Meanings of the Eight Sacred Buddhist Symbols
Eight Buddhist Sacred Symbols: A Guide
Welcome to our little esoteric space. It’s here where we take a moment to appreciate notions like Buddhist sacred symbols and what they mean.
As you busy yourself in the lines that follow, remember one thing.
Buddhism is an umbrella term with many schools of thought. And the symbols of the religion have branched into different Buddhist traditions too.
In this article, we are going to be focusing on the symbols and meanings of Tibetan Buddhism.
What are the 8 symbols of Buddhism?
In Tibet, eight symbols come together to forge the ashtamangala. Simply put, they are the personifications of the teachings the Buddha bestowed upon our ancient world.
Some of these sacred symbols first made an appearance in the context of the coronation of Indian kings. These pre-Buddhist renditions of the ashtamangala consisted of:
- A throne
- A swastika
- A bowl
- A flask
With that said, here are the symbols and underlying meanings we know today.
When cultures adopt motifs they evolve and take on new meanings. A notable example is the parasol which was a symbol of royalty and protection in ancient India. Thirteen parasols were reserved for kingly status.
Octagonal and square parasols in yellow and red skils are always seen draped above the throne of a Dalia Lama.
Early Buddhism adopted the symbol and the number to define the Buddha the ‘universal monarch’.
Later on, the parasol became a symbol of protection. The shade under the dome protects from the blazing heat of suffering, obstacles, illness, and harmful energies.
Since an umbrella held above the head, the parasol represents honour and respect too.
The emblem is also considered to be a metaphor of the vastness of space and a universe unfolding.
This symbol stems from the Sanskrit term matsyayugma, meaning ‘coupled fish’. The carp fish - often koi carp - is revered for its grace, size, and beauty.
In ancient India, the symbol alluded to the holy Indian rivers of Ganges and Yamuna.
For the most part, the pair is embroidered in gold on Banarasi silk in Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
In Buddhism, the golden fish symbolise happiness, spontaneity, good fortune, and fertility. The pair is also a sign of liberation and salvation from the cycle of rebirth through fearlessness.
Fish swim the oceans without fright or worries. Like fish, people can achieve their goals without fear and panic confining them as well.
The vase is as a symbol of wealth deities like Jambhala, and Vasudhara. ‘The vase of inexhaustible treasures’ or ‘the vase of plenty’ symbolises unconstrained wealth.
In Tibetan Buddhism, a golded vase appears with three gems set in the lid. The three jewels are representative of the Threefold Refuge.
Therefore, to take refuge in the three gems is to have faith in the Buddha, his doctrine of dharma, and sangha, the monastic order.
A red silk scarf is tied around the vase with the figure of a wish-granting tree crowning the lid. The sealed vase is then moved to a sacred pilgrim site, a running river or spring. A place where it may spread abundance and appease the nature spirits is ideal.
The lotus grows in muddy waters only to blossom into one of nature's most impressive flowers. That is why it is a venerated symbol of enlightenment and mental purity.
In the Vedas, the lotus flower is also the seat of deities. They are portrayed as beings who are often perfect in their mind, body and spirit.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the symbol refers to the flaws of human beings. And it calls to our potential to gain enlightenment through renunciation or nekkhamma.
For example, Buddhist monks renounce worldly pleasures. They choose a life free from cravings, lust and desires to gain enlightenment.
Additionally, the lotus flower is linked to Padmasambhava, ‘The Lotus-born’.
He was a Buddhist mystic and the man who introduced Buddhism to Tibet. Referred to as the ‘Second Buddha’, Padmasambhava also founded the country’s first monastery in the eighth century.
In Tibetan art, the lotus is depicted with four to a thousand petals. And it is seen in yellow, white, red, blue, pink, and black - the "night-lotus."
The conch that turns clockwise is an ancient Indian symbol for valour and triumph. Akin to a battle horn, it was a tool the Vedic gods' used to declare victory.
The white conch is a personification of authority, power and sovereignty. The sound expels evil spirits, keeps harmful energies away, and averts natural disasters.
The early Buddhist monks who adopted it used it as a symbol of the superiority of the Buddha’s teachings.
As the conch evolved it became a symbol for awakening from ignorance and working for the well-being of others.
The looping knot is a staple in cultures across the globe.
In ancient Indian traditions, the knot stood as a symbol of Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi. She is the goddess of wealth and good fortune in Hinduism. Making the symbol is auspicious.
It also comes from an early form of the ashtamangala. One that included a swastika since the knot of eternity is also regarded as a ‘swastika in motion’.
This mystic knot symbolises the Buddha’s teachings and his infinite wisdom. It also represents the Buddha's omnipresence, compassion, and eternal harmony.
Besides that, it symbolises the continued rolling of the twelve links of dependent origination. Or the laws that underpin cyclic existence of birth, rebirth and death.
A victory banner is generally accounted for under standard military practices. And in Tibetan Buddhism, the victory banner or the dhvaja has eleven different types. With each depicting a path to overcome difficulties.
Since it’s inception, the symbol is also linked to many powerful deities. Particularly the likes of Vaishravana, one of the four heavenly kings. The king is a deity associated with wealth and power.
In Tibet, you can see them emblem added on temple roofs and monasteries. It symbolises the Buddha’s triumph over the four maras. The maras are antagonistic forces that block the path to enlightenment.
The top of the banner has a small parasol in white encrusted with a single wish-granting jewel. The body of the banner is draped in hanging jewels and layers of red and yellow silk scarves.
The wheel was first discovered on clay seals from the Harappan civilisation.
Harkening to the Vedic traditions, it was a symbol attributed to Vishnu. The Sudarshana Chakrawheel by his side is regarded as the representation of the wheel of the universe.
When it comes to Buddhism, the wheel is divided into three parts. The hub, the spokes, and the rim of the wheel. Each corresponds to the Buddha’s teachings on ethics, concentration, and wisdom.
The hub symbolises ethical discipline and stability of the mind.
The sharpness of the spokes signifies awareness and wisdom that penetrates ignorance.
Finally, the rim represents concentration.
The eight-spoked wheel is also a symbol of the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path. The spokes point in the eight directions to signify the extent of his teachings.
What do the 8 sacred symbols of Buddhism represent?
They can be independent, paired, or combined in a group.
When grouped together these eight symbols represent the physical body of the Buddha. It is why Tibetian Buddhism sees them as sacred.
- The parasol depicts the Buddha’s head.
- The fish are his eyes.
- The lotus his tongue,
- The conch depicts his speech,
- The endless knot his mind,
- The vase his neck,
- The victory banner his body,
- And the wheel his feet.
In other cultures and faiths
Religion is a chasmic subject and it stands to reason that these emblems are not static. They advanced into Tibetan Buddhism over the centuries. We see them across the cultures and religions like
- Chinese Buddhism
They even make appearances in Japanese, Celtic and ancient Egyptian traditions.
By and large, the meanings behind the symbols are the same.
It is their visual imagery in Tibetan Buddhism, that sets them apart because every symbol has a distinct colour scheme or design.
The use of certain colours and embellishing add to the metaphor of that symbol.
A primer on Buddhist sacred symbols
The roots of Tibetan Buddhism and the sacred symbols lie within the history, culture and geography of India.
Symbolism and motifs have always played an essential role in religion. As have their varied interpretations. By giving them deeper dimensions we transcend their value as mere embellishments.
Between their genesis and the modern age, the pre-Buddhist emblems changed. Leading to the Tibetan symbols we observe today.
Now, it is difficult to pinpoint when anthropomorphising became a norm across religions.
Yet, we can place the origins of Buddhist teachings and the symbols of this religion to the 4th century BCE.
When did the sacred symbols change?
The first major change in interpreting iconography came in the 1st century BCE.
At that point, the second Greek invasion of Central Asia had taken place. Ancient India became flooded with Hellenic influences. Practices like anthropomorphising symbols were accepted, even encouraged.
This led to the birth of new ideas such as the Greco-Buddhist art - Gandhara - and the arts of Mathura. Both of these cultures created the first images of the Buddha based on Greek techniques.
Interactivity between the Greek and Buddhist cultures flourished for close to eight centuries. It began to dwindle with the Hephthalite invasions and later expansion of Islam.
Even when it was no longer the predominant religion of ancient India, Buddhism endure. With parts of the Buddhist culture trickling into the Islamic faith as time went on. Take for instance the knot of eternity - a symbol associated with both creeds.
In the end
Although not of Buddhist origin, these symbols have permeated aspects of our lives and cultures through our interactions with the Buddhist heritage.
In an attempt to appease the universe and bring good fortune we carve them on furniture and walls of homes, temples and monasteries. Weave them into carpets, paint them on ceramics, and embroider them on cushions.
If you were curious to understand what the Buddhist sacred symbols are, we hope this article has satiated some of that curiosity.
Since you’re here...
Would you like to invite that auspicious energy into your home too? Then take a look at our exquisite cushion covers inspired by the Tibetan symbols.
Have you come across these symbols in other cultures? Let us know in the comments!
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