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.

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