair of golden fishes. This was their way of bidding the new couple a long and successful relationship.
Endless Or Eternal Knot (shrivatsa)
Also among the various Buddhist symbols and images, there is the endless or eternal knot: a 2 dimensional drawing of a knot, first seen in the documents of Tibetan Buddhism. The endless knot symbolizes many things. One meaning states that the endless knot stands for the “interweaving of the Spiritual Path,” where man’s destiny is dictated by the movement of time and the eventual changes that is bound to happen. Others say that the endless knot is the intertwining of compassion with wisdom. In Tantric Yoga, it has come to mean the link between the physical and the metaphysical world.
The endless knot may also be called as the mystic knot, which represents the seemingly endless wisdom displayed by Buddha himself during his teaching ministry. This symbol too has also become a fixture in Chinese and Tibetan Art as well.
The Victory Banner (dhvaja)
In Buddhism tradition, the victory banner has evolved greatly. Initially, it was supposed to represent Buddha’s triumph over Mara: an evil or demonic entity who was trying to stop him from achieving enlightenment. Eventually, Mara became less of a demon and became worldly influences designed to tempt adherents from the straight and narrow path.
A few more years later, the Tibetan culture formally adopts the victory banner, making it a representation of man’s triumph over eleven forms of spiritual defilements.
Victory banners can still be seen in many Tibetan monasteries today.
Treasure Vase (bumpa)
This symbol could be called as the treasure vase, or treasure urn. Its image is taken from the Sanskrit representation of the “bumpa,” which is it is a long life vase. In Tibetan Buddhist teachings, the treasure vase is supposed to be a representation of all things to be aspired for: long life, prosperity and wealth.
As with many of the established icons of the age, some symbols have been corrupted by time. Others were given such a turn-around treatment that the foremost or initial meaning of the symbols have been truly lost, and replaced by something totally unexpected or unwarranted.
Let us take the swastika as an example. In the earliest representations of Buddhist art, the swastika was used as a sign for good luck. Early translation of Buddhist symbols states that the swastika (or manji, as it was called back then) represents the balance of two opposites, which in turn connotes harmony. It almost has the same representation as the Chinese’s predominant icon called yin-yang. Swastikas or manjis are Buddhist art symbols that are in fact, liberally used in a lot of the earliest (preserved) writings of Tibetan Buddhism.
It was only in the 1920s, when the Nazi movement formally adopted the symbol to denote the rise of the German empire under Adolf Hitler, was the meaning of the swastika permanently altered. Even up to this day, very few people actually recognize this symbol’s Buddhist based origins.
Another corrupted symbol is the trisula. The trisula looks exactly like a three-pronged pitchfork, which we all know has come to symbolize the pitchfork of the devil. Before the onset of Christianity, the Hindu trisula and Poseidon’s trident were symbols for bounty and prosperity.
1. Buddhist Mudra - Gestures and Postures
2. Tibetan Prayer flags