There are many Buddhist symbols, with different traditions using unique ones. Stemming from the Buddha’s teachings, the cultures through which Buddhism has passed, and spiritual traditions of the Buddha’s time, the symbols in Buddhism can be quite interesting to learn about! Here are some of our favorite symbols from Buddhism, along with a brief introduction to the history of symbolism in the tradition.
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History of Symbolism in Buddhism
The earliest artifacts we have that show Buddhist symbolism come from a the centuries immediately following the Buddha’s death. It is believed that it was during the reign of Emperor Ashoka, a powerful emperor largely responsible for the spread of Buddhism, that people began representing the Buddha’s teachings through symbolism and art. The earliest symbols were the stupa and the wheel of dharma.
The Buddha did not encourage worship or veneration from his followers, and images of the Buddha and his teachings are believed to be rare during his time. However, the Buddha did use many images in his teachings as he did when talking about turning the wheel of dharma. Although the Buddha was well-respected among both monastics and laypeople who followed the dharma, he was not revered as a god or deity. The symbols that did arise after his death were largely images representing his teachings.
As Buddhism began to spread and split into different traditions, symbols became more common. There are symbols and art from when the Greeks came into contact with Buddhism, when Buddhism traveled to China and Japan, and from it’s evolution into different schools. Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana are known for strong use of symbols.
The Eight Auspicious Symbols
The Eight Auspicious Symbols come from Mahāyāna traditions, especially in Tibet. The origin is not known exactly, but it is believed to come from Indian traditions pre-dating the Buddha’s life. Some scholars believe it comes from a belief that these are the eight items the brahmin offered to the Buddha after his death. There are various teachings and interpretations, but here are the general beliefs surrounding these eight items.
The Lotus Flower
You’ve likely seen this symbol quite a bit. The lotus flower is a symbol representing the ability we have to live with wisdom and purity above the mucky waters below. Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful saying, “No mud, no lotus.” This reminds us that the lotus grows up out of the muck and into something beautiful. Because of this, the lotus is often used as a symbol of transforming our suffering into liberation.
The Dharma Wheel
The dharma wheel, or dharmachakra, is a common symbol used to represent the Buddha’s teachings. The wheel of dharma often has eight spokes to represent the Noble Eightfold Path. There are many different variations representing different teachings, but the wheel generally represents the dharma, or Buddha’s teachings.
The umbrella or parasol is a symbol of protection in many cultures, and Buddhist tradition is the same. In Buddhism, the symbol of the umbrella is one of protection from harm and evil. It represents the safety and refuge offered by the Buddha, his teachings, and the community.
The two fish, often mislabeled as koi, are generally arowana or another type of carp. They represent our ability to swim free in the ocean of suffering and delusion. Much as fish swim around freely in the vast ocean, this symbol reminds us that we can be free in this world.
The Conch Shell
The conch shell is believed to symbolize the beautiful sound of the dharma being shared. The conch is always portrayed with a spiral to the right, which is considered extremely rare in nature. This represents the rare gift of the Buddha’s teachings to us.
The Victory Banner
The victory banner is exactly what it sounds like. It represents the victory of the Buddhist teachings over ignorance, hatred, anger, delusion, and craving. Many monasteries and retreat centers are decorated with some form of victory banner, and secular buildings in Tibet may contain a victory banner.
The vase, or treasure vase, is a reminder of the potential of the Buddha’s teachings. When we learn to meditate, there is an incredible potential for awakening. From mindfulness and concentration to compassion and loving-kindness, there are many gifts and treasures of practicing the dharma.
The Endless Knot
There are a few different perspectives on the endless knot, or eternal knot. One is that it represents how everything is interrelated in this world. Another is that it represents the never-ending path of the dharma. There is always growth to be achieved, more wisdom to be cultivated, and truth to see.
Other Buddhist Symbols
There are many other commonly-used Buddhist symbols found in different cultures. The symbols and artwork varies greatly between countries and cultures, as can be seen in the difference between Sri Lankan symbolism and Chinese art. Here are a few standard symbols often used in Buddhism and Buddhist cultures.
The Bodhi Tree or Leaf
The Buddha achieved awakening under a type of ficus known as the bodhi tree. The leaf is a symbol of this potential for us all to awaken. The Buddha taught that we all have the seed of awakening, or Buddha-hood, within us. The bodhi leaf is this reminder.
The Buddha’s Footprint
The footprints of the Buddha are a reminder of two things. First, the Buddha was a human being, walking on this planet. This offers us the possibility that we too can awaken. Second, it is a reminder that there is a path to be followed offered by the Buddha.
This is an intensely charged symbol as it was adapted and reversed to represent an extremely hateful and violent movement. In India, the word itself means “good fortune.” Many scholars believe it to represent the sun and cycle of life, while others believe it to be a representation of the Buddha’s path. Many suttas, or sacred texts, were written with this symbol at the beginning.
The eyes of wisdom or Buddha eyes are used to represent the potential to awaken and see clearly. This is the purpose of meditation practice, and an intention of the dharma. This symbol is a representation of an awakened one’s ability to see experience clearly and know deeply.
The Three Jewels
The three jewels are a representation of the three things we take refuge in: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. These are integral pieces of the Buddhist path, and am important part of Buddhism from the beginning.
The unalome is a symbol for the journey to enlightenment. I personally love this symbol, as it reminds us that the path isn’t always straight, perfect, or even in the “right” direction. Our paths to awakening are filled with missteps, lessons to learn, and suffering.
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