A central part of Buddhism that is often over looked is the symbolism. If you thought the Free Masons used a lot of symbolism they are certainly rivaled by the Buddhist. Before the Buddha died he expressed his wishes that his followers did not make images of him. So the first Buddhist tried to honor that wish but at the same time wanted something tangible that represented him. So they used symbols that did not represent him directly but instead represented his absence. A few of the first representations were an empty chair, A parasol with no one beneath it, or an empty pair of sandals.
It was not that long before they started to make statues that showed the Buddha’s likeness. With these early images they started to use different things to convey more meaning than just the fact that it was a image of the great teacher. They started to try and convey either teachings of the Dharma or represent important events in the Buddha’s life. So many of these early images contained hand gestures, called Mudra, that had meaning in and of themselves. The Bumiparsa mudra, or earth as a witness, where the Buddha is shown touching the ground with on hand was symbolic of his Enlightenment. Since he was alone at the time of his Enlightenment he touched the ground said that the Earth would be his witness.
The Dharmachakra Mudra, Turning the wheel of the Dharma, represented his first sermon at the deer park in Varanasi where he began his ministry.
Then the symbolism started to take of more spiritual meanings like the Abhaya Mudra, The gesture of fearlessness and granting of protection.
In the earliest forms of Buddhism the images were primarily of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. But there were also beginning to be other symbolic images that were not of the Buddha such as the two deer on both sides of a eight spoke wheel which represented again the teaching of the Nobel Eight Fold Path at the Deer Park in Varanasi.
At the time of the development of the Mahayana schools there started to be images of beings other than the historical Buddha. Some were of other beings from the Pali scriptures like the Bodhisattva Vajrapani. Many people think that Vajrapanni was a Mahayana creation but he appeared in an early Pali scripture, The Ambattha Suttanta Sutta, as a protector of the Buddha.
But it was with the Mahayanna schools that the symbology was taken to a new level. The Mahayana schools started to use other Buddhist imagery as well as borrowing images from Hinduism. Now with this new symbolism there was literally an Enlightened unspoken visual language represented on the Buddhist altar. Even if you did not know what each symbol represented it was thought that they could speak directly to your sub-conscious mind.
The images of these beings started to be in different poses, hold different objects, have multiple heads, or multiple arms. Every single one of these represented something and had a symbolic meaning. Although some of these images were meant to represent spiritual beings many of them began to represent the different aspects of Enlightenment. A good example of this is the Bodhisattva Avaloketeshivara (Kannon, Kwan Yin, Kwan Am). This Bodhisattva is a representation of Compassion. Two of the aspects of Enlightenment being Wisdom and Compassion. One of the common forms of Avaloketeshivara shows her holding a vase (or water jar) and a willow branch. The vase holds a miraculous sweet liquid that relieves the thirst of devotees, an elixir (medical remedy) that can stave off old age and death. The water jar also symbolizes spiritual cleansing or the washing away of impurities that obstruct the path to enlightenment. The Aspirin that we take for pain relief comes from the bark of the willow tree. So the willow branch represents taking the pain or suffering away.
The Bodhisattva Manjusri represents Wisdom and is often found in Zen meditation halls. He is often depicted holding the sword of wisdom in right hand (to cut through illusion and shed light on the unenlightened mind) and sitting atop a roaring lion, which symbolizes the voice of Buddhist Law and the power of Buddhism to overcome all obstacles. Manjusri’s left hand often holds a sutra representing the Hannyakyō (Perfection of Wisdom Sutra; Skt = Prajnaparamita Sūtra) or a blue lotus.
So all this different imagery was now a teaching in its own right. Everywhere you looked there was some aspect of the Dharma being represented. In my previous blog “Finding the profound in the simple” I showed how all the most simple objects that many of us don’t even think about like, the bell, candles, incense, and flowers all hold a much deeper symbolic meaning. There are Dharma teachings in every part of the temple, the Buddhist ritual, and the Buddhist altar.
By the time that the Esoteric schools came around the symbolism truly flowered. The Esoteric Buddhist were looking to represent a “Unified Theory” of sorts to represent the true meaning of the “self” and how it fits into the universe as a whole. In Shingon Buddhism that “Unified Theory” was represented by the Buddha Maha Vairocana, the Cosmic Buddha. In the next segment we will look at how the teachings of the Six Great Elements are related to this Buddha and how this Buddha relates to you. Also how the written Sanskrit language became another source of symbology.