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Buddhist Symbols & Meanings

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  • 0:04 Buddhism
  • 0:57 Buddha
  • 2:22 Animals
  • 3:11 Regions
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Buddhism is full of symbols. In this lesson, we'll look at a few of the most important symbols and see what they mean to Buddhists in terms of their histories, traditions, and practices.

Buddhism

According to tradition, the founder of Buddhism lived in the 6th century BCE. The first Buddhist artifacts in India appeared around the 3rd century BCE. Soon afterwards, Buddhism spread to China, Japan, Korea, and the rest of East Asia.

How did Buddhism travel so far, and survive for so long, in all of these different cultures? One answer may lie in its symbols, or representations of ideas objects or relationships. Because the original Buddha did not write down his teachings and did not like images of himself to be revered, symbols were used to remember and share his lessons. These symbols proved to be highly adaptable, working their ways into cultures that were receptive to Buddhist philosophy. These symbols have been important aspects of Buddhist life for millennia. For those looking to learn something about this Eastern worldview, there's no better place to start.

Buddha

For centuries, Buddhists followed the original Buddha's proscription of not revering him in human form. So, many of the oldest Buddhist symbols actually represent the Buddha himself, or at least various enlightened aspects of him.

Perhaps one of the earliest and most common symbols is the Dharmachakra, or the eight-spoked wheel. The Buddha is sometimes referred to as the ''wheel turner,'' the person who sets a cycle of teachings in motion. The eight spokes of the Dharmachakra represent the eight parts of the path to wisdom and the end of suffering. The swirl in the middle represents the Buddha himself, along with the moral code of the universe (Dharma) and the spiritual community (Sangha). This symbol is, therefore, the Buddha and Buddhist philosophy rolled into one.

The Dharmachakra
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Many symbols of the Buddha are similar in that they represent both the Buddha and Buddhism, or some aspect of its teaching. A similar symbol is found in the stupa, a mound-shaped Buddhist shrine or tomb. Stupas are architectural symbols of the enlightened mind of the Buddha, representing the path to enlightenment as a mountain that must be climbed. The various components of a stupa also represent the five elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space, each of which corresponds to an aspect of the enlightened being.

Footprints represent the physical presence of the Buddha, as well as the idea of following in the Buddha's footsteps. The Bodhi Tree is the tree where the Buddha sat and achieved enlightenment, a prominent symbol of the Buddha and his path.

The footprint of Buddha
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Animals

In addition to the symbols of the Buddha, Buddhism treats certain animals as important symbols. For example, lions are often used to represent the Buddha, building on the motif of lions as kingly and powerful. Deer symbolize the peace of Buddhism. According to one story, the Buddha's presence was so peaceful that animals came to hear him teach. Elephants represent the mental strength and resilience needed to achieve enlightenment, while horses symbolize the energetic and unyielding pursuit of the moral law, and peacocks symbolize wisdom.

As important symbols in Buddhist art and Buddhist teachings, animals reflect a belief that the physical and spiritual worlds are not so different. Humans can find inspiration and paths to enlightenment or even worldly peace through the examples found in the natural world.

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