Urban Dharma Newsletter... October 1, 2002
Buddhist Symbols ...from BuddhaMind.info
2. The Eight Auspicious Symbols
3. The Swastika
4. Book Review: Buddhist Symbols in Tibetan
Culture ...Dagyab Rinpoche
5. Temple/Center of the Week: Vajrapani
Buddhist Symbols ...from BuddhaMind.info
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
undertaking any consideration of symbols it is important to
be clear about what they are.
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.
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.
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.
Deer and the Throne
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.
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.
six colours of the flag represent the colours of the aura that
emanated from the body of the Buddha when He attained Enlightenment.
Loving kindness, peace and universal compassion.
The Middle Path - avoiding extremes, the absence of form and
Blessings of practice - achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune
Purity of dhamma - it leads to liberation, outside of time or
The Buddha's Teaching - full of wisdom and strength.
combination of the five symbolises the universality of religious
I was writing my defininition of symbols in the introduction
I thought that a seperate discussion on the use of symbols might
and their use
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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
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.
wheel is a symbol of the Buddha's teaching - referring directly
to his first discourse; in Sarnath, India.
Pali the wheel is called The Dhammacakka or 'Teaching Wheel'.
is 'truth' or 'nature'; which is what the Buddha was teaching;
the truth of our own human nature.
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.
circle is a universal symbol of unity.
whole universe is made up of 'wheels'.
petals of the lotus form the shape of a wheel.
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].
a Buddhist context it can be seen having several meanings:
the wheel of a vehicle it carries the Buddhist teachings forward
eight spokes it is 'The Eightfold Noble Path'; part of the Buddha's
the wheel has up to a thousand spokes, appearing like the sun;
representing the bright clear teaching that dispels the darkness
a disc used as a weapon, it is the teaching that destroys ignorance
as it spins through the universe.
the wheel of a ship it represents the guiding influence of 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.'
can be clearly seen on the sole of the foot in several of the
is found as a symbol on India's national flag and in many instances
of ancient, decorative sculpture - notably stupa facings.
trees, and single Bodhi leaves, are a symbol, reminding us of
the Buddha's enlightenment.
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.'
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.
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).
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)
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.
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."
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
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.
alms bowl is a symbol of the monastic, renunciant life - the
life of the holy, truth seeker.
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)
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.
flowers symbolise purity, spiritual growth and enlightenment
- the religious path.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
is a symbol of the teachings - the light of Truth that dispels
the darkness of ignorance.
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.
most common use of fire in religious practice is as candles
or lamps and these can be seen on most Buddhist shrines.
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]
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
single footprint, or a pair of prints, represents the presence
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.
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
can often be seen before an empty throne or with other symbols.
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.
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
2. The Eight Auspicious Symbols
the many other symbols, a few examples of the Eight Auspicious
Symbols, first each one individually:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Victory Banner; symbolises the victory over hindrances
of oneself and the Buddha's teachings, and victory over disharmony.
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).
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.
a symbol of prosperity and good fortune, a sun symbol of universality.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Buddhist Symbols in Tibetan Culture ...Dagyab Rinpoche
Guenther, author of Wholeness Lost and Wholeness Regained
timely book preserves something very valuable-symbols as the
visual manifestation of the psyche. The author deserves our
wonderful short introduction to Tibetan Buddhism... Reviewer:
A reader from Santa Fe, NM
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.
is located slightly less than two hours south of San Francisco,
California and about one hour from both San Jose and Santa Cruz.
Kings Creek Road
O. Box 2130
Creek, California 95006 USA
(831) 338-6654; Fax: (831) 338-3666
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
community members are available to answer questions and provide
practice advice for retreatants.
Tibetan Buddhist courses, workshops, group retreats, and practice
periods are led by a variety of Tibetan and non-Tibetan teachers.
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.
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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