Buddhism is full of symbols. Although the Buddha lived in the 6th century BCE, according to tradition, statues of the Buddha and buddhist symbols did not appear in India until around the 3rd century BCE. Since then these symbols have represented certain aspects of the Buddha and conveyed the core principles of Buddhism. As Buddhism spread to other countries, the different buddhist traditions transmitted their teachings through the use of various symbols which is believed to be the key to the survival of Buddhism.
These symbols may invoke inner peace and contentment or awaken deeper states of mind in those who see them. Each symbol is unique and holds a different meaning or convey a different message. It may inspire us to achieve our greatest aspirations, values, and potentials. Here are some of the most inspiring buddhist symbols and their meaning.
What do they mean?
Om, also written as Aum, is a mystical and sacred syllable that originated from Hinduism, but is now common to Buddhism and other religions. In Hinduism, Om is the first sound of creation and symbolizes the three stages of existence: birth, life, and death.
The best known use of Om in Buddhism is in Om Mani Padme Hum, the “Six-Syllable Great Bright Mantra” of the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara. When chanting or looking at the syllables, we invoke the compassion of the Bodhisattva and instill his qualities. AUM (Om) consists of three separate letters, A, U, and M. They symbolize the body, spirit and speech of the Buddha; “Mani” is for the path of teaching; “Padme” for the wisdom of the path, and “hum” denotes wisdom and the path to it, as explained in Buddhism: A Brief Introduction.
Since ancient times, temple bells have summoned monks and nuns to meditation and ceremonies. The gentle ring of a bell during chanting helps followers to focus on the present moment and let go of daily worries. A sense of peace and calmness can be enhanced by the sound of the bell. For this reason, wind bells are often hung on the eaves of stupas and temple to create peaceful and meditative spaces, with their tinkling sounds.
The ring of the bell is a symbol of the Buddha’s voice. It also represents wisdom and compassion, and is used to call upon the heavenly deities for protection and to ward off evil spirits. Many old temples have bells at the entrances that one needs to ring before entering.
Bells come in a wide range of sizes and styles.
The Buddha achieved awakening under the shelter of a sacred fig tree known as the bodhi tree. Since then, the bodhi tree has become a symbol of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and the heart-shaped leaf a symbol of the potential that lies within each of us to awaken.
Bodhi is a Sanskrit word that means “awakening.” The term has two meanings for Buddhists. It denotes both the fig tree, ficus religiosa, under which Siddhartha Gautama became awakened and any tree under which any Buddha has awakened.
The bodhi leaf is heart-shaped and exudes a bright and lilting energy. It speaks of playfulness and thoughtfulness. The bodhi tree still stands in Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha was awakened, as a descendant of the one under which the Buddha sat centuries ago. See Under the Bodhi Tree.
In Zen Buddhism, ensō is a sacred symbol often referred to as “The Circle of Enlightenment.” It is a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. Some artists draw ensō as an open circle, while others complete the circle.
At first, ensō may appear as a roughly drawn circle, but it symbolizes many things: strength, elegance, the universe, our true and innermost self, beauty in imperfection, and the oneness of all things in life. It also symbolizes the perfect meditative state or enlightenment.
Ensō is a visual expression of the Heart Sutra. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form—a circle in which everything is contained within, or, equally excluded by its boundaries.
For thousands of years, the lion has been a symbol of royalty, strength and bravery. For these reasons, the lion symbolizes the royal origins of Buddha Shakyamuni, as well as his courage in challenging injustice and alleviating human suffering. He is referred to as “Lion of the Shakyas,” an acknowledgment of the power of his teachings. The Buddhas’ voice is often called the “Lion’s Roar,” roaring out the Dharma for all to hear. The symbolic meaning of the lion’s roar reminds us to strive with the courageous heart of the lion king and overcome obstacles in our path, creating happiness and harmony in our lives and in society.
The lions serve as guardians, represented in pairs at the entrance of shrines, temples, and monasteries. They are symbolic of the Bodhisattvas, the "Buddha's lions," and can be found in their role of Dharma protectors supporting the throne of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and serving as their mounts. Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of great wisdom mounts a lion, symbolized in The Flower Adornment Sutra (Avatamsaka).
In Buddhism, the lotus is a symbol of the Buddha’s awakening and a reminder that all beings have the same potential to attain enlightenment. The lotus grows out of mud and rises to the water’s surface to bloom in beauty and purity, so too can the human develop the virtues of a Buddha and rise above desire and attachment to reveal the true nature.
The stage of the lotus flower represents the stages on the spiritual path. For example, a closed bud is synonymous with the beginning of the journey. A partly open flower indicates walking the path. A fully blooming flower signifies the end of the journey--enlightenment.
The lotus blooms profusely in every aspect of buddhist art and literature in all cultures. One of the most important representations of the lotus in literature is the Lotus Sutra.
A mala usually consists of 9, 21, or 108 beads strung on a string. Each bead represents one. However, the bead is not alone, but is connected with all the other beads to make a whole strand. As individuals, we may think we are separate, but we’re not. We are connected to each other, to our family, to the world. We are all living beings together. One cannot exist without the other. This connection to life, we call the Buddha nature.
The idea of the mala is to move one bead at a time, focusing on a breath, a mantra, or a Buddha’s name, as in the Amitabha Sutra. This method creates positive spiritual energy.
This pearl refers to the “wish-fulfilling pearl” (Sanskrit: chintamani). It is said to grant wishes and pacify desires. In Buddhism, however, it is a symbol of spiritual wealth. With its luminosity, it brings clear all the treasures and teachings of the Buddha. It can represent the virtues of wisdom and compassion, the most desirable of all things. On a deeper level, it symbolizes the wish-fulfilling pearl of our minds, which we can recover through meditation and practicing the Dharma.
In Buddhist art, the pearl is often depicted as a ball with a pointed top, or as a set of three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha or the monastic community. It can appear on a cloud or surrounded by flames, or atop a staff or symbol used in rituals. Often, it shows a quality of a Buddha, Bodhisattva or deity. For example, the Bodhisattva Kshitigatbha, Earth Treasury, is usually shown holding a six-ringed staff in his right hand and a single jewel in his left hand, as represented in Earth Treasury Sutra.
The ancient swastika is one of the oldest symbols on Earth. It is a symbol of peace, good luck, and positivity, predating the Indus Valley Civilization and is found in the art of many cultures: Egyptians, Romans, Celts, Greeks and Native Americans. It is also used in Vedic mathematics. The Sanskrit translation means "to be good," or “being with higher self.”
In Buddhism, the swastika symbolizes the seal of the Buddha’s heart and contains within it the entire mind of the Buddha. It can be seen imprinted on the body, palms, chest, or feet of Buddha images. In China, the swastika represents the number ten thousand (wan), meaning infinity and auspiciousness.
This is the same swastika that the Nazis rotated counter-clockwise and made it into a symbol of discrimination and slaughter. With Buddhism coming to the West, however, the symbol is regaining its original meaning of auspiciousness.
The vajra is a kind of battle club used as a ritual object to symbolize both the properties of a diamond (indestructibility) and a thunderbolt (irresistible force). It is fashioned out of brass or bronze, with four prongs at each end forming a lotus-bud shape that denotes peace or end in sharp points and become a wrathful weapon with which to stab. The vajra is used in both Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is almost always paired with a bell during rituals.
In Buddhism, vajra has three meanings: durable, luminous, and able to cut. Like the diamond, vajra smashes all devious influences, but is itself indestructible, as explained in The Vajra (Diamond) Sutra. Like the thunderbolt, its light breaks up the darkness. Like sunyata (the nature of reality), it chops away people’s afflictions and misguided views.