This entry is part 13 of 19 in the series Understanding Buddhism

Buddhist Symbols – Learn about Illustrated Tibetan Buddhist SymbolsHave you ever wondered the meaning of Buddhist symbols? Buddha did not believe in his idol worship as much as he believed in the conscientious practice of the principles of Buddhism. Non-Buddhists may think Buddha himself is being worshiped, but that’s the not the case.

This is the reason why his disciples started worshiping various objects and art images that symbolized Buddha and his teachings. These objects and art images, over the course of time, became some of the most iconic features of Buddhism.

These spiritual symbols may be centuries old, but they are still held in great reverence by practicing Buddhists. Especially in countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka that prescribe to the Theravada school of Buddhism, several Buddhist symbols such as the Wheel of Life, the Victory Banner, and the Lotus Flower, among others hold supreme religious importance.

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism Plain and Simple

Buddhism is an extremely old spiritual belief system. Even though it originated in India, it spread far and wide. As the tenets of Buddhism spread far across the territorial borders of India to countries such as Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Thailand, it adopted several aspects of the local culture.

The influence of these diverse cultures can be seen in form of the numerous Buddhist symbols today. This Buddhism article will discuss some of the most important Buddhist symbols and analyze its meaning and relevance to Buddhism.

It is believed that of all the countries that Buddhism spread to, Tibet has by far, had the maximum influence on this religion. The Tibetan way of Buddhism holds the ‘Eight Auspicious Symbols’ or the Ashtamangala as the center of their religious beliefs.

If one looks closely, one can see the ‘Eight Auspicious Symbols’ printed on Tibetan prayer flags and on Buddhist monasteries. This symbol encompasses another symbol that holds a lot of importance in the Tibetan form of Buddhism. It is known as the ‘Wheel of Life’.  The ‘Wheel of Life’ symbolizes the universe to the Tibetan Buddhists.

The Meaning of Buddhist Symbols

The Meaning of Buddhist Symbols

Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism

The ‘Eight Auspicious Symbols’ of Buddhism are one of the most frequently witnessed symbols of this religion. Understanding these eight symbols will help you learn the meaning of Buddhist symbols. According to Buddhist beliefs, each of the eight symbols incorporated in the ‘Eight Auspicious Symbols’ have a special significance and meaning. Each of them represents a specific teaching of Lord Buddha.

When all these eight symbols come together, they form a powerful union. The Ashtamangala not only has a strong Tibetan influence as mentioned in this article earlier, but also shares an Indian connection, especially in terms of its iconography.

The ‘Eight Auspicious Symbols’ consist of the following:

  1. Parasol or chattri
  2. Golden fish or suvarnamatsya
  3. Treasure Vase or kalasha
  4. Lotus Flower or padma
  5. Conch shell or sankha
  6. Endless knot or shrivasta
  7. Victory banner or dhvaja
  8. Dharma Wheel or dharmachakra

The Parasol

The Parasol Buddhism SymbolThe parasol or the chattri in Buddhism stands for ‘protection’ as well as ‘royalty’. It symbolizes the protection of the followers of this faith against the ‘heat of defilement’. The parasol signifies protection from earthly emotions such as suffering and desire. The Buddhists believe that just like the ‘axis mundi’ holds the parasol in its place, the central axis upholds this world.

The parasol also signifies the importance of the person underneath it. According to Buddhist beliefs, the person or symbol underneath the parasol is the center of the universe. Once can come across several pictorial depictions of Lord Buddha, where he has a parasol over his head.

The Golden Fish

The Golden Fish Buddhism SymbolThe next important symbol under the Ashtamangala is the Golden Fish. This symbol consists of two fish, standing in a vertical position with their heads turned inwards, towards each other. It is believed that the symbol of the two golden fish actually belongs to the pre-Buddhist era, where the two fish represented the holy Indian rivers of Ganga and Yamuna respectively.
These rivers in turn stand for the breathing pattern of the human body. In Buddhism however, the symbol of golden fish represents happiness. This is because the fish have complete independence when they are in water. Just as the fish procreate at a rapid rate, the symbol of golden fish also signifies fertility.

The Treasure

The Treasure Buddhism SymbolThe next symbol is the treasure vase or kalasha. In Buddhism, the treasure vase is portrayed as a fat vase with a short, but slim neck. The treasure vase is shown as having a jewel at its mouth, which means that the vase is full of treasure. As per Buddhist philosophy, the treasure vase is symbolic of wealth and abundance.

It is said to have a harmonious effect on its surroundings. Therefore, it is a common Buddhist practice to bury similar treasure vases in mountains, water springs, and to place them at altars.

The Lotus Flower

The Lotus Buddhism SymbolThe lotus flower is said to capture one of the founding beliefs of Buddhism. The lotus takes root in mud, grows through the water level and blooms into a beautiful flower with a wonderful scent. Buddhists believe that the lotus flower signifies the ‘progress of a human soul’. This means that just like a lotus is born in mud, humans are born in a web of materialism.

The lotus flower rises through the water level; similarly, the human soul grows with experience, to ultimately attain enlightenment, portrayed by the lotus flower in full bloom.

The Conch Shell

The Conch Shell Buddhism SymbolThe fifth symbol is the conch shell or sankha. The conch shell is a much-respected object in the Indian culture. It is said to ward off evil, and is believed to be a symbol of power and authority. The Conch shell is an emblem that proclaims the truth of the dharma. The Buddhists make use of conch shell to announce important religious assemblies.

The Tibetan Buddhists make use of the conch shell as a musical instrument, and also as a carrier of holy water during religious ceremonies.

The Endless Knot

The Endless Knot Buddhism SymbolThe sixth symbol from the ‘Eight Auspicious Symbols’ of Buddhism is the ‘Endless knot’ or shrivasta. If a close inspection of this Buddhist symbol, you will find that it is made up of lines that are intertwined and are all at right angles. The Endless Know has never ending loops, no beginning and no end. Popular in Chinese inspired art and even in used in the Celtic Culture.

This symbol is indicative of the endless wisdom possessed by Lord Buddha. It is said that this Buddhist symbol has a Naga inspiration behind it.

The Victory Banner

The Victory Banner Buddhism SymbolThe seventh Ashtamangala symbol is the victory banner or the dhvaja. While the victory banner has always had an important military significance in Indian culture, for the Buddhists, it signifies the victory of knowledge over ignorance.

It is a symbol of Lord Buddha’s enlightenment and symbolic of overcoming adversity and defilement.

The Wheel of Life

The Wheel of Life Buddhist SymbolThe eighth and the last symbol of the Ashtamangala is the ‘Wheel of life’ or the dharmachakra. The ‘Wheel of Life’ is the most important of all the ‘Eight Auspicious Symbols’. This is because the ‘Wheel of Life’ represents the teachings of Lord Buddha.

The wheel symbolizes the spiritual change that it brought about by the teachings of Lord Buddha. His first religious teaching, which took place at the Deer Park in Sarnath is said to be the ‘first turning of the dharmachakra’.

The discourses given by Buddha in Rajgir and Shravasti make the second and the third turning of the dharmachakra respectively. The eight spokes of the dharmachakra stand for the Eightfold Path, as prescribed by Buddha in his teachings.

I hope you have a better understanding of the meaning of Buddhist symbols. Share this post The Meaning of Buddhist Symbols with others who are searching for a deeper understanding of Buddhist symbols and imaginary. There are great resources on the internet and in books. Enjoy your spiritual journey and have a blessed day!

Series Navigation<< The Core Beliefs of BuddhismEight Auspicious Symbols in Buddhism >>

3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Buddhist Symbols

  1. Pingback: Ashtamangala – The Eight Auspicious Symbols of Tibetan Buddhist Tradition – Part II | – KAMENG SHAMBHALA –

  2. Floretta Ross says:

    The Buddha statue isn’t a God is it?

  3. BuddhismGifts says:

    No, Buddha isn’t a God nor is he seen as one. Rather he is seen as what we can become, enlightened.

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