Written by: Julia Hardy
Among the earliest Buddhist symbols are footprints of the Buddha carved or molded in stone or clay. Sometimes a pair, sometimes a single footprint, the prints have toes of equal length, and there is often a dharma wheel in the center. Other symbols may appear on the bottom of the footprints as well. Sometimes these footprints are a normal size; other times they are huge. In statues of the reclining Buddha, which represent the Buddha's dying moments, the soles of the feet are often covered with symbols.
Another very early Buddhist symbol is the dharmacakra, or dharma wheel. Composed of eight spokes attached to a center hub and united by an outer rim, the dharma wheel symbolizes the "turning of the wheel of the law" that occurred when the Buddha preached his first sermon. This turning of the wheel of the law occurs when a world-transforming doctrine is introduced. Different Buddhist sects have different notions about other times when the wheel of the law was turned, and even Buddhist rulers were sometimes known as cakravartin-raja, or wheel turners. The spokes of the dharmacakra also symbolize the Eightfold Path.
The early texts stated that the Buddha had thirty-two distinctive body characteristics that indicated that he was a a chakravartin, a great person. These include a round knot on top of his head, evenly spaced white teeth, a long thick tongue, golden skin, very blue eyes, black hair that grows in clockwise curls, and a penis in a sheath like that of a horse. Some of these characteristics can be seen in statues and paintings of the Buddha.
Stupas are another symbol of the Buddha. Some were believed to contain some tiny bit of the cremated remains of the Buddha. Some, which commemorated important moments in his life, became physical locations where one could still experience his presence. Later, stupas took on additional layers of symbolic meaning; with time they took on a characteristic shape, which has been interpreted in various ways. Some say that the shape represents the Buddha sitting in the posture of meditation. Another interpretation is that the base represents the sangha, the dome stands for the dharma, the cone on top represents the Buddha, and the spire above stands for nirvana.
One popular interpretation is that the shape of the stupa symbolizes the five elements: the base represents earth, the dome or sphere represents water, the spire stands for fire, above the spire is wind, and at the very top, the jewel represents space, or the void. These elements also represent, respectively, equanimity, indestructibility, compassion, accomplishment, and all-pervading awareness. Thus the stupa can be seen as a kind of a mandala that embodies the mind of enlightenment.
Other important early Buddhist symbols include: representations of the three jewels (the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha); deer, because the Buddha preached his first sermon in a deer park; and the swastika, a symbol unfortunately co-opted by Hitler. In Asia, where the swastika is a familiar sight with well-established meanings dating back thousands of years, it does not carry the negative connotations that it does in the west. The word "swastika" is Sanskrit; in India the symbol means, among other things, good fortune. As a Buddhist symbol, the swastika has a variety of meanings; most commonly it is a symbol of the dharma. It is sometimes found on statues of the Buddha, often on the soles of his feet or on his chest. It is also used in Asia simply to indicate the presence of a statue of the Buddha or a Buddhist temple.
As Buddhism moved into new lands, new symbols developed, becoming so numerous that only a few can be mentioned here. The distinctive vajra, or thunderbolt, is synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism and can be seen in many settings, including on sand mandalas and on ritual implements used in meditation. Throughout the Buddhist world, in Tibet and China particularly, one frequently sees a group of symbols known collectively as the "eight auspicious signs." These include a conch shell, a lotus, a wheel, a parasol, an endless knot, a pair of golden fishes, a victory banner, and a treasure vase. These may be seen in almost any conceivable venue, sacred or secular — carved into furniture or metalwork, woven into carpets and fabric, or painted onto walls or pottery. Sanskrit letters are also often used as symbols, especially in esoteric Buddhism.
The many statues and paintings of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other divinities are replete with symbolism. Each is portrayed in a distinctive posture, with hands displaying a different mudra, or hand position, which can signify anything from a particular form of sacred energy, to a particular aspect of the Buddha's teachings, a particular moment in his life, or a particular power possessed by a bodhisattva. Each of the numerous figures in the Buddhist pantheon are portrayed with characteristic implements, such as a begging bowl of healing liquid and a medicinal plant for the Medicine Buddha; or a flaming aura, sword, and rope for the Japanese deity Fudo Myoo. Particularly striking is the thousand-armed Guanyin, which carries a different symbolic object in each of its hands.
The mandala is another important Buddhist symbol. The mandala is an object of meditation and a representation of sacred realms that takes many forms, from the Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings and elaborate thangka paintings to the esoteric mandala paintings of Japan.
Monks' robes are also highly symbolic. While their design differs markedly from place to place and sect to sect, each design is believed to be sanctioned by the Buddha, and each has layers of symbolic meaning. The robe itself is considered sacred, regardless of the nature of the individual who wears it, and hellish punishments may be incurred by those who desecrate the robes or who act improperly while wearing them.
While each individual Buddhist group employs particular symbols that are especially meaningful to them, all the symbols are at least recognizable to Buddhists everywhere. Buddhist symbolism communicates the teachings of Buddhism in a highly complex, visually expressed language that unites the many different Buddhist groups around the world.