Buddhism originated in the 6th century BCE when Siddhartha Gautama started preaching on topics such as pain and suffering and enlightenment and rebirth. He used many images and illustrations to explain his teachings.
However, it was only three centuries later that Buddhist-inspired art started to appear in India. Today, there are several Buddhist symbols that are recognized throughout the world.
Each symbol is one of a kind and carries its own meaning and significance. Some such as the lotus flower and the dharma wheel are ancient, while others are relatively newer.
The more that Buddhism began to spread in Asia, the more the Buddhist symbols started to gain popularity. It is safe to say that today; Buddhism has left its mark not only in Asia but around the world.
Below is our list of the top 25 most important symbols of Buddhism.
1. The Dharma Wheel
One of the most ancient and well-known Buddhist symbols, the dharma wheel is symbolic of Buddha’s teachings. In Sanskrit, it is known as ‘Dharmachakra’ or the wheel of truth/law. Just like the cross represents Christianity, today the dharma wheel can be seen as a representation of the Buddhist religion.
It is usually made of eight spokes which are symbolic of Buddha’s Eightfold path and three swirls at the center which symbolize the three jewels of Buddhism. These are the Buddha or the teacher, the dharma or the teaching, and lastly the sangha which is the community.
The oldest representations were found on pillars in India, built by Emperor Ashoka (268 to 232 BCE). Being a passionate Buddhist, he built these pillars to make people aware of the teachings of Buddha in his land.
2. The Endless Knot
As its name suggests, the endless knot has no beginning or end. This detailed design consists of intertwined lines that twist from above and beneath each other and turn into a gorgeous pattern.
It is known to be symbolic of many different things and has various significations. For starters, it symbolizes birth, death and rebirth.
Apart from that, it also represents interconnectedness, depicting that everything is connected to each other and that nothing is separated. This beautiful symbol is said to have originated from an old Indian symbol, the two entwined snakes.
3. The Lotus Flower
The Lotus Flower is another popular Buddhist symbol. It can often be seen in Buddhist paintings and scriptures. The ideology behind this symbol is that, as it grows in ponds it has to go through the mud and dirt to eventually reach the surface.
No matter how murky the waters are, it still grows and blossoms into the most beautiful of flowers. Because of this, it is known to symbolize the purity of Nirvana, as well as the human condition, which awakens through the suffering of Samsara. As a whole, the flower can be seen to represent mind, body, and speech.
Many old tales also believe that when Buddha was born, lotuses grew behind him and it is probably because of this belief that the Buddha has many a time been illustrated sitting on top of a huge Lotus flower.
4. The Treasure Vase
© Christopher J. Fynn / Wikimedia Commons
This ancient object originated in India many years ago. It is also known as the vase of inexhaustible treasures’. If you’re wondering how it looks, it’s a round vase with a short and thin neck, which is sometimes decorated with a jewel.
It is for that reason that even today, this vase symbolizes wealth and abundance. Another beautiful symbolism of this vase is that no matter how much you keep giving to others, whether it’s compassion or anything else, Buddha’s teachings will be abundant and fill up your heart and mind, making you feel whole.
5. Two Golden Fish
A popular Buddhist symbol that has various representations, the two golden fish consist of a male and female. The fish are portrayed to be standing with their heads facing each other.
This interesting symbol emerged before Buddhism, so you can only imagine how ancient it is. It first appeared as a portrayal of two sacred rivers in India the Ganga and the Yamuna, which enabled life to prosper on its shores.
Fish hold high symbolic value in Buddhism. For starters, they depict happiness and freedom, due to their complete freedom in the water. They also represent abundance and fertility as they reproduce at a fast rate.
Other than that they are a representation of living in a state of fearlessness, free of the worry of sinking in the ocean of misery and suffering.
6. The Conch Shell
This beautiful white shell has a great deal of significance in the Buddhist tradition. It is one of the major Buddhist symbols and has a variety of meanings. It is normally placed in a vertical position and has a silk ribbon around it.
In Buddhism, this shell is symbolic of the fearlessness of teaching the truth of working purely for the benefit of others. It also represents spreading the beliefs of Buddha which would spread in every direction just like the sound of the horn through the shell. Along with that, this shell is also symbolic of honest speech.
Old stories from India, say that every hero during those times carried a white conch shell which many a time had their own name and unique power. Since ancient times these shells have been used as horns.
7. The Bell
The bell is a symbol popular not just in Buddhism but in Christianity as well. In Buddhism however, it holds a different meaning. The sound of the bell is symbolic of the voice of Buddha and his teachings and it also depicts wisdom and empathy.
It is used to approach the higher beings for protection to keep away evil spirits. You must have noticed, lots of temples have bells at the entrance, which one needs to ring upon entering.
For a long time, even at the time of Buddha, bells were used as a way to congregate monks to meditation practice. The gentle sound that is produced by it instills a feeling of peace and calm which is why it is associated with meditation.
8. The Bodhi Tree
Also referred to as the ‘Tree of Awakening’, the Bodhi tree is a sacred symbol in Buddhism. Bodhi literally translates into ‘enlightenment’. It is essentially a large fig tree under which Buddha attained Nirvana or spiritual awakening.
Therefore, it is symbolic of Buddha’s awakening. Though the original is located in Bodh Gaya India, lots of Buddhist temples around Asia have Bodhi trees, which are perceived to be offspring of the original tree.
That being said, the original one is a popular spot for pilgrims and is perhaps the most important pilgrimage site among the four main Buddhist pilgrimage sites.
9. The Buddha’s Eyes
A popular symbol in Buddhism is the Buddha’s eyes. They comprise a pair of eyes, a dot between the eyes, and a curly shape. The symbolism behind this is that the Lord is always watching and his presence is not limited.
This is why you will usually see them on all four sides of a Buddhist shrine. The two eyes represent the potential to see reality or the outside world, whereas the dot or third eye is symbolic of Buddha’s awakening just like in the Bodhi tree.
The curly line depicts unity and the connectedness of everything and also highlights that the only path to enlightenment is through the teachings of Buddha.
10. The Begging Bowl
The begging bowl is important for the life of a Buddhist monk. How it works is that the monks simply live off what is put in the bowl by ordinary people. They go from the monastery to the village every morning and what is given in the bowl is all that they live off.
It is because of this, that the bowl is a representation of the life of Buddhist monks. It symbolizes a life, which is a result of the teachings of Buddha that discourages you from becoming dependent on your selfish desires and instead encourages you to live a simple life.
11. The Banner of Victory
The Banner of Victory represents awakening and the triumph of knowledge in Buddhism
© Christopher J. Fynn / Wikimedia Commons
The Victory Banner is a flag or sign, which was used by ancient Buddhists to symbolize Buddha’s awakening and the triumph of knowledge over ignorance.
It also represents Buddha’s victory over illusions such as desire, greed, fear, anger, and arrogance. In ancient times it was a sign, which was used in Indian warfare and it exhibited the logos of each tribe or clan.
12. The Vajra
This weapon is made out of brass or bronze and consists of prongs on each of its four ends. These prongs form a kind of lotus shape and symbolize peace and the four noble truths.
For Buddhists, the Vajra is a symbolic object. It symbolizes the properties of a diamond as well as a thunderbolt. It works like a diamond as it has the power to overcome attachment, ignorance, and self-loathing.
It destroys the deceitful influences of people along with their ill-judged views. The Vajra has three main meanings; durability, radiance, and the ability to cut. It also works like a thunderbolt as its light takes over the darkness, it takes away people’s ill-judged views and afflictions and shines some light on them.
The Vajra is used mainly in Chinese as well as Tibetan Buddhism. In the latter, it is mostly paired with a bell during rituals.
13. The Pearl
In Buddhism, the pearl is a representation of spiritual knowledge and wealth. With its radiance, it brings with it the teachings of the Buddha. It symbolizes the values of empathy and wisdom, which are two of the most sought-after attributes.
It also goes a bit deeper and symbolizes the pearl of our minds, something that we can retrieve through meditation among other things. The pearl is very often portrayed as a ball with a pointy top and can be often discovered amid the cremated ashes of many Buddhist masters.
14. The Ensō
Ensō by Nick Raleigh from the Noun Project
This sacred symbol is also popularly known as ‘the circle of enlightenment. It is a part of Zen Buddhism. The circle is drawn by hand with one or two brushstrokes.
It depicts a moment of the body freely creating as a result of the mind being free. It can be drawn as a complete or incomplete circle, that is on the artist’s preference.
The Enso symbolizes different things such as strength, poise, wabi-sabi, or the concept of beauty lying in imperfection, the universe, our true self, the oneness of all things around us. It is also symbolic of the ideal meditative state.
15. The Empty Throne
The Throne symbolizes Buddha’s spiritual kingship, apart from being based on the fact that he was actually a prince. The emptiness of the throne is used to represent his teachings, which are depicted using decorations at the base of the throne.
16. The Three Jewels
Symbol of the Triratna
Fred the Oyster, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Triratna or the three jewels symbolize the Dharma, Sangha, and the Buddha. The Dharma depicts teaching, and the Sangha the monastic community. The Triratna is one of the oldest and most significant Buddhist symbols and is strongly linked with Buddha’s path that people should follow.
17. The Parasol
Chattra / Buddhist parasol
© Christopher J. Fynn / Wikimedia Commons
Also known as ‘Chatta’ in Sanskrit, the traditional Buddhist parasol or umbrella is usually only used by royalty to protect themselves from the sun. It can therefore also be seen as a symbol of wealth and status.
The parasol is made from a wooden pole that is long and is mostly ornamented with a tiny golden lotus along with a vase and jewel along with peacock feathers, chains, and various other pendants.
In Buddhism, it is symbolic of protecting people from all kinds of illnesses, evil, difficulties, and harm. Its dome is seen to represent wisdom, and the rest of it compassion. They are meant to be combined and express the combination of both these sacred elements of wisdom and compassion.
18. The Lion
Buddha was very often depicted as a lion. This is not surprising, having seen his immense courage and bravery. He was known to relieve human suffering and awaken people and was referred to as “Lion of the Shakyas”.
The lion can also be seen as symbolic of royalty and given that he was a prince before attaining enlightenment, it seems to fit well. This can be seen in the lions being depicted to sit on the same throne that Buddha is supposed to sit on.
Buddha’s voice is identified as the lion’s roar in Buddhist literature. A voice that is powerful yet empathetic and is loudly conveying the Dharma for everyone to hear.
It is because of this symbolism that you will often find statues of lions at the entrance of temples and monasteries. They act as the guardians or protectors of Buddha and the Dharma. Many times they are even used as mounts for Buddhas.
Indian Swastika / The Swastika symbolizes rebirth in Buddhism
Image courtesy: needpix.com
One of the oldest and most important spiritual symbols in India, the Swastika symbolizes the process of rebirth. Whereas in the western world it is used to represent Nazi ideology it has a completely different connotation in Buddhism.
It has four branches, each which symbolizes the four possible places of rebirth, namely the animal realm, the hell realm, the spirit realm, and the physical realm.
Not only is it popular in Buddhism, but it is also used in Hinduism and Jainism. You must have seen it many times imprinted on the bodies of Buddha statues or images. Today, it is also a popular symbol on many clothing items in modern Tibetan Buddhism.
20. Recitation Beads
Mala or recitation beads usually have 9, 21, or 108 beads on a string. While every bead is connected to the other beads to make a whole strand, each bead represents one.
This is a beautiful symbolization of how each of us as individuals are perfect wholes, yet we are connected to each other whether it’s our family or the rest of the world. This connection to each other and life resonates deeply with the nature of Buddhism.
How the mala works is that you’re supposed to move one bead at a time and while doing so focus on a single breath, mantra, or even the name of a Buddha. By doing so you are creating positive energy around you.
21. The Dragon
It was during the 6th Century that dragons started to emerge in Buddhist art and literature as Buddhism began spreading in China. Over time, Buddhist masters along with Chinese artists began using the dragon to represent enlightenment.
However, it is interesting to note that, that’s not all that it symbolizes, it is also a representation of our ego and ourselves. In Zen Buddhism as well as Chan, the dragon is also used as a metaphor to deal with one’s deepest fears.
22. The Four Guardian Kings
The four guardian kings represent protection in Buddhism
Temple, Richard Carnac, Sir, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The four guardian kings are used to represent protection. They are usually found at the entrance of temples as well as monasteries.
The four of them are symbolic of the world’s four directions. Each guardian is dressed in a king’s armor and has two hands. They are seen either as sitting or standing.
23. The Footprint of The Buddha
Also referred to as the Buddhapada, the footprint of the Buddha is a sacred symbol in Buddhism. In fact. It is one of the earliest representations of Buddha found in Buddhist art.
It is symbolic of Buddha’s actual feet. The reason that it holds so much significance is because, in Buddhism, a footprint is simply a reminder that someone, in this case, Buddha, existed as a human being and walked on earth.
In addition to that, it is also a reminder that he is no more, thus highlighting the essence of the religion that Buddhism is not just confined to Buddha but is about every individual. It can be said that the footprints are symbolic of the path that we need to follow.
These footprints can occur either naturally or then they are man-made versions. The natural ones are usually found in stones. The man-made ones are copies of his actual footprints and that’s what they are known to symbolize.
You can differentiate each footprint from the other because they normally have marks on them. An example of this is the Dharma wheel, which is usually in the middle of the sole.
Examples of other marks that you may find include the lotus flower, the three jewels or even the swastika. Some footprints are massive and intricately detailed while others are smaller in size.
These go back to the initial days of Buddhism, that’s when they started to get built. They come in a great range of shapes and sizes. The Stupas symbolize the enlightened mind of Buddha. They are also known to represent five different elements, which are:
- The square base symbolizes the earth
- The round dome represents water
- The cone shape depicts fire
- The canopy symbolizes air
- The volume of the stupa represents the space around
25. The Six Tusked Elephants
The six tusked Elephant holds a special place in the Buddhist tradition. It is a symbol of purity and holiness. Commonly referred to as Airavata, it is also symbolic of Buddha himself. The six tusks are seen to represent the beginning of Buddha’s journey as well as a sign of divine conception.
Each of these 25 Buddhist symbols are unique and have significant meaning. They add to the rich tradition of the religion and make it all the more intriguing for many people around the world, even centuries later.