Buddhist Symbols

Tibetan monks creating a mandala

In the early days of Buddhism,there were no statues of the Buddha himself; therefore Buddhist symbols were relied upon to convey Buddha and his teachings. These representations are still very important in the modern practice of Buddhism, and the symbols discussed here will provide a useful introduction to the most prominent ones.

The Eight-Spoked Dharma Wheel represents the Buddha turning the Wheel of Truth. This is perhaps the most important of all the Buddhist symbols. The wheel represents the Buddha’s enlightenment and his role as the Wheel-Turner, or the one who started a new cycle of teachings and consequentially changed the entire course of destiny.

Hands framing a lotus aum on a stone

The Eight-Spoked Dharma Wheel has eight spokes which represent the Buddha’s Eight-fold Noble Path of proper attitude and actions. The Buddha’s Path consists of correct thought, correct speech, correct actions, correct livelihood, correct understanding, correct effort, correct mindfulness, and correct concentration.

Three segments in center of the wheel represent the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the spiritual community). The wheel can also be divided into three parts which represent the three aspects of Buddhist practice. These three parts are the hub (discipline), the spokes (wisdom), and the rim (concentration).

Buddha achieved his enlightenment underneath a Bodhi tree; therefore the Bodhi tree and Bodhi leaf are very important Buddhist symbols.

The Lion is another of the most highly regarded Buddhist symbols. Throughout history, lions have been associated with regality, power, and strength, and in the Buddhist tradition, Buddha was a royal prince. His teachings are also known as the Lion's Roar, which indicates the power and strength of them.

The Throne refers not only to Buddha’s royal heritage, but also to the idea that he was a spiritual king. Ancient art often shows the Bodhi tree and the Eight-Spoked Dharma Wheel at the top of the throne.

The Footprints of the Buddha represent a physical presence of Buddha. Legend says that, before his death, Buddha left behind an imprint of his foot on a stone to remind his followers of his presence on earth. The Footprints are frequently portrayed with the Eight-Spoked Dharma Wheel on them as well.

Stupas are spiritual monuments that represent the enlightened mind of Buddha. These Buddhist symbols represent the five elements. The square base represents the earth, the round dome is for water, the cone-shape is fire, the canopy is the air, and the volume of the entire stupa represents space.