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Religion Library: Buddhism


Written by: Julia Hardy

Among the earliest Buddhist symbols are footprints of the Buddha carved or molded in stone or clay. Sometimes a pair, sometimes a single footprint, the prints have toes of equal length, and there is often a dharma wheel in the center. Other symbols may appear on the bottom of the footprints as well. Sometimes these footprints are a normal size; other times they are huge. In statues of the reclining Buddha, which represent the Buddha's dying moments, the soles of the feet are often covered with symbols.

Another very early Buddhist symbol is the dharmacakra, or dharma wheel. Composed of eight spokes attached to a center hub and united by an outer rim, the dharma wheel symbolizes the "turning of the wheel of the law" that occurred when the Buddha preached his first sermon. This turning of the wheel of the law occurs when a world-transforming doctrine is introduced. Different Buddhist sects have different notions about other times when the wheel of the law was turned, and even Buddhist rulers were sometimes known as cakravartin-raja, or wheel turners. The spokes of the dharmacakra also symbolize the Eightfold Path.

The early texts stated that the Buddha had thirty-two distinctive body characteristics that indicated that he was a a chakravartin, a great person. These include a round knot on top of his head, evenly spaced white teeth, a long thick tongue, golden skin, very blue eyes, black hair that grows in clockwise curls, and a penis in a sheath like that of a horse. Some of these characteristics can be seen in statues and paintings of the Buddha.

The Buddha was also symbolized as a lion, due to his former status as heir to a throne, and by a stylized pipal ficus, indicating his enlightenment under such a tree.

Stupas are another symbol of the Buddha. Some were believed to contain some tiny bit of the cremated remains of the Buddha. Some, which commemorated important moments in his life, became physical locations where one could still experience his presence. Later, stupas took on additional layers of symbolic meaning; with time they took on a characteristic shape, which has been interpreted in various ways. Some say that the shape represents the Buddha sitting in the posture of meditation. Another interpretation is that the base represents the sangha, the dome stands for the dharma, the cone on top represents the Buddha, and the spire above stands for nirvana.

One popular interpretation is that the shape of the stupa symbolizes the five elements: the base represents earth, the dome or sphere represents water, the spire stands for fire, above the spire is wind, and at the very top, the jewel represents space, or the void. These elements also represent, respectively, equanimity, indestructibility, compassion, accomplishment, and all-pervading awareness. Thus the stupa can be seen as a kind of a mandala that embodies the mind of enlightenment.