The eight Auspicious Symbols of Mahayana Buddhism are often pictured together. Their harmony illustrates how the many aspects of life come together on the Buddhist path.
Many other symbols are part of the Buddhist tradition as well:
The eight Auspicious Symbols of Mahayana Buddhism are often pictured together. Their harmony illustrates how the many aspects of life come together on the Buddhist path.
|Lotus represents purity of body, speech and mind. The opening of the flower signifies the “blossoming” of enlightenment.|
|Endless Knot (mandala) represents eternity and unity. Different aspects of wisdom depend upon and lead to each other: fulfillment and emptiness, straight lines and turnings, wisdom and compassion.|
|Pair of Golden Fish represents moving through life without fear. As a fish swimming through water has no thought of drowning, so we may swim through life, allowing the waters of the Ocean of Suffering to roll off our backs.|
|Victory Banner represents spiritual victory — both one’s personal victory over obstacles, and also the victory of Buddhist doctrine.|
|Wheel of Dharma has eight spokes, corresponding to the Noble Eightfold Path, also called the Middle Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Working toward these things promotes wisdom, ethical conduct, and spiritual development.|
|Treasure Vase represents abundance. This symbol is somewhat puzzling, since represents the attainment of material wealth, while at the same time promising liberation from the world.|
|Parasol represents protection from temporary suffering; though all beings suffer, the person approaching enlightenment ceases to be bothered by temporary setbacks.|
|Conch Shell represents the voice of the Buddha, which we may hear within our own minds. The conch signals teachings that wake us from the figurative “slumber” of deception.|
Many other symbols are part of the Buddhist tradition as well:
|Chorten (or stupa in Hindi): Like a Tibetan version of the Stations of the Cross, each of the eight types of chorten stands for one of the stages in the Buddha’s life: birth, enlightenment, many doors, descent from the god realm, great miracles, reconciliation, complete victory, and nirvana.|
|Dorje (or Vajra in Hindi): This may be variously described as a lightening bolt, a scepter, or a diamond rod. Whichever interpretation is followed, the dorje represents the invincible truth of Buddhist teachings. The diamond is is the hardest of natural materials, able to cut through anything else. In the same way, the wisdom of the Buddha is pure and strong enough to cut through every deception. The dorje embodies the male, or skill, aspect of wisdom.|
|Double Dorje: Two crossed dorjes represent the foundation of the world, signifying physical reality as we experience it in day-to-day life. This may be used as an emblem of protection.|
|Tibetan Bell: The feminine aspect of enlightenment, encompassing wisdom and emptiness. The sound of the bell drives away demons, including spiritual demons such as fear and illusion.|
|Kartika: This curved knife cuts the ties that bind us to conventional beliefs, leaving us free to pursue truth and attain true wisdom.|
|Phurpa: A ritual dagger that fights back against negativity and harmful forces that would hold us back. These harmful forces may be parts of ourselves; the phurpa, therefore, also signifies self control.|
|Flame Sword: Transcendent wisdom, which cuts through illusion, duality and attachment. This sword is the weapon of Manjusri, one of the most ancient Bodhisattvas, who embodies wisdom achieving victory over ignorance.|
|Tingsha: These cymbals are small but thick, producing a clear, piercing tone, which clears the mind for meditation. They can also clear the atmosphere of a place, removing negative energy. Tingshas are used in prayer, meditation and ritual, particularly the ritual of appeasing the “hungry ghosts.”|
|Buddha Eyes: The all-seeing eyes of the Buddha observe everything, but never speak.|
This is the most sacred mantra, which is regarded as the primal sound in the birth of the cosmos.
Its symbol is OM, but the actual mystic sound heard in the deep meditative state is A-U-M, which appears to correspond to the three elements that sprang up out of creation: Spirit-mind-body. A stands for the initial surge of emanation; U for preserving or nurturing it; and M for absorption, not dissolution. It also stands for Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva, the Hindu trinity.
When articulated or chanted, it is cleansing or purifying, and activates certain latent forces in the human body, and helps transcend worldly problems. Hence, as the holiest of all mantras, OM must precede all other mantras, otherwise the latter would not have the presence of divine power or force. To make any work successful, the OM mantra must be invoked before the work is started.
It is regarded to exist before and after creation. It is imperishable and therefore the symbol of the Infinite. It resides and is present in silence, and represents the entire manifested and unmanifested world.
OM MANI PADME HUM
Om Mani Padme Hum is the most common mantra in Tibet. It is recited by Buddhists, painted on rocks, and carved on prayer wheels. The essence of all the teachings of the Buddha are said to be contained in this mantra. Literally meaning “Aum to the Jewel in the Lotus,” this Tibetan mantra is said to invoke compassion. Tibetan people and almost all Buddhists believe that chanting this mantra of Chenrezig (Bodhisatva of Compassion) helps to rescue them from the sea of suffering and to achieve Buddhahood. Repeating it is believed to purify the mind and body. The mantra is also used for protection.
OM helps you to achieve perfection in the practice of generosity. Repetition of Om helps us maintain mental and emotional calmness, and to overcome obstacles.
MANI (jewel) helps you to perfect the practice of pure ethics, tolerance and patience.
PADME (lotus) helps you to achieve perfection in the practice of perseverance and concentration.
HUM (inseparability, purity) helps you to achieve perfection in the practice of wisdom.
Buddhism teaches that the Buddha can come to us in many forms. But when it comes to images, most Buddhas fall into two categories: depictions that represent the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, or another ascetic Boddhisatva; or the laughing Buddha called Hotei (also spelled Po-tai or Budai). The latter form isn’t meant to look anything like the teacher who awakened in India 2500 years ago. Rather, the chubby, laughing one was a Chinese monk who lived around 1000 CE. Hotei is considered a form of the Maitreya Boddhisatva, also called the future Buddha.
Laughter was Hotei’s teaching. He would walk into a crowded marketplace with his little knapsack of worldly possessions and just start laughing. Others in the crowd, who a moment before had been hurrying off somewhere or caught up with business, would notice this strange little man. Maybe they would take a minute from their busy lives and stop to think why someone who obviously had so little seemed to be so happy. And maybe they’d even laugh along.
Hotei wandered from town to town teaching in this way, often with a gaggle of children following him down the street. His nickname simply means “cloth sack,” because he carried all his possessions in one small bag. (His real name was Qieci.) Though he was poor and homeless, he never wanted for anything. People were happy to give him enough food to maintain his pleasingly plump figure, and counted themselves lucky to do so, because Hotei’s good luck rubbed off on everyone he met. They said he could put people’s troubles in his cloth sack and turn them into good fortune, and even grant wishes. Hotei was an irresistible force of positive energy.
Even death couldn’t slow him down — the little monk lived on in stories and art. One story says a Zen master once came to him, asking, “What is the meaning of Zen?” Hotei put down his traveling sack. Then Hotei picked the sack up again, saying, “What is the practice of Zen?”, and walked away. The questioner, probably after a minute or two of scratching his head, got the message: To understand Zen is to let go of the burdens of life, and thus escape suffering; to practice Zen is to move on with life’s daily chores in such a way as to ease the suffering of others.
Another somewhat less spiritual tradition says that if you eat or drink too much in the presence of Hotei Buddha, you can blame it on him. “Buddha made me do it!”
In time, towns put up statues of the laughing Buddha, and families kept smaller statues of him in their homes. To this day, many people rub his fat belly for good luck. Some depictions, including many of the figurines we sell at Mimosa, signify various things through a variety of props and poses:
1. Buddha carries a money bag and gold ingot, representing wealth and luck.
2. Buddha stands with two balls over his head, one for riches and one for happiness.
3. Buddha sits on a big gold nugget, holding a smaller gold nugget to give away. He’s a symbol of abundance, and the wealth that comes through sharing.
4. Buddha sits under a fan hat or parasol, kicking back and enjoying the good life. Sometimes called the “Happy Home Buddha.”
5. Buddha stands holding the Ru-Yi pot (bowl of plenty) overhead, collecting abundance and good fortune from the universe.
6. Buddha carries a fan in one hand and the wu lou (bottle gourd) in the other. The gourd protects from illness, while the fan wards off bad luck. This is a Buddha of protection.
7. Buddha carries his cloth sack, taking away troubles and turning them into good fortune. Hotei used to beg pennies, then use that money to buy gifts for others — an active version of the Zen story mentioned above. Hotei is sometimes called the “Buddhist Santa Claus.”
8. Buddha with the bag of blessings in one hand and the fan in the other represents safe travels. Often he wears prayer beads as well. He gives protection and blessings during either regular or spiritual journeys.
9. Buddha holding a ball is a symbol of love. The ball may also symbolize a pearl of wisdom or a peach symbolizing good health.
10. Buddha sits on a bag of blessings, holding his Ru-Yi begging pot and a wealth ball or peach. This one is called “Long Life Buddha.”
11. A fan may represent the Oogi fan. In feudal china, when peasants went to their lord to ask for a favor, the nobleman would give his “yes” by waving his fan, presumably because he was too high and mighty to talk to the common folk. Hotei’s use of the wish-granting fan is a playful reference to this custom.
12. Buddha seated on dragon chair grants wishes and shares wisdom. The chair itself often has the Chinese characters for “good fortune and luck” on the back, and coins scattered around it.
By Cathy Douglas
So many porches sport prayer flags these days—they can’t all belong to Buddhists, can they? I think a lot of us like the way prayer flags look, and like the idea of a sending our hopes and prayers on to anyone up there who happens to be listening. It’s passive, but at the same time conscious. The wind-blown strands of flags originated in the ancient Bon Tradition, but they’ve transferred nicely into Buddhism–and across cultures.
The flags themselves may be shamanistic, but the prayers we see on the modern ones are Buddhist. They bear either short or medium versions of sutras, verses giving the teachings of the Buddha, printed in lettering adopted from Sanskrit. The first Tibetan lama, Guru Rinpoche, consciously bound the old elemental spirits and made them part of the new belief system. He composed appeasing prayers and printed them on the traditional Bon flags. From that time on, it was the job of monks to copy the prayers onto cloth by hand, until woodblock printing was introduced from China in the 15th century.
Prayer flags always appear in multiples of five, with colors in a set sequence: Blue (sky), white (air/wind/cloud), red (fire), green (water), yellow (earth). (Sometimes air and water are reversed.) Corners are guarded by the four great animals, either picture or word: Garuda (mythical bird), dragon, tiger, snow lion. The ones we usually see fly on a horizontal string, sort of like a metaphysical clothesline. This style is lung ta, meaning “prayer horse.” Some lamas say they were first used in the Bon tradition for color healing. Flag colors stay in their fixed order to ensure balance between elements in the body, which is necessary for proper health. From there, it’s a short step to imagine how prayer flags could be used to honor elemental beings, and to placate them when they became angry. Armies often carried a prayer flag pole into battle. Legend says this tradition started with the Devas, beneficent deities on their way to fight demons that plague mankind.
Making prayer flags for export has become a cottage industry among Tibetan refugees in Nepal and India. The Chinese discouraged the flags at first, especially during the Cultural Revolution, but they seem to have given up on this particular battle.
Traditionally, you should put up a new string of flags every year. It’s best to put them up with an attitude that they’ll benefit all beings by balancing the elemental energy in the area. Tibetans actually prefer the gauzy ones on polyester, because they’re sturdy and wind passes through them more easily. This style is actually cheaper in America, where we see most flags printed on nice cotton or polyester. When they’re worn out, it’s best to dispose of them by burning, so that the smoke can send the prayers on one more time.
What if you’re not Buddhist, but want to keep some pretty flags on the porch, flapping in the wind? Inasmuch as the forces recognized by Bon shamans are still at work in our world, the flags raise the energy associated with the elements embodied in them. The traditional meaning or harmony and good-will, exemplified by Lama Rinpoche, blends with the desire many of us have to respect and learn from all the traditions of the world, not just the ones we were born with.
When you see the variety of statuary available in a store like ours, it’s only natural to wonder: Why do they call him “The” Buddha, when it seems like there are dozens of different Buddhas? And not all are necessarily “him”; some representations of Buddha are female. Even within the two main types of male Buddhas–the chubby bald ones and the slender meditative ones–we see a variety of symbolic items, hand and body positions.
Buddhism is a highly abstract belief system. At the center of Buddhism we don’t find the worship of any person or deity, but rather teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The purpose of the symbolic representations of many Buddhas is not to create a pantheon, such as we know from Greek mythology, but rather to lend a physical representation to the abstract teachings. Statues give a memorable form to the qualities one must develop in order to achieve enlightenment.
Gautama Buddha himself discouraged his followers from depicting him in artwork, saying each person should be his or her own “lamp.” Nevertheless, about 150 years after his death people started making images of him anyway. Perhaps it’s simply easier for the human to soul fasten onto something physical, when abstractions feel distant and hard to follow. Besides, statues remind us of the humanity behind abstract teachings. Symbolism of the asanas (postures), mudras (hand gestures) and sacred items remind us to pay attention to the details along the path to enlightenment.
In Buddhism, statues are objects of reverence, not worship. One doesn’t pray to them or consider the statues themselves to be gods. Therefore, Buddhists don’t go to a statue in hoping some distant “god” will be nice to them, but rather to remind themselves to create the compassion and other good qualities they hope to find in the world.
Some characteristics are common among most images of the Buddha. Many have a bump in the middle of the forehead, indicating a large “third eye” gained through enlightenment. Most also have long earlobes, signifying wisdom. Except for Hotei, most Buddhas wear their hair in a topknot, an emblem of wisdom adopted by wandering ascetics. Seated Buddhas are often on a single or double lotus throne. The lotus has many meanings, the main one being purity.
Here’s a list of some common types of Buddha representations you may see. Some of the common Buddha statues are depictions of Gautama Buddha himself, while others are Bodhisattvas–others who have attained buddhahood.
|Name||Identity||Position & Symbols||Significance|
|Amitabha||Pure Land Buddha||A simple meditating figure, hands in dhyana mudra (folded in lap with fingertips outstretched)||Balance & meditation. He is the incarnation of intuitive consciousness.|
|Avalokiteshvara||Buddha of Compassion||Four arms, two hands held in prayer, one holding a lotus and one holding a mala. May be male or female.||Compassion. The name means “the Lord Who Looks Down.”|
|Bhaisajya/ Bhaisajyaguru||Master of Healing or Medicine Buddha||Seated with bowl in one hand, and the five-lobed healing plant myrobalan in either the other hand or the bowl.||Healing, both in the physical sense, and also healing from the damage of illusion|
|Dhyani||Transcendental Buddha||shown in sexual embrace with female partner in lap||Philosophical aspects of buddhahood; elimination of duality & merging of opposites|
|Dipankara, Vipasyin, Sikhin, Visvabhuja, Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kasyapa||Human Buddhas||All have the same external features as Gautama: topknot, mark on forehead, long earlobes. They hold their hands in various positions.||Buddhas who came before Gautama|
|Hotei/Hotai (or Budai) Buddha
(See * below for specific meaning of his many props.)
|Laughing Buddha, sometimes considered a form of Maitreya Buddha||Bald and cheerful guy in a robe, which is usually left open to expose a prodigious belly. Often shown with a sack, prayer beads, or a golden ingot. His long earlobes signify wisdom.||Represents luck in the face of external troubles. This buddha blesses us with longevity and prosperity. Rub Buddha’s belly for luck!|
|Kwan Yin||Female Buddha of Compassion||A serene female figure depicted in a variety of positions.||Helps with childbirth, travel, protection of women and children, and any sort of hard times. Reminds us to be selfless.|
|Maitreya||Future Buddha||Seated on throne with feet on lotus stool and hands in teaching position (usually with both hands in front of him, forefingers and thumbs forming circles.)||He will come 5000 years after the death of Gautama, to reveal teachings to the world.|
|Manjusri||Oldest of the Boddhisatvas, or enlightened ones.||Seated, with a flaming sword in one hand, and a book in the other. The book is often held in a lotus flower.||Lord of wisdom, banisher of darkness|
|Protection Buddha||Hand raised in abhaya mudra, the gesture of fearlessness, hand held up as if to say “stop.” Legend says that Gautama Buddha once halted a stampeding elephant with this gesture.||The upraised hand signifies more than protection. Its extended significance is the absence of any need for fear.|
|Shakyamuni||The Historical Buddha||Holds one hand in the “earth witness” gesture, fingers touching the ground. In the other hand he holds a begging bowl, a symbol of both emptiness and (within Buddhism) authority.||Touching the ground with his fingers invokes the Earth’s witness to the truth of his teachings. Reminds of the reality that an ordinary human being can achieve enlightenment.|
|Sukhothai||Walking Buddha||Standing, with right foot in front as if he is about to take a step. His right hand is raised.||Grace and beauty|
|Tara (Green)||Buddha of Enlightened Activity||Carries a half-open lotus, or sometimes two. These may appear to be growing from her arms.||Protection, and the banishment of fears|
|Tara (White)||Female Buddha of Compassion||Seven eyes in head, feet, and palms of hands. Holding a lotus.||The eyes help her see those in need of help. The lotus symbolizes purity. Health, strength, longevity & beauty.|
|Vajradhara||Primordial Buddha||Holds ghanta (bell) in one hand and vajra (ringer) in the other||Mystical unity of one being who represents the totality of creation.|
|Vajrapani||Gautama’s companion||A muscular man depicted standing||Protection|
* Hotei Buddha may carry various symbolic props, each of which carries a different significance:
|Happy home||Sits under a parasol on a pile of gold, holding out a smaller piece of gold as a blessing.|
|Safe Travel||Carries a bag of protection..|
|Long Life||Sitting on bag of blessings, holding wealth ball & Ru-Yi pot|
|Spiritual Journey||Gourd of enlightenment hanging from stick, fan in one hand, necklace of beads.|
|Abundance||Hands above head holding Ru-Yi pot (bowl of plenty) to collect wealth from the Universe.|
Kwan Yin is a goddess of compassion, whose name means “One who hears the cries of the world.” She is regarded as a feminine bodhisattva, an enlightened being. Her worship took its current form when Buddhism came to China. Spellings vary, with Quan Yin and Guan Yin common; in Japan she goes by Kannon.
Very large statues of Kwan Yin are traditional in China, Japan, and many other Asian countries. Here’s a picture of a Kwan Yin Statue from Guangzhou, China If you like that, here’s a website with many more very big religious statues. (In Asia, gigantic statues of Kwan Yin, Buddha, Shiva and others are common around temples and large cities.) As the female analog of The Buddha of Mercy, Avilokiteshvara, she’s loved by all.
Still, people of certain walks of life and situations traditionally seek her favor, and many of the symbols we see on statues reflect this. Here’s a key to some symbols and other features of statues, along with their meanings:
And that’s just a start–there are a lot of representations out there! In Feng Shui, it’s traditional to keep a small statue of her in each room of the house to maintain harmonious energy.
Travelers and sailors also carry a small statue of her with them for safety and luck. Larger statues are common in gardens, as well as personal and family shrines. And representations of Kwan Yin in public areas, like the one linked above, are among the largest statues in the world.
Here’s one traditional Chinese story of Kwan Yin’s origins:
Back in Confucian China lived king, whose third and final daughter was so radiant that he named her Miao Shan (radiant goddess). The girl lived up to her name, preferring a life of contemplation, while renouncing fine food, clothing, and all other trappings of royal life. When it came time for her to marry, she adamantly refused. Where, she asked her father, was there a husband who could give her the gifts of the Buddha–freedom from the fear of sickness, old age and death? Miao Shan reminded her father that even a king had no protection from these things.
The king didn’t like that much. In fact, he was so enraged that he put her into a Buddhist nunnery, threatening the nuns with torture and death unless they subjected his daughter to the harshest of treatment. Miao Shan willingly worked at menial tasks and suffered privation, though she chastised the women for fearing her father’s threats. Next, the desperate king decided to kill her. But when he tried to have her beheaded, a blinding thunderstorm came, and a tiger rushed in at the last minute and carried the girl away.
The king decided to wait awhile before trying again, but before he could decide what to do, a terrible sickness came to him, reminding him of his daughter’s warnings about the things even kings fear. A passing beggar advised him that only a potion made from the willing sacrifice of two human arms and two human eyes could save him. Without much hope, he sent out his ministers in search of a person who would willingly give up arms and eyes. Miraculously (to them at least), they found such a person; the potion was made and the king saved. Of course, he was filled with remorse when he found out it was his daughter who’d been mutilated.
She comforted her father with prophetic words: “Do not worry, Father. Mortal eyes give way to diamond eyes, and mortal arms to arms of gold.” He ordered a statue made of her, and in her honor he commanded that it have no arms and no eyes. But the sculptor misunderstood his words, and gave the statue instead a thousand arms and a thousand eyes. The king knew then that Miao Shan could do anything with so many arms, could see anything with so many eyes. Her compassion comforted him, and now he was willing to extend this comfort to all people.
After she died and became the goddess Kwan Yin, she requested permission to come back to Earth, to be with us until the day when all suffering may cease.
Click Here to Visit Cathy Douglas’ Website.