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Religion Library: Buddhism


Written by: Julia Hardy

Other important early Buddhist symbols include: representations of the three jewels (the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha); deer, because the Buddha preached his first sermon in a deer park; and the swastika, a symbol unfortunately co-opted by Hitler. In Asia, where the swastika is a familiar sight with well-established meanings dating back thousands of years, it does not carry the negative connotations that it does in the west. The word "swastika" is Sanskrit; in India the symbol means, among other things, good fortune. As a Buddhist symbol, the swastika has a variety of meanings; most commonly it is a symbol of the dharma. It is sometimes found on statues of the Buddha, often on the soles of his feet or on his chest. It is also used in Asia simply to indicate the presence of a statue of the Buddha or a Buddhist temple.

As Buddhism moved into new lands, new symbols developed, becoming so numerous that only a few can be mentioned here. The distinctive vajra, or thunderbolt, is synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism and can be seen in many settings, including on sand mandalas and on ritual implements used in meditation. Throughout the Buddhist world, in Tibet and China particularly, one frequently sees a group of symbols known collectively as the "eight auspicious signs." These include a conch shell, a lotus, a wheel, a parasol, an endless knot, a pair of golden fishes, a victory banner, and a treasure vase. These may be seen in almost any conceivable venue, sacred or secular — carved into furniture or metalwork, woven into carpets and fabric, or painted onto walls or pottery. Sanskrit letters are also often used as symbols, especially in esoteric Buddhism.

The many statues and paintings of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other divinities are replete with symbolism. Each is portrayed in a distinctive posture, with hands displaying a different mudra, or hand position, which can signify anything from a particular form of sacred energy, to a particular aspect of the Buddha's teachings, a particular moment in his life, or a particular power possessed by a bodhisattva. Each of the numerous figures in the Buddhist pantheon are portrayed with characteristic implements, such as a begging bowl of healing liquid and a medicinal plant for the Medicine Buddha; or a flaming aura, sword, and rope for the Japanese deity Fudo Myoo. Particularly striking is the thousand-armed Guanyin, which carries a different symbolic object in each of its hands.

The mandala is another important Buddhist symbol. The mandala is an object of meditation and a representation of sacred realms that takes many forms, from the Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings and elaborate thangka paintings to the esoteric mandala paintings of Japan.

Monks' robes are also highly symbolic. While their design differs markedly from place to place and sect to sect, each design is believed to be sanctioned by the Buddha, and each has layers of symbolic meaning. The robe itself is considered sacred, regardless of the nature of the individual who wears it, and hellish punishments may be incurred by those who desecrate the robes or who act improperly while wearing them.

While each individual Buddhist group employs particular symbols that are especially meaningful to them, all the symbols are at least recognizable to Buddhists everywhere. Buddhist symbolism communicates the teachings of Buddhism in a highly complex, visually expressed language that unites the many different Buddhist groups around the world.

Study Questions:
1.     Why might Buddhists incorporate symbols into depictions of the Buddha's feet?
2.     What do the spokes on the dharma wheel symbolize?
3.     Why have stupas conformed to a characteristic shape?
4.     What Buddhist symbol might be seen as offensive to western culture? How is it understood to both the east and the west?
5.     Why does the Buddha, when depicted in various statues, display different mudras?