Buddhist Symbols

Non-Buddhists often ask whether or not Buddhists worship images. The answer is that the true Buddhists know who and what the Buddha is. We do not worship an image nor pray to it expecting any worldly boons or sensual pleasures while we are living or a pleasurable state of existence such as heaven, after death. The images we pay homage to are only representations of one to whom we pay respect in gratitude because he, through his own efforts and wisdom, discovered the way to real peace and made it known to all beings. The offerings we make are only symbols for the Buddha and are a means of concentrating our minds on the significance of the words we are reciting. Just as people love to see a portrait of one dear to them when separated by death or distance, so do we Buddhists love to have before us a representation of our teacher, because this representation enables us to think of his virtues, his love and compassion for all beings and the doctrine he taught.

1. The Image Of Buddha (Butsu in Japanese)

The Buddha statue or other depiction is a symbol in the same sense as the American flag. The American flag is a symbol of a country. It has 13 stripes and 50 stars, which represent the original 13 colonies and the 50 states. The 3 colors, red white, and blue, represent the spirit of courage, purity and loyalty. This flag stands for our country; therefore, we as citizens, respect and honor our flag. The Buddha image is a symbol of an ideal, the enlightened one. It represents perfect compassion and perfect wisdom.

The Buddha image is not an idol as many non-Buddhists think. While it is placed upon the altar, it also exists in our minds and hearts. Buddhists do not worship the image; In fact, the word “worship” as it is known in the West does not exist in Buddhism. The word “Buddha” means Enlightened One. Buddha was a man, a human being, just as you and I are, but he was enlightened; that is to say, he came to understand the truth about life and the world and he lived that truth.

Because the Buddha image is a symbol of our ideal, the images made in India are the ideal for Hindus; images in Thailand are the highest type for the Thais; similarly, images in Japan are the ideal for the Japanese. The Gandhara school of art (Graeco-Buddhist) developed a type of Buddha image that may be acceptable to Caucasians as Buddhism increases in the West. The expression, “beautiful as a Greek god,” suggests the acceptance of an ideal in this image.

The image is the creation of an artist representing the highest ideal of the perfect one. The Buddha image is not absolutely necessary for a Buddhist temple. Without the Buddha image we could still have temples. However, it is a point of focus. It is a reminder. We obtain inspiration by which we encourage ourselves to attain enlightenment.

There are many different statues of Buddhas as well as those of Gautama Buddha (pictured above), the historical Buddha. There are many statues of the ideal Buddha such as the Amitabha Buddha, Vairocana Buddha, Bhesajyaguru, and others. The Amitabha or Amida Buddha is the ideal Buddha that existed in the mind and heart of Gautama Buddha. Amitabha Buddha is the symbol of eternal life and boundless light or the symbol of compassion and wisdom. Amitabha was the living principle or essence of life of Gautama Buddha and in turn it is our own living principle and essence of life. The Vairocana Buddha is the symbol of the source of life, growth and activities just as the sun is the source of life, growth and all activities in our physical world.

There are many statues of the Bodhisattvas (Bosatsu in Japanese), the Buddha-to-be. The most popular and well-known Bodhisattva is the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Kannon in Japanese, Kwan Yin in Chinese, Kwan Se Um in Korean) which is the symbol of compassion and it is often translated as the “Goddess of Mercy” in the West.

The Thousand Hand Kannon is the symbol which shows that many hands are needed to help or save the people. Thus, Buddha images are religious and artistic expressions of Humanity’s ideal and adoration.

2. Flowers

Flowers are beautiful for decoration. However, flowers in Buddhist temples symbolize the teaching of transience. The Buddha taught that all things in this world are in constant change, and nothing is permanent. Flowers are beautiful in the morning but fade in the heat of the day. The flowers remind us of this constant change of things and life. We are faced with the facts of old age, sickness, and death, regardless of whether we desire them or not.

This is one of the meditations used in the offering of flowers:
These flowers I offer in memory of the Buddha, the Supremely Enlightened One. These flowers are now fair in form, glorious in color, sweet in scent. Yet all will soon have passed away, their fair form withered, the bright hues faded, their scent gone. It is even so with all conditioned things which are subject to change and suffering and are unreal. Realizing this, may we attain Nirvana, perfect peace, which is everlasting.

3. Incense

Incense is used in the same sense as in the offering of flowers. It is offered in memory of the Buddha, and is another form of meditation. It is a symbol which signifies the spirit of self purification and self-dedication. Incense has the potential of producing a sweet fragrance, but only when it burns does it diffuse this fragrance. As this incense burns, it is our joy to diffuse sweet fragrance: “I will dedicate my body for higher purposes, more than just for myself.”

A person who is always willing to go more than half way in helping others, who is friendly and amiable, such a person is always liked by others and such a person diffuses a sweet fragrance of personality as incense diffuses its fragrance.

Incense has different colors and different shapes. Some kinds of incense are powdered; others are in the form of sticks or cakes of various shapes. There are also different colors: purple, black, yellow, green, and brown. But regardless of the shape or color, when incense burns it transcends its individual shape and color and becomes one in the smoke. This symbolizes the transcending of individual selfishness or ego to become one with all others, to become one with the oneness of life.

 4. Meditation And Beads

Then are no prayers in Buddhism. The words we recite are meditations and not prayers. We recite to ourselves the virtues of the Buddha and his Doctrine so that we may acquire such mental dispositions as are favorable to the attainment of similar qualities in our own minds, in however small a degree. According to Buddhism, the universe is governed by everlasting unchangeable laws of righteousness, not by any Supreme being who can hear and answer prayers. These laws are so perfect that no one, no god or man, can change them by praising them or by crying out against them.

Meditation beads (mala in Sanskrit and Pali and ojuzu in Japanese, pictured above) are a symbol of unity and harmony. The strand is composed of beads strung on a string, each bead representing an individual. However, the bead is not isolated and independent but is connected with all others to compose the whole strand. We individuals may seem independent, but we are not independent or isolated individuals. We are related to each other in the association of life which we call Buddha nature or Buddha thought. We are interrelated and inter-dependent, and one cannot exist without the others. Thus, meditation beads symbolize the unity of all beings and harmony among them.

5. Candlelight

Candlelight is a symbol of wisdom. In our physical world we see things through the medium of light. If we do not have sun or electric light, this world is so dark that we cannot see anything. In our spiritual and mental world the physical light cannot help us to see. We see only through wisdom. We stumble many times in daily living because we lack wisdom.

Wisdom is a light through which we understand the truth about life. Wisdom, which is very important in Buddhism, is differentiated from knowledge. Knowledge, or learning, is something acquired from external sources.

We can acquire knowledge through reading, listening to lectures, etc., but wisdom cannot be acquired externally: it must be created within one’s own life. Wisdom is obtained only through immediate and direct experience.

6. Gongs

Gongs are used in Buddhist Temples and homes for three purposes: to announce the time of a meeting; to mark different phases of services or tempos of chanting; and, as a symbol aiding in mediation–when a beautiful sound is heard, we listen to its resonance through to the soundless sound upon which depends the meditation.

7. Gassho

Gassho is the highest form of respect symbolizing unity. Gassho is performed by putting the palms of both hands together in front of your heart. One palm represents the subject, the other represents the object. The object may be the Buddha, teacher, mother, wife or husband, or whatever one chooses. It symbolizes the unity of oneself and the others.

In the Gassho, a carnal man and enlightened Buddha become one; the individual and the Buddha are transcended to oneness. Gassho is the highest expression of this unity in one. When this is expressed in words, it is “Namu-Amida-Butsu” “Namu” is to inspire honor and become one; “Amida” is eternal life and boundless light which is the essence of all beings.

Therefore, when one recites “Namu-Amida-Butsu” the one who recites becomes one with the Amida Buddha, transcending the petty selfishness of the individual.