Symbols in Buddhism represents the various teachings of Buddha. During the time of Buddha, he turned away from using his own image. As a result, he used certain symbols to shed light on his teachings. The Buddha made use of symbols when he taught on the turning wheel of dharma. However, it was rare to see these symbols in the time of Buddha.
The rise in the use of symbols in Buddhism came after the death of the Buddha. However, the images and statues of Buddha were not used as a symbol. This is because the followers of the Buddha did not revere him as a god or a deity. But, they respected him greatly among the other monks and the lay community that lived according to the dharma. As a result of this, the early symbols only represented the teachings of the Buddha.
Learn more history about Buddhism: The History Of Buddhism And Its Modern Belief System
Today, there are various symbols that Buddhists make use of. Most of these symbols originated as Buddhism was adopted and practiced by different traditions and cultures. In addition, some of these symbols are particular to Buddhists in a region such as Japan and China. It later evolved into the various schools of Buddhism. Certainly, the Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism are notable for their extensive use of symbols.
In this article, we are going to discuss the different symbols of Buddhism in two subheadings:
- The Eight Auspicious Buddhist Symbols
- Other Symbols In Buddhism
When you hear about symbols in Buddhism, it is likely that what follows next is the Eight Auspicious Buddhist Symbol. However, these are not the only symbols in use in the practice of Buddhism. Therefore, we are going to see these Eight symbols and other important Buddhist symbols.
The Eight Auspicious Buddhist Symbols
There are many beliefs that surround the origin of the Eight Auspicious Symbols. Some people believe it to be the gift of eight items that the Brahman offered to the Buddha following his death. On the other hand, some believe it originated from the Indian Traditions and it existed before the Buddha began his journey. Also, others say it is from the Mahayana traditions. As a result of this, the interpretations of these symbols vary with beliefs. However, there are general beliefs and interpretations of these symbols which we are going to discuss here.
The Eight Auspicious Symbols includes:
The Turning Wheel Of Dharma (dharmachakra)
This wheel consists of eight spokes. And, these spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path. Also, as the name implies, the wheel represents generally the dharma which is the teachings of the Buddha. In addition, this symbol suggests that one would continue in lack of ultimate happiness and continuous rebirth until he accepts the dharma. That is to say, accepting the teachings of Buddha will help one stop this wheel.
The Lotus Flower
This symbol of the lotus flower is practically suggestive. That is to say, as the lotus grows above the muck in waters, we also should live above the troubles of life in wisdom and purity. Moreover, we can see this as a symbol for converting negativity to positive energy. As we know that it is out of the mud that the lotus grows. Significantly, if the lotus can grow from the mud to blossom into a beautiful flower with a sweet smell, then we can go from human suffering to purity, beauty, and happiness. Certainly, the lotus symbol is common in Buddhism.
The Umbrella (Parasol)
In the practice of Buddhism, the symbol of the umbrella signifies that you can take refuge in the Buddhist community. Also, it shows the protection from evil and dangers. On the same note, this symbol of the umbrella is generally recognized in many other traditions as a symbol of protection. And, Buddhism, as we see, is the same. Just as an umbrella gives us shade from the sun and rain, the parasol suggests that you would get the same protection when you practice the dharma.
The Two Fish
This is a symbol consisting of two goldfishes. And, it means that one can truly live in freedom with courage and fearlessness in this life that is filled with suffering and delusion. The ocean is so big and harbors many dangerous creatures, but, the fishes still swim freely in the ocean. As a result, this symbol suggests a free life for everyone in the world. In addition, this symbol also represents good fortune and luck.
The Victory Banner
This banner of victory is a symbol that represents the triumph of the Buddha over lust, pride, and cravings. These are linked to the demon Mara that the Buddha had victory over before he attained enlightenment. As a result, the victory banner is always there to remind the Buddhists that they have a fight against lust, pride, hatred, delusion, and craving which they have to triumph. On the other hand, many Buddhist temples contain the Victory Banner as a form of decoration. This is a way of constantly reminding the followers of dharma the victory ahead as they pursue enlightenment.
The Conch Shell
Buddhists presents a symbol of the Conch Shell which has a spiral to the right. This symbol represents the sweet and joyful sound that the teachings of the Buddha posses. Also, it suggests a call for awakening to the followers of the dharma when the teaching is being conveyed to them. And, the symbol tells us to wake from ignorance and pursue awakening. This came from the fact that in the past this large shell was used as a war horn to keep the soldiers woke.
In Buddhism, the symbol of the vase reminds us of what we stand to gain when we attain awakening through the practice of the dharma. That is to say, as a vase can contain many treasures, the teachings of the Buddha has so many benefits to offer those who practice it. For example, when you practice the dharma wholly, you will gain enlightenment and all the good things that come with it.
The Eternal Knot (Endless Knot)
This symbol consists of lines interconnected to each other. And, these intertwined lines means that everything in life connects to each other in one way or another. For instance, the activities of the secular world have a way of relating to religious activities. And, so is every other thing in the world.
Note: These are the Eight Auspicious symbols in Buddhism. They are likely to be the symbols you will find exhibited in the next Buddhist temple you will visit. In addition, these symbols are basic Buddhist symbols which generally represent the beginning, the process, and the achievement of true spiritual life in Buddhism. As a result, they are common among the various schools of Buddhism.
Other Symbols In Buddhism
Apart from the Eight Auspicious Buddhist symbols, there are also many other widely used symbols in the Buddhist community. These other symbols in Buddhism can show the difference between the practice of Buddhism in various cultures. Similarly, these symbols show the evolution of Buddhism in various cultures and countries. However, they are widely accepted and used as symbols to recognize the practice of Buddhism. Now, let us discuss some of these symbols and their meanings.
The Footprint Of The Buddha
This symbol can appear as an imprint of one foot or both foot. In any way, they are still the same. On the other hand, the footprint symbol can appear in two forms, the natural and artificial footprints. However, the natural footprint is those as seen in stones and rocks. And, they are not actually the real footprints of the Buddha, but, you can say they are Buddhist relics (Cetiya). The symbol of the footprint of Buddha shows us that the Buddha was a human that walked the earth like us. Therefore, we can also achieve awakening just like he did. On the other hand, it also reminds us of the paths the Buddha laid down for us to follow in order to attain enlightenment.
The Bodhi Tree
In Buddhism, the bodhi tree is a sacred fig tree under which the Buddha is believed to attain awakening. Sometimes the leaf of the bodhi tree represents the symbol. Moreover, the symbol of the bodhi tree portrays the teachings of the Buddha, that everyone has the ability to achieve enlightenment. In addition, this symbol serves as a reminder for us that we could all awaken.
Many Sutta and sacred texts contained the symbol of the swastika in the beginning. There are several interpretations of this symbol as adopted in many cultures. As a result, some the symbol represents the path of the Buddha. And, to others, it represents the life cycle and the sun. However, in India, the word swastika means good fortune. On the other hand, with the expansion of Buddhism to different countries, the Chinese culture adopted it as iconography to show abundance, long life, and prosperity. Also, you can see this symbol on clothes as decoration, especially in Tibetan Buddhism.
The Three Jewels
The symbol of the three jewels represents the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. And, these are the three things that you take refuge in before you are officially recognized as a Buddhist. This is a popular and commonly used symbol in the practice of Buddhism. Most importantly, this symbol shows the inherent part of the Buddhist teachings. It equally plays a major role in the consciousness of beginners who decided to practice Buddhism.
The Eyes of The Buddha (Wisdom Eyes)
When you visit the stupa which is any of the shrines of the Buddha, you are likely to see the symbol of the wisdom eyes of the Buddha portrayed in the four sides of the shrine. Generally, this symbol represents the capacity to see things clearly as they really are when one has attained awakening. In addition, this symbol has a dot between the eyes which represents the potential of a third eye. And, signifies spiritual awakening. On the other hand, the line which curls right below the middle of the eyes is the Sanskrit number one. It signifies that the way to awakening is one, which is through the teachings of the Buddha. Certainly, the symbol of the Buddha’s eyes reminds us of the importance of attaining awakening, which is the goal of the whole practice.
An Empty Throne
This symbol in Buddhism represents the once royalty nature of Siddhartha Gautama who later awakened to become the Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama left his throne to seek a solution to human suffering and pursued the path to enlightenment. As a result, this symbol is a strong reminder to all Buddhist of the great sacrifice of the Buddha to lead the path of happiness.
This symbol shows a line curled in many forward and backward directions. Certainly, this symbol represents the journey to awakening. It signifies that the path we must undertake to enlightenment is full of mistakes and sufferings we must learn from. That is to say, the path that leads to awakening is never straight or always in the right direction. Therefore, we must accept our failures and keep moving ahead. Even while we keep repeating a mistake, we must focus on not giving up. The Unalome is there to keep reminding us of what to expect from the journey to enlightenment.
The Buddhism community use this symbol to liken the teachings of the Buddha to the roaring of a lion. That is to say, the lion symbol shows the power in the sound of the teachings of the Buddha. In addition, Buddhists also see the symbol of the lion as a reminder of the Buddha’s royalty. It represents the princely state of the Buddha before he started his journey to awakening.
The Begging Bowl
A Buddhist monk chooses a simple life of eating whatever he was given. As a result, the symbol of the begging bowl reminds us daily of the monks and the lifestyle they have chosen. This symbol is simple but very important in the day to day living of all Buddhists. Most importantly, it shows the life the Buddha himself chose to show humility.
The Vajra is a symbol in the shape of a club with spherical ribbed ends. This symbol represents the steadfastness of the spirit and the power of the spiritual. Most importantly, the Vajra is the symbolism of one of the three main schools of Buddhism which is the Vajrayana. In addition, the symbol portrays the characters of a diamond and thunderbolt. That is to say, it shows the indestructibility, purity, and the irresistible energy that comes with the practice of Buddhism. Also, the Tibetan Buddhists call this symbol the Dorje. The lamas who practice sadhana use it as a ritual tool.
Bear In Mind
We have listed and described the meanings of the popular symbols in Buddhism. However, these representations could differ in Buddhist cultures and schools. In addition, you can see most of these symbols on many Buddhist jewels. As a result, you can use them as accessories and decorations.
There are other symbols in use in the Buddhist tradition. Listed above are the popular and common symbols which are generally adopted by Buddhists.