12 Buddhist symbols and their meaning

by Mia Fischer August 14, 2019 5 min read 2 Comments

12 Buddhist symbols and their meaning

12 Buddhist symbols and their meaning 

The world of religion and spirituality has always been interwoven with rituals and symbols – so is Buddhism. Symbols are signs, which contain meaning that only the initiated ones can understand. Therefore, they always have something mysterious for those who don’t know them. Read on and learn more about 12 of the essential symbols of Buddhism! 

Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism about 500 BC., and spread his teachings on suffering, nirvana and the cycle of reincarnation in India. Siddhartha was reluctant to see pictures of himself. He also used many different symbols to illustrate his teachings and techniques. That’s how a wealth of Buddhist symbols emerged. 

The symbols of Buddhism 

Symbols often contain complex messages and allow us to remember them at a glance. There are many different symbols in different Buddhist traditions. However, there are 8 specific symbols, which are essential to Buddhism in general. It’s even said that these represent the gifts, which God gave Buddha when he attained enlightenment: the umbrella, the goldfish, the vase, the lotus flower, the conch shell, the eternal knot, the victory banner and the Wheel of Dharma. 

Furthermore, there are many other symbols, which play an important role in Buddhism. In this article, we will introduce you to the mystery of the 12 most significant symbols of Buddhism. 

  1. The Wheel of Dharma 

 

The Dharma Wheel

The Wheel of Dharma is also known as the Wheel of Life or Dharma Chakra. It represents the noble eightfold path the Buddha has taught his disciples. The noble eightfold path is a guide to attaining enlightenment, nirvana, and finally liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and entry into para- nirvana. 

The Wheel of Dharma has become a universal symbol of Buddhism. It has eight spokes, which represent the noble eightfold path of the Buddha. In Tibet, it’s also called the Wheel of Transformation. 

  1. The eternal knot 

The interweaving of lines in the eternal knot, also called endless knot, has neither a beginning nor an end. It represents the infinity of Buddha's wisdom and compassion. It also symbolises that the material and spiritual worlds are inseparable. 

This knot is not only a symbol of the connection between this world and the hereafter, but also for the relationship between us humans. It reminds us that we are not isolated lone fighters but part of the whole. The eternal knot is also used to show that spiritual practice can’t be separated from worldly life and that wisdom and compassion go hand in hand. 

  1. The lotus flower 

The lotus flower represents the original purity of body, language and mind. The flower floats above the cloudy water and is rooted in the muddy ground, which represents negative emotions such as attachment and desire. 

The lotus flower is used in many teachings of Buddhism to represent the true nature of humanity. The roots of the lotus are deep in the mud; the plant grows in cloudy water and finally, at the water surface a delicate flower blooms with a pleasantly sweet smell. 

The lotus illustrates the way we spiritually grow and gradually rise above our suffering to attain enlightenment, beauty, and clarity. The lotus flower comes in different colours, each of which has different meanings. A pink lotus represents the traditional Buddha. Purple stands for mysticism, red for love and compassion, and blue for wisdom. A white lotus symbolises spirituality and mental clarity. 

  1. The umbrella 

An umbrella can protect people from both the sun and the rain. In general, the umbrella was symbolic of protection in India even before the rise of Buddhism. It protects against the influence of heat and provides a cool shade. This way it provides protection from physical suffering. In the figurative sense, the umbrella stands for spiritual protection from suffering and negative energies. 

  1. The two goldfish 

In ancient India, the two goldfish symbolised the sacred rivers Ganges and Yamuna, which bring wealth, abundance and happiness. This tradition was adopted in Buddhism. Fish move freely in the water and stand for fertility, abundance and freedom. Another meaning attributed to the two goldfish is courage. Because they’re brave enough to make their way through the ocean of suffering. 

  1. The conch shell 

In many countries, this large shell was once used as a traditional horn in battles. The sound is loud and powerful. The conch shell doesn’t only have the power to chase away enemies, but also evil spirits. In Buddhism, the deep and solemn sound of the horn is said to reflect the power with which the teachings of the Dharma spread. The conch shell is also used as a symbol for the spiritual awakening of the disciples of Buddhism. 

  1. The victory banner 

The banner of victory shows how Buddha defeated the demon Mara. In Buddhism, this demon stands for passion, lust and pride. The victory banner represents the Buddha’s enlightenment. It’s used to remind people that they, too, must overcome their pride, lust and passion if they want to attain enlightenment. 

  1. The vase 

The vase, also called the treasure vase, is decorated with lotus flowers. On top of the vase is a tree with roots reaching into the water. A vase is usually used to keep and preserve flowers or plants. In Buddhism, therefore, the vase stands for health, prosperity and a long life. 

Other popular Buddhist symbols 

Now you have come to know the 8 symbols, which are generally considered the main symbols of Buddhism. Below are four other symbols, which are important to Buddhists. Do you perhaps already know them? 

  1. The Bodhi Tree 

The Bodhi Tree symbolises the original tree in Bodh Gaya, India, where Siddhartha Gautama once sat down to meditate until he attained enlightenment and became a Buddha. It represents the dedication and determination for deep meditation, with which Buddhists can achieve enlightenment. 

A descendant of this original Bodhi Tree still exists today in Bodh Gaya. Many monks and travellers come to see it, to meditate in its shade and to be inspired. 

  1. The Eyes of the Buddha 

The Eyes of the Buddha are also referred to as "Eyes of Wisdom". They’re often found on the walls of stupas, Buddhist shrines. The Eyes of the Buddha symbolise the presence of divine consciousness in everything that exists. The wavy line in the centre of the eyes is the Sanskrit symbol for the number 1 and symbolises the unity of all things. The point between the two eyes is the third eye and represents true spiritual awakening. 

  1. The Vajra 

The Vajra is a symbol of Tantric Buddhism and represents the spiritual power and the strength of the mind. The Vajra is a metal rod with numerous spokes. It symbolises the inseparability of emptiness and form and unites the properties of a diamond: purity and durability as well as indestructible power. It stands for the perfection and inseparability of the state of enlightenment. 

  1. The Buddha 

Siddharta Gautama himself didn’t want any pictures of himself. The Buddha, as we all know him, is not a symbol of worship. Because Buddha is not a god, but a person who attained enlightenment through the eightfold noble path. Images and figures of the Buddha are not meant to invite for idol worship, but to remind us of the potential of enlightenment and Buddhahood that exists in each one of us. 

Many Buddhists wear bracelets or necklaces with Buddhist symbols on the body or put figures and symbols in their living space to be reminded in everyday life of the deep spiritual meaning of these symbols. Now you also know some of the symbols of Buddhism and, for sure, you can easily remember what they stand for. Namaste!

Mia Fischer
Mia Fischer


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