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)
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.