tree.gif (2510 bytes) A R T  &  C U L T U R E  ии  S Y M B O L S

   R  E  S  O  U   R  C  E  S

Introduction See seperate section for: BUDDHA and STUPA

Buddha Mind - get one, be one.



Bowing with devotion
early symbols

Before undertaking any consideration of symbols it is important to be clear about what they are. By definition a symbol is "something that represents or stands for something else, usually by convention or association, esp. a material object used to represent something abstract." There seems to be that in the human mind which seeks some 'thing(s)' that will provide happiness, security, salvation, peace, etc. and, certainly in the material realm, there are minimum requirements. However in the (Buddhist) spiritual realm there are no such 'things' and we must each determine our own liberation. Certainly there are many supports along the way - teachings, teachers, techniques, friends, traditions - and, symbols. Unfortunately these are too often given an absolute value which in turn creates them as idols. To believe that sculpt metal or worked wood has any innate power is superstition. To attribute a word, phrase or writing - in any language - with any special, personal power or cosmic vibration is a vain hope. [see: USEAGE]

During the Buddha's lifetime and for many years after, the emphasis within the Buddhist community was primarily on developing a path of practice which leads to enlightenment. There were no Buddha images and only a few symbols were used. Tree worship was already part of the existing culture so the development of the bodhi tree and leaf as a devotional symbol was a natural one. Similarly the wheel was traditionally seen as a symbol of power and was easily connected with the power of the Buddha's teaching. These two symbols were perhaps the most prominent in early times: the Bodhi Tree - as a symbol of enlightenment, and the Dhammacakka - as a symbol of the teachings that lead to that enlightenment.

Buying one at twice the price surely doubles the value?
One esoteric form of symbols worth mentioning is amulets. These find many forms and are thought not only to bring good luck and help the wearer avoid catastrophe (some are even believed to be bullet proof) but to endow the wearer with a sense of well being and wish to behave well toward others - this should produce a reciprocal action thus adding further to their general prosperity. In Thailand there are several magazines devoted entirely to amulets and charms. Images are cast from various metals, stamped in clay or moulded from compressed vegetable matter. They can contain small pieces from famous Buddha images, stupas, ancient manuscripts or corporeal relics of dead or living monks, saints or healers. Recipes are jealously gaurded. Many amulets have various diagrams and script (yantra) on the reverse whose arrangement has mystical significance. These can also be seen printed on cloth, painted on buildings, cars, or as tatooes. The power of the amulet is fragile and must be conserved by the appropriate behaviour of the wearer.

I have used the main Buddhist symbols to create a set of stereographic images (3D, magic eye pictures). The thumbnail links to a full collection of similar thumbnails.

I produced a small book, primarily on Buddha images but it includes a lot of simple, useful information on Buddhist symbols generally. Go down here --

The thumbnail - left - links to a simple word puzzle using a variety of symbols.

There are two symbols not itemised above which are worthy of note - deer and the throne. Deer are a direct reference to the Buddha's first sermon in the deer park, Sarnath. The suggestion is that so wonderous was the Buddha's dispensation and benign his presence that even the animals came to listen. Traditional artwork of the Buddha's life story [c.f.] often depicts this. Also see WHEEL thumbnails for examples. The throne is both a reference to Siddhattha Gotama's royal ancestory and to the idea of spiritual kingship - enlightenment as ruler of the spiritual world. An example of the throne can be seen in the 'early symbols' thumbnail above.

Another more recent symbol is what has become known as the Buddhist flag. It was first hoisted in 1885 in Sri Lanka and is a symbol of faith and peace; used throughout the world to represent the Buddhism. Although there is some argument that dates the flag back to the time of Dutugamunu (2nd BCE) it was in fact developed in 1880 by Colonel Henry Steele Olcott an American journalist. Olcott was instrumental in reviving Buddhism and arrived in Sri Lanka with the renowned spiritualist Madame Blavatsky on 17 February 1880 - a day subsequently celebrated as Olcott Day in independent Sri Lanka. He founded the Buddhist Theosophical Society, devised a Buddhist catechism, encouraged Buddhist versions of Christmas carols and cards, and inspired the founding of Buddhist schools and the YMBA - the Young Men's Buddhist Association.
The six colours of the flag represent the colours of the aura that emanated from the body of the Buddha when He attained Enlightenment.
Blue: Loving kindness, peace and universal compassion.
Yellow: The Middle Path - avoiding extremes, the absence of form and emptiness.
Red: Blessings of practice - achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune and dignity.
White: Purity of dhamma - it leads to liberation, outside of time or space.
Orange: The Buddha's Teaching - full of wisdom and strength.
The combination of the five symbolises the universality of religious Truth.