Buddhist symbolism is the method of Buddhist art to represent certain aspects of dharma, which began in the fourth century BCE. Anthropomorphic symbolism appeared from around the first century CE with the arts of Mathura the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara, and were combined with the previous symbols. Various symbolic innovations were later introduced, especially through [Tibetan Buddhism]
It is not known what the role of the image was in Early Buddhism, although many surviving images can be found, because their symbolic or representative nature was not clearly explained in early texts. Among the earliest and most common symbols of Buddhism are the stupa (and the relics therein), the Dharmachakra or Dharma wheel, the Bodhi Tree (and the distinctively shaped leaves of this tree) and the lotus flower. The dharma wheel, traditionally represented with eight spokes, can have a variety of meanings. It initially only meant royalty (Chakravartin, "Turner of the Wheel"), but it began to be used in a Buddhist context on the Pillars of Ashoka during the 3rd century BC. The Dharma wheel is generally seen as referring to the historical process of teaching Buddhism, the eight spokes referring to the Noble Eightfold Path. The lotus, as well, can have several meanings, often referring to the quality of compassion and subsequently to the related notion of the inherently pure potential of the mind. The Bodhi Tree represents the spot where the Buddha reached nirvana and thus represents liberation.
Other early symbols include the monks begging bowl and the trishula, a symbol used since around the second century BCE, and combining the lotus, the vajra (diamond) and a symbolization of the triratna or "three jewels": Buddha, dharma, and sangha. The lion, riderless horse and also deer were also used in early Buddhist iconography. The Buddha's teachings are referred to as the "Lion's Roar" in the sutras, indicative of their power and nobility. The riderless horse represents renunciation and the deer represent Buddhist disciples, as the Buddha gave his first sermon at the deer park of Varanasi.
The swastika was traditionally used in India by Buddhists and Hindus to represent good fortune. In East Asia, the swastika is often used as a general symbol of Buddhism. Swastikas used in this context can either be left or right-facing.
Early Buddhism did not portray the Buddha himself instead using an empty throne and the Bodhi Tree to represent the Buddha and thus may have leaned towards aniconism. The first hint of a human representation in Buddhist symbolism appear with the Buddha footprint and full representations were influenced by Greco-Buddhist art.
Although the Buddha was not represented in human form until around the first century, the physical characteristics of the Buddha are described in one of the central texts of the traditional Pāli Canon, the Dīgha Nikāya, in the discourse titled "Sutra of the Marks" (Pali: Lakkhaṇa Sutta, D.iii.142ff.).
These characteristics comprise 32 signs, "The 32 signs of a Great Man" (Pali: Lakkhaṇa Mahāpurisa 32), and were supplemented by another eighty secondary characteristics (Pali: anubyañjana).
In the Mahayana schools, Buddhist figures and sacred objects leaned towards esoteric and symbolic meaning. Mudras are a series of symbolic hand gestures describing the actions of the characters represented in only the most interesting Buddhist art. Many images also function as mandalas.
Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist art frequently makes use of a particular set of "eight auspicious symbols" (Sanskrit aṣṭamaṅgala, Chinese: 八吉祥; pinyin: Bā jíxiáng), in domestic and public art. These symbols have spread with Buddhism to the art of many cultures, including Indian, Tibetan, Nepalese, and Chinese art.
These symbols are:
In East Asian Buddhism, the swastika is a widely used symbol of eternity. It is used to mark Buddhist temples on maps and in the beginning of Buddhist texts. It is known in Classical Tibetan as yungdrung (Wylie: g.Yung drung) in ancient Tibet, it was a graphical representation of eternity.
A central Vajrayana symbol is the vajra, a sacred indestructible weapon of the god Indra, associated with lightning and the hardness of diamonds. It symbolizes emptiness (śūnyatā) and therefore indestructible nature of reality.
Other Vajrayana symbols include the ghanta (ritual bell), the bhavacakra, mandalas, the number 108 and the Buddha eyes commonly seen on Nepalese stupas such as at Boudhanath. There are various mythical creatures used in Vajrayana as well: Snow Lion, Wind Horse, dragon, garuda and tiger.
Tibetan Buddhist architecture is centered on the stupa, called in Tibetan Wylie: mchod rten, THL: chörten. The chörten consists of five parts that represent the Mahābhūta (five elements). The base is square which represents the earth element, above that sits a dome representing water, on that is a cone representing fire, on the tip of the cone is a crescent representing air, inside the crescent is a flame representing ether. The tapering of the flame to a point can also be said to represent consciousness as a sixth element. The chörten presents these elements of the body in the order of the process of dissolution at death.
Tibetan temples are often three-storied. The three can represent many aspects such as the Trikaya (three aspects) of a buddha. The ground story may have a statue of the historical buddha Gautama and depictions of Earth and so represent the nirmāṇakāya. The first story may have Buddha and elaborate ornamentation representing rising above the human condition and the sambhogakāya. The second story may have a primordial Adi-Buddha in Yab-Yum (sexual union with his female counterpart) and be otherwise unadorned representing a return to the absolute reality and the dharmakāya "truth body".
|White||Purity, primordial being||Vairocana||East (or, in alternate system, North)||Water||Ignorance → Awareness of reality||Om|
|Green||Peace, protection from harm||Amoghasiddhi||North (or n/a)||-||Jealousy → Accomplishing pristine awareness||Ma|
|Yellow||Wealth, beauty||Ratnasaṃbhava||South (or West)||Earth||Pride → Awareness of sameness||Ni|
|Blue (light and dark)||Knowledge, dark blue also awakening/enlightenment||Akṣobhya||Centre (or n/a)||Air||Anger → "Mirror-like" awareness||Pad|
|Red||Love, compassion||Amitābha||West (or South)||Fire||Attachment → Discernment/ discrimination||Me|
|Black||Death, death of ignorance, awakening/enlightenment||-||n/a (or East)||Air||Hum|
The five colours (Sanskrit pañcavarṇa - white, green, yellow, blue, red) are supplemented by several other colours including black and orange and gold (which is commonly associated with yellow). They are commonly used for prayer flags as well as for visualising deities and spiritual energy, construction of mandalas and the painting of religions icons.
Tibetan Buddhist deities may often assume different roles and be drawn, sculpted and visualised differently according to these roles, for example, Green Tara and White Tara which are but two of many different aspects of Tara.
Aside from these vivid colours, figures may also be coloured more naturalistically such as skin in shades of pink or brown. Gold colored leaf and gold paint are also common. These colours help distinguish many deities that are less easily distinguished in other branches of Buddhism. For instance while Shakyamuni Buddha may be seen in (pale) yellow or orange and Amitabha Buddha is typically red in Vajrayana thangkas, in Chinese Buddhism it is often only the hand pose that distinguishes the two who are otherwise drawn with the same attributes.
Depictions of "wrathful deities" are often depicted very fearsomely, crushing their foes, with monstrous visages and wearing memento mori in the form of skulls or bodily parts. Such deities are depicted in this way as sometimes great wrath is required to overcome great ignorance and adharma.
As is common in Buddhism, the lotus is used in Vajrayana. A lotus may appear fully blossomed, starting to open or still a bud to represent the teachings that have gone, are current or are yet to come.
Avalokiteśvara is often depicted with one thousand (or, at least, many) arms to represent the many methods he uses to help all sentient beings and often has eleven heads to symbolise his compassion is directed to all sentient beings.
Vajrayana Buddhism often specifies the number of feet of a buddha or bodhisattva. While two is common there may also be ten, sixteen, or twenty-four feet. The position of the feet/legs may also have a specific meaning such as in Green Tara who is typically depicted as seated partly cross-legged but with one leg down symbolising "immersion within in the absolute, in meditation" and readiness to step forth and help sentient beings by "engagement without in the world through compassion".
Buddhism has other symbolism that are physical and needed for ritual such as their robes. The robes for example in the sect of Theravada are noticeably different than the robes of the other sects of Buddhism. Since Theravada is the orthodox or the oldest of the three sects, they have a different traditional layout of their Theravada robes. They carry their robes over their shoulders, most often showing their arm and the color their sect represents. Theravada, for example is Saffron, while other sects of Buddhism (and in different countries) will have it as a different color as well as different styles or ways on how they wear it. Once Buddhism spread throughout China back in sixth century BCE, it was seen wrong to show that much skin, and that's when robes to cover both arms with long sleeves came in to play. Other parts of China such as Tibet, have changed over time and they show both their shoulders as well as having a two piece attire rather than one. Shortly thereafter, Japan integrated a bib along with their long sleeve robe called a koromo. This was a clothing piece made specifically for their school of Zen which they practice in Takahatsu that involves the monks of Japan wearing a straw hat.
In all sects of Buddhism, there is a ringing of a bell where a Buddhist monk rings the large bronze bell signifying the start of the evening rituals. There are different names of each and every bell but some examples include The Tzar Bell and The Bell of Good Luck. They use the bell to detain away the bad spirits and have the Buddha protect them at the time of their ritual. Some sects call this a part of the "Mystic Law" which is the beginning of a Buddhist ritual.
Shaving ones head is another act of ritual for which you need to complete before being a part of Monastic Buddhism to ultimately reach nirvana. To shave ones head merely signifies ones readiness into this sect of Buddhism. Another mention of the symbolism of one shaving their hair is simply that it is one of the rules the Buddha gave to his disciples to be kept away from ordinary life and be fully involved.
Another form of symbolism of the Buddhist is the joining of your hands together at prayer or at the time of the ritual. Buddhist compare their fingers with the petals of the lotus flower. Bowing down is another form of symbolic position in the act of the ritual, when Buddhist bow in front of the Buddha or to another person they aren't bowing at the physical (the human or the statue) but they are bowing at the Buddha inside of them (the human) or it (the statue).
At its founding in 1952, the World Fellowship of Buddhists adopted two symbols. These were a traditional eight-spoked Dharma wheel and the five-colored flag which had been designed in Sri Lanka in the 1880s with the assistance of Henry Steel Olcott.
The Bayon (Khmer: ប្រាសាទបាយ័ន, Prasat Bayon) is a richly decorated Khmer temple at Angkor in Cambodia. Built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII (Khmer: ព្រះបាទជ័យវរ្ម័នទី ៧), the Bayon stands at the centre of Jayavarman's capital, Angkor Thom (Khmer: អង្គរធំ). Following Jayavarman's death, it was modified and augmented by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences.
The Bayon's most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and smiling stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. The temple has two sets of bas-reliefs, which present a combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes. The main conservatory body, the Japanese Government Team for the Safeguarding of Angkor (the JSA) has described the temple as "the most striking expression of the baroque style" of Khmer architecture, as contrasted with the classical style of Angkor Wat (Khmer: ប្រាសាទអង្គរវត្ត).Bhavacakra
The bhāvacakra (Sanskrit; Pāli: bhāvacakka; Tibetan: srid pa'i 'khor lo) is a symbolic representation of saṃsāra (or cyclic existence). It is found on the outside walls of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries in the Indo-Tibetan region, to help ordinary people understand Buddhist teachings.Cetiya
Cetiya, "reminders" or "memorials" (Sanskrit caitya), are objects and places used by Theravada Buddhists to remember Gautama Buddha. According to Damrong Rajanubhab, four kinds are distinguished in the Pāli Canon: "Relic [Dhatu], Memorial [Paribhoga], Teaching [Dhamma], and votive [Udesaka]." Griswold, in contrast, states that three are traditional and the fourth, the dhamma, was added later to remind monks that the true memory of Gautama Buddha can be found in his teachings. While these can be broadly called Buddhist symbolism, the emphasis tends to be on a historical connection to the Buddha and not a metaphysical one.Emblem of Bhutan
The emblem of Bhutan (Dzongkha: རྒྱལ་ཡོངས་ལས་རྟགས་;Wylie: rgyal-yongs las-rtags) maintains several elements of the flag of Bhutan, with slightly different artistry, and contains much Buddhist symbolism.
The emblem was designed by a Mongolian artist, commissioned by Ashi Tashi Dorji, the sister of the Queen Grandmother. The Dorji (Sanskrit: Vajra) was a weapon used by Guru Rinpoche to quell evil spirits.The official description of the emblem is as follows:
"The national emblem, contained in a circle, is composed of a double diamond-thunderbolt (dorje) placed above a lotus, surmounted by a jewel and framed by two dragons. The thunderbolt represents the harmony between secular and religious power. The lotus symbolizes purity; the jewel expresses sovereign power; and the two dragons, male and female, stand for the name of the country which they proclaim with their great voice, the thunder." It is also known for its symbolic colors of the emblem with the gold, teal, red etc...Indo-Greek religions
The Indo-Greeks practiced numerous religions during the time they ruled in present-day northwestern India from the 2nd century BCE to the beginning of the 1st century CE. In addition to the worship of the Classical pantheon of the Greek deities found on their coins (e.g., Zeus, Herakles, Athena, Apollo), the Indo-Greeks were involved with local faiths, particularly with Buddhism, but also with Hinduism and Zoroastrianism.Martin Stuart-Fox
Martin Stuart-Fox (born 1939) is a retired Australian professor and journalist who writes about the history of Southeast Asia, primarily Laos. In 1963 he was a contributor for the United Press International in Laos. In 1965 he moved to Vietnam and covered the war before leaving for France in 1966. After the war he gained more education and is now emeritus professor at the University of Queensland. He researches the religious symbolism and politics of Laos. On the subject of Laos he has written six books, fifty articles, and the Freedom House section on Laos for 2011.Maues
Maues (Greek: Μαύης; epigraphically ΜΑΥΟΥ Mauou; r. 85–60 BCE) was the first recorded Indo-Scythian king. He invaded India and established Saka hegemony by conquering Indo-Greek territories.Melong
Melong is a Tibetan term that means "mirror", "looking glass". The melong is a polyvalent symbol, divine attribute, and quality of the enlightened mindstream or bodhicitta.Menander I
Menander I Soter (Ancient Greek: Μένανδρος Αʹ ὁ Σωτήρ, Ménandros Aʹ ho Sōtḗr, "Menander I the Saviour"; known in Indian Pali sources as Milinda) was an Indo-Greek King of the Indo-Greek Kingdom (165/155 –130 BC) who administered a large empire in the Northwestern regions of the Indian Subcontinent from his capital at Sagala. Menander is noted for having become a patron of Buddhism.
Menander was initially a king of Bactria. After conquering the Punjab he established an empire in the Indian Subcontinent stretching from the Kabul River valley in the west to the Ravi River in the east, and from the Swat River valley in the north to Arachosia (the Helmand Province). Ancient Indian writers indicate that he launched expeditions southward into Rajasthan and as far east down the Ganges River Valley as Pataliputra (Patna), and the Greek geographer Strabo wrote that he "conquered more tribes than Alexander the Great."
Large numbers of Menander’s coins have been unearthed, attesting to both the flourishing commerce and duration of his realm. Menander was also a patron of Buddhism, and his conversations with the Buddhist sage Nagasena are recorded in the important Buddhist work, the Milinda Panha ("The Questions of King Milinda"; panha meaning "question" in Pali). After his death in 130 BC, he was succeeded by his wife Agathokleia who ruled as regent for his son Strato I. Buddhist tradition relates that he handed over his kingdom to his son and retired from the world, but Plutarch relates that he died in camp while on a military campaign, and that his remains were divided equally between the cities to be enshrined in monuments, probably stupas, across his realm.Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path (Pali: ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga; Sanskrit: āryāṣṭāṅgamārga) is an early summary of the path of Buddhist practices leading to liberation from samsara, the painful cycle of rebirth.The Eightfold Path consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi ('meditative absorption or union'). In early Buddhism, these practices started with understanding that the body-mind works in a corrupted way (right view), followed by entering the Buddhist path of self-observance, self-restraint, and cultivating kindness and compassion; and culminating in dhyana or samadhi, which re-inforces these practices for the development of the body-mind. In later Buddhism, insight (Prajñā) became the central soteriological instrument, leading to a different concept and structure of the path, in which the "goal" of the Buddhist path came to be specified as ending ignorance and rebirth.The Noble Eightfold Path is one of the principal teachings of Theravada Buddhism, taught to lead to Arhatship. In the Theravada tradition, this path is also summarized as sila (morality), samadhi (meditation) and prajna (insight). In Mahayana Buddhism, this path is contrasted with the Bodhisattva path, which is believed to go beyond Arahatship to full Buddhahood.In Buddhist symbolism, the Noble Eightfold Path is often represented by means of the dharma wheel (dharmachakra), in which its eight spokes represent the eight elements of the path.Padma (attribute)
Padma (Nelumbo nucifera, the sacred lotus) is an aquatic plant that plays a central role in Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. The lotus flower has many different names such as the "Indian Lotus", the "Sacred Lotus", and the "Bean of India".Pagoda
A pagoda is a tiered tower with multiple eaves, built in traditions originating as stupa in historic South Asia and further developed in East Asia with respect to those traditions, common to Nepal, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia. Some pagodas are used as Taoist houses of worship. Most pagodas were built to have a religious function, most commonly Buddhist, and were often located in or near viharas. In some countries, the term may refer to other religious structures. In Vietnam and Cambodia, due to French translation, the English term pagoda is a more generic term referring to a place of worship, although pagoda is not an accurate word to describe a Buddhist vihara. The modern pagoda is an evolution of the stupa which originated in ancient Nepal. Stupas are a tomb-like structure where sacred relics could be kept safe and venerated. The architectural structure of the stupa has spread across Asia, taking on many diverse forms as details specific to different regions are incorporated into the overall design. Many Philippine bell towers are highly influenced by pagodas through Chinese workers hired by the Spaniards.Phyllanthus emblica
Phyllanthus emblica, also known as emblic, emblic myrobalan, myrobalan, Indian gooseberry, Malacca tree, or amla from Sanskrit amalaki is a deciduous tree of the family Phyllanthaceae. It has edible fruit, referred to by the same name.Religious symbol
A religious symbol is an iconic representation intended to represent a specific religion, or a specific concept within a given religion.
Religious symbols have been used in the military in many different countries, such as the United States military chaplain symbols. Similarly, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs emblems for headstones and markers recognize 57 symbols (including a number of symbols expressing non-religiosity).Singhasari
Singhasari (Javanese: ꦏꦫꦠꦺꦴꦤ꧀ꦱꦶꦔ꧀ꦲꦱꦫꦶ, romanized: Karaton Singhasari or Karaton Singosari, Indonesian: Kerajaan Singhasari) was an Indianized Javanese Hindu–Buddhist kingdom located in east Java between 1222 and 1292. The kingdom succeeded the Kingdom of Kediri as the dominant kingdom in eastern Java. The kingdom's name cognate to Singosari district of Malang Regency, located several kilometres north of Malang city.Trấn Quốc Pagoda
Trấn Quốc Pagoda (Vietnamese: Chùa Trấn Quốc, chữ Hán: 鎭國寺), the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, is located on a small island near the southeastern shore of Hanoi's West Lake, Vietnam.Udumbara (Buddhism)
In Buddhism, uḍumbara (Pali, Sanskrit) refers to the tree, flower and fruit of the Ficus racemosa (syn. Ficus glomerata). In Buddhist literature, this tree or its fruit may carry the connotation of rarity and parasitism. It is also mentioned in Vedic texts as the source of wood for rituals and amulets.
The uḍumbara is also used to refer to the flower of the blue lotus (Nymphaea caerulea Sav.).Yurt
A traditional yurt (from the Turkic languages) or ger (Mongolian) is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by several distinct nomadic groups in the steppes of Central Asia. The structure comprises an angled assembly or latticework of pieces of wood or bamboo for walls, a door frame, ribs (poles, rafters), and a wheel (crown, compression ring) possibly steam-bent. The roof structure is often self-supporting, but large yurts may have interior posts supporting the crown. The top of the wall of self-supporting yurts is prevented from spreading by means of a tension band which opposes the force of the roof ribs. Modern yurts may be permanently built on a wooden platform; they may use modern materials such as steam-bent wooden framing or metal framing, canvas or tarpaulin, Plexiglas dome, wire rope, or radiant insulation.
Topics in Buddhism