Ways of Expressing Meaning

Appreciating that individuals and cultures express their beliefs and values through many different forms.


Stories of Faith

The most important stories in Buddhism concern the historical Buddha, Siddattha / Siddhartha Gotama / Gautama and can generally be found in the Suttas. They concern his birth, his going forth into homelessness, his effort to reach Enlightenment, his attainment of nibbana / nirvana, his first sermon, and his parinibbana / parininirvana.

Birth: Gotama / Gautama was born in Lumbini in modern day Nepal. On the night Siddattha / Siddhartha was conceived, Queen Maya (his mother) dreamt that a white elephant with six white tusks entered her right side. Ten months later she gave birth, standing up, under a sal tree. Eight Brahmins then read the baby’s future and stated that he had the Thirty-Two Marks of a great man, which meant he would either become a great king or a Buddha.

Going forth: Gotama / Gautama’s father wanted him to be a great king so kept him away from unpleasant experiences and ensured he lived in absolute luxury. However, at the age of 29, when out with his chariot driver, Gotama / Gautama was shocked to see an old man, a diseased man, a corpse and finally an ascetic. He decided that he needed to overcome disease, death and suffering so decided to leave his royal life and become a medicant.

Effort: Gotama / Gautama became a wandering ascetic begging for alms food on the street. He then studied under a number of hermits and meditation teachers, surpassing their achievements and moving on. He then joined five ascetics led by Kondanna, who aimed for enlightenment through extreme asceticism and self-mortification. Restricting his daily intake to a leaf or a nut a day, Gotama / Gautama collapsed in a river and nearly drowned. He then remembered a meditative state he had naturally fallen into as a child (jhana) and realised that this might be the best starting place

Enlightenment: having accepted milk and rice pudding from a girl called Sujata, Gotama / Gautama sat down under a pipal tree known as the Bodhi Tree and vowed not to arise until he had discovered the truth. After 49 days of meditating he discovered the Four Noble Truths, the Middle Way and became Enlightened.

First Sermon: the Buddha then journeyed to a deer park in Sarnath and delivered his first sermon expounding the Dhamma / Dharma / Dharma to his five ascetic companions. They then joined the Buddha and became the first members of the Sangha.

Parinibbana / Parinirvana: the Buddha continued to teach for the remaining 45 years of his life and his Sangha continued to grow. Having eaten a meal offered by a blacksmith named Cunda, the Buddha became ill. He asked his monks whether they had any questions or doubts that needed clearing up. They replied that they did not. Then the Buddha entered Parinibbana / Parinirvana. His last words were: “All composite things pass away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence”.

These stories are sacred because the concern the Buddha. They are told in the Buddhists texts – in the Suttas of the Pali Canon for example. As such they are preserved unchanged. The stories concerning the Buddha are very important to Buddhism and its followers since they show the struggle that the Buddha went through to achieve Enlightenment. They show that the Buddha started out human and unenlightened like us, but through diligent effort he managed to attain Nibbana / Nirvana. Thus the stories offer a paradigm of religious effort. They offer a model that adherents try and live up to today.

Many Buddhist symbols need to be examined within the culture of adherents. A number of early symbols relate to ancient India and are shared with Hinduism, although usually with a different meaning.

Symbols of Faith

Symbols for the Buddha: early Buddhist art tends to portray the Buddha symbolically using images. These include the Dhamma / Dharma Wheel (the Buddha is known as a Wheel-Turner, one who sets a new cycle of teaching in motion), the Bodhi Tree (the tree under which the Gotama / Gautama achieved Enlightenment), footprints (these often have Dhamma / Dharma Wheels on them, one of the 32 marks of a great man), an empty throne (referring to the Buddha’s royal ancestry and rule over the spiritual world), a begging bowl (alluding to the bowl of milk rice offered to him as an ascetic, which made him realize that the middle way between asceticism and self-indulgence was the right path), and a lion (the Buddha’s teachings are sometimes referred to as the ‘Lions Roar’, indicating their strength and power). Alongside these, Buddhist households may have a statue of the historical Buddha, a Buddha (e.g. Amitaba) or a Bodhisattva (e.g. Avalokatesvara). These statues are usually kept on a high shelf as a mark of respect and are given offerings such as water, incense or food. Statues are usually the focal point in Buddhist Temples and may be used as an aid to Buddha devotions. They are always treated respectfully, with Buddhists removing their shoes, kneeling before them, or even prostrating themselves before them.

The Triple Gem: the Triple Gem is usually represented as three jewels and symbolizes the Buddha, the Dhamma / Dharma and the Sangha – the Three Refuges.

Muddas: muddas are symbolic hand gestures used in Buddhist iconography and meditation. They represent a number of key events in the life of the Buddha, doctrines and values such as fearlessness.

As Buddhism spread, Buddhist symbolism was enriched by the cultures it came into contact with. This is especially true of Buddhism in Tibet, which has developed a rich symbolic tradition. The central representations of Tibetan Buddhism are the eight auspicious symbols:

Parasol (embodying notions of wealth)

Golden Fish

Treasure Vase


Conch Shell

Endless Knot

Victory Banner

Dharma Wheel

Mandalas are often used in Tibetan Buddhism, particularly Tantra. It usually consists of a number of concentric circles representing the cosmos. In Tantric meditation practices mandalas act as a ‘sacred space’ symbolising Buddhafields or purelands and space where the confusion of samsara cannot penetrate. By visualizing purelands, one learns to understand experience itself as pure, and the abode of enlightenment.

The Buddhist Flag is a comparatively modern Buddhist symbol. It was designed by Colonel Henry Steele Olcott in 1880 and is now used worldwide to represent Buddhism and symbolise faith and peace.

Buddhist Art & Imagery

Buddhist symbolism and art originated on the Indian subcontinent following the historical life of Gotama / Gautama Buddha and thereafter evolved through contact with other cultures as it spread throughout Asia and the world. Early Buddhist symbolism followed the aniconic tradition, which avoids direct representation of the human figure. Among the earliest and most common symbols were the stupa, the Dhamma / Dharma Wheel, and the lotus flower. The Dhamma / Dharma Wheel is a particularly important symbol in Buddhism as it implies royalty and there is a great deal of mythology about the “Wheel-turning king”. The Dhamma / Dharma Wheel also refers to the historical process of teaching the Dhamma / Dharma – the 8 spokes symbolise the Noble Eightfold Path. Around the 1st century CE anthropomorphic images of the Buddha began to appear, beginning with the representation of the Buddha’s footprint, which symbolise the physical presence of the Buddha on earth. The story goes that prior to his death the Buddha left an imprint of his foot on a stone near Kusinara, a reminder of his presence on earth. Representations of this often show Dhamma / Dharma Wheels on them. In the Lakkhana Sutta, the Buddha is described as having the 32 Marks of a great man. These marks are often used in statues and icons of the Buddha to symbolise his greatness. Mahayana and Vajrayana art frequently makes use of the Eight Auspicious Symbols.

Unlike other religions, Buddhist language often attempts to remove symbolism from it. The aim of Buddhism is to see things as they really are, hence Buddhist language usually attempts to express itself clearly rather than cloak the meaning in symbolism. The Abhidhamma / Abidharma is the clearest expression of this idea. However, that is not to say that Buddhist texts are devoid of symbolism. The Suttas / Sutras frequently make use of fire symbolism. This is most famously done in the Fire Sermon. Here the Buddha tells his disciples that “all is burning”. This refers to the six internal sense bases (5 senses and the mind), the six external sense bases (visible forms, smells etc), consciousness, contact and feeling. These are all burning with the fires of passion, aversion and delusion. The idea of fire is very important in Buddhism and can be seen in the word nibbana / nirvana, which literally means ‘blowing out’ – i.e. extinguishing the Three Fires.

The most obvious piece of Buddhist symbolic architecture is the stupa. Stupas come in all shapes and sizes and have been constructed since the early days. They generally represent the enlightened mind of the Buddha, but can also represent the five elements: the square base represents earth; the round dome represents water; the cone shape is fire; the canopy is air; and the volume of the stupa is space. Stupas are also used to store the relics of important teachers and even relics of the Buddha himself.

In Buddhism, symbols reflect beliefs. The Dhamma / Dharma Wheel, for example, reflects the belief in the Buddha’s Dhamma / Dharma – the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Symbols are also used in religious expression such as devotion or meditation. For example, the Buddha is often the subject of meditation and so a Buddha image or statue is a useful focus. Equally, while Buddha images are not thought to actually be or contain the Buddha, (Theravadins believe that when the Buddha died he became inaccessible to us), they are used as the focus of devotional activity, with offerings such as flowers and incense being given as a sign of respect.

Theravada Places of Worship

In Theravadin Buddhism, worship is a difficult word. Theravadins believe that gods are of this world and therefore are equally in need of salvation like everybody else. They also believe that Gotama / Gautama Buddha, when he achieved parinibbana / nirvana, became inaccessible to us. Thus, while the word puja is usually translated as ‘worship’, and some of the practices encapsulated by puja may look like worship, it should be interpreted as showing respect to a great man, the Buddha. Most puja practices take place in a temple. Modern temples tend to be very bright and colourful. There will be a shrine room, with a main Buddha image and many other statues or paintings showing events from the Buddha’s life and his previous lives, other Buddha’s or past arahats / arhats. The image of the Buddha is often very large so everyone, even small children, will be aware of his importance.

People make offerings before the Buddha image. These are usually foods, flowers, candles, and incense. On Holy or poya days food is usually offered twice a day and is accompanied by drumming.

As already mentioned, while these offerings may look like worship, they should be seen as signs of respects and should not be viewed as gifts to a supernatural being in the hope of supernatural reward. The gifts themselves help to remind the giver of the Buddha’s teaching: flowers wilt and candles and incense go out reminding one that everything is impermanent. The offerings also help to bring about a peaceful mind and generate merit. Furthermore, actions become ritualized and this can act as a form of meditation for the practitioner.

Buddhist temples are traditionally part of monasteries, viharas. This means that they have a very important place in the community. Not only are they huge sources of merit for the laity since they facilitate offerings to the Buddha and donations of food to the monks, they are also viewed as the home of the Buddha’s Dhamma / Dharma. The Sangha, one of the Three Jewels, or Refuges, is very important to Buddhism. Monks and nuns are viewed as people who are further down the path to Nibbana / Nirvana than other lay members and so are valuable in giving Dhamma / Dharma talks, teaching, producing books etc. Extensive libraries are usually held in viharas   as well.


The most important places of pilgrimage for Buddhists are located on the Gangetic Plains in Northern India and Southern Nepal, the area where the Buddha lived and taught. The four most important sites associated with the Buddha are: Lumbini (in Nepal) – the place of the Buddha’s birth; Bodh Gaya – the place of the Buddha’s Enlightenment; Sarnath – where he delivered his first teaching; Kusinara – where he died. In addition to these, most countries have shrines etc that can be visited on a pilgrimage.

Mahayana Places of Worship

Followers of Mahayana see Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha of the scriptures and of our world system, as being available in a glorious heaven or in spiritual form, along with other Buddhas from different world systems and Bodhisattvas. This means that the Buddha(s) and Bodhisattvas are often petitioned through prayer and offerings. The temples and shrine rooms used for this are much the same as those of Theravadin Buddhists, but the philosophy behind Mahayana worship is slightly different.

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is an often worshipped figure. He is a saviour figure, a being to imagine and related to, satisfying the emotions, he loves and protects and is loved, treated with devotion and worshiped. The Lotus Sutra states that calling upon him is worth thousands of prayers to any other Buddha or Bodhisattva. The mantra “om mani padme hum” is often used to pray to him.

In Pure Land Buddhism, the Buddha Amitabha (or Amida) is worshipped. Amitabha dwells in a paradisal, pure Buddhaland called Sukhavati. He used to be the bodhisattva Dharmakara, who out of compassion vowed he would create a pure land for all suffering beings. Adherents of Pure Land Buddhism believe that trusting devotion to Amitabha will mean he will take them to his pure land. Worship of Amitabha involves recitation of his name, often using beads to count, imagining his pure land and “singing his praises”.