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).
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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).