Since the making of human images of the Buddha was
considered sacrilegious for a long time, Buddhist visual art has produced
an elaborate vocabulary of symbolic and iconic forms of expressions. A great
variety of Buddhist symbols is found in temples and in Buddhist visual art
and literature. The following eight figures are among the more common ones.
The lotus, the wheel, and the stupa can be seen in almost every Buddhist
temple. One may understand these symbols as visual mantras. Contemplating
these figures is an exercise in meditation to establish inner contact with
the aspect that is represented.
Padma - Symbol of Purity. Can be of any colour except blue
The wheel of the law. The eight spokes represent the eightfold path.
The stupa is a symbolic grave monument where relics or the ashes of a holy
monk are kept. It also symbolises the universe.
The three jewels - the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha
A parasol - protection against all evil; high rank
Banner - the victory of the Buddha's teachings
The deer -usually in pairs- symbolises the first sermon of the Buddha which
was held in the deer park of Benares
The snake king. Vestige of pre-Buddhist fertility rituals and protector of
the Buddha and the Dhamma
Images of the Buddha were produced
from the fifth century onwards. The sacred nature of the representation
is reflected in the artistic goal of creating an aura of equanimity, perfection,
and holiness. The large number of rules governing the execution of a portrayal
or a statue require an erudite understanding of Buddhist symbolism. Any
Buddha figure made by a skilled artist exhibits a multitude of characteristics
that communicate subtle meanings and intentions to the viewer. The most
important of these characteristics are perhaps the mudras, or hand gestures,
of the Buddha. These well-defined gestures have a fixed meaning throughout
all styles and periods of Buddha images.
MudraTouching the earth as Gautama did, to invoke the earth
as witness to the truth of his words.
Fulfilment of all wishes; the gesture of charity
The gesture of absolute balance, of meditation. The hands are relaxed in the
lap, and the tips of the thumbs and fingers touch each other. When depicted
with a begging bowl this is a sign of the head of an order.
Gesture of reassurance, blessing, and protection. "Do not fear."
The gesture of teaching usually interpreted as turning the Wheel of Law. The
hands are held level with the heart, the thumbs and index fingers form circles.
Intellectual argument, discussion. The circle formed by the thumb and index
finger is the sign of the Wheel of Law.
Threat, warning. The extended index finger is pointed at the opponent.
Gesture of greeting, prayer, and adoration. Buddhas no longer make this gesture
because they do not have to show devotion to anything
Teaching. The hand is held at chest level and the thumb and index finger again
form the Wheel of Law
Gesture with which demons are expelled.
Two hands together in the gesture of 'sprinkling' the nectar of immortality.
Two hands placed together above the head with the index fingers together and
the other fingers intertwined. The gesture of supreme enlightenment.