November 22, 2016
Buddha Symbols and Meaning
By Faith Davis
symbols of the buddha

Although Buddhism is considered one of the world's major religions, it's more of a way of life for many Buddhists. Followers don't acknowledge a deity or supreme god. Instead, they focus on achieving inner peace, wisdom, and a state of enlightenment that ultimately leads to Nirvana.

Practicing Buddhists harness positive energy from within themselves and release it to everyone and everything around them. It's a state of self-fulfillment that is achieved through a life-long serene journey of peace, self-reflection, and meditation.

Buddhist symbolism is as old as the religion itself, and there are many beautiful depictions with profound spiritual meaning.

But should non-Buddhists be wearing Buddhist symbols?

Let’s explore Buddhist symbol meaning and how we can wear it with mindful respect and purpose.

What is the Meaning of Buddhist Symbols

While the faith was founded in India more than 2,500 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), it rapidly spread throughout Asia and later across the world.

Unlike many other religions, Buddhism isn't rigid and easily co-exists with different cultures and faiths. As a result of this flexibility, Buddhism spread and survived by adapting and evolving to meet the needs of a diverse following.

Unsurprisingly, there are many Buddhist symbols, and many of them depict the culture of regional followers. Ancient symbols that were previously significant to locals merged into Buddhism and became accepted into the faith.

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Early Buddhist Symbolism

Early Buddhist art and symbolism never used human-like representations of the Buddha; that only came later. Instead, Buddha was represented by various animals depending on the symbolic context.

The Lion

The most common representation is the Lion, a symbol of protection, royalty and sovereignty. And the Buddha himself is often referred to in texts as "the Lion of the Shakyas." His teachings are also known as the "Lion's Roar" in the sutras, symbolizing the supremacy of his word over other spiritual teachings.

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The White Elephant

Another Buddha symbol is the White Elephant, a figure of Indian royal power. In the myth of Queen Maya, the future Buddha is believed to have taken on the form of a white elephant to enter his mother's womb.

The Riderless Horse

There's also the Riderless Horse, which represents the Buddha's royal horse, Kanthaka. It's a symbol of the Buddha's renunciation when Siddhartha Gautama left his palace at Kapilavastu to live his life as an ascetic.

The Mythical Serpent

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Then, there's the mythical serpent with magical powers known as the "Great Nāga." In the sutras, the Buddha is often referred to as the "Great Nāga" as well. This term is used to indicate the greatness of the Buddha's magical powers, including his psychic insight, which is superior to that of all gods and spirits.


Deer are used to symbolize Buddhist disciples and represent the Buddha's first sermon given in the deer park of Varanasi.

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Symbols of the Buddha

Other symbols discovered in ancient Buddhist sites that still have meaning today include:

  • The Dharma Wheel which is viewed in three parts. The circle represents the perfection of Buddhist teachings, while the rim signifies awareness and meditative concentration. Lastly, the hub indicates moral discipline. The Buddha is viewed as the one "who turned the wheel," signifying the revolutionary moment when he first shared his teachings at Varanasi.  
  • The Bodhi Tree characterizes the tree under which the Buddha was sitting when he finally attained enlightenment.
  • The Triratna, or Three Jewels, symbolizes the Buddha, the dharma (teachings and doctrine), and the sangha (community or the monastic order).
  • The Lotus Flower is an icon of fortune. Even though it grows in muddy waters, it thrives and bears the most exquisite blooms. It exemplifies rising above the murkiness and blooming into enlightenment.  
  • The Buddha Footprint displayed as either a single or double footprint reminds us that the Buddha lived on earth and left behind a spiritual path for all to follow.

The Eight Auspicious Signs

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The word "auspicious" means favorable, fortunate, or lucky and is derived from the word "auspice," which means “divine sign or omen.”

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In the Buddhist tradition, the Eight Auspicious Signs symbolize the good fortune bestowed on the Buddha immediately after he gained enlightenment.

While they differ between cultures, these are the most common:

The Jeweled Parasol – An Indian symbol of protection and royalty that is aligned with the number 13. It represents the sovereignty of the Buddha.

The White Conch Shell – Linked to victory in battle in ancient Indian tradition, in Buddhism it represents the Buddha's teachings about and fearlessness in sharing them with others.

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The Victory Banner – Once a military standard in ancient Indian warfare; in Buddhism, it denotes the Buddha's triumph over the four maras, or hindrances, on the path to enlightenment.

The Treasure Vase – Modeled after traditional ancient Indian clay pots with elaborate adornments, it symbolizes the lasting quality and value of the Buddha's teachings.

The Dharma Wheel – An eight-spoked wheel representing the Noble Eightfold Path that leads people out of the cycle of rebirth and into Nirvana.

The Golden Fish – A pair of golden fish that once represented the rivers Yamuna and Ganges in ancient India. In the Buddhist tradition, they embody the spontaneity and freedom that follows when we escape the cycle of rebirth.

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The Lotus Flower - Exemplifying rising above the murkiness and blooming into enlightenment.

The Endless Knot – Signifies endless harmony and the Buddha's limitless compassion and infinite wisdom. In teachings, it relates to the infinite cycle of rebirth.

The Importance of Buddhism Colors

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Buddhist symbolism extends to color as well. Here are the most significant colors in Buddhism today:

  • White denotes purity and can transform ignorance into awareness of reality. It's aligned with directional East and elemental Water and it resonates with the Om syllable.
  • Yellow radiates beauty and wealth and can transform pride into the awareness that we're all from and return to the same source. It's aligned with directional South and  elemental Earth and it resonates with the Ni syllable.
  • Green brings protection from harm and peace and can transform jealousy to perfect awareness. It's aligned with directional North and elemental Sky and it resonates with the Ma syllable.
  • Blue signifies awakening and enlightenment and can transform anger into self-reflective awareness. It's aligned with the directional Center and elemental Air and it resonates with the Pad syllable.
  • Red opens us to love Buddha and compassion and can transform attachment to discernment and insight. It's aligned with directional West and elemental Fire and it resonates with the Me syllable.
  • Black is mortal death, as well as spiritual death of ignorance to awakening and enlightenment. It has no transformation aspects or directional alignment. Its element is Air and it resonates with the Hum syllable.

A Few Key Buddha Symbols and Meaning Buddhist Beliefs

Buddhist teachings are vast and far-reaching, so we could never cover all of them in-depth in a single article. We can, however, take a look at some of the core beliefs all Buddhists adhere to:

  • The word Buddha means enlightened.
  • As the founder of the faith, the Buddha is considered an extraordinary person, but he's not a god. He could have become a great king, but instead, he chose to be a great teacher, philosopher, and spiritual leader.
  • Buddhism has many interpretations and philosophies, making it a tolerant, flexible, and evolving religion.
  • For many Buddhists, it's a way of life or spiritual tradition rather than a religion.
  • Morality, wisdom, and meditation pave the way to enlightenment.
  • Continued, regular mediation helps awaken the highest truth.
  • Buddhism encourages the avoidance of both self-indulgence and self-denial.
  • Followers can worship in temples or their homes. You can also use Crystals and Stones for home protection.
  • The Four Noble Truths, as taught by the Buddha, are crucial to understanding the religion.
  • The concepts of karma (cause and effect) and reincarnation (continuous cycle of rebirth) are cornerstones of the faith.
  • There's no single Buddhist symbol but rather several symbols that characterize Buddhist beliefs.
  • Ordained Buddhist monks, known as bhikkhus, follow a strict code of conduct. However, they're not confined to a monastery once they've joined. Instead, they're free to leave and take up their place in society if they want to.

Should non-Buddhists be Wearing Buddhist Symbols

In conclusion, we're back to our opening question.

And the answer is YES! If the beliefs and traditions of Buddhism resonate with you, you can definitely wear Buddha symbols.

But don't buy any Buddha symbol because it looks cute or trendy in your social circle. Not that it will bring any harm or misfortune, but rather it's out of respect for what Buddha symbols represent.  

Getting something just for the sake of it goes against one of the prime Buddhist beliefs: over-indulgence. When we buy something from an egotistical perspective, we don't appreciate it. We want it either to impress others, to show off, or out of greed.

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Conversely, when we acquire something from a place of deep appreciation for its symbolic worth, it takes on spiritual meaning. It becomes an invaluable part of our lives, one that we can rely on as a constant reminder or for faith and stones protection.

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Before you buy any Buddha symbol to wear or to put in your home or office, research its specific meaning and see how you can spiritually incorporate its presence into your life. Perhaps you decide to buy Buddha peace symbol jewelry for yourself or shop hand of Buddha symbol for gift.

Or, if you long to bring one of the many aspects of Buddhism into your life, find out which of the Buddha symbols bring that energy.

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Even if your intention doesn't align directly with a particular symbol, remember that Buddhism is a flexible religion that's available to all. As long as your purpose is pure and for the greater good, there's no problem.

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