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    Modern version of the Eternal Knot by Charles Huttner
A View on Buddhism
Teksty w jezyku polskim     Deutsche Seiten

Tibetan Buddhist Symbols

PAGE CONTENTS

Introduction
The Kalachakra 'Tenfold Powerful' Logo
Prayer Flags, Wheels and Stones
Khata Offering
The Four Dignities
The Three Symbols of Victory Against Disharmony
Mount Kailash
The Karmapa Dream Flag
Music Instruments in Tibetan Buddhist Ritual

Tibetan Thankas
Books on Tibetan Buddhist Symbolism

INTRODUCTION

Tibet is a vast country, spread out between India and the Himalayas in the South, and China in the east. The traditional nomadic culture was greatly influenced by the introduction of Buddhism from India, to an extent that nearly all the cultural achievements of Tibet are related to the Buddhist religion. Because of the predominance of tantra with its rich tradition of symbolism, it is no surprise that symbols and symbolic artifacts of all sorts are found in Tibet. Some of the symbols however originated in Tibet, or were given a specific meaning within the local culture. Therefore, this page is made separately from the other pages on symbolism of this website.

Tenfold Powerful - a Kalachakra symbol

THE KALACHAKRA 'TENFOLD POWERFUL' LOGO

This symbol can be found nearly everywhere where Tibetan Buddhism is present, in various forms. It represents the teachings of the Kalachakra tantra, one of the most complex tantric systems. This symbol was developed in Tibet and is a schematic representation of letters in the Lantsa script. The symbolism behind this logo is vast and has explanations referring to the outer world, the human body at its gross and subtle levels, and the practice of Kalachakra. A more extensive explanation can be found on this page of the International Kalachakra Network.

PRAYER FLAGS, MANI WHEELS AND MANI STONES

Prayerflags in TibetTypically found in Tibetan areas are the many Prayer Flags that decorate monasteries, houses and even mountain passes. It is believed that the special blessing power of the mantras printed on them is spread all over the world by the wind. The tradition stems from pre-Buddhist traditions in Tibet, just as the the so-called Wind horse which is often found on them. Traditionally, prayer flags have a combination of mantras, special prayers and auspicious symbols printed on them.
Prayer flags are not only strung on ropes to hang between two poles, they can also be hung like a flag from one pole.
Usually, the flags come in five different colors: blue corresponds with the sky, white with clouds, red with fire, green with water and yellow with earth. (This is different from the usual general symbolism of colors, which is related to the elements: black/blue for air, red for fire, white for water and yellow for earth.)
There are many different types of prayer flags, you can find some descriptions at the Saraswati Bhawan website.

Wind Horse prayer flagThe Wind Horse (Tib. Lung-ta), a mythical Tibetan creature from pre-Buddhist times, combines the speed of the wind and the strength of the horse to carry prayers from earth to the heavens. Not surprisingly in a country where the horse was used by the traditional nomads of Tibet. It is associated with success and the space element. The Wind Horse carrying the “Wish Fulfilling Jewel of Enlightenment” is the most prevalent symbol used on prayer flags. It represents good fortune; the uplifting life force energies and opportunities that make things go well. When one’s lung-ta is low obstacles constantly arise. When lung-ta is high good opportunities abound. Raising Wind Horse prayer flags is one of the best ways to raise one’s lung-ta energy.

"The traditional Wind Horse Prayer Flags are ancient designs. In the center of the flag on the right, is the Wind Horse, the uplifting energy that carries good fortune to all beings. In the corners are the "Four Dignities": the Garuda (wisdom), the Dragon (gentle power) the Snow Lion (fearless joy), and the Tiger (confidence). The Eight Auspicious Symbols (See right) are depicted around the perimeter. Various prayers and mantras are included in the text.
At the top center are the three main Bodhisattvas: Avalokiteshvara (Compassion), Manjushri (Wisdom), and Vajrapani (Power). At the bottom center are the figures called "the union of enemies" representing friendship. The two swastikas are symbols of eternal life. There are many prayers for health, prosperity and good fortune."

Hand-held Prayer WheelPrayer Wheels are another typical Tibetan phenomena. They are usually crammed with mantras, and similar to prayer flags, it is taught that the power of the mantras will spread when the wheel is turned. The more mantras, the better. Prayer wheels come in many variations; from handheld, like the one on the left, to huge ones that require serious muscle power to set in motion. They can be moved by hands, water or wind- with this cool tool, even your hard disk can function as a prayer wheel. They are also called Mani-wheels, as the wheels usually contain the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM (the letters below show this famous mantra in Tibetan), which is the mantra of Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit). A thorough explanation of prayer wheels can be found here, and teachings of Lama Zopa Rinpoche on the benefit of prayer wheels.

Prayer Wheel Tibetan OM MANI PADME HUM electronic mani wheel

The following story describes the origin of the prayer wheel (from tantricheartwheels.com):

"Arya Chenrezig predicted to Master Ludrup Nyingpo, "In the palace of the land of Naga is the Naga King Bodhisattva, who is the owner of a profound wheel of Dharma. By hearing, seeing, touching or thinking of this wheel, one can swiftly attain liberation from the suffering of the three lower rebirths. If you go and fetch this wheel, the benefits to sentient beings will be enormous."
Consequently, Master Ludrup visited the land of Naga and said to Naga King Bodhisattva, "Oh, Naga King Bodhisattva, please pay attention to me. I have come here because Arya Cherezig prophesized that the benefits to sentient beings will be enormous if I beg from you your profound wheel of Dharma, which can liberate beings from all types of sufferings of lower rebirths just by hearing, seeing, touching or thinking of it. Kindly give it to me."
Naga King Bodhisattva replied, "This wheel of Dharma, which has the quality of quickly liberating all transmigrators from the great suffering of the three lower rebirths merely by hearing, seeing, touching or thinking of it, was kindly given to us in the past by the Buddha Mar Mezed, and has given nagas much happiness. through it many have been led to the grounds and paths of Buddhahood. This Dharma Wheel is the wheel of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hung, the essence mantra Arya Chenrezig received from the Buddhas upon request, and which represents the essence of all the qualities of body, speech, mind and actions of the Buddhas. I shall give this wheel to you. You must place it on or in earth, water, fire or wind and use it for the sake of Dharma and living beings."
The wheel was passed on to Master Nagarjuna together with its instructions for use. Master Nagarjuna brought it to India and later passed it on to the Lion-Faced Dakini. From her the lineage passed through Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa to Dakpo Lha Je, then to Khampa Yu Se and so on."

Another, very Tibetan, phenomena is to cut mantras into stones, and pile them up to form entire walls. As the mantra carved onto the stones is again often the Chenresig mantra "OM MANI PADME HUM", they are also known as Mani-stones, often combined into Mani-walls.

Chiseling of mani-stones Top of a mani-wall

KHATA OFFERING

Khata OfferingIt is customary to offer white scarves (Tibetan: khatag) at this time, or at the very end, but this is not strictly necessary. If a khata is offered (held as in the picture) then it should be placed in front of the lama or at his side. Often, it will be returned to you (with the help of the assisting monk) as a blessing, but not always. They may be available for purchase before the ritual, but if you do not have one, you can offer a smile and a bow.

There is often a natural inclination to make offerings to the lama out of recognition for his or her kindness. Plan to bring an envelope (or two, if you would like to donate something to the translator or other assistant) into which you can put your contributions. It is customary to make these donations at the end of the wang. You can place this on the lama's lectern or desk with the katha.

Though the value of an empowerment cannot be measured in dollars, that does not mean that money is unsuitable as an offering. Flowers and fruit are suitable as offerings to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; lamas who are residents at dharma centres, who help build monasteries and schools, and who travel widely need money. Each person should offer what he or she feels is appropriate.

In Mongolia, the people often offer blue khatas.

See also the page of the Tibetan Government on khatags.

THE FOUR DIGNITIES

The Four Dignities are mythical animals which represent various aspects of the Bodhisattva attitude, like strength, protection and cheerfulness.

Dragon

Dragon
The Dragon thunders in the sky with the sound of compassion that awakens us from delusion and increases what we can know through hearing. Dragons have the power of complete communication. Just as we do not see sound, we do not see dragons -- at least not usually. Displaying a dragon banner is said to protect one from slander and enhances one's reputation.
Associations: main quality is power, dominance over the sea, and the water element.

Tiger

Tiger
The Tiger abides in the South, symbolizing unconditional confidence, disciplined awareness, kindness and modesty. It is relaxed yet energized; resting in a gentle state of being that has a natural sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, referring to the state of enlightenment.
Associations: main quality is confidence, dominance over forest, and the air element.

Sowlion

Snow Lion
The Snow Lion resides in the East and represents unconditional cheerfulness, a mind free of doubt, clear and precise. It has a beauty and dignity resulting from a body and mind that are synchronized. The Snow Lion has a youthful, vibrant energy of goodness and a natural sense of delight. Sometimes the throne of a Buddha is depicted with eight Snowlions on it, in this case, they represent the 8 main Bodhisattva-disciples of Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha.
Associations: main quality is fearlessness, dominance over mountains, and the earth element.

Garuda

Garuda
The Garuda is daring and fearless and abides in the north. With great strength and power it soars beyond without holding back. It symbolizes freedom from hopes and fears, the vast mind without reference point. It is a powerful antidote to the negative influences of Nagas (spirits) which can cause disease and all kinds of harm.
Associations: main quality is wisdom, dominance over the sky, and the fire element.


THE THREE SYMBOLS OF VICTORY AGAINST DISHARMONY

 

These symbols can easily be confused when not looked at carefully; for example, this Snowlion has a Garuda head....

Information and image from Andy Weber's website.

The pairing of the six traditional enemies — garuda and snowlion, otter and fish, crocodile (sea-monster) and seasnail — creates the three mystical animals, symbols of universal love.

From Saraswati Bhawan:

"The Union of Opposites (mithun gyulgyal) is an interesting group of symbols. These mythological beings are joined rival pairs of animals created to symbolize harmony. A snow lion and a garuda, normally mortal enemies, were combined to form an animial with a snow lion’s body and a garuda’s head and wings. Likewise a fish was put together with an otter and a crocodile-like chu-srin was married to a conch shell. These composed creatures are often put on Victory Banners for the reconciliation of disharmony and disagreement."

Symbols of Universal Love by Andy Weber

MOUNT KAILASH

Mount Kailash, photograph courtesy of www.sacredsites.com
Mt. Kailash, Tibet

Tibetans consider a pilgrimage journey around Mt. Kailash very important, some people even manage this high-altitude, difficult trek by making prostrations. It is even said that if one does 108 circumambulations, one will reach enlightenment. Quite a number of tales are connected to the mountain, linked with the greatest saints of Tibetan Buddhism, Guru Padmasambhava and Milarepa, and is the abode of the deity Chakrasamvara.

”There is no place more powerful for practice, more blessed, or more marvelous than this; may all pilgrims and practitioners be welcome!"
Milarepa

In Bon - Tibet's pre-Buddhist religion the mountain is called Tise and is believed to be the seat of the Sky Goddess Sipaimen. (Hindus identify it with the abode of Shiva. Jains call the mountain Astapada and believe it to be the place where Rishaba, the first of the twenty-four Tirthankaras attained liberation.)
See also this page from Sacred Sites.

KARMAPA DREAM FLAG

Karmapa Dream FlagThe 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, well known for his visions and prophesies, designed this flag from a vision that came to him in a dream. He called it “Namkhyen Gyaldar (Victorious Flag of Buddha’s Wisdom).” He proclaimed, “Wherever this banner is flown the Dharma will flourish.”

According to the outer meaning the blue represents the sky or heaven. The yellow symbolizes the earth. The wave symbolizes the Buddhadharma penetrating heaven and earth.

According to the inner meaning the blue represents vision and spiritual insight and the yellow symbolizes our experience of the everyday world. The symmetry of the wave pattern shows the interdependence of the absolute and relative levels of reality.

According to the secret meaning, the blue symbolizes emptiness-wisdom and the yellow represents compassionate action. The wave is Mahamudra: the union of compassion and wisdom- the ultimate realization of one’s true nature.

MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS IN TIBETAN BUDDHISM

To make the offering of sounds, the Tibetans use a whole range of musical instruments, from bells, cymbals, drums to wind instruments. Especially some of the wind instruments may produce a very strange sound for the Western ear, like the Long Horns which sound almost like a toneless blare to the Thighbone Trumpets with a sometimes piercing sound. To judge for yourself, do visit this page of the Nuns of Khachoe Ghakyil, which include descriptions and even soundbytes of the instruments.

TIBETAN THANKAS

A specific artform that has developed into perfection in Tibet are the scroll-paintings or Thankas. On one hand the often nomadic people liked to have images of deities and other subjects, but transportation of conventional flat paintings was problematic. That is why the art of making paintings that can withstand rolling up was developed into perfection. Traditionally, very specific recipies are used for making the paint (mostly made of natural minerals) and preparation of the canvas. You can find good information in English and German on thankas and much of the symbolism involved on the site of the Dharmapala Thanka Center.

BOOKS & LINKS ON TIBETAN BUDDHIST SYMBOLISM

Tibetan Clipart is a great source of vector-graphics which you can use to illustrate anything and support an education project for Tibetan youngsters at the same time.
An excellent book on symbolism is Robert Beer's "Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs", Serindia publications.
A good classical one is Lama Anagarika Govinda's "Foundation of Tibetan Mysticism", which describes a vast amount of symbolism surrounding the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM.
See also the Khandro website

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Last updated: September 11, 2011