constant intriguing factor in the imagery of the
Great Buddha is the group of three curving conch-like
lines on his neck. In the varied world of Buddhist
art this is one common characteristic that shines
across all aesthetic traditions. Like other Buddhist
motifs, it too is soaked in rich spiritual symbolism.
It is said to represent Buddha's deep and resonant
voice, through which he introduced his followers
to the path of dharma.
The association of the conch
shell with Buddha's melodious voice, sweet with
the tenor of his uplifting message, has both an
archetypal simplicity and universal appeal. It is
a hard-hitting symbol which associates a primordial
object (deemed sacred in all ancient traditions)
with the actual physical body of the Buddha. Indeed,
though much of Buddhist philosophy is esoteric,
when it comes to aesthetics, Buddhist art is justly
famous for giving a physical, easily recognizable
representation to abstract philosophical truths.
Buddhism has evolved over the
centuries a complex, yet discernable scheme of symbolism
which has found adequate expression in Buddhist
art. Undoubtedly, the most popular of such symbols
is the group of eight, known in Sanskrit as 'Ashtamangala,'
ashta meaning eight and mangala meaning auspicious.
Each of these symbols is also individually associated
with the physical form of the Buddha.
These eight auspicious symbols
of Buddhism (Tib. bkra shis rtags brgyad) are:
1). A Conch Shell
2). A Lotus
3). A Wheel
4). A Parasol (Umbrella)
5). An Endless Knot
6). A Pair of Golden Fishes
7). A Banner Proclaiming Victory
8). A Treasure Vase
The conch shell has survived
as the original horn trumpet since time immemorial.
Ancient Indian epics describe how each hero of mythical
warfare carried a mighty white conch shell, which
often bore a personal name. It is one of the main
emblems of Vishnu, and his conch bears the name
of Panchajanya, meaning 'having control over the
five classes of beings.' Arjuna's (hero of the Mahabharata)
mighty conch was known as Devadatta, whose triumphant
blast brought terror to the enemy. As a proclaiming
battle horn, the conch is akin to the bugle. It
is an emblem of power, authority and sovereignty
whose blast is believed to banish evil spirits,
avert natural disasters, and scare away poisonous
creatures. Today, in its greatly tamed avatar, the
conch is used in Tibetan Buddhism to call together
religious assemblies. During the actual practise
of rituals, it is used both as a musical instrument
and as a container for holy water.
Ancient Indian belief classifies
the conch into male and female varieties. The thicker-shelled
bulbous one is thought to be the male (purusha),
and the thin-shelled slender conch to be the female
The fourfold caste division is
also applied as follows:
a). The smooth white conch represents
the Brahmin caste
b). The red conch the kshatriyas
c). The yellow conch the vaishyas
d). The grey conch the shudras
Additionally, there is a fundamental
classification of conch shells occurring in nature:
those that turn to the left and those which turn
to the right.
Shells which spiral to the right
in a clockwise direction are a rarity and are considered
especially sacred. The right-spiralling movement
of such a conch is believed to echo the celestial
motion of the sun, moon, planets and stars across
the heavens. The hair whorls on Buddha's head spiral
to the right, as do his fine body hairs, the long
curl between his eyebrows (urna), and also the conch-like
swirl of his navel.
Vajrayana Buddhism absorbed the
conch as a symbol which fearlessly proclaimed the
truth of the dharma. Among the eight symbols, it
stands for the fame of the Buddha's teaching, which
spreads in all directions like the sound of the
In addition to Buddha's throat,
the conch also appears as an auspicious mark on
the soles, palms, limbs, breast or forehead of a
divinely endowed being.
lotus does not grow in Tibet and so Tibetan art
has only stylized versions of it. Nevertheless,
it is one of Buddhism's best recognized motifs since
every important deity is associated in some manner
with the lotus, either being seated upon it or holding
one in their hands.
The roots of a lotus are in the
mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the
heavily scented flower lies above the water, basking
in the sunlight. This pattern of growth signifies
the progress of the soul from the primeval mud of
materialism, through the waters of experience, and
into the bright sunshine of enlightenment. Though
there are other water plants that bloom above the
water, it is only the lotus which, owing to the
strength of its stem, regularly rises eight to twelve
inches above the surface.
Thus says the Lalitavistara,
'the spirit of the best of men is spotless, like
the lotus in the muddy water which does not adhere
to it.' According to another scholar, 'in esoteric
Buddhism, the heart of the beings is like an unopened
lotus: when the virtues of the Buddha develop therein,
the lotus blossoms; that is why the Buddha sits
on a lotus bloom.'
Significantly, the color of the
lotus too has an important bearing on the symbology
associated with it:
1). White Lotus (Skt. pundarika;
Tib. pad ma dkar po): This represents the state
of spiritual perfection and total mental purity
(bodhi). It is associated with the White Tara and
proclaims her perfect nature, a quality which is
reinforced by the color of her body.
2). Red Lotus (Skt. kamala; Tib:
pad ma chu skyes): This signifies the original nature
and purity of the heart (hrdya). It is the lotus
of love, compassion, passion and all other qualities
of the heart. It is the flower of Avalokiteshvara,
the bodhisattva of compassion.
3). Blue Lotus (Skt. utpala;
Tib. ut pa la): This is a symbol of the victory
of the spirit over the senses, and signifies the
wisdom of knowledge. Not surprisingly, it is the
preferred flower of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of
4). Pink Lotus (Skt. padma; Tib.
pad ma dmar po): This the supreme lotus, generally
reserved for the highest deity. Thus naturally it
is associated with the Great Buddha himself.
The wheel consists of three basic
parts: the hub, the rim, and spokes (generally eight
in number). Its underlying form is that of a circle,
which is recognized across all traditions as a shape
that is complete and perfect in itself, qualities
which inform the teachings of the Buddha too.
Individually, the rim represents
the element of limitation, the hub is the axis of
the world, and the eight spokes denote the Eightfold
Path set down by the Buddha, which leads to the
cessation of all suffering.
A further esoteric interpretation
makes reference to the three trainings which form
an integral part of Buddhist meditative practice,
associating each of the three parts of the wheel
with one such practice. This symbolism is as follows:
a). The hub stands for training
in moral discipline. Through this practise the mind
is supported and stabilized. Thus it is the practise
of moral discipline that upholds our meditation,
just like the supporting axis of the world.
b). The spokes stand for the
correct application of wisdom, which cuts off ignorance
and ends suffering.
c). The rim denotes concentration,
which holds the entire meditative practise together,
just as the wheel of life is held together by its
The wheel evolved as a symbol
of the Buddha's teachings and as an emblem of the
Chakravartin or 'wheel turner,' identifying the
wheel as the Dharmachakra or 'wheel of law.' The
Tibetan term for Dharmachakra (chos kyi'khor lo)
literally means 'the wheel of transformation.' The
wheel's swift motion serves as an apt metaphor for
the rapid spiritual change engendered by the teachings
of the Buddha. Hence, Buddha's first discourse at
the Deer Park in Sarnath is known as the 'first
turning of the wheel of dharma.' Likewise, his subsequent
discourses at Rajgir and Shravasti are known as
the 'second and third turnings of the wheel of dharma.'
Above the mountain is the dome
of the sky. This is symbolized by the umbrella,
whose important function is to cast a shadow, the
shadow of protection. The dictionary defines a parasol
as an umbrella used for protection from the sun.
Thus its function is to protect exclusively from
the heat rather than the rain - as the word 'parasol,'
meaning 'to hold off the sun,' and 'umbrella,' meaning
'little shade,' similarly imply. The Sanskrit term
'chattra,' also means 'mushroom,' in an obvious
reference to its shape.
The parasol or umbrella is a
traditional Indian symbol of both protection and
royalty. The ability to protect oneself against
inclement weather has always, in all cultures, been
a status symbol. In Europe, until a few decades
ago, a sunshade was a status symbol for society
ladies. In Oriental thought, the fact that it protected
the bearer from the scorching heat of the sun was
transferred into the religious sphere as a "protection
against the heat of defilements." Thus the
coolness of its shade symbolizes protection from
the heat of suffering, desire, and other spiritually
The dome of the umbrella is held
aloft by a vertical handle (just like the mountain
upholds the sky), which is identified with the 'axis
mundi,' or the central axis upholding the world.
The umbrella is carried above an important dignitary
or the image of a deity, to indicate that the person
or symbol below the umbrella is in fact the center
of the universe, and also its spiritual support.
Umbrellas seem to be especially important in processional
rites, being like mobile temples. Thus, depictions
of the Buddha often display an elaborate and large
umbrella above his head.
As it is held above the head
it naturally symbolizes honor and respect. In Vajrayana
Buddhism, this large umbrella (atapatra) was even
deified into the thousand-armed, -footed goddess
Sitapatra, whose name literally means 'the white
In Tibet, depending on their
status, various dignitaries were entitled to different
parasols, with religious heads being entitled to
a silk one and secular rulers to a parasol with
embroidered peacock feathers. Exalted personalities
such as the Dalai Lama are entitled to both, and
in processions, first a peacock parasol and then
a silk one is carried after him.
The Tibetan version of the parasol
was adopted from its royal Indian and Chinese prototypes,
and fashioned from a wooden, spoked frame with a
domed silk cover and hanging silk pendants making
up an overhanging skirt.
The dome symbolizes wisdom, and
the hanging skirt, compassion. Thus the composite
form of the parasol signifies the union of these
Octagonal and square parasols
are also common, representing the Noble Eightfold
Path and the four directional quarters respectively.
The endless knot is a closed,
graphic ornament composed of right-angled, intertwined
lines. It is conjectured that it may have evolved
from an ancient naga symbol with two stylized snakes.
This latter image signifies the
dramatic interplay and interaction of the opposing
forces in the dualistic world of manifestation,
leading to their union, and ultimately to harmony
in the universe. This fact is amply reflected in
the symmetrical and regular form of the endless
The intertwining of lines reminds
us how all phenomena are conjoined and yoked together
as a closed cycle of cause and effect. Thus the
whole composition is a pattern that is closed on
in itself with no gaps, leading to a representational
form of great simplicity and fully balanced harmony.
Since all phenomena are interrelated,
the placing of the endless knot on a gift or greeting
card is understood to establish an auspicious connection
between the giver and the recipient. At the same
time, the recipient is goaded to righteous karma,
being reminded that future positive effects have
their roots in the causes of the present. This is
because the knot represents a connection, a link
with our fates, binding us to our karmic destiny.
Not surprisingly, this is one of the most favorite
symbols in Tibetan Buddhism, and often occurs independently
on its own.
Since the knot has no beginning
or end it also symbolizes the infinite wisdom of
This symbol consists of two fishes,
which usually appear standing vertically with heads
turned inwards towards each other.
The pair of fishes originated
as an ancient pre-Buddhist symbol of the two sacred
rivers of India, Ganga and Yamuna. Symbolically,
these two rivers represent the lunar and solar channels,
which originate in the nostrils and carry the alternating
rhythms of breath or prana. In Buddhism, the golden
fishes symbolize happiness, as they have complete
freedom in water. They represent fertility and abundance
as they multiply very rapidly. Fish often swim in
pairs, and in China they represented conjugal unity
and fidelity, where a pair of fishes would often
be given as a wedding present.
Both Jesus Christ and Buddha
are known as 'fisher of men,' because they save
mortals from the ocean of suffering.
In Sanskrit, the banner or sign
of victory is known as the dhvaja, meaning standard,
flag or ensign. Originally, the victory banner was
a military standard carried in ancient Indian warfare,
and bore the specific insignia of its champion.
For example in the Mahabharata, Krishna's chariot
was adorned with a banner showing the image of the
The victory banner was adopted
by early Buddhism as an emblem of the Buddha's enlightenment,
heralding the triumph of knowledge over ignorance.
It is said to have been placed on the summit of
Mt. Meru by Buddha himself, symbolizing his victory
over the entire universe. Again, Mount Meru here
is believed to be the central axis supporting the
The flag of victory also denotes
Buddha's triumph over Mara, who personifies hindrances
on the path to spiritual realization. Specifically,
there are said to be four types of Maras, each one
representing an individual hurdle on the path to
spiritual progress. These are:
1). The Mara of Emotional Defilement
2). Mara of Passion
3). Mara of the Fear of Death
4). Mara of Pride and Lust
It was only after conquering
these four negative traits that Buddha could proclaim
victory over ignorance, and achieve nirvana.
Cylindrical victory banners made
of beaten copper are traditionally placed at the
four corners of monastery and temple roofs. These
signify the Buddha's victorious dharma radiating
to the four directions and also his triumph over
the four Maras mentioned above.
Vase of Inexhaustable Treasures
The vase is a fat-bellied vessel
with a short, slim neck. On top, at the opening,
there is a large jewel indicating that it is a treasure
Its symbolic meaning was almost
always associated with the ideas of storage and
the satisfaction of material desires. In the sagas
and fairytales of many different cultures, for example,
there is the recurring idea of an inexhaustible
Physically, the 'vase of inexhaustible
treasures' is modelled on the traditional Indian
clay water pot or kumbha with a flat base, round
body, narrow neck and fluted upper rim. However
much is removed from it, this vase remains perpetually
full. Wealth vases, sealed with precious and sacred
substances, are commonly placed upon altars and
on mountain passes, or buried at water springs,
where their presence is believed to attract wealth
and bring harmony to the environment. In relation
to Buddhism it specifically means the spiritual
abundance of the Buddha, a treasure that did not
diminish, however much of it he gave away.
The question still remains of
the association of these eight symbols with the
Buddha's actual physical body. An ancient text called
the Heap of Good Fortune Sutra (Aryamangalakutanama-mahayanasutra),
while addressing the Buddha, has this to say on
Veneration to you with your
head like a protecting parasol,
With eyes like the precious golden fishes (even
today a woman with beautiful eyes is known as 'minakshi,'
meaning one with fish-like eyes)
With neck like a precious, adorned vase of
With speech like a right-turning Dharma shell,
With a mind infinite with wisdom like the never
With a tongue open like the auspicious pink lotus,
With a body proclaiming triumph over the attacking
armies of Mara,
With feet that tread the path of dharma like the
Artistically, these motifs may
be depicted individually, in pairs, in fours, or
as a composite group of eight. Designs of these
eight symbols adorn all manner of sacred and secular
Buddhist objects, such as carved wooden furniture,
metalwork, wall panels, carpets and silk brocades.
They are also frequently drawn
on the ground in sprinkled flour or colored powders
to welcome visiting religious dignitaries. Indeed,
no Tibetan ceremony, be it religious or secular
(for e.g. a marriage), is complete without some
depiction of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism,
which are believed to propitiate the environment
and grant protection to the activity being undertaken.
Your email address will not be published *
Email a Friend