Traditional Roots of Buddhist Symbols and Rituals

During Buddha’s time

  1. He discouraged the worship of His Person or His human representation
  2. However, when He was alive, He allowed devotees to bring offerings and place them before His Perfumed Chamber (gandha-kuti – room occupied by the Buddha) while he was away. In the Khalinga-Bodhi Jataka (J No. 479, Book XIII), Ananda asked: "This Monastery, Sir, is left unprovided while the Blessed One goes on pilgrimage, and there is no place for the people to do reverence by offering fragrant wreaths and garlands. Will you be so kind Sir, as… whether or not it is possible to find a place for this purpose." In his reply, the Blessed One speaks of three kinds of shrines:
    1. Relic of the body
    2. A relic of use or wear
    3. A relic of memorial
    The Buddha rejects the use of relic in His own lifetime ("…that kind is made when the Buddha enters Nirvana") and dismisses the memorial forms due to its arbitrary form (i.e…. "depending on the imagination"). Ananda then suggested to plant a bodhi tree as a gateway to the Jetavana Monastery and the Buddha gave His consent, saying "…and that shall be as it were an abiding place for me."
    Before the Buddha’s parinirvana, He speaks of 4 holy places worthy of Buddhist pilgrimage, which are:
    1. where the Buddha was born (Lumbini)
    2. where he gained Enlightenment (Bodhgaya)
    3. where He taught the first discourse (Sarnath)
    4. where He attained Mahaparinirvana (Kusinara)
After speaking of the 4 holy places, the Buddha mentioned four kinds of persons who are worthy of a stupa, that is:
    1. a Samma Sambuddha (Fully Enlightened Buddha)
    2. a Pacekka Buddha (Silent Buddha)
    3. a Sravaka (Noble Disciple)
    4. a Cakravarti (Universal Monarch)
In summary, before first century AD, Buddha was only represented on the relief scupltures of Stupas at Bharhut (Southwest of Allahabd, Pakistan) and Sanci (Madhya Pradesh) such as footprints, Bodhi Tree or a flame. Below is a diagram depicting a schematic summary of Buddhist Symbolism (more prevalent after the Buddha’s Parinirvana).






1. Symbols (i.e stupas)
2. Relics (hair, footprint etc)
3. Plant form – Bodhi Tree, flowers etc
4. Things used – robes, alms bowl etc
5. Animal form – lion, peacock, horse, elephant etc
Iconic 6. Human form – Buddha images

After the Buddha’s Parinirvana

  1. When the Buddha passed away, His relics (or ashes) were distributed to seven kings who built stupas over them for veneration. The Emperor Asoka was later said to have dug them out, and distributed the ashes over a wider area, and built 84,000 stupas. With the stupas in place, to dedicate veneration, disciples then initiated "stupa pujas". With the proliferation of Buddhist stupas, Stupa pujas evolved into a ritual act. At first, the object of veneration was the stupa itself (or what it stands for the Buddha). In time, this symbol was replaced by a more sensitive human image.
  2. According to legend, a pupil of Ananda brought the teaching of Buddha to Gandhara (northeastern Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan) 50 years after Buddha’s Parinirvana.
  3. In Gandhara, the earliest image of Buddha in human form dates back to First century AD, under the rule of the Kushan Dynasty.
  4. Due to the conquests of Alexander the Great and the founding of the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms, Greek influence began to seep in within Gandhara. Ghandaran sculptors used Greco-Roman models and depicted Buddha as stocky and a youthful Apollo, with long-nobed ears, and garbed Him in loose monastic robes similar to Roman toga.
  5. Gandhara – a hub in the Silk Route, which connects Mediterranean Europe through Central Asia to Western China (ending in Xian). Chinese and Central Asian (Khotan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Turmeknistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan etc) pilgrims passed through this route and soon picked up the Buddhist suttas, and the religion’s many symbolic icons and rituals along the way.  
  6. Due to the diverse culture and civilization which straddles across the region, these symbols and rituals was assimilated with the local animistic practices and customs. For instance, Tibetan, Bhutanese and Khotanese Buddhism is heavily influenced by Tantricism, while those sculptures found in the caves of Dunhuang is Chinese influenced.
  7. The adoption of Buddhism as national religions in China, and subsequently in Korea and Japan, and then to South East Asia such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, cemented the diversity of Buddhism to reflect each of the country’s unique national identity.
  8. Buddhism adapted itself in the face of hostile indigenous religions and culture. To act as a vehicle for its own survival and progress, it had to adopt advantageous aspects found in other religions and cultural systems (called symbolic adaptation).
 Symbolism and Ritualism as the Builder of Faith
  1. To the uninitiated, abstract teachings are difficult to grasp, especially if the means of delivery from one culture and values systems differ with another. For instance, the root of Buddhism is centred on Indian culture and systems of beliefs. As it travelled eastward, it clashes with values and system of beliefs which is entirely different, but just as developed.
  2. One reason why the Chinese embraced Buddhism was the fact that when the pilgrims went westward to bring back the fabled suttas, the wandering monks came back during the time of war and social upheavals. The Buddha’s teaching of suffering, and the way towards the cessation of suffering was an immediate appeal. However, Indian method of psychological and logical analysis was quite alien to the masses then, who had built the habit of depending on external forces for salvation. Worship of heavenly gods and deities were the norm of the day.
  3. To supplant these ideas and views, the pilgrims who imported this "foreign" religion had to use elements of local beliefs and adapt accordingly through what is called as "skill of means" to convert the locals. The driving force behind the motives of the pilgrims in doing so is the "all encompassing compassion" to save as many lives as possible from suffering.
  4. The application and adaptation of Buddhist symbolism in local and regional population goes along the principle as outlined in the "Five spiritual powers" i.e. Faith, Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration and Widsom. The use of symbols and the partake of rituals is a means to develop faith.
  5. Although the intention of this approach is good, as time went by however, people began to cling to the symbols and rituals as the ends itself, rather than use it as a disciplining tool to attain higher mental development.
  6. The clinging onto the symbolism of the religion is what made Buddhism weak and susceptible to claims that it is a superstitious and ritualistic riddled religion.