The Urban Dharma Newsletter... October 1, 2002


In This Issue:

1. Buddhist Symbols ...from BuddhaMind.info
The Eight Auspicious Symbols
The Swastika
4. Book Review: Buddhist Symbols in Tibetan Culture
...Dagyab Rinpoche
5. Temple/Center of the Week: Vajrapani Institute


1. Buddhist Symbols ...from BuddhaMind.info

* http://www.BuddhaMind.info/

Buddhist art & culture is a huge topic with an enormous range of material available for discussion. This site is predominantly Theravadin so discussion will be directed accordingly - with mandalas as one major exception. The main elements of Buddhist art are fairly universal and, as space permits, various expressions from all Buddhist lineages will be presented.

Although Buddhism began in the sixth century BCE the oldest surviving artefacts are relatively more recent - nothing in Buddhist archaeological record can be safely dated before the third century. The first independent evidence of Buddhism comes from the reign of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka (273 - 232 BCE) whose stone inscriptions are the earliest Indian historical records. These inscriptions make reference to the dhamma, recommend certain texts, the Buddha's teaching in general and condemn schism. They record his visit to the Buddha's birth place (Lumbini), his restoration of the nearby stupa and indicate a visit to the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, site of the Buddha's enlightenment.

Buddhism in India was at the height of its influence from 250 BCE to around 500 CE. During this time an enormous amount of functional and devotional material was produced and the energy of the Buddha's dispensation was changing the whole face of civilisation in Central Asia and beyond. It was able to gather into itself all the intellectual and artistic currents of the age, uniting ideas from as far as the Greco-Roman world of the West and China in the East. Indian artists and builders have until modern times always been anonymous craftsmen and older works are never signed. The only record, if any, is of the sponsor who would usually be a member of the local nobility or merchant class although there are regular references to monks or nuns providing funds (presumably either money relinquished on ordination or passed on from lay supporters).

Although there were an enormous number of monasteries built around the time of the Buddha very little remains of these beyond the foundation stones. The style of these buildings would have been according to local traditions - perhaps incorporating some of the early aniconic symbols as decoration. Excavation of rock monasteries started on a large scale in the early 2nd century and provide a wealth of architecture, sculpture and paintings for study. The earliest specifically Buddhist monument is the stupa and the development of much Buddhist art has been in relation to the decorative and architectural evolution of this form. The appearance of Buddha images was not until around the first century BCE and their function was originally similar to that of the stupa - relic containers in the first instance and then becoming 'reminding relics' in their own right.

The Buddha's teachings remained an oral tradition for several centuries after his death but gradually written scripture evolved into a significant art form providing not only textual information but artistic and symbolic inspiration.

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.

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.

The Amulet

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.

The Deer and the Throne

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. 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.

The Buddhist Flag

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.

As I was writing my defininition of symbols in the introduction I thought that a seperate discussion on the use of symbols might be fruitful.

Symbols and their use

Using symbols can be a delicate juggling act. On the one hand (left brain?) we know that a Buddha statue is just a piece of cast metal and on the other hand (right brain?) we can worship it as a sacred symbol. We use symbols so extensively as part of our everyday life that their value can easily be overlooked. Words, money, street signs, internet icons, these are all symbols and we agree on their value and meaning over time. I was tricked recently in Latvia. Their toilets have symbols to indicate (female) and (male). They know which is which but - of course - I chose wrong. It's obvious - when you know that: ladies have skirts (wide at the bottom) and men have broad shoulders (wide at the top). Symbols are not meaningless, they do have value but it is only relative. Words are just a series of noises; different languages talk of the same things, they just use different noises. Banknotes are just fancy bits of paper with markings. We could just as well use shells or beads or axes to trade - except the natives aren't quite so gullible these days. And so we use symbols a great deal with a great deal of reverence. Why should religious symbols be any different?

The trouble with religious symbols is we can't agree as to what is being symbolised. Religion points to a transcendent possibility and the transcendent, by definition, has: 'continuous existence outside the created world' so there is nothing 'of the world' that can be it - it can only be represented. We can have a direct experience of the transcendent but how do we explain our experience. How would you explain your experience of time? The taste of an orange? The sound of the sea? And so we develop symbols - to help us remember or recollect what we know, either directly or intutively. Many people have a clear sense of the spiritual dimension and depending on their experience they (may) develop symbols. If you were brought up in a Christian society (as I was) the tendency for those symbols to be Christian is high.

The best way to work with symbols is not to get rid of or devalue them but to understand how symbols work and use them appropriately. When I am in Spain I try to use the Spanish symbols (words, etc.) but find that occassionally some English ones work as well. If you travel in Japan use the Yen (symbol = ¥) but don't feel you must throw your dollars ($) and pounds (£) in the trash.

An interesting example of the power of symbols is the 'shoe question' that existed in Burma during British colonial rule. The Europeans refused to remove their shoes in sacred places and such was the degree of resentment by the Burmese that this became a significant factor in the first phase of National independence, unifying a wide range of diverse political movements. There is the practical aspect in that shoes track in things stuck to the sole (no pun intended) but the issue is in relation more to a much deeper, symbolic perception (that the head is high (and noble) and the feet are low (and tainted). Also footwear is a form of 'armour' and removing it makes one less powerful, more humble / vulnerable. The irony here is that there is a rule in Thailand whereby soldiers can wear their boots in Thai monasteries - in case they suddenly get called into action!

An extension of the shoe principle is the height at which things must be symbolically placed. Feet are low(ly) and should be kept thus. It is improper to point ones feet at anything holy - stupa, buddha image, monk, nun, etc - and impolite to move things with the feet (unless you are playing football). Things of the lower regions should not be used for the higher - a sitting cushion ought not be used as a pillow. I recall a monk giving a talk on superstition to a group of Thais and at one stage he put one of his rubber sandals on top of his head. Jaws dropped, aghast! He made his point but I doubt he proved it. Seating is an issue in many cultures - e.g. father sits at the head of the table. The height (and size) of seats can also be problematic. In a monastic context it can come down to the thickness of a sitting cloth or cushion. Generally lay people should not sit higher than monastics. When someone is giving a talk on dhamma the speaker should ideally sit higher. The seat - left - can vary, both in height and ornament, according to the situation and the speaker. The larger form looks remarkably like a Christian pulpit and although there is the practical aspect of projecting the voice it is the symbolic elevation of the teachings that is of most concern.

Generally that which is worthy of respect should be in a higher place and religious symbols should always be elevated. This is part of the principle in bowing. We lower our head - the important bit - below ..... what? What do you raise up (or bow down to) that is higher than your own, personal, ego-self? What is worthy of veneration, respect? Having nothing to bow to is a source of great despair. Generally, books, images, artefacts, etc of any religion should be respected.

Buddha image

A Buddha image is not only a symbol of the historical person but the human qualities that he perfected; compassion, wisdom, patience, generosity, kindness, etc. Worthy of bowing down to.

Buddha images in human form appeared much later than the construction and worship of stupas and other symbols. His presence was originally indicated by footprints, by a standing woman (his mother) representing his birth, a tree the Enlightenment, a wheel the Doctrine and the First Sermon, and the stupa his death. The lack of human cult images until the last centuries BCE was common to all classical Indian religions. Putting a date and a place of origin for the first images is difficult but it is generally agreed that it was in the last century BCE - about 500 years after the Buddha's death. The earliest images are either in the Mathura style of central India or the Gandhara style of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan.

• It was once agreed that when Gandhara was ruled by Greeks from Alexander the Great's colony in Bactria (northern Afghanistan), Greek influence inspired the Buddhists of Gandhara to create the first Buddha image. This proposition was contested and a compromise view is that the Buddha image evolved in both centres independently and more or less simultaneously in response to a growing devotionalism in Indian religion. The majority of surviving ancient images display the Gandhara style.

• The Gandharan images showed the Buddha standing or seated, his robes in the Graeco-Roman tradition of drapery in more or less realistic folds. The hair was usually in wavy lines and the Buddha's cranial bump was a bun. Comparisons were made with the Greek 'Apollo'.

• The standing Mathura Buddha was thick-set, copying the popular nature spirit of the time but wearing monastic robes with the right shoulder bare. Another posture is that of the seated yogi with crossed legs (full lotus) and hands laid in the lap, though sometimes, as more commonly with standing figures, the right hand is raised. The robes, worn over the left shoulder and arm, cover part of the chest and most of the lower part of the body. On the head a twisted coil of hair or bun corresponds to the later cranial bump.

• Early Mathura Buddhas have been found in Gandhara while Gandharan influence on Mathura appears late, so it can be concluded that the first Buddha images were in the Indian Mathura style.

• A coin of king Kaniska (CE 100) top-left, shows a standing Gandharan style figure with the Bactrian inscription 'Boddo'. This is the earliest datable image of the Buddha and its use by Kaniska supports scriptural references to his involvement in Buddhism; the errection of several monuments and his assembling the third council in Kashmir. The naturalistic hairstyle persisted on the Gandharan images whereas Mathura began to represent the Buddha with 'snail shell' curls turning to the right - this style eventually prevailed.

• The Gandhara style produced a vast number of images and narrative reliefs between the first and sixth centuries CE. These were initially in stone and later in stucco, using moulds to multiply images (in the interests of increasing merit?).

• At Mathura the 'native' Indian style continued to produce sturdy, outward-looking images. Under the Gupta dynasty (320-550 CE) images were refined to a classical perfection which still reflected the robust qualities of the earlier style. A related school at Sarnath developed a spiritually reflective style with subtle, smooth modelling. This gradually became probably the most influential model within India and beyond. The bottom thumbnail is a particularly beautiful example of this style.

The Wheel

The wheel is a symbol of the Buddha's teaching - referring directly to his first discourse; in Sarnath, India.

In Pali the wheel is called The Dhammacakka or 'Teaching Wheel'.

Dhamma is 'truth' or 'nature'; which is what the Buddha was teaching; the truth of our own human nature.

Cakka is most commonly translated as 'wheel.' Another figurative meaning is 'blessing' - of which there are four: living in a suitable place, the company of good people, meritorious acts done in the past and right inclinations, intentions.

A circle is a universal symbol of unity.

The whole universe is made up of 'wheels'.

The petals of the lotus form the shape of a wheel.

In ancient India the wheel was one of the seven precious possessions of a great world ruler - "cakkavatti: one who owns the wheel, sybmolises conquering progress and expanding sovereignty" [c.f. Digha 29].

In a Buddhist context it can be seen having several meanings:

As the wheel of a vehicle it carries the Buddhist teachings forward in time.

With eight spokes it is 'The Eightfold Noble Path'; part of the Buddha's teaching.

Sometimes the wheel has up to a thousand spokes, appearing like the sun; representing the bright clear teaching that dispels the darkness of ignorance.

As a disc used as a weapon, it is the teaching that destroys ignorance as it spins through the universe.

As the wheel of a ship it represents the guiding influence of the Buddha's teaching.

The wheel is probably the simplest symbol commonly representing Buddhism; perhaps it is better called an icon (in the general sense of the word). The Buddha image is now more prominent but the wheel has been in use much longer and its simple, symmetrical form lends itself easily to a wide range of applications. Before the development of the Buddha image (approx. 1st century BCE) the wheel was used to represent the Buddha in that the wheel is a symbol of his teaching and he often said 'those who see the dhamma see me.'

It can be clearly seen on the sole of the foot in several of the 'footprint' examples.

It is found as a symbol on India's national flag and in many instances of ancient, decorative sculpture - notably stupa facings.

The Bodhi Tree

Bodhi trees, and single Bodhi leaves, are a symbol, reminding us of the Buddha's enlightenment.

Trees are a common symbol for nature and for centuries they have provided shelter for man and animal alike. Tree worship was a common practice in India at the time of the Buddha. This can be seen in the story of Sujata - offering milk-rice to the Bodhisatta seated under a banyan tree on the eve of his enlightenment in the belief that he was the deity living in that tree. Trees, in fact all vegetation, are respected as 'one-facultied life' and there is a vinaya rule giving them protection. The story is of a monk who was cutting down a tree and damaged the arm of the tree spirit's child. She asked the monk not to destroy her home - to no avail. The spirit complained to the Buddha and as lay people heard the story they too 'were offended and annoyed' so the rule was created for monks forbidding 'the damaging of any living vegetation.'

That the Buddha was sitting under a tree at the time of his enlightenment has come to give trees even more significance and most specifially the asiatic fig, now known to Buddhists as the Bodhi Tree [bodhi = being awake, enlightened, supreme knowledge] and universally, botanically known as ficus religiosa (Latin). Bodhi trees are commonly found growing in Buddhist centres all over the world.

The scriptural account of the Buddha's enlightenment gives further significance to trees. We read that after enlightenment the Buddha sat cross-legged for seven days at the foot of the Bo-tree experiencing the bliss of emancipation and radiating gratitude to the tree. At the end of seven days he left the the Bo-tree and drew near to the Ajapala (the Goat-herd's) banyan-tree and likewise sat cross-legged for seven days. On leaving the foot of the Ajapala banyan-tree he drew near to where the Mucalinda tree was and, having drawn near, he again sat cross-legged for seven days. [this is the prelude to the story of Mucalinda, the seven headed naga (serpent-king).

The first scriptural reference to the Bodhi tree being established as an object of Buddhist worship is in the Kalingabodhi Jataka. The layman Anathapindika (donor of the Jetavana monastery where the Buddha was living at the time) asked if there was a place or object of reverence where devotees could pay their respects and offer homage when the Buddha was away. The Buddha said that the Bodhi tree was such a thing and a seed of the original tree was brought. A bodhi tree (the original?) can still be seen on the site of the old monastery at modern Sahet Hahet (Savatthi) in India.


The earliest records on the tree at Bodh Gaya are in the 'Kalingabodhi Jataka', which gives a vivid description of the tree and the surrounding area prior to the enlightenment, and the 'Asokavadana', which relates the story of King Asoka's (3rd century B.C) conversion to Buddhism. His subsequent worship under the sacred tree apparently angered his queen to the point where she ordered the tree to be felled. Ashoka then piled up earth around the stump and poured milk on its roots. The tree miraculously revived and grew to a height of 37 metres. He then surrounded the tree with a stone wall some three meters high for its protection. Ashoka's daughter Sangamitta, a Buddhist nun, took a shoot of the tree to Sri Lanka where King Devanampiyatissa planted it at the Mahavihara monastery in Anuradhapura about 245 BC. It still flourishes today and is the oldest continually documented tree in the world.

In 600AD, King Sesanka, a zealous Shivaite, again destroyed the tree at Bodh Gaya. The event was recorded by Hiuen T'sang, along with the planting of a new Bodhi tree sapling by King Purnavarma in 620AD. At this time, during the annual celebration of Vesak, thousands of people from all over India would gather to anoint the roots of the holy tree with perfumed water and scented milk, and to offer flowers and music. Hiuen T'sang wrote "The tree stands inside a fort like structure surrounded on the south, west and north by a brick wall. It has pointed leaves of a bright green colour. Having opened a door, one could see a large trench in the shape of a basin. Devotees worship with curd, milk and perfumes such as sandalwood, camphor and so on."

Much later the English archeologist Cunningham records, "In 1862 I found this tree very much decayed; one large stem to the westward with three branches was still green, but the other branches were barkless and rotten. I next saw the tree in 1871 and again in 1875, when it had become completely decayed, and shortly afterwards in 1876 the only remaining portion of the tree fell over the west wall during a storm, and the old pipal tree was gone. Many seeds, however, had been collected and the young scion of the parent tree were already in existence to take its place." The present Bodhi tree is most probably the fourth descendant of that original tree to be planted at this site.

The bodhi tree plays a very important role for Buddhists of all traditions, being a reminder and an inspiration, a symbol of peace, of Buddhas' enlightenment and of the ultimate potential that lies within us all.

The Alms Bowl

The alms bowl is a symbol of the monastic, renunciant life - the life of the holy, truth seeker.

Well before the time of the Buddha wandering ascetics were quite common and the collection of alms food was usually part of their daily routine. This same lifestyle was followed by the Buddha for several years prior to his enlightenment. After enlightenment, as the order of monks and nuns (sangha) grew there was an increasing need to clarify the distinction between the sangha and 'wanderers of other sects' both externally as well as doctrinally. The standardisation of the robe was part of this and the use of the bowl another. Much of this distinction was established through the vinaya and there are several rules regarding the alms bowl. One of these being that food must be collected in a bowl - you can't use your bare hands, or a skull. In early times the bowl were made of either clay or forged iron. Clay bowls were easily broken. Iron bowls were fired several times to give them a carbon coating but this would have been quite thin and any scratches or chips would easily lead to their rusting. So, care was needed to protect the bowl and rules like: not putting the bowl too close to a doorway, or hanging it on a peg, or placing it on a hard surface or too close to the edge of a table or bench came to be part of monastic training. Bowls at the time of the Buddha were a lot smaller than they generally are today and the rule of 'not accepting more than three bowlfuls from one donor' (pointing mainly at the tendencies to greed and inconsideration) indicates this.

It is still the custom of the monks and nuns of the Theravadin, forest tradition to live as homeless wanderers. For several months of each year they might travel around the countryside living in forests or quiet areas on the edge of a town or village. Beginning at dawn each morning they would walk, with their alms bowl, through the surrounding inhabited areas. Those lay people who wished to offer support would put food into their bowls. The bowl, along with the shaven head and robes, is one of the main visual signs of a monk. Monastics traditionally have only a few basic possessions, the alms bowl being one of them. In fact, to ordain in the first place, it is necessary to have a sponsor to offer the bowl and robes.

Lotus Flowers

Lotus flowers symbolise purity, spiritual growth and enlightenment - the religious path.

Starting life as a seed, it grows in the muddy darkness at the bottom of a pond. The darkness is like our ignorance - we can't clearly see the truth about life. The seed grows toward the warmth and light of the sun just as humans naturally grow toward the warmth of love and compassion, and toward the light of truth. The mature flower floats on the surface, bathing in the full light of the sun, well 'anchored' but moving freely according to the flow of the water - the changing current of any situation.

Flowers are beautiful both in appearance and smell - they are pleasant to have around; we like to have them in our home or the place where we work. The same is true of people. Friends who are honest, kind, virtuous, wise and generous are a pleasure to have around. What is most beautiful about them is not so much their appearance, but their behaviour. A such, flowers are a symbol of the Sangha, the ordained community of monks and nuns. The simple, moral lifestyle of the Sangha can be compared with the beautiful appearance and natural simplicity of flowers.

Flowers are one of three things (Flowers, candles and incense) offered at the shrine. They may wilt and die but the joy and delight that comes from giving - offering gifts generally or as a shrine offering - this is a beauty that will last.

There is (some) indication in Buddhist cosmology that the lotus was the first flower that bloomed in the beginning of this cosmic world. Five holy lotus flowers appear for the first time in this eon prophesying the Enlightenment of five Buddhas in the human realm. The Maha Brahma, Ghatika, created five sets of robes from these five lotus flowers which he would offer to each of the five Buddhas. Four Buddhas have already attained enlightened - Kakusandha, Konagamana, Kassapa and Gotama and one more Buddha remains to be enlightened in the near future by the name of Metteyya Buddha. In Buddhist iconography and art the four enlightened Buddhas are symbolized by lotus flowers in full bloom whereas the future Buddha is symbolised by a bud.

The lotus is extensively used in Buddhist art.

• Buddha images are usually positioned on a lotus base. This is most commonly a double lotus with petals facing up and down. Lesser saints are more commonly seen either on a plain base or, at most, a single lotus.

• The yogic system of energy centres - cakras - uses the image of a lotus with varying numbers of petals to represent each one, with the crown cakra as the 'thousand petalled lotus' - the blossoming of which is equivalent to enlightenment. So, sometimes the bump on the Buddha's head is represented as a lotus. The flame is an aspect of the same principle.

• Lotus flowers are especially sacred as an offering and we can see two elephants making such an offering to a stupa (as a symbol of the Buddha).

• Various stupa elements have evolved architecturally from the lotus shape - particularly around the reliquary and more noticeable the apex, the jewel.

• The pattern of overlapping lotus petals is often seen stylised either as a motif or as a border - see the example below.

Light as Symbol

Light is a symbol of the teachings - the light of Truth that dispels the darkness of ignorance.

Fire is such a primal energy and the sun - as a halo, disc, wheel or circle - is one of the most common religious symbols. When you go into a dark room you turn on the light to see what is in the room – you want to see the 'nature'; of the room. The light dispels the darkness. Ignorance is like a 'darkness' of the mind. A candle is a symbol of the Buddha's teaching - the 'light' of truth that dispels the darkness of ignorance. As a flame can pass from one candle to another, so too can the truth be given from one person to another.

The most common use of fire in religious practice is as candles or lamps and these can be seen on most Buddhist shrines.

It is interesting to note the way the Buddha presented fire as a symbol in relation to the Brahminic society of his time. The Brahmins used the maintenance of fire, both domestic and ritual, and the fire sacrifice as a central part of their faith and life. The Buddha used its cessation as both a symbol of the goal (nibbana) and of leaving the householders life (i.e. the fire) to persue the holy life. Nibbana can be translated as 'cooling' - 'to go out' - 'to be exhausted (of fuel)'. The image is of the passion of self being like a fire to which we continually add fuel - stop feeding the fire and it will go out. Where does it go? Out. [see: TEACHING - NIBBANA]

Another symbolic use of light is the halo or aura seen around holy beings as a symbol of truth, wisdom and purity of heart. Notice the halo and flaming torch on the Statue of Liberty. Light is not a solid 'thing' so it has to be symbolised. A halo is associated with the head and light around other parts of the body is usually called an aura. See BUDDHA IMAGES for further discussion of this.

A Footprint

A single footprint, or a pair of prints, represents the presence of Buddha.

If you were following someone across unfamiliar ground you would look for their footprints as a sign, as reassurance that they had been there and you were going the right way.

Buddha footprints often have an eight-spoked wheel on the sole (second of the 32 marks). The eight spokes represent the teaching of the eightfold path of practice that the Buddha taught. The idea is that wherever the Buddha walked he left behind the ‘imprint’ of his wise teaching. As well as this central wheel, there are traditionally 108 auspicious signs and symbols found on the Buddha print.

Footprints can often be seen before an empty throne or with other symbols.

There are several instances of rock impressions which are thought to be the footprint of the Buddha. One of the most famous is in Sri Lanka and is known as Sri Pada - or more widely as Adams Peak. Sri Lankan Buddhists believe that Buddha left an impression of his foot at the request of Saman, a folk mountain deity. Hindus say the print was made by the god Shiva while Muslims say the footprint is that of Adam. who was expelled from paradise and had to stand on one foot on the mountain summit for a thousand years until the Archangel Gabriel took him to Mount Ararat.

The footprint was first seen about a hundred years before the birth of Christ. Historical records say that King Valagamba (104 BCE), wandering alone on the mountain after being driven into exile by Malabar invaders from India, was the first to see the footprint. There is no recorded worship until the 11th century, when King Vijayabahu asked the villagers of Gilimale, en route to the peak, to provide for pilgrims' needs. The annual pilgrimage season begins with two statues of the god Saman and a casket of Buddha's relics being carried to the peak. Pilgrims stop at Seetha Gangula (cold stream) for ablutions and bathing of the statues.

2. The Eight Auspicious Symbols

* http://buddhism.kalachakranet.org/

From the many other symbols, a few examples of the Eight Auspicious Symbols, first each one individually:

The Umbrella or parasol embodies notions of wealth or royalty, for one had to be rich enough to possess such an item, and further, to have someone carry it. It points to the "royal ease" and power experienced in the Buddhist life of detachment. It also symbolises the activities to keep beings from harm (sun) and the enjoyment of the results under its cool shade.

The Golden Fish; were originally symbolic of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna, but came to represent good fortune in general. It also symbolises that living beings who practice the dharma need have no fear to drown in the ocean of suffering, and can freely migrate (chose rebirth) like fish in the water.

The Treasure Vase; is a sign of the inexhaustible riches available in the Buddhist Doctrine, it also symbolises long life, wealth, prosperity and all the benefits of this world.

The Lotus; symbolises the complete purification of body, speech and mind, and the blossoming of wholesome deeds in liberation. The lotus refers to many aspects of the path, as it grows from the mud (samsara), up through clean water (purification), and arising from the deep produces a beautiful flower (enlightenment). The white blossom represents purity, the stem stands for the practice of Buddhist teachings which raise the mind above the (mud of) worldly existence, and gives rise to purity of mind.

The Conch; symbolises the deep, far reaching and melodious sound of the teachings, which is suitable for all disciples at it awakens them from the slumber of ignorance to accomplish all beings' welfare.

The Auspicious Knot; symbolises the nature of reality where everything is interrelated and only exists as part of a web of karma and its effect. Having no beginning or end, it also represents the infinite wisdom of the Buddha, and the union of method and wisdom.

The Victory Banner; symbolises the victory over hindrances of oneself and the Buddha's teachings, and victory over disharmony.

The Dharma-Wheel (Dharmachakra); it is said that after Siddharta Gautama achieved enlightenment, Brahma came to him, offered a Dharma-Wheel and requested the Buddha to teach. It represents the Buddhist teachings (see above).

3. The Swastika

* http://www.cs.mcgill.ca/~preety/history/swastika.html

Swastika design: an equilateral cross with arms bent at right angles, all in the same rotary direction, usually clockwise. The Hindu and Buddhist swastika goes in the opposite direction.

Meaning: a symbol of prosperity and good fortune, a sun symbol of universality.

Derivation: from the Sanskrit swastika: "conducive to well-being." In India, a distinction is made between the right-hand swastika which moves in a clockwise direction and the left-hand swastika ( more correctly called sauswatika), which moves in a counterclockwise direction. The right hand swastika is a solar symbol and imitates in the rotation of its arms the course of the Sun, which in the Northern hemisphere appears to pass from east then south to west. The left-hand swastika more often stands for might the terrifying goddess Kali and magical practice.

In India, Hindus use the swastika to mark the opening pages of account books, thresholds, doors, and offerings. Among the Jains it is the emblem of their seventh Tirthankara.

In the Buddhist tradition, the swastika symbolizes the feet or footprints of the Buddha and is often used to mark at the beginning of texts. Modern Tibetan Buddhism uses it as a clothing decoration. With the spread of Buddhism, it has passed into the iconography of China and Japan where it has been used to denote plurality, abundance, prosperity and long life.

In Nazi Germany, the swastika (G: Hakenkreuz) it became a national symbol. A poet, and nationalist ideologist Guido von List had suggested it as a symbol for all anti-Semitic organizations and when the National Socialist party was formed in 1919 -20 it adopted it. On Sept. 5, 1935, a black swastika on a white circle on a red background became the national flag of Germany. This use ended in May 1945 with the German surrender.

Other uses of the symbol: in ancient Mesopotamia it was a favorite symbol on coinage, In Scandinavia it was the symbol for the god Thor's hammer.. In early Christian art it was called the gammadion cross because it was made of four gammas. It is also found in Mayan and Navajo art.

4. Buddhist Symbols in Tibetan Culture ...Dagyab Rinpoche

* http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0861710479/wwwkusalaorg-20/

Herbert Guenther, author of Wholeness Lost and Wholeness Regained

"This timely book preserves something very valuable-symbols as the visual manifestation of the psyche. The author deserves our thanks...Highly recommended."

A wonderful short introduction to Tibetan Buddhism... Reviewer: A reader from Santa Fe, NM

I'm not a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, but I've acquired a fair amount of knowledge through osmosis: I do volunteer work for a Tibetan refugee relief organization. One slow afternoon in our shop, I picked up this book to improve my knowledge of the iconography in the graphics we sell, and was blown away. Not only has the author written a clear, readable explication of the symbolism, but the book is also a terrific introduction to fundamental Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. The average Tibetan may not be able to elucidate the intricacies of the sacred texts, or practice the stylized form of debate that forms an important part of a monk's training. But the book gives great insight into what this average Tibetan actually believes. Now I feel I have a better understanding of how the Tibetans' Buddhism has sustained them through persecution, exile, and attempts by the Chinese government to stamp out their culture. (And the Fur-Bearing Fish isn't a refugee from a Dr. Seuss book, but a symbol with profound meaning.) This is a great little book, and I recommend it enthusiastically.


5. Vajrapani Institute

* http://www.vajrapani.org/

 Vajrapani is located slightly less than two hours south of San Francisco, California and about one hour from both San Jose and Santa Cruz.

19950 Kings Creek Road

P. O. Box 2130

Boulder Creek, California 95006 USA

Ph: (831) 338-6654; Fax: (831) 338-3666

e-mail: Vajrapani@vajrapani.org

   Vajrapani Institute is a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center located in the Santa Cruz Mountains in Boulder Creek, California, USA. The Institute is set in 70 acres of spectacular redwood forest populated by many species of birds and a variety of wildlife including deer. Being quiet and remote, but also relatively close to major cities and airports, Vajrapani is an ideal setting for retreats and conferences. We appeal to a wide spectrum of visitors: people who participate in group rentals, practice in our individual retreat cabins, and take part in our courses, workshops and group retreats.

   Vajrapani Institute is part of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), a worldwide organization of more than 100 retreat and city centers, hospices and health care projects, monasteries and nunneries, and schools and publishing houses. Founded in 1975 by Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935-1984), who established the FPMT, Vajrapani is now under the care of Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, foremost disciple of Lama Yeshe and the present spiritual director of the Foundation.

   The following information provides a detailed perspective of what Vajrapani offers. Tours are available for a closer and more personal look. Please call us in advance to arrange a time to visit.

Our main building has:

* a meditation hall that comfortably seats 60

* a large kitchen and dining room

* a library/lounge with TV/VCR staff offices.

Apart from this building, we also have:

* a dormitory that sleeps 26

* a second meditation hall that seats 15 with an attached bedroom

* a two-bedroom teacher's house

* an individual retreat cabin complex with adjacent bathhouse.

   We have a large outdoor area/fire circle, approximately 25 camping sites, a picnic area, and a creek for wading and exploring nature, just a short walk from the main building. The land, as is traditional for Tibetan retreat centers, is situated in the ford of two creeks. It borders a state park with accessible hiking trails. All buildings and facilities have been built and are maintained in an environmentally-conscious manner by residents and community members, some of whom have lived here for more than 20 years. We generate our own power using solar energy and a generator, and use only biodegradable non-toxic products to keep our facility clean.

   The spiritual heart of the center is an Enlightenment Stupa, a monument dedicated to the life and works of Lama Yeshe. Vajrapani Institute has been blessed over the years with visits by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and many other esteemed spiritual teachers.

   Every summer we offer a 4-week Work Study designed to integrate spirituality into daily life. The program includes daily meditation instruction and practice, introductory courses on Buddhist philosophy, group discussion and study, special weekend programs and work periods. Space is limited and early registration is recommended.


   Vajrapani provides a wonderful opportunity for children aged 5-12 to explore Buddhist values and practice at a weekend camp each summer. Workshop leaders offer activities that include meditation and Buddhist philosophy through story-telling, mandala and mala making, mantra recitation, arts and crafts, music, and hiking and exploring nature.

   We are happy to share all of our facilities with your group. Vajrapani is ideally suited for meditation retreats, yoga workshops, staff and board retreats, health trainings, support group meetings, business seminars, environmental conferences and all types of spiritual activities. Our facilities are also available for rental to children's groups.

   Our resident cook serves delicious vegetarian meals using predominantly organic food. Most groups choose our vegetarian meal plan, but you can provide your own cooks. Our staff is happy to do whatever we can to help make your stay worthwhile.

   Our 6 cabins are ideal for individual meditation retreat, offering a quiet, safe and supportive environment in a secluded area of the land. Each 12- by 16-foot cabin is equipped with a single bed, meditation cushions and altar, closet and storage shelves, counter and other furnishings. The cabins share a private bathhouse.

Each cabin has a sliding glass door which opens onto a redwood deck and a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. The cabins are situated close to hiking trails and Castle Rock State Park.

   Our kitchen provides three vegetarian meals a day, which are personally brought to the cabin area. We make an extra effort to give each retreatant individual attention and are happy to try to serve your specific dietary needs.

   We welcome retreatants from all spiritual disciplines. Our cabins are also ideal for writers, students, or anyone needing an intensive study environment. Feel free to bring your laptop computer.

   Our community members are available to answer questions and provide practice advice for retreatants.


   Our Tibetan Buddhist courses, workshops, group retreats, and practice periods are led by a variety of Tibetan and non-Tibetan teachers.

   Our programs cover the entire range of the sutra and tantra teachings of the Buddha as taught in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. They include meditation, lam-rim (the graduated path to enlightenment), socially engaged Buddhism, deity practice, death and dying, and dream yoga, as well as special events such as tantric initiations. We are happy to send you our program of events and place you on our mailing list.

   Three popular events we offer each year are the Summer Residential Work Practice Program, Family Camp and the New Year's Vajrasattva Retreat for Purification.


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