The Main Symbols in Buddhist Mythology & History

January 30, 2019

The Main Symbols in Buddhist Mythology & History

The Buddhist religion has a rich mythology and a diverse array of accompanying symbols. Gautama Siddhartha founded Buddhism in the 6th century BCE and, like the Prophet Muhammad after him, he did not wish to be revered and discouraged the creation of iconography. Symbols were consequently used as a way to capture the essence of his teachings.


In Buddhism, the Eight Auspicious Symbols of good fortune represent the offerings the gods made to Buddha after he gained enlightenment. Today these symbols are frequently seen individually or together on Tibetan prayer flags, on furniture and carpets, and in mandalas and ritual art. They are also drawn on the ground during ceremonies so that the proceedings may be blessed.


Dharma Wheel 

Also known as the dharmachakra, the dharma wheel is one of the oldest and most iconic symbols of the Buddhist faith. The emperor Ashoka, who ruled much of India from about 304 BCE and was himself symbolized by a lion, was a proponent of Buddhism and built pillars that prominently featured the dharma wheel. The dharmachakra can be seen with differing numbers of spokes to convey different connotations. Eight spokes are commonly used and they represent the Eightfold Path leading to Enlightenment.

This path revolves around eight ideals beginning with the word ‘right’ which is interpreted as meaning wise. These ideals are: 

  • Right Understanding 
  • Right Intention 
  • Right Speech 
  • Right Action 
  • Right Livelihood 
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness 
  • Right Concentration 

Source: Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

Endless Knot 

Comprised of symmetrical, intertwining, right-angled lines portraying no beginning and no end, this symbol embodies Buddha’s infinite wisdom and empathy. Some interpretations look at the eternal knot as a visual depiction of the mutual dependence of religious and secular matters.



Source: Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

Previous iterations of this symbol may have shown two snakes representing opposing forces at harmony with one another. This symbol highlights the idea that all phenomena are bonded and connected in a closed cycle of cause and effect. For this reason, you might come across an endless knot on gifts of various kinds. It is an acknowledgment between a gift-giver and recipient that their fates are linked. 

Conch Shell 

According to tradition, when Buddha would give sermons, his voice and tone were melodic and calming, like the sound of a conch pressed to an ear. The conch trumpet is present in Hinduism as well where it announced historical battles.



In Buddhism, with its non-violent philosophy, the conch symbolizes Buddha’s far-reaching teachings which have the ability to wake people from an ignorant slumber. It is also believed that a conch-shaped mark can be found on the bodies of beings with divine attributes. 

Source: Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

Golden Fish 

A pre-Buddhist symbol, the two fish symbolized two holy Indian rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna. Fish swim through water freely and have therefore come to signify joy and good fortune. They reproduce with ease and consequently symbolize abundance, birth, and rebirth. In addition, both Jesus and Buddha are described as ‘fishers of men’, come to save people from an ocean of suffering. 

Source: Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson


Parasols or umbrellas are shields from rain and sunshine. As a result, they traditionally symbolize protection and royalty in India and beyond. This protection is also a spiritual one where the religion can provide refuge from suffering. The Buddha is sometimes portrayed under an expansive umbrella as a mark of respect.  

Source: Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

Tibetan culture made use of two parasols crafted with different materials. Religious figures are shielded with a silk umbrella and secular heads with an umbrella embroidered with peacock feathers. The Dalai Lama is entitled to both. Today, it’s not uncommon to find square parasols symbolizing the four directional quarters, or octagonal ones representing the Eightfold Path.  


You may come across images of the Buddha seated on a lotus, holding a lotus, or with each foot placed on a lotus. Legend has it that wherever Buddha stepped, lotus flowers would spring up. Many girls born in the subcontinent are named Padma, which is the Sanskrit word for lotus. In Hinduism, Lotus symbolizes the chakras in the body and is frequently seen in pictures of deities. Its image appears across all Buddhist cultures because it epitomizes the teachings of the religion.  

Source: Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

The lotus is rooted in river beds and ponds, but itgorgeous, beautifully fragranced flower that floats above murky waters. Of course, there are other water plants which bloom above the water, but the lotus is particularly valued for the height it achieves. A strong stem enables it to rise up to 12 inches above the water’s surface. This represents a cool detachment from the muddy materialism and struggles of the world, and the spiritual journey a soul should undertake to reach literal and figurative Enlightenment. What’s also interesting is that the lotus can live for more than a thousand years and has the unusual ability to become active after a period of stasis, a nod to reincarnation.



Treasure Vase 

Vases are vessels that can be filled, just as souls are vessels which can be imbued with light. The golden treasure vase is also known as ‘the vase of inexhaustible treasures’. This phrase paints quite the picture - no matter how much is removed, it is replaced and remains plentiful. The treasure vase depicts the spiritual wealth that accumulates when Buddhism is embraced, but it also symbolizes health and comfortable livelihood. Wherever a treasure vase is placed, the spiritual energy is restored and the Dharma or Buddhist teachings flourish.  

Source: Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

Victory Banner 

Victory banners made of copper can be found at the four corners of monasteries and on temple roofs. The victory banner has a twofold meaning. Firstly, it denotes Buddha’s triumph of knowledge over ignorance. Some say that Buddha placed a victory banner on Mt. Meru, a declaration of his mastery of the universe. Secondly, it speaks to Buddha’s conquering of the demon Mara, an entity who encapsulates negativity and the obstacles that prevent men from attaining nirvana. Specifically, there are four types of Maras or negative characteristics which mortals must conquer: 

Source: Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

  1. Mara of Emotional Defilement 
  1. Mara of Passion 
  1. Mara of the Fear of Death 
  1. Mara of Pride and Lust 

 Which symbols of Buddhism in this list were completely new to you and which ones did you already know about? Let us know in the comments below!

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