Ashtamangala – The Eight Auspicious Symbols of Tibetan Buddhist Tradition – Part I

“Should you find a wise critic to point out your faults, follow him as you would a guide to hidden treasure.”

— Buddha Sakyamuni

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Prologue – Ignoring our Buddhist Cultural Heritage

When I ask fellow Buddhists whether they are aware of ‘The Eight Auspicious Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism’, I am met with blank stares or confused reactions, most don’t really know what I am asking or most are not sure what to say, very few are able to provide information and that too basic and at times patchy, especially my junior’s….no offence to my junior’s!

I may be wrong but sometimes I feel that my generation ( i.e. those born in 1980s ) was perhaps the last fortunate ones that grew up with best of both the world’s i.e. traditional and modern, though we had few TV channels, less junk around us and not much to choose from to kill time, we were more informed about what was necessary about the world around us!

Once the “Era of Liberalism” started in 1990s with “Open Market Economy” things went from bad to worse in some ways…but then again it’s my view….nothing personal,now back to the issue on ignorance about our Buddhist cultural tradition,history and heritage.

The lack of information among Buddhists about their rich cultural heritage  is sad and unfortunate and can partly be blamed on the upbringing of Buddhist children in which parents have no time to discuss owing to career constrains or perhaps they may themselves not be aware of the same!

The other factor is that there is so much distraction, hypocrisy, misinformation and apprehensions now in the so called “secular” society that we are living in denial that many among us now fear to even question forget about probing what is right or wrong!

This has led to an environment in which many are confused and distracted unfamiliar with their history, tradition, culture, civilization and aspects of faith and have been taught incorrect versions of our own cultural history….but instead of questioning many among us are absorbed in mundane pursuits…while some are still grappling with being Hinayana and hence not Mahayana and Tantrayana or the other way around!

I grew up in a liberal Buddhist – Hindu family ( with a bit of Donyi-Polo, Tribal Folk Religion ) which had a relaxed environment and an open mind with equal respect towards other faiths, My liberal ( not so religious ) parents made sure that both Buddhism and Hinduism were appreciated but at the same time there were no restrictions to only follow any one of them, both blended so well that Buddha Sakyamuni and Ganesha were on the same family shrine and the Buddhist Thangka, Swami Vivekananda, H H The Dalai Lama, Shiva and Donyi Polo adorned our home wall .My childhood friends were mostly Non-Buddhists esp. Christians, Muslims and Tribal Folk.

However as I grew up I gradually realized not everyone I interacted with was as liberal as my family , especially with the followers of Abrahamic faiths ( mostly Muslims and Christians, I never had a Jewish friend till I reached college, however I need to state that my Jewish friends were not as harsh and crude as Muslims and Christians when it came to sharing their views on Buddhism ) with passing years I was made aware by my experience of interaction with Muslims and Christians that not all faiths or ideologies are as appreciative towards Buddhism as we may be towards them.

In fact they mocked Buddhism rudely as not being the “true religion” or not preached by “god” or not good enough to tackle “sin” and other shocking disturbing views that were actually quite offensive and prejudiced most of the time!

Buddhism is not very demanding, unlike some hardcore fanatic religions that demand daily prayers after every few hours or weekend attendance to their places of worship or confessions, Buddhist families do not have the strict tradition of family chanting, meditation or visiting the monastery to interact with religious practitioners, also the earlier tradition of sending the eldest son to live as a monk in the monastery is no longer followed by many, this has also lead to the gradual decline of the need of preserving our cultural heritage among Buddhists.

In most countries of Asia Buddhism faces challenges from Abrahamic Faiths, on one hand we have evangelical groups funded by Western countries and their corporates who advocate that their’s  is the only true religion and a ‘living god’ and on the other hand we have violent radical  groups who use terror and intimidation of the worst kind to exterminate a population that does not “practice” their religion or ideology which they like the evangelists believe that theirs is the “true religion” that will ultimately prevail across the Earth! So until and unless their religions preached by their god does not cover the humanity on this earth, there will be no peace for mankind!

Both these groups target Buddhists for their simplicity, they feel that Buddhists are gullible to take everything they have to say even if that means defaming Buddhism and our teachers, hence they engage with Buddhists in debates to convince the Buddhists that they need to give up Dhamma and accept “their religion” as it is the only true one with the “one and only god” and hence they must accept their faith and abandon Buddhism!

It’s high time we respond to them, not violently using weapons like they do but by using our brains and applying some common sense!Reading, discussing and cross verifying information given to us, helps!

Hence it is very important for Buddhists to know the aspects of our faith and when questioned we must have sufficient information and knowledge to respond and counter!

This article and similar notes on Buddhism are my humble attempts in sharing knowledge and information so that more among us who are in ignorance of the various aspects of Buddhist History, Culture, and Heritage are informed and to also present the common links between the Dharmic Faiths of India.

Since the information about the Eight Auspicious Symbols is quite elaborate I have divided the article in two parts, in the first part of the article I shall be covering the four auspicious symbols i.e. The Treasure Vase,The Endless or Glorious Knot, The Victory Banner and The Dharma Wheel and in the second, concluding part I will cover the remaining four auspicious symbols i.e. The Precious Parasol,The Golden Fishes,The Right-Coiled White Conch and The Lotus Flower.

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Buddhist Symbolism

The great teacher Sakyamuni Buddha was reluctant to accept images of him, as he did not like to be venerated as a person. To symbolize the Buddha in the very early art, one used mainly the Eight Spokes Wheel and  the Bodhi Tree, but also the Buddha’s Footprints, an Empty Throne, a Begging Bowl and a Lion are used to represent him.

Many Buddhist symbols need to be considered within the culture of the people who follow it. Therefore, many of the early symbols relate to ancient India and can be found in Hinduism as well, although possibly with a somewhat different meaning.

The historical Buddha lived around the sixth century BCE, but no Buddhist artifacts are known from before the third century BCE. In the scriptures, it is mentioned that the Buddha did occasionally use images like the ‘Wheel of Life’ to illustrate the teachings. The first archaeological evidence, mainly of ornamental stone carvings, comes from the time of the Emperor Asoka (273 – 232 BCE), who converted to Buddhism and made it a popular religion in India and beyond.

In the second century BCE, people started to excavate Buddhist monasteries in rock, creating a large amount of artwork to withstand the ages. Probably the earliest typical Buddhist monument is the stupa, which was often specially decorated. The first actual Buddha images appeared around the first century BCE, so until then the artwork was largely symbolic in nature.

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The Eight Auspicious Symbols

In Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, the set of ‘Eight Auspicious Symbols’ is the most popular. In Sanskrit they are known as Ashtamangala, ashta meaning ‘eight’ and mangala meaning ‘auspicious.’ In Tibetan they are known as Tashee-Tag-Gyay , tashee means ‘auspicious’, tag means ‘sign or symbol,’ and gyay means ‘eight.’

The ‘Eight Auspicious Symbols’ of good fortune represent the offerings presented by the great Vedic gods to Shakyamuni Buddha upon his attainment of enlightenment.

Brahma was the first of these gods to appear before the Buddha, and he presented a thousand-spoke golden wheel as a symbolic request for the Buddha to teach through ‘turning the wheel of the dharma’.

The great sky god Indra appeared next, and he presented his mighty white conch-shell horn as a symbolic request for the Buddha to ‘proclaim the truth of the dharma’.

In Tibetan paintings of the Buddha’s enlightenment the supplicating forms of four-faced yellow Brahma and white Indra are traditionally shown kneeling before the Buddha’s throne, where they offer their respective symbols of a golden wheel and a white conch.

The earth goddess Sthavara (Tib. Sa’i Lha-mo), who had borne witness to the Buddha’s enlightenment, presented Shakyamuni with a golden vase full of the nectar of immortality.

In early Indian Buddhism the image of the Buddha was depicted in an aniconic or non-representational form, usually by an empty throne under a Parasol and Bodhitree or by a stone impression of his divinely marked footprints.

These footprints display various auspicious symbols as insignia of the Buddha’s divinity, such as the victory banner, lion throne, trident, Three Jewels, eternal knot, swastika, conch, and pair of fishes, but the most common of these insignia were the lotus and the wheel.

In early Vajrayana Buddhism the eight auspicious symbols were deified into eight goddesses, known as the Astamangala Devi, each of whom carry one of the auspicious symbols as an attribute.

Designs of the Eight Auspicious Symbols decorate all manner of sacred and secular Tibetan Buddhist objects. One finds them embellishing wooden furniture, metalwork, carpets, silk brocades, jewelry, paper, and as wall hangings in temples.

In the first part of the article I shall be covering the four auspicious symbols i.e. The Treasure Vase , The Endless or Glorious Knot, The Victory Banner and The Dharma Wheel.

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The Treasure Vase (Sanskrit: Nidhana-Kumbha and Tibetan: Gter-gyi Bum-Pa)

The golden treasure vase, or ‘vase of inexhaustible treasures’, is modeled upon the traditional Indian clay water pot. This pot is known as a kalasha or kumbha, with a flat base, round body, narrow neck, and fluted upper rim. This womb-like sacred kumbha is venerated in India at the great religious ‘pot festival’ of the Kumbh Mela.

The treasure vase is predominantly a symbol of certain wealth deities, including Jambhala, Vaishravana, and Vasudhara, where it often appears as an attribute beneath their feet. One form of the wealth goddess Vasudhara stands upon a pair of horizontal treasure vases that spill an endless stream of jewels. As the divine ‘vase of plenty’ (Tib. bum-pa bzang-po) it possesses the quality of spontaneous manifestation, because however much treasure is removed from the vase it remains perpetually full.

The typical Tibetan treasure vase is represented as a highly ornate golden vase, with lotus-petal motifs radiating around its various sections. A single wish-granting gem, or a group of three gems, seals its upper rim as a symbol of the Three Jewels of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. The great treasure vase (Tib. gter chen-po’I bum-pa), as described in the Buddhist mandala offering, is fashioned from gold and studded with a multitude of precious gems.

A silk scarf from the god realm is tied around its neck, and its top is sealed with a wish-granting tree. The roots of this tree infuse the contained waters of longevity, miraculously creating all manner of treasures. Sealed treasure vases may be placed or buried at sacred geomantic locations, such as mountain passes, pilgrimage sites, springs, rivers, and oceans. Here their function is both to spread abundance to the environment and to appease the indigenous spirits who abide in these places.

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The Endless or Glorious Knot (Sanskrit: Shrivasta and Tibetan: Pell-Bay-Oo)

The Endless Knot or Granthi also appears on clay seals from the early Indus valley civilization (circa 2500 BCE).

In its final evolution as a geometric Buddhist symbol the eternal knot or ‘lucky diagram’, which is described as ‘turning like a swastika’, was identified with the shrivatsa-svastika, since these parallel symbols were common to most early Indian traditions of the Astamangala.

The Auspicious or Endless Knot is a geometric diagram which symbolizes the nature of reality where everything is interrelated and only exists as part of a web of karma and its effect. Having no beginning or end, it also represents the infinite wisdom of the Buddha and the union of compassion and wisdom. Also, it represents the illusory character of time, and long life as it is endless.

As a symbol of the Buddha’s mind the eternal knot represents the Buddha’s endless wisdom and compassion. As a symbol of the Buddha’s teachings it represents the continuity of the ‘twelve links of dependent origination’, which underlies the reality of cyclic existence.

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The Victory Banner (Sanskrit: Dhvaja and Tibetan: Gyel-Tsen)

The Victory Banner represents the victory of the Buddha’s teachings over death, ignorance, disharmony and all the negativities of this world. It also symbolizes the victory of Buddhist doctrine over all harmful and pernicious forces.

The roofs of Tibetan monasteries are often decorated with victory banners of different shapes and sizes.

The dhvaja, meaning banner, flag, or ensign, was originally a military standard of ancient Indian warfare. This standard adorned the rear of a great warrior’s chariot, and was mounted behind the great parasol (Skt. atapatra), or royal parasol (Skt. chatra). Each standard bore the specific ensign of its champion or king.

Primarily the dhvaja was the ensign of Shiva, the great god of death and destruction, whose banner was topped with a trident. This trident symbolized Shiva’s victory over the three worlds, or the ‘three cities’, which were located above, upon, and below the earth.

In Indian warfare the military banner frequently took on horrific forms that were designed to instill terror in the enemy. The impaled head and flayed skin of an enemy or victim was one such gruesome emblem. The heads and skins of ferocious animals, particularly those of the tiger, crocodile, wolf, and bull, were commonly employed.

Large effigies were also fashioned of other frightening creatures, such as the scorpion, snake, vulture,raven, and garuda.

The crocodile-headed banner or makaradhvaja was originally an emblem of Kamadeva, the Vedic god of love and desire. As the ‘tempter’ (Skt. mara), or ‘deluder’ (Skt. maya), Kamadeva was the Hindu counterpart of Mara, the ‘evil one’, who attempted to obstruct the Buddha from attaining enlightenment.

In early Buddhism the concept of Mara as a demonic obstructer to spiritual progress was presented as a group of four maras or ‘evil influences’. These four maras were originally based upon the four divisions of Mara’s army: infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots. The first of these four maras is the demon of the five aggregates of the personality (Skhanda-mara). The second is the demon of emotional defilements (Klesha – mara). The third is the demon of death (Mrityu-mara). The fourth is the ‘son of the god Mara’ (Devaputra-mara), or the demon of desire and temptation. It is this fourth mara, Devaputra-mara, who is identified as Kamadeva, the ‘king of the gods of the highest desire realm’.

The Buddha is said to have defeated the sensual temptations of Kamadeva in the dusk before his enlightenment by meditating upon the ‘four immeasurables’ of compassion, love, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. At dawn he overcame both the mara of the aggregates and the mara of defilements.

But it was only three months before the end of his long life that he finally overcame the mara of death, through the power of his fearless resolve to enter into the ultimate nirvana (parinirvana).

As a symbol of the Buddha’s victory over the four maras, the early Buddhists adopted Kamadeva’s emblem of the crocodile-headed makaradhvaja, and four of these banners were erected in the cardinal directions surrounding the enlightenment stupa of the Tathagata or Buddha.

Similarly the gods elected to place a banner of victory on the summit of Mt Meru, to honor the Buddha as the ‘Conqueror’ (Skt. jina; Tib. rgyal-ba) who vanquished the armies of Mara. This ‘victorious banner of the ten directions’ is described as having a jeweled pole, a crescent moon and sun finial, and a hanging triple bande role of three colored silks that are decorated with the ‘three victorious creatures of harmony’ .

Within the Tibetan tradition a list of eleven different forms of the victory banner is given to represent eleven specific methods for overcoming defilements. Many variations of the banner’s design can be seen on monastery and temple roofs, where four banners are commonly placed at the roof’s corners to symbolize the Buddha’s victory over the four maras.

In its most traditional form the victory banner is fashioned as a cylindrical ensign mounted upon a long wooden axle-pole. The top of the banner takes the form of a small white parasol, which is surmounted by a central wish granting gem. This domed parasol is rimmed by an ornate golden crest-bar with makara-tailed ends, from which hangs a billowing yellow or white silk scarf.

The cylindrical body of the banner is draped with overlapping vertical layers of multicolored silk valances and hanging jewels. A billowing silk apron with flowing ribbons adorns its base. The upper part of the cylinder is often decorated with a frieze of tiger-skin, symbolizing the Buddha’s victory over all anger and aggression.

As a hand-held ensign the victory banner is an attribute of many deities, particularly those associated with wealth and power, such as Vaishravana, the Great Guardian King of the north.

ashtamangala-wheel

The Dharma Wheel (Sanskrit: Chakra and Tibetan: Kore-Low)

The wheel is an early Indian solar symbol of sovereignty, protection, and creation. As a solar symbol it first appears on clay seals unearthed from the Harappan civilization of the Indus valley (circa 2500 BCE).

The wheel represents motion, continuity, and change, forever turning onwards like the circling sphere of the heavens. As a weapon the rimless chakra had six, eight, ten, twelve, or eighteen sharply pointed blades, and could be hurled like a discus or swung upon a rope. The wooden wheels of the ancient India chariot similarly bore an equal number of spokes.

Buddhism adopted the wheel as the main emblem of the ‘wheel-turning’ chakravartin or ‘universal monarch’, identifying this wheel as the dharmachakra or ‘wheel of dharma’ of the Buddha’s teachings. The Tibetan term for dharmachakra (Tib. chos-kyi ’khor-lo) literally means the ‘wheel of transformation’or spiritual change. The wheel’s swift motion represents the rapid spiritual transformation revealed in the Buddha’s teachings. The wheel’s comparison to the rotating weapon of the chakravartin represents its ability to cut through all obstacles and illusions.

The Buddha’s first discourse at the Deer Park in Sarnath, where he first taught the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path, is known as his ‘first turning of the wheel of dharma’. His subsequent great discourses at Rajghir and Shravasti are known as his second and third turnings of the wheel of dharma.

The three components of the wheel – hub, spokes, and rim – symbolize the three aspects of the Buddhist teachings upon ethics, wisdom, and concentration. The central hub represents ethical discipline, which centers and stabilizes the mind. The sharp spokes represent wisdom or discriminating awareness, which cuts through ignorance.

The rim represents meditative concentration, which both encompasses and facilitates the motion of the wheel. A wheel with a thousand spokes, which emanate like the rays of the sun, represents the thousand activities and teachings of the Buddhas. A wheel with eight spokes symbolizes the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path, and the transmission of these teachings towards the eight directions.

The auspicious wheel is described as being fashioned from pure gold obtained from the Jambud River of our ‘world continent’, Jambudvipa. It is traditionally depicted with eight vajra-like spokes, and a central hub with three or four rotating ‘swirls of joy’ (Tib. dga’ ’khyil), which spiral outward like a Chinese yin-yang symbol.

When three swirls are shown in the central hub they represent the Three Jewels of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, and victory over the three poisons of ignorance, desire, and aversion.

When four swirls are depicted they are usually colored to correspond to the four directions and elements, and symbolize the Buddha’s teachings upon the Four Noble Truths. The rim of the wheel may be depicted as a simple circular ring, often with small circular gold embellishments extending towards the eight directions.

Alternatively it may be depicted within an ornate pear-shaped surround, which is fashioned from scrolling gold embellishments with inset jewels. A silk ribbon is often draped behind the wheel’s rim, and the bottom of the wheel usually rests upon a small lotus base.

Note – This is the first part of a two part article, in the second and concluding part I will cover the remaining four auspicious symbols i.e. The Precious Parasol, The Golden Fishes, The Right-Coiled White Conch and The Lotus Flower.

To be continued……

Tashi Delek!

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Further Reading :

Ashtamangala – The Eight Auspicious Symbols of Tibetan Buddhist Tradition – Part II

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