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A List Of Common Symbols Used In Tibetan Art

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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A List Of Common Symbols Used In Tibetan Art

Buddhist symbology extends beyond the deities and their gestures and poses to objects, implements, creatures, and decorative elements depicted in Buddhist paintings.

While there may be slight differences in interpretation, such variance is generally minor. A general explanation of some of the main features of this the code is given below.

Robert Beer has offered an extensive review of Buddhist symbols (see Bibliography).

=Elements of the Mandala=

The Ring of Fire: From vedic times, fire has been an essential ritual element.

The outer circle of the mandala is often explained as a ring of fire, depicted by stylized scrollwork meant to represent flames.
It has also been explained as the periphery of the universe, or the outer wall of the profane world, beyond which lies chaos.

To begin the mystical journey, one must leave samsara, the world of phenomena, and pass through this flaming barrier to enter the sacred enclosure of the mandala.

According to some interpretations, its purpose is not to terrify the aspirant from entering, but rather to show that the flame of the wisdom contained within the mandala can burn away ignorance and error.

By means of the symbolic fire, understanding of supreme reality may be attained.

  The Ring of Vajras:

Within the flaming outer circle is an inner ring of vajras. The vajra (or dorje), as explained above, is a dual symbol, representing both thunderbolt and diamond.

It is the emblem of a truth with the power of thunder and also the purity and indestructibility of the diamond. This ring is the threshold of ultimate reality, the sphere of illumination, of unchangeable, absolute essence.

  The Ring of The Lotus:

A third inner circle is a stylized representation of lotus flowers.

The lotus, with its roots in the darkness of mud and its flower floating on the clear water above, open to the sky, is the symbol of spiritual rebirth and thus of enlightenment, the stage the mystic reaches upon passing from samsara to nirvana.

  The Ring of Cemeteries:

Found especially in tantric mandalas dedicated to the terrifying deities, the outer ring may consist of a circle of eight cemeteries, depicted as stylized charnel grounds, showing corpses, human limbs, scavenging beasts, and skeletons.

These images represent both the illusory terrestrial world and the sensations and erroneous mental activities that keep human beings bound to phenomenic appearances; as the cause of samsara, they must be destroyed in order for one to ascend to the plane of the absolute.

  The Inner Square:

Having passed within the concentric outer rings, the aspirant reaches an inner square, the walls of the palace or temple of the deity, or of the royal city.

Its outline is that of a traditional Indian temple, a square with four doors. Four guardians (the Lokapalas: see above) stand sentinel at the gates.

  The Four Portals or Doors:

Above these T-shaped doors stands a torana (arch), on which rests a golden disk, symbol of the Buddha's teaching, known as turning the wheel of the law.

The door is flanked with pillars, and various symbols appear along its sides and above the torana: emblems of sovereignty such as strings of pearls and jewels, and banners.

The gates are sheltered by parasols, the badge of royalty, reflecting the ancient correlation of royalty and the priesthood, and resting above them are gazelles, symbols of the Buddha's first teaching at the Deer Park.

They are adorned with lotus flowers, and vases containing the water of longevity. Little grotesque figures may also appear, allowing the artist to give some rein to his imagination.

The adept proceeds through the portal and inside the walls.

  The Four Triangles: Diagonal lines across the inner square divide it into four triangles.

They are directional, being yellow in the south, red in the west, green in the north, and blue in the east, these colors corresponding to the Dhyani-Buddha families of the four directions.

  The Center:

The central point of the intersection of the four triangles represents pure mind: the void, the matrix, the one, the core of the universe.

From this core of pure, undifferentiated wisdom, emanate the four different types of wisdom, symbolized by the Dhyani-Buddhas, each placed in one of the triangles, representing the four points of the compass.

The point at which they converge is the sanctum sanctorum, the domain of the divinity of the mandala.

The aspirant seeks to become one with this god; through such union, one can achieve reintegration into the state of Buddhahood.

However complex these images (whatever the number of deities that circle the center, or the number of internal circles or squares), the format is the same, the symmetrical arrangement concentric to the unchanging central point, from which all thing emanate, and to which all things return.

The complex repetition of the pattern signifies the interprenetration of all things, and the identity of microcosm and macrocosm.

Symbolic Objects

  Vajra Chopper (sometimes shown with a skull bowl):

This symbolizes the sharp edge of wisdom, which chops up spiritual and intellectual defects, such as pride, envy, etc., as well as misperceptions that block the realization of emptiness.

Depicted with a skull bowl, the chopper shreds all materialistic, negative attitudes held within the skull vessel of the understanding of voidness. It is a symbolic implement for the destruction of the ego that is deeply rooted within us.

  Skull Bowl:

This contains the essential elixir of insight into voidness; when full of blood, it represents the purification of egotism.

  Garlands of Heads: The fierce deities wear these as trophies of their slain enemies: they signify conquered passions and obstructive mentalities: lust, pretense, aggression, spite, hypocrisy, etc. Wisdom turns these severed negative attitudes into ornaments.

  Five-Skull Crown: The skulls stuck onto the five points of the crown represent the five main afflictions, anger, greed, pride, envy and ignorance, conquered and transmuted into the five wisdoms--ultimate reality, discriminating, equalizing, all-accomplishing, and mirror wisdoms.

Three Heads or Skulls displayed on the tip of the Khatvanga or Adept's Staff:

These three heads are in varied stages of decay, one freshly severed head, one shrunken head, and one skull. They symbolize the conquest of the three poisons of desire, hate and ignorance, respectively.

  The Vajra Lasso: This looped rope binds demons, or binds beings to wisdom from life to life.

  Phurba: The ritual dagger symbolizes wisdom's ability to nail down and thus subjugate demons. It is the sharp point of wisdom fixed immobile onto goodness by the power of one-pointed concentration.

  The Third Eye: This feature, seen on tantric deities, represents direct vision of the unity of ultimate reality. It exists simultaneously with the two usual eyes, which see the dualistic, relative world of human beings.

  Fangs: These grind up the false world appearing to materialistic perceptions.

  The Vajra Cross: This symbolizes the union of wisdom and compassion.

  The Vase of the Elixir of Immortality: This shows that enlightenment results in boundless life. It is sometimes held by Maitreya, sometimes by Avalokiteshvara.

  The Flayed Skin of an Elephant: this represents ignorance.

  The Three Jewels (which appear as three colored balls): These symbolize the three refuges of the Buddhist--the Buddha, the Dharma (the law), and the Sangha (the Buddhist or monastic community).]