The 9th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Symbols for the Buddha
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It is said that the Buddha was reluctant to accept images of himself, as he did not like to be venerated as a person. To symbolise the Buddha in the very early art, one used mainly the Eight Spoked Wheel and the Bodhi Tree, but also the Buddha's Footprints, an Empty Throne, a Begging Bowl and a Lion are used to represent him.
The wheel (on the left and right) refers to the story that shortly after the Buddha achieved enlightenment, Brahma came down from heaven and requested the Buddha to teach by offering him a Dharmachakra. The Buddha is known as the Wheel-Turner: he who sets a new cycle of teachings in motion and in consequence changes the course of destiny.
The Dharmachakra has eight spokes, symbolising the Eight-fold Noble Path. The 3 swirling segments in centre represent the Buddha, Dharma (the teachings) and Sangha (the spiritual community). The wheel can also be divided into three parts, each representing an aspect of Buddhist practice; the hub (discipline), the spokes (wisdom), and the rim (concentration).
The Bodhi Tree in BodhgayaThe Bodhi Tree refers to the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment (See image on the right.). Tree worship was already part of the existing culture in India, so the development of the bodhi tree and leaf as a devotional symbol was a natural one.
"After wandering the countryside for about six years the Buddha finally came to rest in a forest beside the Naranjara River, not far from modern day Bodhgaya. Sitting under a Bodhi tree, ardently practicing meditation, he finally realised his true nature. The next seven days were spent under the tree experiencing the bliss of freedom and contemplating the extent of his new understanding. The story then goes on to relate Bodhi tree in stone from Thailandfour other periods of seven days, each spent under a different tree - the Banyan, the Mucalinda and the Rajayatana tree and then once more back to the Banyan. Each of these 'tree scenes' has its own well known story which space here does not allow. The tree of enlightenment is called, in Latin, ficus religiosa, or sacred tree. It is also known as the pipal tree. For Buddhists it is generally called the Bodhi, or Bo tree. Bodhi is the Pali and Sanskrit word for enlightenment. There is a descendant of the original tree still growing at Bodhgaya and Bodhi trees are commonly found in Buddhist centres all over the world."
The Throne is both a reference to Siddharta Gautama's royal ancestry and to the idea of spiritual kingship - enlightenment as ruler of the spiritual world. The ancient stone carvings above show the Dharmachakra and the Bodhitree on top of the throne. Sometimes the base of the throne is decorated with other symbols such as lions and deer, both associated with the Buddha's teachings.
Lions on an Asoka pillarThe Lion is one of Buddhism's most potent symbols. Traditionally, the lion is associated with regality, strength and power. It is therefore an appropriate symbol for the Buddha who tradition has it was a royal prince. The Buddha's teachings are sometimes referred to as the 'Lion's Roar', again indicative of their strength and power.
Lion-throne, with 8 SnowlionsThe image on the left shows a capital from a pillar of Asoka: the Lions of Sarnath. Sarnath is where the Buddha first preached, and these lions echo his teachings to the four quarters of the world, sometimes called 'the Lion's Roar'. The wheel symbolizes Buddhist law and also Asoka's legitimacy as an enlightened ruler.
Especially in Tibetan Buddhist art, lions are often depicted on the throne the Buddha sits on, but these are Snow Lions (mythical creatures), and they actually represent the eight main Bodhisattvas (students of
"Footprints of the Buddha traditionally symbolize the physical presence of the Enlightened One. This image was reproduced from a rubbing of an ancient stone imprint at Bodh Gaya, India, site of the Buddha's enlightenment."
These footprints often show Dharma-wheels on them, one of the so-called 32 marks of a Buddha. Other auspicious marks, like swastikas and lotuses etc. can sometimes be found, but they are not part of these .The Begging-bowl refers to the the story that shortly before the Buddha reached enlightenment, a young woman named Sujata offered him a bowl of milk-rice. At that moment, he was practicing austerity by eating extremely little. But he realised at that moment that he would need to have more strength for the final steps to enlightenment, and further fasting would only reduce his energy. After he reached enlightenment, he is said to have thrown away what little was left in the bowl to signify his renunciation of all material possessions. Finding the middle way between extreme austerity and complete attachment to life is an important principle of Buddhism. The bowl also points to the monk's way of life; going from the monastery into the village each morning and living off what is put into it by lay people.
What seems a much later development is the depiction of the Buddha's eyes (especially on stupas), as is frequently seen in Nepal. They look in all four directions, representing the omniscient mind of a Buddha.