“Whatever is not yours … your letting go of it will be for your long term happiness & benefit.”
— Sakyamuni Buddha
In the second/concluding part of the article Ashtamangala – The Eight Auspicious Symbols of Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, 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.
The Precious Parasol (Sanskrit: Chatra and Tibetan: Rin-Chen-Duke)
The parasol is a traditional Indian symbol of both protection and royalty. The ability to protect oneself against inclement weather has always, in all cultures, been a status symbol. In Asian thought, the fact that it protected the bearer from the scorching heat of the sun was transferred into the religious sphere as a protection against the heat of defilements.
Thus the coolness of its shade symbolizes protection from the heat of suffering, desire, and others spiritually harmful forces. The Precious Parasol embodies notions of wealth or royalty, for one had to be rich enough to possess such an item, and further, to have someone carry it. It points to the “royal ease” and power experienced in the Buddhist life of detachment.
The dome of the parasol is held aloft by a vertical handle, which is identified with the central axis upholding the world. It is carried above an important dignitary or the image of a deity, to indicate that the person or symbol below the parasol is in fact the center of the universe, and also its spiritual support.
Parasols seem to be especially important in processional rites, being like mobile temples. Thus, depictions of the Buddha often display an elaborate and large parasol above his head.
The Precious Parasol symbolizes the beneficial activities of keeping beings from the harms of illness, harmful forces, obstacles and so forth. It also represents the enjoyment of a feast of benefit under its cool shade.
In Tibet, depending on their status, various dignitaries were entitled to different parasols, with religious heads being entitled to a silk one and secular rulers to a parasol with embroidered peacock feathers. Exalted personalities such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama are entitled to both, and in processions, first a peacock parasol and then a silk one is carried after him.
The Golden Fishes (Sanskrit: Matsyayugma / Suvarna Matsya Tibetan: Sair-Nyah )
The sea in Tibetan Buddhism is associated with the world of suffering, the cycle of samsara. In Sanskrit the pair of fishes is known by the term ‘Matsyayugma’, meaning ‘coupled fish’.
This alludes to their origin as an ancient symbol of the two main sacred rivers of India, the Ganges (Ganga) and Yamuna.
Symbolically these two great rivers represent the lunar and solar channels or psychic nerves (Skt. nadi), which originate in the nostrils and carry the alternating rhythms of breath or prana.
In Buddhism the golden fishes represent happiness and spontaneity, as they have complete freedom of movement in the water. They represent fertility and abundance, as they multiply very rapidly. They represent freedom from the restraints of caste and status, as they mingle and touch readily. The auspicious symbol of a pair of fishes is common to Dharmic traditions of India (Buddhism, Hindu and Jain). In ancient Egypt a pair of fishes symbolized the fertile waters of the River Nile.
The two golden fishes, a male and a female, are usually depicted symmetrically and in the form of carp, with graceful tails, gills, and fins, and long tendrils extending from their upper jaws. Carp are traditionally regarded as sacred fish in the orient, on account of their elegant beauty, size, and longevity, and because of their association with certain benevolent deities.
The paired fish are often depicted with their noses touching, and in Hinduism this is a symbol of the female sexual organ or yoni. A golden fish is the attribute of the great Indian Mahasiddha Tilopa, symbolizing both his realization and his ability to liberate beings from the ocean of cyclic existence (Skt. samsara).
The auspicious symbol of the two fishes that were presented to the Buddha was probably embroidered in gold thread upon a piece of Benares silk.
The Right-Coiled White Conch (Sanskrit: Dakshinavarta-Shankha and Tibetan: Doong-Kahr-Yay-Kyeel)
The right-turning white conch shell represents the beautiful sound of the spread of the Buddhadharma. Its sound is deep, far-reaching and melodious, and hearing it awakens beings from the deep slumber of ignorance, urging them to accomplish their own and others’ welfare. The white conch shell, which spirals towards the right in a clockwise direction, is an ancient Indian attribute of the heroic gods, whose mighty conch shell horns proclaimed their valor and victories in war.
As a battle horn the conch is akin to the modern bugle, as an emblem of power, authority, and sovereignty. Its auspicious blast is believed to banish evil spirits, avert natural disasters, and scare away harmful creatures.
Early Hinduism classified the conch into gender varieties, with the thicker-shelled bulbous conch being the male or purusha, and the thinner-shelled slender conch being the female or shankhini.
Shells which spiral to the right in a clockwise direction are a rarity and are considered especially sacred. The right-spiraling movement of such a conch is believed to echo the celestial motion of the sun, moon, planets and stars across the heavens.
The hair whorls on Buddha’s head spiral to the right, as do his fine body hairs, the long curl between his eyebrows (urna), and also the conch-like swirl of his navel. Today the conch symbolizes Shakyamuni Buddha fearlessness in proclaiming the truth of the dharma, and his call to awaken and work for the benefit of others. One of the thirty-two major signs of the Buddha’s body is his deep and resonant conch-like voice, which resounds throughout the ten directions of space. Ichnographically the three conch-like curved lines on his throat represent this sign.
As one of the eight auspicious symbols the white conch is usually depicted vertically, often with a silk ribbon threaded through its lower extremity. Its right spiral is indicated by the curve and aperture of its mouth, which faces towards the right. The conch may also appear as a horizontally positioned receptacle for aromatic liquids or perfumes .As a hand-held attribute, symbolizing the proclamation of the Buddhadharma as the aspect of speech, the conch is usually held in the left ‘wisdom’ hand of deities.
The Lotus Flower (Sanskrit: Padma / Kamala and Tibetan: Padma / Chu-Skyes )
The Lotus does not grow in Tibet and so Tibetan art has only stylized versions of it. The Lotus, which grows from the dark watery mire but is unstained by it, is a major Buddhist symbol of purity and renunciation. It represents the blossoming of wholesome activities, which are performed with complete freedom from the faults of cyclic existence. The lotus seats upon which deities sit or stand symbolize their divine origin.
They are immaculately conceived, innately perfect, and absolutely pure in their body, speech, and mind. The deities manifest into cyclic existence, yet they are completely uncontaminated by its defilements, emotional hindrances, and mental obscurations.
Padmasambhava, the ‘lotus born’ tantric master who introduced Buddhism into Tibet, was similarly divinely conceived from a miraculous lotus, which blossomed upon Dhanakosha Lake in the western Indian kingdom of Uddiyana. The lotus, as a divine womb or vagina, is a potent sexual metaphor in both Hindu and Buddhist tantra.
Padma and kamala are synonymous Sanskrit terms for the ‘lotus’ of the female vagina, which is soft, pink, and open. Likewise the vajra is synonymous with the male penis, which is hard and penetrative.
The union of vajra and padma is a sexual symbol for the union of form and emptiness, or skillful means and wisdom. On an inner level this union symbolizes the penetration and ascent of the psychic winds into the subtle body’s central channel, which pierces and opens the ‘lotuses’ of the channel-wheels or chakras.
The lotus is the emblem of Amitabha, the red Buddha of the west and the ‘Lord of the Padma or Lotus Family’.
Amitabha’s qualities are indicative of the redness of fire, vital fluids, evening twilight, the summer season, and the transmutation of passion into discriminating awareness. Amitabha’s consort is Pandara, whose attribute is also a red lotus.
Amitabha’s presiding Bodhisattva is Padmapani Avalokiteshvara, the ‘Holder of the Lotus’, and the Bodhisattva of great compassion.
The Buddhist lotus is described as having four, eight, sixteen, twenty-four, thirty-two, sixty-four, a hundred, or a thousand petals. These numbers symbolically correspond to the internal lotuses or chakras of the subtle body, and to the numerical components of the mandala.
As a hand-held attribute the lotus is usually colored pink or light red, with eight or sixteen petals. Lotus blossoms may also be colored white, yellow, golden, blue, and black. The white or ‘edible lotus’ (Skt. pundarika; Tib. pad-ma dkar-po) is an attribute of the Buddha Sikhin, and a sixteen- petaled white utpala lotus is held by White Tara.
The yellow lotus (Tib. pad-ma ser-po) and the golden lotus (Tib. gser-gyi pad-ma) are generally known as padma, and the more common red or pink lotus is usually identified as the kamala.
The Sanskrit term utpala is specifically identified with the blue or black ‘night lotus’, but its transliterated Tibetan equivalent (Tib. ut-pa-la) may be applied to any color of lotus.
Epilogue – Being proud of our Buddhist Cultural Heritage
We must be aware and proud of our Buddhist Cultural Heritage, we must honor the knowledge we receive about our cultural heritage.
Cultural heritage can provide an automatic sense of unity and belonging within a group and allows us to better understand previous generations and the history of where we come from.
The main benefit of preserving cultural heritage as a whole is the communal support. Those that identify strongly with a certain heritage are often more likely to help out others in that same community.
In conclusion, it would not have been possible to write on the Eight Auspicious Symbol without these three beautiful, informative and awesome books – Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols and The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs by Robert Beer and Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism by Claude Levenson also I’m grateful to the photographs from Christopher J Fynn of the Eight Auspicious Symbols (Ashtamangala) at the entrance to the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital, Thimphu, Kingdom of Bhutan.
Additional Reading –