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According to early Buddhist teachings, the Buddha insisted that his students not make images of him, so that he would not become an object of worship, and distract from the essence of the teachings. Later Buddhist cultures, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, moved away from this restriction, using both the creation of art (including images of Buddha) and contemplation of it as part of meditative practice. But because of the early proscription against doing so, many symbols developed to represent the Buddha and aspects of his teachings. Since over time Buddhism spread across cultures, some Buddhist symbols are culturally specific, but many are not. The list below represents a little of both:
Eight-Spoked Wheel (Dharma Wheel)
Appearing fairly early in Buddhist history, the spokes of the dharma wheel represent the Noble Eightfold Path, the foundation of the Buddha's teachings on how to cease suffering and awaken.
Often depicted in Buddhist art across cultures (such as in this relief from India), the bodhi tree is the tree the Buddha attained enlightenment under, and has come to represent his liberation.
Stupas have been built and depicted in many different Buddhist cultures since the early days of Buddhism. Although there is some variation in shape, this picture depicts a common one. In general, the levels and geometric shapes of a stupa are meant to represent the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and space.
Also found across several Buddhist cultures, the Buddha's footprints represent his physical presence here on earth. Sometimes dharma wheels and other symbols are included on the feet, as in this example.
Represents the Three Jewels of Buddhism - the Buddha (teacher), the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (community).
Appearing a bit later in Buddhist history and especially prevalent in Tibet, the Buddha's Eyes represent universal wisdom and omniscience.
Although of course this symbol developed a negative connotation after the Nazi regime adopted it as its symbol, its history is actually very different. In Hinduism it has long represented the different aspects of the universe and eternity, and several Buddhist cultures adopted it as well. Although interpretations vary, in general when facing left it represents love and mercy, and when facing right is represents strength and intelligence.
OM or AUM
Also drawn from Hinduism, Om is a foundation Buddhist mantra. In India, it is more commonly depicted in Sanskrit (left) and in Tibet, in Tibetan lettering (right.)
The lotus represents both the process and possibility of enlightenment. The mud it is rooted in represents samsara, the vine reaching up through the water towards the light represents the spiritual process or purification of karma, and the beautiful flower on top represents liberation.
In Tibet, the lotus is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols, as are the next three:
Wheel of Life
Often depicted in Tibetan mandalas, the Wheel of Life represents the six realms of existence.
The conch shell, which is used as a horn in Tibet, represents the universal sound of the teachings, appropriate for all beings.
The Endless Knot represents the web of karma and interrelatedness of all beings within existence.
The other 4 of the Tibetan 8 auspicious symbols (not shown here) are the Parasol, the Golden Fishes, the Treasure Vase and Victory Banner.
One of the few Zen symbols, the Zen circle represents the universe. To draw it in one stroke, as it should be, requires a clear mind and pristine focus.
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