Buddhist Ritual Items and Symbols
Buddhism is one of the most established world religions that history has ever seen. Over the great expanse of time, it has quietly established its own set of symbolisms – symbols that are as old as time itself. This is only but natural with all the religions of the civilized world. And as such, many of these Buddhist religious symbols are considered recognizable icons of Buddhist Art and Tibetan Art. The more prominent symbols have entered the consciousness of the people from the Western world as well.
The thing about popular symbolisms is that many people know of its existence, and many people may even use it freely, but no one really knows how the said symbols came to existence and what the symbols initially meant.
Buddhist art symbols are quite rich in spiritual overtones, regardless of the fact that this religion has already given way to varying factions and sects. Some of these symbols have literally crossed boundaries, and so there are Buddhist religious symbols that share the design as Zen Buddhist symbols but may have varying meanings or interpretations.
For purposes of clarity, though, this article will focus on the greater lot of Buddhist symbols art forms that are universal or almost universal in nature. The most prominent of all Buddhist symbols and images is, of course, the very image of Buddha himself.
Table of Contents
- 1 - Siddhartha Gautama Buddha
- 2 - Buddhist Rituals Items
- 2.1 - Ghanta (Buddhist Prayer Bell)
- 2.2 - Sankha (Buddhist Conch shell)
- 2.3 - Dorje
- 2.4 - Damaru (Tibetan Drum)
- 2.5 - Gawu Box
- 2.6 - Tibetan Butter Lamp
- 2.7 - Tibetan Prayer Wheel
- 2.8 - Mala (Tibetan Beads)
- 2.9 - Tibetan Prayer Flag
- 2.10 - Brocade Banner
- 2.11 - Tibetan Cymbals
- 2.12 - Tibetan Incense
- 2.13 - Tibetan Prayer Scarf
- 2.14 - Aromatic Pillow
- 2.15 - Singing Bowl
- 2.16 - Statue
- 2.17 - Tibetan Bracelets
- 2.18 - Tibetan Meditation Cushion
- 2.19 - Incense Burner
- 2.20 - Protector Amulet
- 2.21 - Begging Bowls
- 2.22 - Buddhist Monastic Robes
- 2.23 - Tibetan Skull Cup
- 2.24 - Tibetan Thangka
- 2.25 - Buddhist art
- 2.26 - Mandala
- 3 - Buddhist Symbols
Siddhartha Gautama Buddha
The man’s figure has been depicted in various forms, during various stages of his life. His image can be seen almost in almost all corners of the globe, from eastern temples to permanent arm tattoos, and even elaborate cake designs. Even the conventional man on the street can often recognize the iconic image as something taken from the East. But many do not know that what they are seeing are actual depictions of the founder of Buddhism.
A number of iconic images of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha represent him as a man undergoing his earliest starvation period – all skin and bones sitting in a very upright and rigid position. His robe has fallen off his shoulders and draped almost piteously against his small, malnourished waist. This representation is said to have been taken from historical accounts, about the time when Buddha was trying to achieve the very basis of his dharma: the keystone to his teachings which would eventually preach about the ultimate reality of the universe.
In other exemplars of Buddhist symbols and images, Buddha is depicted as a smooth-faced young man, his hair coiled tightly on top of his head, his earlobes long (as was the fashion for the affluent people of his time.) Often too, he is represented as the sitting Buddha: a figure whose hands are clasped in prayer while sitting in the lotus position. In this symbol, Buddha is often shown as someone well-dressed, and evidently at the peak of health.
Needless to say, there are so many sitting Buddha statues in the world. Some of them are made entirely of gold, while others are created out of less costly materials but scaled to gigantic heights.
Interestingly enough, most Buddhist art forms represent Siddhartha Gautama as a laughing, carefree figure, round in shape, and somewhat on his way to old age; (he is usually depicted with a hairless scalp, long droopy earlobes, and sagging pectorals.) Undeniably, this representation of Buddha is the most iconic symbol of all Buddha representations.
However, the truth of this matter is that this image is not at all based on any historical account. Rather, this is a mere translation of Buddhist symbols. According to the prominent dogma of Buddhism, this laughing, the carefree and aging image of Buddha is what enlightened entities should look like after they achieved all their highest spiritual attainments and have given up his worldly body for a divine one.
In Christian retrospect, this is what we should look like in heaven.
In other words, one of the most prominent Buddhist symbols is not based on accurate details; but rather, based on creative interpretations of a mere translation of Buddhist dogma.
Buddhism is one of the major religions in Today’s World. More than 9% of people follow Buddhism in Nepal. Lord Buddha was born in Lumbini of Kapilvastu district of Nepal as a prince as his parents were King Suddhodhana and Queen Mayadevi. His childhood was full of comfort but one day he left all his comfort and palace in search of the solution to sufferings in life. Then, Lord Buddha meditated under the Bodhi tree. He found enlightenment and four noble truths at the same place.
If you’re interested to know more about Buddhism Check it out: Charity and Perfection of Giving in Buddhism
Buddhist Rituals Items
Buddhism aims to accomplish enlightenment through good deeds and services without priests, gods, or other intermediaries. Buddhist followers were guided to “work on your own salvation with diligence”.
Ghanta (Buddhist Prayer Bell)
Buddhist prayer bells are small and natural that is superintended to be small and innate. They are made up of shiny metal or gold. It consists of an ornate handle that forms into a curved bell and the top of the handle looks similar to a crown. The patterns made in these bells are unyielding and complex, which represents the entanglement of the religion. And, the bell curve is simple and contains repetitive simple patterns.
The sound of the bell is believed to symbolize the voice of Lord Buddha, by adding up to the sound of “Dharma”, or heavenly law. The bell also represents calmness and it is said to represent time to start the prayer and brace faithfulness. It is also used to answer a call for prayer.
Sankha (Buddhist Conch shell)
The Shankha resembles a decorated snail shell. It is regarded as one of the auspicious among eight auspicious symbols in Buddhism. The outer part of this shell is decorated with beautiful patterns concerning the faith of Buddhism and they’re usually found painted in white or light colors. They represent Buddhism ubiquitous and water.
Sankha is usually used as a musical instrument. It is also used to carry holy water from place to place. People believe that sankha will allow overcoming evil, fear to those who can hear its sound. Also, it represents the voice and the truth of Buddha’s teaching in Buddhism.
Dorje is one of the most important Tibetan ritual items. It consists of complex designs and the ornate compliments to the bell. Dorje and Bell are supposed to go hand in hand. Commonly, it’s said as ‘thunderbolt’ and it symbolizes the “thunderbolt” of enlightenment.
Dorje is usually held in the right hand during rituals and prayers and the prayer bell would usually be held on the other hand. Dorje is supposed to represent male belief whereas bell symbolizes the aspect of wisdom. Both of these objects when together, a person achieves enlightenment.
Damaru is believed that the instrument reached the Himalayas around the 8th century. The wood and the leather objects by the help of which Drum is made has been a staple of the Buddhist faith for a very long time. Damaru holds massive significance during Tantric practices.
There are three types of Damaru. Each of them has its own specific purpose.
The most used damage is Chod Damru which is believed to be made from wood and is covered with leather skins on the surface. It is used during the Tantric practice of chod, with a belief that this the cut to the problem and faces them.
The Gau box is known as a lucky charm that is made up of silver and is used to hold an image of Buddha which is made from metal or clay. The outer side of the box is beautifully ornamented with rare and expensive stones. It is used during prayer to obviate an evil spirit and bring Lord Buddha’s blessing.
Male Buddhists wear a square-shaped amulet whereas women embellish rounded ones.
Tibetan Butter Lamp
Tibetan Butter Lamp is usually used in most of the sanctuaries and Tibetan temples. The golden cup represents the illumination of Wisdom. Tibetan Butter lamp is offered to the temples early in the morning with other seven bowls containing other symbolic offerings. People traveling between temple also supply oil to gain favor.
Tibetan Prayer Wheel
Tibetan Prayer Wheel comes in various materials, shapes, and sizes and comes in a cylindrical form. The larger prayer wheels are usually held up by wooden structures and the personal ones are small in size. They are usually made up of gold and are decorated with auspicious symbols found in Asthamnagala.
Mala (Tibetan Beads)
Tibetan Beads are one of the very important and well known Tibetan ritual items. The Mala is composed of 108 beads, and each of those signifies the mortal sins of humanity. Those beads are supposed to be made from the wood of a special tree, i.e. Ficus religiosa. Rattan seeds and Bodhi seeds are also used sometimes. The signification usually varies with the materials and the wooden beads are used for all purposes.
Tibetan Prayer Flag
Tibetan prayer flag is one of the earliest traditions in Buddhism which dated back thousands of years. In ancient times, Bonpo priests used colored cloth flags with their magical symbols which are supposed to balance the elements. Prayer flags help to generate natural positive energy and bring harmony to everything touched by the wind.
There are flags of 5 colors including Red, White, Yellow, Green, and blue color and each color represents fire, water, earth, air, and space respectively. People following Buddhism added ancient symbols, texts, prayers, and mantras in these flags and they’re supposed to help to overcome natural disasters, diseases, generating compassion, wish fulfillment, health, and other obstacles.
The Tibetan Brocade Banner consists of 8 Tibetan Symbols with beautiful and traditional Buddhist iconography. These banners help to enhance the personal home, these wall banners eight auspicious symbols. They come on a golden yellow background and the symbols get decorated with colorful tassels. It consists of eight auspicious symbols including Golden Fish, Parasol, conch shell, URN, Lotus, Infinite knot, Flags, and the Wheels.
The Brocade banners in Buddhist homes are believed to generate positivity and ward off negative energy. Also, they appease the surroundings and offer protection to worshippers.
Tibetan Cymbals or tingsha are used by Buddhist practitioners during prayer and rituals. A chain or sometimes a leather strap is used to join these two cymbals and they are stuck together which results in producing a high and cleared pitched tone.
These days, antique Cymbala is very rare and quite expensive to find. == They’re used in music, prayers, meditation, and overall in sound healing therapies. They were also used in Tibetan rituals as a contribution to “hungry ghosts”.
Tibetan incense is one of the most used and needs ritual items. It is usually used during the cleansing of surroundings, relaxation, and meditation. The beautiful aroma helps to calm and soothes the minds of the devotees.
They are made up of pure spices, flowers, herbs.
Firstly, the pieces of wood are converted into a fine powder then other ingredients are added to the mixture. Then they’re dried and made into different shapes and sizes.
Tibetan Prayer Scarf
Tibetan Prayer Scarf is also known as Khata. It is one of the traditional Tibetan Buddhist its which indicates wishes of happiness, respect. It is used in almost all the special occasions as well as its farewell. During the farewell period, it represents a safe journey. When it is given to a guest, it is supposed to symbolize welcome.
Khata is also believed to symbolize compassion and purity in Buddhism. The white-colored that represents a pure heart. The katas are hung on Thangka Paintings, placed around the neck of people and statues. Offering khata is also one of the ways of showing gratitude.
Aromatic pillows have Himalayan herbs which help to restore balance with its ancient healing recipes. This aromatherapy is widely used in South Asia for centuries. Nepal is one of the countries rich in herbal plants and the products are handpicked by locals then dried. Then are made based on ancient Tibetan Therapies. The herbs are used for therapy for emotional well-being.
Tibetan singing bowls are made up of metals are usually used in medication and sound healing therapies. Singing Bowls produces prolonged soothing vibrations that help to calm you down and helps in healing.
Singing Bowl when struck with a mallet produces harmonic and gets produced around the edges of the bowls.
For detailed information on the singing bowl: All you need to know about the singing bowl
Statues are used for representing deities in Buddhist Mythology. The statue of Buddha is the representation of Lord Buddha. The statue of Buddha varies according to tradition and culture. The different Buddhist Statue has its own form and meanings. The statue of Buddha statues are artistic and are highly influenced by Buddhist texts.
Tibetan Bracelets are one of the Buddhist Rituals items which are believed to protect from negative energy. The knots in the bracelets are tied together during the repetition of mantras. And then the bracelets are charged with protective charm and positive energy. They’re tied together by the endless knot techniques which are also one of the eight auspicious symbols. It is also believed to represent Samsara and symbolize the power of mind or perpetual suffering. It is believed that in every knot the teachings of Buddha are embedded.
These Bracelets bring luck and stabilize and harmonize the chakras of the human body.
Tibetan Meditation Cushion
Tibetan Meditation Cushion is supposed to improve your comfort level and posture. Both the half and the full lotus position is pivotal while one is sitting for meditative purpose. The Zabuton and Zafu meditation Cushions work best for the mediation purpose. The Zafu mediation cushion is best for people with average height and flexibility as well. These cushions are very essential during Buddhist Rituals and are also popular among yoga practitioners.
Incense Burner is also one of the main Buddhist ritual items. The burning of incense is served as an offering to Lord Buddha to clear the air of evil spirits. They are made up of different materials and are of different forms. They consist of a deep bowl and have a handle on each side. They are made up of Bronze, Copper.
Protection amulets are supposed to protect against negative influences and helps to bring good luck and prosperity. They are also called Sungkhor and they drive away obstacles, negative forces, and obscurations. You should wear it correctly and never put it on the floor for maximum protection.
All the amulets contain a saffron water-dipped mantra which first dries, folded, and then wrapped with silk thread. Their protection amulets can be found in various Buddhist shrines and monasteries in the region.
Begging Bowls is also known as alms bowl and it is one of the simple and the most important object in the daily lives of monks. This bowl is used to collect alms from lay supporters. These bowls are made up of clay or iron and the size of the bowl differs from the small, medium, and large.
This bowl represents historical Buddha as it is believed that when Lord Buddha meditated beneath the Bodhi tree, a woman offered him this kind of bowl filled with rice. And when he was enlighted, he threw the bowl into the river.
Buddhist Monastic Robes
Monastic Robe is a piece of clothes that are often worn by people following Buddhism which is yellow or saffron-colored. The robes are tie-dyed with turmeric or saffron. These robes are also known as civara. Wearing Chivara is a monk’s four traditional requirements. Then material for a new robe is traditionally donated by a layperson in the Kathina ceremony which usually occurs in a rainy season.
Tibetan Skull Cup
Tibetan Skull cup is also known as kapala in Sanskrit and it’s one of the much popular ritual items. It is made up of the upper oval section of the human cranium. These cups are usually used in Tibetan rituals and symbolic arts. Skull cups are usually seen in the hands of wrathful Buddhist deities in Tibetan sculptures. It is usually held at the level of a heart and is paired with a curved chopper or knife.
Usually, Tibetan Thangka is embroidered or a printed banner which is usually hung up on the wall of monasteries or a family altar. It is also carried by lamas on ceremonial processions. Thus, the thangka is a kind of painting and can be hung on a flat surface and can easily be rolled up when not needed.
Buddhist art includes sculptures, paintings, and other art forms that represent the stories and ideas of Buddhism. The earliest Buddhist art, which originated in India, was mostly symbolic and avoided figurative depictions of Buddha. After many years, as Buddhism developed and spread to a culture, its religious art came to represent Buddha, bodhisattvas, and gods in rich figurative imagery. Ritual art, like the intricate mandalas utilized in meditation, is additionally a crucial aspect of Buddhist art.
In Tantric or Tibetan Buddhism, the mandala is works of sacred art. Though mandala comes in circles they’re far more than just geometric figures. They are rich with symbols and sacred meaning in Tantric Buddhism. It is also known as a ‘container of the essence’. It is a geometrical figure that is used to represent the universe as a whole. It is usually made with careful placement of colored sand, and accordingly is known in Tibetan as dul-tson-kyil-khor, or “mandala of colored powders.”
There are also a number of symbols in the Buddhist tradition that has no resemblance to the image of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. Some of them include the 8-spoked wheel; the parasol; the lotus flower; the white conch shell; the endless or eternal knot; the victory banner, twin golden fishes, and the treasure vase.
One of the most prominent Buddhist language symbols is the 8-spoke wheel. This is a 2-dimensional representation of the dharmackra or the wheel of dharma. In other sects, the 8-spoked wheel is also known as the wheel of doctrine and the wheel of law. All of them pertain to the established teachings of Buddha.
The 8-spoked wheel symbol is considered language-based because it represents part of Buddha’s teachings. To be more precise, it is an iconic symbol for the “Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism:” the much-needed texts in order to finally achieve enlightenment.
The 8-spoked wheel is comprised of 4 things:
1. The center of the wheel or hub represents the need for moral discipline, the most elemental requirement for meditation.
2. The spokes which stand for the very things that limit man from moving towards enlightenment. According to Buddhist dogma, when wisdom is correctly applied in limited situations, man has the tendency to eventually end ignorance. Ignorance is the source of man’s suffering.
3. The rim where the spokes are attached symbolizes attentiveness to the other parts of the wheel. This is needed in order to hold things together. And finally,
4. The circular shape represents:
a. The endless cycle of life
b. The perfection of Buddha’s dharma teaching; that it is complete and whole by itself.
If you want to see an image of the 8-spoked wheel, you can look at the figure right in the middle of the flag of India. The circular figure is based on ancient depictions of the wheel of dharma.
A parasol may seem like an unlikely candidate for Buddhist symbolism. As such, many of us recognize this small umbrella as part of Japanese culture. Yet, the origin of the parasol symbolism actually comes from India – the birthplace of Buddha himself. The parasol eventually evolved to represent Ashtamangala or the Eight Auspicious Signs from the doctrines of the Tibetan monks. Known as the Chhatra, this is considered as a precious parasol umbrella associated with equality and universality among men. It is also often included in the thangkas depicting Traditional Tibetan medicine.
Originally, the parasol was utilized to symbolize its protective qualities. It is supposed to shield the bearer from the heat of the sun. With the passing of time, the meaning eventually came to signify general protection against defilements or any element that may cause spiritual retardation.
Lotus Flower (Padma)
Another example of Buddhist art symbols is the innocuous but ubiquitous lotus flower. The lotus flower has come to mean a lot of things, but according to the earliest Buddhist teachings, this piece of white flora represents the practice of attaining the full potential of the mind through meditation. In other sects, the lotus flower simply means peace. With others, it has come to mean forgiveness and compassion. And yet, with other sects still, the lotus flower means pureness of intention, or charity without the need for payment.
Often, this flora is associated with the bodhisattva Chenrezig, who in turn is a representation of the compassionate side of Buddha.
The white lotus flower represents the purity of the mind, body, and spirit. White symbolizes the heart of the Buddha. The color is associated with the White Tara and proclaims her perfect nature, a quality that gets reinforced by the color of her body.
The blue lotus flower represents wisdom, intelligence, knowledge, and learning. The blue lotus flower is used to symbolize the victory of the spirit over the senses. It’s often depicted as being only partially open, so its center is not seen.
The pink lotus flower represents the Supreme Buddha as well as traditional and historical Buddhism. The pink lotus flower is considered to be the true lotus of the highest deity- the Buddha.
The purple lotus flower represents mysticism and spirituality. Usually, the purple lotus is depicted as having either one or three stems. The petals are shown closed and opened; at times it’s depicted as a bud and other times it’s depicted as being fully bloomed. All these representations symbolize the different mystical and spiritual stages in the journey that we take towards enlightenment and self-awareness.
The golden lotus flower represents total enlightenment and is often used to represent the Buddha
White Conch Shell (shankha)
The white conch shell is highly symbolic in nature. Normally, people associate the conch shell with the bounty of the oceans and seas. In Tibetan Buddhist religion, however, it has come to represent the flowing of good energy or “chi.” It is said that when good energy flows freely it, it is often followed by good karma.
Tibetan monks have fashioned the white conch shell as a sacred wind instrument that is supposed to call for peace and good karma. This is only played in very sacred but select ceremonies.
Twin Golden Fishes (Matsya)
The twin golden fishes have come to mean abundance, fertility, and happiness in Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Unlike the yin and yang, where opposing forces are said to “balance” each other out, the twin golden fishes stand side by side as equals. The usual representation of this is two fish standing face to face, vertically out of the water. Both are of equal size and both are facing inwards.
According to historical accounts, many people noticed that golden fishes usually swam in pairs. Eventually, the symbolism of the twin golden fishes suddenly turned to fidelity between conjugal partners.
Here are an interesting bit of trivia about the twin golden fishes. When it was fully established among the populace that twin golden fishes are the symbol of fidelity, people in China and Tibet begun giving newlyweds a pair of golden fishes. This was their way of bidding the new couple a long and successful relationship.
Endless Or Eternal Knot (shrivatsa)
Also among the various Buddhist symbols and images, there is the endless or eternal knot: a 2-dimensional drawing of a knot, first seen in the documents of Tibetan Buddhism. The endless knot symbolizes many things. One meaning states that the endless knot stands for the “interweaving of the Spiritual Path,” where man’s destiny is dictated by the movement of time and the eventual changes that are bound to happen. Others say that the endless knot is the intertwining of compassion with wisdom. In Tantric Yoga, it has come to mean the link between the physical and the metaphysical world.
The endless knot may also be called the mystic knot, which represents the seemingly endless wisdom displayed by Buddha himself during his teaching ministry. This symbol has also become a fixture in Chinese and Tibetan Art as well.
The Victory Banner (dhvaja)
In Buddhism tradition, the victory banner has evolved greatly. Initially, it was supposed to represent Buddha’s triumph over Mara: an evil or demonic entity who was trying to stop him from achieving enlightenment. Eventually, Mara became less of a demon and became worldly influences designed to tempt adherents from the straight and narrow path.
A few more years later, the Tibetan culture formally adopts the victory banner, making it a representation of man’s triumph over eleven forms of spiritual defilements.
Victory banners can still be seen in many Tibetan monasteries today.
This symbol could be called the treasure vase or treasure urn. Its image is taken from the Sanskrit representation of the “bumpa,” which is is a long-life vase. In Tibetan Buddhist teachings, the treasure vase is supposed to be a representation of all things to be aspired for: long life, prosperity, and wealth.
As with many of the established icons of the age, some symbols have been corrupted by time. Others were given such a turn-around treatment that the foremost or initial meaning of the symbols have been truly lost, and replaced by something totally unexpected or unwarranted.
Let us take the swastika as an example. In the earliest representations of Buddhist art, the swastika was used as a sign of good luck. An early translation of Buddhist symbols states that the swastika (or manji, as it was called back then) represents the balance of two opposites, which in turn connotes harmony. It almost has the same representation as the Chinese’s predominant icon called yin-yang. Swastikas or manjis are Buddhist art symbols that are in fact, liberally used in a lot of the earliest (preserved) writings of Tibetan Buddhism.
It was only in the 1920s when the Nazi movement formally adopted the symbol to denote the rise of the German empire under Adolf Hitler, was the meaning of the swastika permanently altered. Even up to this day, very few people actually recognize this symbol’s Buddhist based origins.
Another corrupted symbol is the trisula. The trisula looks exactly like a three-pronged pitchfork, which we all know has come to symbolize the pitchfork of the devil. Before the onset of Christianity, the Hindu trisula and Poseidon’s trident were symbols of bounty and prosperity.