The dharma wheel, or dharmachakra in Sanskrit, is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism. Around the globe, it is used to represent Buddhism in the same way that a cross represents Christianity or a Star of David represents Judaism. It is also one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism. Similar symbols are found in Jainism and Hinduism, and it is likely the dharmachakra symbol in Buddhism evolved out of Hinduism.
A traditional dharma wheel is a chariot wheel with varying numbers of spokes. It can be in any color, although it is most often gold. At the center, there may be three shapes swirling together, a yin-yang symbol, a second wheel, or an empty circle.
What the Dharma Wheel Represents
A dharma wheel has three basic parts: the hub, the rim, and the spokes. Over the centuries, various teachers and traditions have proposed diverse meanings for these parts. Here are some common understandings of the wheel’s symbolism:
The circle, the round shape of the wheel, represents the perfection of thedharma, the Buddha’s teaching.
When a wheel has 24 spokes, the spokes represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination plus the reversing of the Twelves Links and liberation fromsamsara. A 24-spoke dharma wheel is also called anAshoka Chakra.
When a wheel has 31 spokes, the spokes represent the 31 realms of existence from ancient Buddhist cosmology.
The wheel often has spokes protruding beyond the wheel, which we might imagine are spikes, although usually, they don’t look very sharp. The spikes represent various penetrating insights.
The Ashoka Chakra
Among the oldest existing examples of a dharma wheel are found on the pillars erected by theAshoka the Great(304–232 B.C.E.), an emperor who ruled much of what is now India and beyond. Ashoka was a great patron of Buddhism and encouraged its spread, although he never forced it on his subjects.
Ashoka erected enormous stone pillars throughout his kingdom, many of which are still standing. The pillars contain edicts, some of which encouraged people to practice Buddhist morality and nonviolence. There is typically at least one lion on the top of each pillar, representing Ashoka’s rule. The pillars also are decorated with 24-spoke dharma wheels.
In 1947, the government of India adopted a new national flag, in the center of which is a navy blue Ashoka Chakra on a white background.
Other Symbols Related to the Dharma Wheel
Sometimes the dharma wheel is presented in a tableau, supported on a lotus flower pedestal with two deer, a buck, and a doe on either side. This recalls thefirst sermongiven by thehistorical Buddhaafter hisenlightenment. The sermon is said to have been given to five mendicants in Sarnath, a deer park in what is now Uttar Pradesh, India.
According to Buddhist legend, the park was home to a herd of ruru deer, and the deer gathered around to listen to the sermon. The deer depicted by the dharma wheel reminds us that the Buddha taught to save all beings, not just humans. In some versions of this story, the deer are emanations of bodhisattvas.
Typically, when the dharma wheel is represented with deer, the wheel must be twice the height of the deer. The deer are shown with legs folded under them, gazing serenely at the wheel with their noses lifted.
The first turning was the sermon in the deer park, after the Buddha’s enlightenment. Here, the Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths. The second turning was the introduction of the perfection of wisdom teachings on the nature of sunyata (emptiness). The third turning was the introduction of the doctrine of Buddha Nature.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Dharma Wheel (Dharmachakra) Symbol in Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-dharma-wheel-449956.
The term vajra is a Sanskrit word that is usually defined as “diamond” or “thunderbolt.” It also defines a kind of battle club that achieved its name through its reputation for hardness and invincibility. The vajra has special significance in Tibetan Buddhism, and the word is adopted as a label for the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, one of the three major forms of Buddhism. The visual icon of the vajra club, along with the bell (ghanta), form a principal symbol of the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet.
A diamond is spotlessly pure and indestructible. The Sanskrit word means “unbreakable or impregnable, being durable and eternal”. As such, the word vajra sometimes signifies the lighting-bolt power of enlightenment and the absolute, indestructible reality of shunyata, “emptiness.”
Buddism integrates the word vajra into many of its legends and practices. Vajrasana is the location where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The vajra asana body posture is the lotus position. The highest concentrated mental state is vajra samadhi
Ritual Object in Tibetan Buddhism
Thevajra also is a literal ritual object associated withTibetan Buddhism, also called by its Tibetan name,Dorje. It is the symbol of the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, which is the tantric branch that contains rituals said to allow a follower to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, in a thunderbolt flash of indestructible clarity.
The vajra objects usually are made of bronze, vary in size, and have three, five or nine spokes that usually close at each end in a lotus shape. The number of spokes and the way they meet at the ends have numerous symbolic meanings.
In Tibetan ritual, the vajra often is used together with a bell (ghanta). The vajra is held in the left hand and represents the male principle—upaya, referring to action or means. The bell is held in the right hand and represents the female principle—prajna, or wisdom.
A double Dorje, or vishvavajra, are two Dorjes connected to form a cross. A double Dorje represents the foundation of the physical world and is also associated with certain tantric deities.
Tantric Buddhist Iconography
Thevajraas symbol predates Buddhism and was found in ancient Hinduism. The Hindu rain god Indra, who later evolved into Buddhist Sakra figure, had the thunderbolt as his symbol. And the 8th-century tantric master, Padmasambhava, used thevajrato conquer the non-Buddhist gods of Tibet.
In tantric iconography, several figures often hold the vajra, including Vajrasattva, Vajrapani, and Padmasambhava. Vajrasttva is seen in a peaceful pose with the vajra held to his heart. Wrathful Vajrapani wields it as a weapon above his head. When used as a weapon, it is thrown to stun the opponent, and then bind him with a vajra lasso.
Symbolic Meaning of the Vajra Ritual Object
At the center of thevajrais a small flattened sphere which is said to represent the underlying nature of the universe. It is sealed by the syllablehum (hung), representing freedom from karma, conceptual thought, and the groundlessness of all dharmas. Outward from the sphere, there are three rings on each side, which symbolize the three-fold bliss of Buddha nature. The next symbol found on thevajraas we progress outward are two lotus flowers, representing Samsara (the endless cycle of suffering) and Nirvana (release from Samsara). The outer prongs emerge from symbols of Makaras, sea monsters.
The number of prongs and whether they have closed or open tines is variable, with different forms having different symbolic meanings. The most common form is the five-pronged vajra, with four outer prongs and one central prong. These may be considered to represent the five elements, the five poisons, and the five wisdoms. The tip of the central prong is often shaped like a tapering pyramid.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Vajra (Dorje) as a Symbol in Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/vajra-or-dorje-449881.
The monk’s robe goes back to the Buddha’s own time for, it was He who introduced it to the early monks. The “triple robe” (tricivara) comprises an inner garment or waistcloth (antaravasaka), an upper robe (uttarsanga) and outer robe (sanghati) (Vin 1:94 289). In addition to these, the nun also wears a vest or bodice (samkacchika) and has a bathing-cloth (udakasatika) (Vin 2:272) which altogether comprise her “fivefold robe”.
The Sutras often mention: “Then early in the forenoon, the Blessed One, having robed himself and taking his bowl and (upper) robe, approach . . . “. Those unfamiliar with monastic ways may wonder if the Buddha only half-dressed on His alms-round.
According to the Buddhist Scriptures and the Commentaries, in the early monastic days, the monks would go out on their alms-round dressed only in their waistcloth which was neatly worn, and carrying their upper robe and bowl in their hands. When the monks were in the vicinity of houses, they would put on their upper robe before going to collect alms.
The waistcloth is about the size of a sarong, both the other robes measure about 2m by 7m (about 6 feet by 9 feet). The Vibhanga says that “A monk should wear the waistcloth even all around, covering the area of the navel and the area of the knees.” It is secured to the waist with a flat waistband.
The third robe, the outer robe (sanghati), is not often mentioned in the Scriptures but was permitted by the Buddha for additional use during the cold season. These robes measure about 2m by 3m (about 6 feet by 9 feet). Unlike the upper robe which is only of one layer, the outer robe has two. This is the real meaning of the term, “the triple robe”.
According to the Pali tradition, six kinds of cloth are allowed for making the upper and outer robes: plant fibres, cotton, silk, animal hair (e.g. wool, but not human), hemp, and a mixture of some or all of them. The Buddha recommended that the robe design should be cut in the pattern of the Magadha padi-fields.
The robe dye is allowed to be obtained from six kinds of substances: roots and tubers, plants, bark, leaves, flowers and fruits. They should be boiled in water for a long time to get the dun dye. Saffron and ochre (from the jackfruit’s heartwood) are the most prevalent colours today. Though there is a tendency amongst forest monks to wear ochre and city monks to wear saffron, but this is not always the rule.
There are a number of ways the monks wear their robes (depending usually on their sect and country). The most universal one is that which is worn for the alms-round when the robe is covering both the shoulders. The two top corners are held together and the edges rolled tightly together. The roll is then pushed over the left shoulder, down the back, under the armpit and is pressed down with the left arm. The roll is parted in front through which protrudes the right arm.
Within the monastery or residence and when having an audience with a more senior monk, a simpler style is adopted (as a gesture of respect and to facilitate work). The right side of the robe is pushed under the armpit and over the robe on the left leaving the right shoulder bare.
The Buddhist monastic robe is so versatile that it can be used, besides what is already mentioned, as a blanket, a seat-spread, a groundsheet, a head-cover, a windbreak, etc. It is easy to clean and repair. It is perhaps the oldest style of dress still in fashion after 2,500 years.
The robes serve not just as a kind of uniform to remind the wearer that he or she is a member of a larger universal community, but is itself an object of reflection to be worn “properly considering them: only to ward off cold, to ward off heat, to ward off the touch of insects, wind, sun and reptiles; only for keeping myself decent” (M 1:10). Above all, they remind the wearer that he or she has committed him or herself to high spiritual ideals — to master the Dharma, liberate oneself and show others the Way.
In Western society where people are wealthier than in other places, it is literally possible to dress in any kind of clothing. Nevertheless, despite all the possibilities, most people wear more or less the same kind of thing. Ritual garments are few and far between: The flowing black robe of a judge is not seen on the street, nor is Queen Victoria’s innovation — the white wedding dress. Gold braid is left for military officers on parade.
Nowadays, elaborate garments are generally reserved for ceremonial occasions. Yet only fifty years ago, certain people went about their public business dressed in sombre medieval costume; some with what appeared to be enormous white birds as head gear. We would know to which order the nun or monk belonged by the features of the various habits (as the robes of Catholic religious are known.)
The four Tibetan Buddhist denominations are Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. We sometimes hear them referred to in the following way: Nyingma are called Red Hats, Kagyu are also called Red but sometimes, Black Hats, andGelug, of whom the Dalai Lama is a representative,Yellow Hats. The epithets derive from the crowns or ceremonial headdresses of the lineage-holders and are especially used by speakers of Chinese. That is not to say that these expressions are correct.
TheKarmapa‘s Black Crown [Tib.:shwa-nag] an image of which is currently displayed on theKhandro.Nethome page, is the actual headdress conferred by the Chinese ruler when he, among many others, witnessed a crown woven from the hair of dakinis suspended above Karmapa’s head.
This crown continues to signify his realization, but it also is reputed to have the ability of instantly liberating those who see it. Hence, in Sanskrit it is calledvajra mukut (thunderbolt crown.)
It is being kept for now at the Karmapa’s monastery in Rumtek, Sikkim. In this photo, we see the replica that is used in certain practices.
TheSakya(pron. in East Tib.:Shacha) have a distinctive ceremonial hat generally known as thesa-zhu. At a distance itresembles a turban adorned with a diagonal ribbon of rank. This effect is due to the fact that the lappets of the hood are kept in a raised and crossed position. Thoughthis headdress is red, it is not generally referred to by colour.
The original version came into use towards the end of theSakya Pandita‘s (1182 CE) life.It is calledkyang-zhu[sounds likechong ju] meaningextended —a reference to the original long side flaps that formerly were left hanging down on either side of the face.Because of their auspicious benefit for the Sakyas, the lappets that once may have served a utilitarian purpose were folded and crossed like the forearms of meditation deity,Vajradhara.
The Gelugpa’s pointedyellow hoodhas come to be known as theTsongkhapahat after the 15th century Kadampa reformer who established that denomination.
The fringed hat that resembles a horse’s mane or a Roman helmet, is worn in procession by monks of all 3 of the younger (or, Sarma) denominations. It is often referred to as the Vinaya hat. Here we also see some red pandita or, scholars, hoods.
More About Head-coverings
Like the pointed red hood, a scoop-shaped sun hat is often depicted in historical images ofpanditas. Under the blindingly bright sunlight of the region, it is still common custom, though mainly by country folk, to fold a cloth in such a way that it will sit on the top of the head to act as a sun shade.
According to Vinaya, Buddhist monastic rule, the wearing of hats except for ritual headdresses is prohibited. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama received an International University honorary degree the strength of that prohibition mandated that he immediately remove the “mortar board,” which he held in his hands for the rest of the ceremony.
For public appearances under theatrical lighting, the Dalai Lama has popularized the crown-less eye-shade that was formerly used mainly by tennis players. It is permissible since it is not a head-covering.
In denominations where people’s heads are shaven on a regular basis, when they need to go outdoors in a cold climate the rule is sensibly relaxed. Protection is usually some kind of plain woollen tuque (knitted tubular cap.)
Red Hats in the Kagyu Context
Besides the Black Crown of the Karmapa, there is a distinctive headdress though not as significant, for two other high tulkus [incarnate lamas]:The Red Hat Lamaand that of His Eminence Tai Situpa. The role of these two eminent lamas has traditionally been intertwined with that of the Karmapas. They are teacher and disciple to one another across incarnations in a relationship that is calledthe Golden Rosaryof Mahamudra (GreatSeal, ie.SymbolorAttitude,) which is the supreme teaching of the Kagyu.
Also, at the ritual of celebration of the successful traditional three-year three-month and three-day retreat, celebrants wear the red Kagyu hatassociated with a red form of Chenrezi. Red is also the traditional colour of joy and festivity in many Asian countries.
Since the expressionRed Hatcan refer to two very different things, the Old Schools (Nyingmapa, Shakya and Kagyu) and also the Shemarpas of the latter group, it can perhaps contribute to confusion. This mix-up happened, to the dismay of some members of the media, in a few reports about the emergence of the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa from Tibet.
When it means the Old denominations, it is a reference to the color of the Pandit hats worn by the scholars of these schools.
Later, the Indian tradition of saffron yellow for the pandita hoods was reintroduced and the Gelugpas became known as “Yellow Hats”.
Colours and Clothing
There is a kind of irony in the fact that “saffron yellow” is associated with those who reject the pursuit of material goals. Yellow robes are worn, not only by some Buddhist lineages (for example, the Chinese monks of Shao Lin) but also by wandering Hindu ascetics. The contradiction comes from the fact that yellow is the colour of gold — it stands for great wealth.
By association, gold is also the color of nobility. However, although the historical Buddha was the son of a king, it is his Dharma (teachings and methods) that is considered most noble.
In a great part of Asia, the very soil itself is yellowish, so that colour “refers” to our Earth. By extension then, yellow also symbolizes a basis — the Foundation.
“. . . according to Tibetan oral tradition the ceremonial monastic hat in early India had been yellow, the color of the earth, symbol of discipline and the foundation from which all good things are born. However, this had been changed to red, symbol of fire and victory, after the Hindus began gaining the upper hand over the Buddhists in public debate . . . the hat remained red thereafter. The tradition carried over in Tibet during both the early and late phases of the spread of the doctrine, but Tsongkhapa felt that the main threat to Buddhism in Tibet was not unsuccessful debate with non-Buddhists, as it had been in classical India; rather, it was the general laziness and lack of discipline of the Tibetan practitioners. Therefore he changed the color of the hat back to the original yellow, bringing it back to the earth element and the firm foundation required for successful engagement in the higher practices.”
Yellow is also associated with death and dying; it is the colour of dead leaves.
The correct colour is yellow, orange or tawny brown, the same as the kaṇikāra flower,Pterospermum acerifolium(Ja.II,25).<Shravasti Dhammika. buddhismatoz.com/r/Robes.html>
The Tibetan denominations are associated with various colors that distinguish their robes.
For example, theGelugpais sometimes known as the Yellow School. As we have seen, yellow/gold signifiesshilaor discipline. That is the emphasis in the practice of Gelugpas who were known as Kadampa prior to their reformation.
TheNyingma is known as the Red School because of their deep red clothing. Instead of the saffron yellow shirt worn by monks of other denminations, they wear a red or maroon one.
There are several famous Nyingma lineages and two types of religious communities:gendün marpowho are celibate monks and nuns that wear red, andgendün karpo, or white sangha of non-celibate practitioners referred to asgö-kar changlo’i-dé, or “long hair and white kilts.” However, these yogis drape a red shawl (Tib.:zhen) over their white robes.
TheSakyaare known as the Multi-colored School, not after their garments but the stripes that border the outer wall of the original and main Sakya Monastery.
Sa-kyameanspale, orgrey,eartha name referring to the soil’s color at their first monastery’s site. The red stripe stands for Manjushri, the white for Avalokitesvara and the black for Vajrapani. Together they symbolize knowledge, compassion and self-control.
Their distinctive hat identifies them, but its colour does not. Sakya and Kagyu, too, also have traditions in which people dress inwhite.
In fact, theKagyuhave been called the White School, because of the thin white clothing of founders, Marpa and Milarepa (repa: cotton-clad.) Their Indian tantric teachers, Tilopa and Naropa had worn white cotton draped garments. These founders of Kagyu were not monks, but householder-yogis who may also have worn their thin cotton to demonstrate their mastery of tummo(Skt.tapas, heat [generation.]) In Chinese, Kagyupas are referred to as “white robes,” due to the profound impression made by the cotton-clad yogis.
Somengakpas (non-celibate tantric practitioners) wear white to symbolize their life-long commitments. It is meant to underline their having fully accomplished the essence of the Vinaya (the monastic code,) and that they now, in outwardly living in contradiction to the Rule, are trying to transcend it while inwardly scrupulously following its spirit.
That path emulates that of Mahasiddha Saraha who is said to have been able to juggle three iron balls so that all were aloft at the same time. When he left the monastery in order to apply his accomplishments to worldly activity as a yogi, he said, “I have been a monk in name only all my life, but from this day on, I truly am.”
In many cultures, individuals undergoing ritual purification dress in white. Because the cloth is un-dyed, it is considered purer. Also, it resembles snow, clouds and other clean or unearthly substances. White is also the colour of a shroud, the final garment. Therefore when white is worn by a yogi, it can serve as a remembrance of the that there is an urgency to practice. It also indicates to others that the practitioner is in a special state as a result of their proximity to death.
Dyes usedto tint the coarse material used for the robes of religious (and also, military) orders are generally the cheapest — the most readily available. They used mainly to come from plants. In the countries near India the choice was yellow, as from onion skins, and the dark reds fromlacor madder root. Farther east, grey, black and brown are the choice. They can be derived from tree bark.
In China, yellow and red were reserved for the emperor, nobility and officials. There the blue, gray and brown hues worn by peasants are also worn by monastics. The dark blue is from the indigo plant.
Bright blue is the color of the vests of Bonpos, the non-Buddhist practitioners of the old religion of Tibet.
There are two different explanations given for the bright blue border around the armholes of Tibetan monastic robes and vests. One is that it symbolizes Padmasambhava, since it is the bright shade of lapis lazuli, a color that, like purple, is associated with royalty. In depictions, he is portrayed wearing a bright blue inner robe of quality befitting a prince. The other is that it commemoratesHuashang, and though his view of spontaneous enlightenment was defeated, nevertheless it is commemorated and the connection with China is maintained in this symbolic way.
If someone is dressed in a traditional garment, but in unusual colours, you can be reasonably sure that the person is not a celibate monk or nun.
Thezhenor shawl is draped in such a way as to bare the right arm or shoulder. Priests in the earliest cities, as far west as Sumer (Mesopotamia) wore their garments in this fashion. So did those of Mohenjodaro (in the Indus Valley,) as portrayed by the clay figure at left.
In ancient times, cloth was generally not tailored to the body, which entails cutting a precious length of cloth. It was merely draped, or gathered and wrapped. A right-handed person generally finds it awkward to wrap a shawl in such a way as to bare the left side, so this ancient style is also related to modesty as it demonstrates that no other person assisted in dressing. The sari of Indian women when worn in the national style, is also draped in such a way so as to bare the right arm.
But the side a garment is attached can also convey status. Compare the fastening side of the tunics of subjugated peoples with that of the ruling class in traditional China. Notice, too, the subservience inherent in the buttoning practices of western women’s clothing. The garments are meant to be detached by a person facing them!
The exposed right arm is also related to the Western shaking of hands — no weapons are concealed. It is also a sign of the readiness to work, since most people are right-handed. Also, in many parts of the world the left hand is discretely hidden since it is used for cleaning after using the toilet.
This mark of deference is a customary sign of respect to the Buddha. The Sutras mention it speaking of the disciples’ actions as they knelt to ask for teachings. In formal portraits we see garments arranged deliberately to expose the right but conceal the left arm.
Monks shave their heads primarily as a gesture of renunciation in imitation of the Buddha. He cut off his princely topknot in imitation of the wandering ascetics and forest-dwelling yogis of his time.
Itinerant Hindu renunciate practitioners known as sadhus, and other kinds of yogis too may, according to their tradition, dress and act in contrast to monastics. Instead of a shaven head, they may vow to keep their hair (and sometimes, their nails) long. Instead of saffron, they dress in white (seetummoabove) and so on. However, those with high realization may consider such symbolic contradiction elaborate and unnecessary. They dress in whatever way they are used to, including in monastic robes.
When their hair is long it is braided or made into dreadlocks to keep it out of the way and to prevent tiny sentient beings from making their homes in it. Braids can sometimes serve as a kind of mala — a counting device for keeping track of mantras.
Among monks and yogis, as it is in society at large, we cannot judge the importance or role of someone by the details of their garb or general appearance. Therefore, we need to be mindful of the way we react to and behave with people, especially if we are inclined to evaluate status based on appearances only.
~Clothing: The Bare Essentials
Habits or Robes of Monks andNunsCan we judge the book by its cover?
The habit or uniform of Buddhist monastics consists of three outer garments that symbolize the Three Jewels. The robes probably will have been generously donated by lay people.
The main garment in Tibetan orders is the traditionalchubawhich is worn by both men and women in Tibet. It is a wrap-around type of gown that is economically cut and that attaches at the right arm-pit with a special button, brooch or buckle. The sleeveless versiontre.cheis worn by monastics, and it should be visibly repaired or patched to commemorate, among other things,Buddha Shakyamuni‘s poverty after he left his royal estate.
Often the upper-body garment — thezhenor shawl of a ritual costume — is sewn of three pieces, or made of rows of folded squares in such a way as to simulate patchwork. This is especially noticeable intangkas depicting renowned teachers.
The sleeveless robe of women is a wrap-around tunic, or what is called a jumper in North America, that can be adjusted to fit the changing form of a woman. The very generous folds of the traditional pattern has, since the 1970’s, given way to a sleeker contemporary model. It is generally worn with a short, square and complementary-coloured paler, blouse. Often, the collar of the blouse is folded outside the diagonal closing of the outer garment to form a cuffed border resembling a shawl collar.
A similar garment made of thin material can be worn underneath, and there can be more than one of those, as was the custom of Japanese women before Westernization.
Married women wear thepang.den,an apron made of 3 lengths of striped woven cloth sewn longitudinally. Its corners may be embroidered or appliqued with triangular patches in a flower motif. These welcome, frame and protect any new life beneath the apron.
There are prescribed undergarments for both ordained men and women. An outer sleeveless vest was developed for the use of women and it is popular with men, too. As noted above, the various denominations or schools have characteristic colors.
In the West,some individuals and groups have adapted the robes to suit individual occupations or personal requirements. For example, polo shirts or t-shirts or suit jackets in the appropriate hue are an option, and a tubular lower garment (Hindi:lunghi) or a divided skirt similar to that worn by Japanese martial artists may be worn by a woman who prefers to wear trousers.
The wearing of a robe, like other precepts and vows comprisingthepratimoksharule of monastic order, functions as a protection for the wearer. It frees him or her from the problems or attentions associated with the wearing of everyday clothing, and it functions as a reminder to the wearer (and the public) of his or her vows as a renunciate.
There are many other rules concerning distinctions in monastic garb, such as those underlying the differences between the dress of those who have embarked on the renunciate’s path and those who have entirely renounced worldly life. It is considered all right for a yogi (especially one who started out as a monk, e.g. Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Dorje Chang) to dress as a monk, but it is not all right for a monk to dress as a yogi, or as a “householder.”
It could be considered disrespectful for a layperson to wear these robes, but it is a breach of vows for a monastic NOT to dress in them.
If you like to dress in a Tibetanchuba, try not to emulate monastic dress. Perhaps it is a good idea to ask the lama whether it appears misleading.
Mudras are sacred hand gestures or positions that used to evoke a state of mind. The Sanskrit word “mudra” means “seal”, “mark”, or “gesture”. In Tibetan the word is ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ or “chakgya”. Each of these sacred hand gestures has a specific meaning. Many of them symbolize major moments or events in the Buddha’s life.
8 Mudras and their Meaning
Sacred hand gestures or mudras are often depicted in Buddhist art. In this blog we’d like to share descriptions and images of some common mudras. The list here is not exhaustive.
The Earth Witness Mudra
When Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was meditating under the Bodhi tree, he was assailed by the demon Mara, who tried to disturb his mind. Mara represents the passions that trap and delude us. Siddhartha refused to be tempted from the path to enlightenment and he called on the earth to witness his worthiness to become enlightened, saying, “The earth shall be my witness, I will not let myself be seduced.” In the Earth Witness Mudra, (also known as the Bhumisparsa Mudra or Gesture of Witness), the historical Buddha is seated in the meditation posture and touches the earth with the fingertips of his right hand, palm facing inwards. The left hand is placed in the lap with the palm facing upwards.
The Mudra of Meditation
The Mudra of Meditation (dhyana) is made by placing both hands on the lap, right hand on the left, with the palms facing upwards, the tips of the thumbs touching, and the fingers fully stretched. This mudra helps to calm the mind for meditation and is used for deep contemplation and reflection. The mudra of meditation is a characteristic gesture of the Buddha Shakyamuni.
The Namaskara or Anjali Mudra
This mudra, while not found in representations of the Buddha or other deities, is commonly used by nuns, monks, and lay people to symbolize devotion, prayer, and admiration. Called the Namaskara Mudra or the Anjali Mudra, it is used as a common form of greeting in most Asian countries. Anjali is a Sanskrit word which means “salutation” or “to offer” and Namaskar is Hindi for “good day”. To make this mudra, you bring your palms together in front of your heart space, fingers pointing upwards, and thumbs close to the chest, to symbolize honor, respect, and devotion.
Mudra of Holding the Jewel or Manidhara Mudra
The Mudra of Holding the Jewel looks very similar to the Namaskara Mudra or the Anjali Mudra shown above. Also called the Manidhara Mudra, it is made by holding one’s hands together in front but with the palms and fingers slightly arched, holding the precious, wish-fulfilling jewel. This jewel or gem is also depicted in Tibetan prayer flags, carried upon the back of the Lung Ta or wind horse. This sacred hand gesture of holding the jewel is a mudra of Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. The Tibetan word for Avalokiteshvara is Chenrezig (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་). The Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Chenrezig,
The Mandala Offering Mudra
The Mandala Offering Mudra is a complex and sacred hand gesture that acts as a symbolic offering of the entire universe for the benefit of all sentient beings. Performing the Mandala Offering Mudra helps to reduce one’s attachment and to purify the clinging mind. Although this mudra is usually made together with prayers and Buddhist chants, non-Buddhists can also perform it to receive its spiritual benefits.
To make this complex mudra, sit in meditation pose with your back straight. Calm your breathing and visualize offering the mandala – the universe – to the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and all holy beings, giving with great joy and with purity of heart. Place your hands palms up and intertwine your fingers. With the tips of your thumbs, press down on the tips of the opposite little finger. Then, with the bent tips of your index fingers, press down on the tip of the opposite middle finger. Finally, take your ring fingers, unclasp them, and put them back to back, pressing the backs together and with both fingers going straight up through the center. Together the ring fingers symbolize Mt. Meru, the sacred mountain, and the four continents described in Buddhist cosmology.
Vitarka Mudra or Teaching Mudra
The Vitarka Mudra (the Mudra of Teaching or Discussion) is a common mudra representing the discussion and transmission of Buddhist teachings. It is formed by joining the tips of the thumb and index finger together to form a circle, keeping the other three fingers pointing straight up. The circle formed by the joined fingers symbolizes perfection with no beginning or end.
This mudra is usually made with one hand, most often the right one, with the hand held upward close to the chest and the palm facing outward. However, the mudra may also be made with both hands held in front of the chest, with each index finger and thumb joined in a circle. When two hands are used, the left palm faces inward and the right palm is turned outward. The Teaching Mudra represents the Buddha’s first teaching after becoming enlightened. It also symbolizes the “Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma” or Dharmachakra. There are a great number of variations of this mudra in Mahayana Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is the mystic gesture of Taras and bodhisattvas.
Generosity Mudra or Varada Mudra
The Varada Mudra is the gesture of generosity, charity, and compassion. It is commonly found in representations of the Green and White Tara. This sacred hand gesture represents the granting of blessings, wishes, or even pardon. It also symbolizes the “gift of truth” – the precious gift of the dharma or Buddhist teachings. In the Varada Mudra, the palm faces out and hangs down, usually touching the right leg. This mudra is often used in conjunction with another mudra. The five fingers represent the five perfections: generosity, morality, patience, diligence, and meditation.
Mudra of Fearlessness or Abhaya Mudra
Abhaya in Sanskrit means fearlessness. The Mudra of Fearlessness or the Abhaya Mudra symbolizes the dispelling of fear. It can look to Westerners like the common hand gesture for “stop”. The mudra is made by raising the right hand to shoulder height, with the arm bent and the palm facing outward. This mudra is more commonly depicted in standing images.
This very ancient hand gesture is also a sign of peace and friendship. Placing one’s hand up and open in this way indicates that one is free of weapons and comes in peace. In Buddhism, the mudra shows the fearlessness and therefore the spiritual power of the Buddha or bodhisattva who makes it.
It is said that the historical Buddha made this sacred hand gesture immediately after gaining enlightenment. At a later time, the Buddha was about to be attacked by a mad elephant. The poor animal had been fed alcohol and tortured by one who hoped to use the elephant as a weapon against the Buddha. The elephant, enraged and in pain, charged at the Buddha and his followers. While others ran away, the Buddha stood calmly, raising his hand in the gesture of fearlessness. He felt great love and compassion for the stricken elephant. In response, the elephant stopped in its charge, became calm, and then approached the Buddha and bowed its head.
Mudras are a silent language of self-expression used in Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Mudra hand gestures or poses are often used in yoga practice, meditation, and for healing purposes.
The Anjali mudra is used as a salutation or greeting such as gassho ornamaste.
How to form the Anjali mudra:Hands are held together in prayer fashion directly over the heart/chest.
The Pushan mudra demonstrates the understanding that life energy moves with ebb and flow motion.
How to form the Pushan mudra:
Right hand: Thumb, index finger, and middle finger touch at tips. Ring finger and pinky fingers are fully extended.
Left hand: Thumb, middle finger, and ring finger touch at tips. Index and pinky fingers are fully extended.
The Apana mudra has a grounding force to help you connect with the earth’s energies whenever you are feeling off balance or flighty.
How to form the Apana mudra:Tips of thumb, middle and ring finger are joined. Pinky and index fingers are extended.
The Hakini mudra helps thinking and concentration. Powers the brain.
How to form the Hakini mudra:Hands and fingers are open and spread apart. Join hands together at the thumbs and fingertips.
The Mantangi mudra reates an atmosphere of calmness and serenity. Tames conflicts. This hand gesture resembles the trunk of an elephant.
How to form the Mantangi mudra:Fold both hands together with fingers inter-twined. Extend both middle fingers outward and point them toward the skies.
The Akash Mudra helps to “center” your energies. It nourishes any part of your body that is lacking.
How to form the Akash mudra:Thumb and middle finger are joined. Index, ring, and pinky fingers are extended.
TheVajramudra transforms ignorance into wisdom. Symbolizes the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and metal.
How to form the Vajra Mudra:Right-handed fist surrounds left index finger. Remaining fingers of left hand also form a fist below the right hand.
The Gyan mudra represents the starting place or home. It takes you back to your roots, or a simpler time. Clears the mental facilties.
How to form the Gyan mudra:Thumb and index fingers touch at tips. Middle, ring, and pinky fingers are relaxed, curved slightly.
The Ushas mudra gesture helps to spark creativity and enliven sexuality. Good catalyst for new projects.
How to form the Kubera mudra:
Females: Interlaced fingers with palms facing upwards. Encircle right thumb between left thumb and index fingers.
Males: Interlaced fingers with palms facing upwards. Right thumb rests on top of left thumb with gentle pressure.
The Garuda mudra is used to heighten intuition and enable communication with the spirit world.
How to form the Garuda mudra:Place right palm over the top of left hand, spreading fingers apart and crossing thumbs.
The Vitarka mudra, a symbol of wisdom, is a variation of the Dharmachakra mudra.
How to form the Vitarka mudra:Thumbs and index fingers of both hands join at tips forming circles. Left hand sits upon lap palm facing upwards. Right hand is held at shoulder height with palm facing downwards.
The Prana mudra can be used whenever you feel drained or need an extra boost of energy. Good to use in the morning to awaken and fully embrace the new day.
How to form the Prana mudra:Thumb, ring, and pinky are touching. Index and middle finger are extended.
The Buddha symbolizes being humble and learning to be grateful. Palms are open to receive gifts.
How to form the Buddha mudra:Both palms open. Rest one hand inside the other hand’s open palm. Thumb tips are touching (traditionally, right hand rests on left for men, left on right for women).
The Shunya mudra assists listening and speech. Primarily a remedy for ear afflictions.
How to form the Shunya mudra:Lower the middle finger and place finger pad on the fleshy mound area of your thumb, cover it with your thumb. Index, ring and pinky fingers are extended.
The Kubera mudra is used for creating wealth and reaching your goals.
How to form the Kubera mudra:Tips of thumb, index, and middle fingers are joined. Ring finger and pinky are folded into the palm.
The Uttarabodhi mudra is a gesture that identifies with a supreme power. Symbolizes perfection.
How to form the Uttarabodhi mudra:Index fingers touch one another and are extended, pointing toward the skies. Remaining fingers are crossed and folded down. Thumbs are cross or held next to each other. Clasped hands are held over the head.
The Dharmachakra Mudra symbolizes the role of the teacher.
How to form the Dharmachakra mudra:Thumbs and index fingers are joined. Middle, ring, and pinky fingers are extended in a relaxed fashion. With left palm facing the body and right palm faced outward join thumbs and index fingers of both hands.
The Bhutadamar mudra serves as a shield keeping negative energies away.
How to form the Bhutadamar mudra:Palms are facing outwards away from the body. Wrists are crossed. Ring fingers are placed down toward the palms.
The Ahamkara mudra can be used when you are feeling “less-than” or fearful.
How to form the Ahamkara mudra:Index finger is bent slightly. Place thumb on the middle of bent index finger. Middle, ring and pink fingers are extended.
The Dhyana mudra is universally used during meditation and relaxed states.
How to form the Dhyana mudra:Hands form a cup or bowl. Thumbs touch at the tips or comfortably overlapped.
Feminine Adi Shakti Primal Power Mudra – The Yoni Mudra represents getting in touch with female energies. Symbolizes a woman’s vulva.
How to form the Yoni mudra:Hands form an almond shape with joined thumbs extended upwards. Fingers are joined at tips extended downwards.
The Prithivi mudra recharges the root chakra aligning it with earth energies.
How to form the Prithivi mudra:Tips of thumb and ring finger are joined. Remaining fingers are extended.
Smiling Buddha Mudra
How to form the Kapitthaka mudra:Index and middle fingers are held beside each other while extended. Ring and pinky fingers are tucked inside the palm. Thumbs rest on tucked fingers.
The Shankh mudra is commonly used during worship or prayer.
How to form the Shankh mudra:The left thumb is placed on the center of the right palm. The right hand forms a firm grip around the left thumb. The left hand rests against the right fist. Right thumb touching the left index finger.
The Kalesvara mudra calms anxious thoughts and agitated feelings.
How to form the Kalesvara mudra:Place both palms together pairing thumbs and all fingers at tips. Fold index, ring, and pinky fingers downward. Middle fingers are extended outward. Point thumbs toward your body.
The Linga mudra is used as a remedy for the lungs, guarding against colds and cold weather. Strenghens immune system.
How to form the Linga mudra:Interlace fingers of both hands, extending one thumb upwards, encircle extended thumb with the index finger and thumb of your other hand.
The Mukula Mudra’s appearance resembles the bud of a lotus flower. Represents new beginnings or start up a new enterprise.
How to form the Mukula mudra:All fingers and thumb are joined together, pointed upwards.
Balances the five elements: Air Fire Water Earth and Metal
How to form the Surabhi mudra:Fingers and thumbs are joined at tips. Thumbs touching each other. Left index finger joins right middle finger. Right index finger joins left middle finger. Left ring finger joins right pinky finger. Right ring finger joins left pinky finger.
Mida-no Jouin Mudra
The left hand mirrors the right hand representing two worlds: Enlightment and Illusion
How to form Mida-no Jouin mudra:Middle, ring, and pinky fingers create a flat or slightly curved bed resting upon the lap. Two circles are formed with index fingers held together while extended upwards meeting the tips of both thumbs.
Helpful for chronic constipation. Tames uncontrolled behaviors such as impatience, temper tantrums, clinging to others, etc.
How to form the Suchi mudra:Form a fist, extend index finger pointing up and out away from the body, preferrably arms are extended over the head.
Abhayaprada mudra is a protective hand gesture symbolizes strength or being fearless.
How to form the Abhayaprada mudra:Hand is held upward with palm facing away from your body.
The Varada mudra pose is customarily used whenever a blessing is being offered.
How to form the Varada mudra:Fingers and thumb are downwards. Flattened palm facing outwards away from the body
The Ganesha mudra can be employed whenever you are struggling. Symbolizes strength when facing troubles. Eases tension.
How to form the Ganesha mudra:Palm of your right hands facing your chest. Left hand grasps the right hand forming a locking grasp, tugging firmly.
The Mahasirs mudra is used to help give relief for head-related afflictions. Headaches, stress, tension, etc.
hHow to form the Mahasirs mudra:Thumb, index and middle fingers are joined at tips. Ring finger is folded into the palm and tucked into the fleshy part of the thumb. Pinky is extended.
The Mushti mudra is used as an outlet for “letting go” or releasing pent up emotions or energies.
How to form the Mushti mudra:Hold hand in a fist with thumb placed over the ring finger.
The Bhudy mudra helps you get in touch with your innermost feelings.
How to form the Bhudy mudra:Pinky and thumb tips are touching. Index, middle, and ring fingers are extended.
Mudras Poster: 36 Healing Hand Gestures– Download Free PDF format Mudra: Gestures of Power DVD– Buy Direct
Buddhism is the religion of the followers of Gautama Buddha (Sakyamuni). It is an offshoot of Hinduism with many variations in practices and belief, including vegetarianism, in some, but not all branches. Like Hinduism, Buddhism is one of the major religions of the world with probably more than 3.5 million adherents. Common threads of Buddhism include the 3 jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha ‘community’), and the goal of nirvana.
Buddha was a legendary prince (or the son of a nobleman), who founded the major world religion (c. the 5th century B.C.). The word Buddha is Sanskrit for ‘awakened one’.
The hanging lobes of the Buddha are supposed to represent wisdom, but originally they likely showed the Buddha’s ears weighed down with earrings.
Dharma is a Sanskrit word and concept with different meanings in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. In Buddhism, Dharma is a “truth” which is held in high regard as one of the 3 jewels. The other 2 jewels are the Buddha and the Sangha ‘community’.
8-Fold Path to Enlightenment
Nirvana is spiritual enlightenment and release from human suffering, lust, and anger. One way to nirvana is to follow the 8-fold path. All 8 paths contribute to and show the “right” way. The 8-fold path is one of the Buddha’s 4 Noble Truths. The 4 Noble Truths deal with eliminating duhkha, or ‘suffering’.
Following the 8-fold path can lead to enlightenment and nirvana. Bodhi is ‘enlightenment’. It is also the name of the tree under which the Buddha meditated when he achieved enlightenment, although the Bodhi tree is also called the Bo tree.
The Spread of Buddhism
After Buddha died, his followers enhanced the story of his life and his teachings. The number of his followers also increased, spreading throughout northern India and establishing monasteries where they went.
Emperor Ashoka (3rd century B.C.) inscribed Buddhist ideas on his famous pillars and send Buddhist missionaries to various parts of his empire. He also sent them to the king of Sri Lanka, where Buddhism became the state religion, and the teachings of the form of Buddhism known as Theravada Buddhism were later written down in the Pali language.
Between the fall of the Mauryan Empire and the next (Gupta) empire, Buddhism spread along the trade routes of Central Asia and into China and diversified.
Great monasteries (Mahaviharas) grew important, especially as universities, during the Gupta Dynasty.
“An Introduction to Buddhist Archaeology,” by Gina L. Barnes. World Archaeology, Vol. 27, No. 2, Buddhist Archaeology (Oct., 1995), pp. 165-182.
In Mahayana Buddhism, according to the doctrine of trikaya a Buddha has three bodies, called the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. Very simply, the dharmakaya is the body of the absolute, beyond existence and non-existence. The nirmanakaya is the physical body that lives and dies; the historical Buddha was a nirmanakaya buddha. And the sambhogakaya might be thought of as an interface between the other two bodies.
Sambhogakaya is the body of enjoyment or the body that experiences the fruits of Buddhist practice and the bliss of enlightenment.
Some teachers compare dharmakaya to vapor or atmosphere, sambhogakaya to clouds, and nirmanakaya to rain. Clouds are a manifestation of atmosphere that enables rain.
Buddhas as Objects of Devotion
Buddhas depicted as idealized, transcendent beings in Mahayana art are nearly always sambhogakaya buddhas. The nirmanakaya body is an earthly body that lives and dies, and the dharmakaya body is formless and without distinction — nothing to see. A sambhogakaya buddha is enlightened and purified of defilements, yet he remains distinctive.
Amitabha Buddha is a sambhogakaya buddha, for example. Vairocana is the Buddha who represents the dharmakaya, but when he appears in a distinctive form he is a sambhogakaya buddha.
Many of the Buddhas mentioned in Mahayana Sutras are sambhogakaya buddhas. When the Lotus Sutra cites “the Buddha,” for example, it is referring to the sambhogakaya form of Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha of the present age. We know this from the description in the first chapter of the Lotus Sutra.
“From the tuft of white hair between his eyebrows, one of his characteristic features, the Buddha emitted a beam of light, illuminating eighteen thousand worlds in the east, so that there was nowhere that it did not reach, down to the lowest purgatory and up to Akanishtha, the highest heaven.”
Samghogakaya buddhas are described in the sutras as appearing in celestial realms or Pure Lands, often accompanied by hosts of bodhisattvas and other enlightened beings. The Kagyu teacher Traleg Rinpoche explained,
“It is said that the Sambhogakaya manifests not in any kind of spatial or physical location but in a place that is not really a place; a place of nowhere called Akanishtha, or wok ngun in Tibetan. Wok mi means “not underneath,” suggesting that Akanishtha, because it is a field of nowhere, is all encompassing. Ultimately wok-ngun refers to emptiness, or sunyata.”
Are these Buddhas “real”? From most Mahayana perspectives, only the dharmakaya body is entirely “real.” The samghogakaya and nirmanakaya bodies are just appearances or emanations of the dharmakaya.
Possibly because they manifest in Pure Lands, sambhogakaya buddhas are described as preaching the dharma to other celestial beings. Their subtle form appears only to those ready to see it.
In Tibetan tantra, sambhogakaya is also the speech of a Buddha or the manifestation of the Buddha in sound.
THOUGH OF HISTORICAL VALUE, THESE PHOTOGRAPHS PORTRAY A BUDDHIST MONK SELF-IMMOLATING, AND ARE QUITE EXPLICIT. PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS ARTICLE IF THESE PHOTOGRAPHS WILL HAVE AN ADVERSE AFFECT ON YOU!
In 1963, a Vietnamese monk committed self-immolation in front of hundreds of people. While his primary motivation was protest, the full reasoning behind his final act shed unexpected light on a deeply conflicted nation.
In the midst of the Vietnam War, South Vietnam was corrupted by religious intolerance. Although Buddhists comprised about 80% of the population, Ngo Dinh Diem, the newly-declared President of South Vietnam, was a Catholic who had decisively stripped the religious freedoms of Buddhists. This group was not allowed to fly their religious flags and were openly discriminated against by Catholics. Even though there were far fewer Catholics, they often held higher positions of power.
The spring of 1963 saw numerous Buddhist protests, many of which were met with fierce resistance from the police and government. These clashes led to many fatalities – including those of children.
This tension peaked on June 11, 1963, when an older monk named Thich Quang Duc performed a ritualistic ending to his own life in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection. He sat in the traditional lotus position as other monks poured gasoline over his head. After Duc uttered a Buddhist prayer, one of his colleagues lit a match and dropped it into his lap, engulfing him in flames.
The crowd that gathered was stunned by his act of martyrdom, and it was even captured by several Western journalists and photographers. The photos of the burning monk became an indelible image of the 1960s, and his final act of protest was a tipping point for the fight for religious tolerance in Vietnam.
The Monks Demanded Acceptance
President Diem’s discrimination of the Buddhist population pushed hundreds of monks to protest for change. In May of 1963, they presented the government with five demands, including proposed laws against religious discrimination and the freedom to fly whichever religious flags they chose.
The government had promised the monks a response, but Diem essentially ignored their requests. This silence from their government ultimately pushed the monks to much more drastic action to fight for their convictions.
A Journalist Captured Duc’s Utter Composure
Duc prepared himself for his fiery demise with a steady, calm demeanor. David Halberstam, a journalist for the New York Times, was present for Duc’s immolation and wrote about the dramatic act:
“I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think… As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”
As for Duc himself, he left his final words in a letter:
“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”
Duc’s Heart Did Not Burn
After Duc’s self-immolation was complete, the other monks placed robes over his body and carried him away in a makeshift wooden coffin. He was later re-cremated for a proper burial, but mysteriously, his heart did not burn and remained intact.
Duc’s heart was placed on display in a glass container in the Xa Loi Pagoda and was seen as a sacred relic representing compassion.
JFK Addressed The Moment’s Deep Emotional Impact
Once photographer Malcolm Browne sent his “monk on fire” photos to the Associated Press, they reached US newspapers within 16 hours. The Western reaction to the images was decidedly shocked, and President Kennedy was quoted as saying, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Browne was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the photograph.
The photos, in addition to the news of religious discrimination in Vietnam, supposedly led Kennedy to reexamine America’s policies and presence in the country, ultimately culminating in the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Other Monks Followed Suit
Although Duc’s immolation is known as a pivotal moment in Vietnam’s fight for religious equality, his sacrifice did not instantaneously affect President Diem’s policies. Several other monks followed in Duc’s footsteps in the proceeding weeks, amid continued protests by the Buddhist community.
In November of 1963, members of the South Vietnamese military assassinated Diem and his brother during a coup, ending his Catholic reign over South Vietnam.
For the unenlightened, Buddhism can certainly come across as a mysterious, even confusing, religion. After all, there is no singular deity watching over. No strict commandments to govern with. And no “great book” to live by. So, what is it exactly? And how does Buddhism uniquely define itself in comparison with other religions around the world?
The answer is simple: Buddhism extends beyond the ideas of organized religion, and instead presents itself more as a philosophy of life, focusing on morality, tolerance for others, and wisdom. While others seek to contain (and, in some cases, even control) their members through scripture, followers of Buddhism are taught that individuality and finding one’s own self is the core of their practice. That through a journey of self-discovery, they will gain knowledge not only about themselves – but also about their inner spirit.
With over 2,500 years and 300 million followers behind it, Buddhism certainly has a colorful history, one which is shared all around the world. Below are some of the most interesting facts that have arisen from this unique practice.
That Big Guy Is Not “the” Buddha
You may be familiar with the sight of a rather large bald man, perched cross-legged, and adorned entirely in gold, and perhaps first wonder if this is also what Donald Trump sees when he closes his eyes. But second, you may recognize this as a statue of Buddha himself.
Well, you’d be wrong on one-and-a-half counts.
Turns out, the most recognizable symbol (at least, in Western cultures) of Buddhism is not actually of Buddha, but rather Budai, a zen monk who lived in China during the 900s.
A practicer of Buddhism, Budai was considered such an eccentric and good-spirited figure of the religion that he eventually became its most recognizable face. It was said that Budai always wore a smile, and was so charismatic that he was actually followed by children wherever he went. Because of this, his spirit represented all of which Buddhism strives for, and, as a result, we know his face to be that of one truly enlightened.
Siddhartha Guatama Was the “Real” Buddha
The real Buddha, however, was a twenty-nine year-old man named Siddhartha Gautama of Lumbini. Born into wealth, Gautama eventually realized that none of his fortune satisfied him, and he took to studying various religions and meditation practices around the world, before eventually becoming “enlightened,” and ultimately founding Buddhism.
Perhaps ironically, the name “Siddhartha” is Sanskrit for “He Who Achieves His Goal,” a concept which underlines the core intent of Buddhism.
There Is No Divine Creator
Just imagine no one looking over your shoulder, checking for sins. No one whispering in your ear to do the right thing. Not having to answer to anyone on a Sunday morning.
Such is the way with Buddhism, where there is no “divine creator” lording above. True, there is the concept of the human spirit that dwells within, but the idea is more in sync with our consciousness, rather than with an entity that will eventually make its way up to heaven and join one of many hypothetical “big guys upstairs.”
Instead, Buddhism focuses on the journey of oneself to our own enlightenment rather than seeking the approval of a higher power.
Women Can Never Achieve True “Buddhahood”
When Buddhism first began, some of the Buddha’s teachings about women were very controversial. Not because he taught that women should be subservient to their husbands (as was the case with most early religions), but that husbands should also respect their wives.
Furthermore, while women were certainly not excluded from the religion (and were actively encouraged to participate), there came some caveats, with the worst of all being perhaps the entire point of Buddhism in the first place:
Despite her dedication to the religion, a woman can never achieve true “Buddhahood.”
Sex Is Sometimes a Complicated Subject
For a religion that encourages the exploration of one’s self, sex (both with a partner and without) surprisingly comes with some very serious rules.
First of all, if you’re a Buddhist monk or nun (referred to as Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis, respectively), you better keep that inner temple to yourself because any act, including masturbation, prevents one from achieving supreme enlightenment.
For the rest of practicing Buddhists, the rules aren’t quite as strict – though most of them are certainly frowned upon. Particularly because the Buddha perceived the craving for sex as a form of suffering. To that end, if one is consumed by the their sexual urges, they too will not be able to reach enlightenment.
Not All Buddhists Are Focused on Reincarnation
Among some of the more common misconceptions about Buddhism, are that all Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Such is not the case, as the belief in life after death is not focused on as much as one would believe. Instead, the focus lands mostly on one’s purpose in this life in order to become enlightened.
Furthermore, there is a common belief that Buddhism originated as a Pagan religion, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason being, because Buddhists don’t worship a god in the first place. Thus, Paganism, which is the worship of any god besides the Christian one, is an entirely different practice.
Alcohol, Onions, Garlic, Leeks, Chives, and Scallions Are a No-no
Like sex, the desire to over-indulge in certain foods is seen as a form of craving, which is, ostensibly, a form of suffering.
But there are also specific guidelines to follow if one wished to truly follow the path. Among them, followers cannot enjoy alcohol. While many who “over-indulge” in occasionally shot-gunning beers or knocking back tequila shots would argue they’re at their most enlightened when hammered, in Buddhism, it is seen as a form of “intoxicant,” which, again, keeps one from being truly spiritually enlightened.
Also, say goodbye to Indian food, as onions, garlic, leeks, chives, and scallions are considered too strong of odors in Buddhist cuisine. The reason? Because their odors are thought to be so pungent, that they incite anger and passion – both of which fall under the umbrella of suffering in Buddhism.
There is also a common misconception about all Buddhist being vegetarian, but this is not the case. In fact, many Buddhist dishes feature meat. The rule behind this, however, is that Buddhist are not allowed to “kill any sentient being.” That is, they are not allowed to kill the animal and eat it themselves, but procuring meat from elsewhere is perfectly fine.
There Are Four Noble Truths
While the core of Buddhism is the journey to self-discovery and enlightenment, there are a few important items to understand along the way. Described as the “essence” of Buddhism, these are theFour Noble Truths:
The Truth of Suffering
The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
The Truth of the End of Suffering
And, finally, The Truth of the Path that Leads to the End of Suffering
Together, these represent the path to self-liberation. A way to understand the plight of all humanity, and that there are certain undeniable events in life that are out of our control – but there is always a way through them. And by understanding and accepting them, we are on our way to true enlightenmen
There Are Two Different Types of Buddhism
Spiritual beliefs can sometimes cause a divide among followers. It’s why there are countless iterations of Christianity around the world. Some of whom believe in the spiritual teachings of Christ’s love, others who think it somehow it pleases him to march along funeral processions holding up hateful and often-misspelled picket signs.
Clearly, the spectrum reaches far and wide as to what being a “good Christian” means.
Thankfully with Buddhism, there are only two different practices: on one hand, there is the Theravada (“School of the Elders”), and the Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”).
Theravada is perhaps the most common type of Buddhist practice, with the end goal of all individuals to reach a state of nirvana, which sees the inner spirit break the cycle of death and rebirth, and ultimately move on.
In the case of Mahayana, an individual strives to achieve “Buddhahood” (supreme enlightenment), in which he or she remains in the cycle of rebirth with the intent of helping others become enlightened as well.
In either following, the end goal of both types of Buddhism are to attain the highest level of spiritual connectedness. That is, once you peak, it’s time to either move on (Theravada) or pay it forward (Mahayana).
A Full Moon Day Is Sacred
Every religion has their one uber-holiday of the year. For some it’s Christmas. Others Dwali. Some people give thanks on that magical day of the year when the McRib finally makes its triumphant return.
Although Buddhism isn’t exactly a religion in the traditional sense, it’s not without its own special day to celebrate the spiritual journey that so many others are on.
That day is called “Uposatha”, a day for the “cleansing of the defiled mind,” which falls in accordance of the four lunar phases, starting with the full moon.
On Uposatha, Buddhist followers intensify their practice, reflecting on their goals to deepen their commitment to themselves and to others.
There Is a Buddhism-Themed Amusement Park
Located just outside Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam is the one and only Buddhist theme park — the Suoi Tien Cultural Amusement Park.
Featuring roller coasters, rides, an artificial beach and water park, Suoi Tien offers a glimpse of the true happiness and sense of contentment one could only achieve by, well, practicing Buddhism until they reach spiritual nirvana, I suppose.
Swathed in bright neon colors, the park is said be akin to “Disneyland on acid,” which will certainly help to explain why you’ll encounter men and women dressed up as unicorns, dragons, and Budai himself as they roam around the park grounds.
But the idea of a Buddhist theme park begs the question: if one has already achieved spiritual happiness prior to buying a ticket, does that make a roller-coaster ride less fun?
Viharas Are Sacred Places
Also known as Buddhist monasteries, viharas were originally created to help in housing monks who would often only stay in temporary shelters. These early forms were little more than rock-cut caves, carved along trade routes, and which allowed passing monks to reside in and practice their faith safely.
As time went on however, viharas evolved into much more than just a place for wandering monks to stay, but instead became temples themselves, ones which saw the monks recruiting students who wished to learn more about Buddhism.
While the process of constructing viharas has certainly improved, the architects behind them today still retain the aesthetics of those once carved into the rock of caves.
The Famous Tooth of Buddha
According to Sri Lankan legend, when the Buddha himself died and was eventually cremated in 543 BCE, he left behind a small souvenir for his followers: his left canine tooth.
It was said that whomever came into possession of the tooth had the right to rule the country. Thus, it was fought over many times, but ultimately ended up in the town of Kandy, Sri Lanka, where has been held in reverence on display for over four hundred years.
The Fig Tree Holds a Special Meaning
Specifically, the ficus religiosa, a type of fig tree that grows only in southwest China. It earned its divine name for a very specific reason: it was under this type of fig tree that Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) first achieved his spiritual enlightenment. Ever since, it has been regarded as sacred, and is a celebrated symbol in Buddhism.
There Are Many Different Ways People Practice Buddhism
Like many religions, Buddhists can choose to practice puja – the act of worship – either at home, via a personal shrine, or in a public temple.
If at home, Buddhists create small areas dedicated to connecting with their faith. These shrines typically feature a statue of Buddha himself, as well as various candles, flowers, and incense burners.
Although the practice is a solitary one, Buddhists are never to worship at their shrine with their feet facing the Buddha. Such an act is considered disrespectful.
If worshipping outside of the home, Buddhist will visit temples called Pagodas, which are vaulting, tower-like structures, or Stupas, which are wider, circular buildings.
Gelugpa is best known in the West as the school of Tibetan Buddhism associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In the 17th century, the Gelug (also spelled Geluk) school became the most powerful institution in Tibet, and it remained so until China took control of Tibet in the 1950s.
The story of Gelugpa begins with Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), a man from Amdo Province who began studying with a local Sakya lama at a very young age. At 16 he traveled to central Tibet, where the most renowned teachers and monasteries were located, to further his education.
Tsongkhapa did not study in any one place. He stayed in Kagyu monasteries learning Tibetan medicine, the practices of Mahamudra and the tantra yoga of Atisha. He studied philosophy in Sakya monasteries. He sought independent teachers with fresh ideas. He was particularly interested in the Madhyamika teachings of Nagarjuna.
In time, Tsongkhapa combined these teachings into a new approach to Buddhism. He explained his approach in two major works, Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path and Great Exposition of the Secret Mantra. Other of his teachings were collected in several volumes, 18 in all.
Through most of his adult life, Tsongkhapa traveled around Tibet, often living in camps with dozens of students. By the time Tsongkhapa had reached his 50s, the rugged lifestyle had taken a toll on his health. His admirers built him a new monastery on a mountain near Lhasa. The monastery was named “Ganden,” which means “joyful.” Tsongkhapa lived there only briefly before he died, however.
The Founding of Gelugpa
At the time of his death, Tsongkhapa and his students were considered to be part of the Sakya school. Then his disciples stepped up and built a new school of Tibetan Buddhism on Tsongkhapa’s teachings. They called the school “Gelug,” which means “the virtuous tradition.” Here are some of Tsongkhapa’s most prominent disciples:
Gyaltsab (1364-1431) is thought to have been first the abbot of Gendun after Tsongkhapa died. This made him the first Ganden Tripa, or throne-holder of Gendun. To this day the Ganden Tripa is the actual, official head of the Gelug school, not the Dalai Lama.
Jamchen Chojey (1355-1435) founded the great Sera monastery of Lhasa.
Khedrub (1385-1438) is credited with defending and promoting Tsongkhapa’s teachings throughout Tibet. He also began the tradition of high lamas of Gelug wearing yellow hats, to distinguish them from Sakya lamas, who wore red hats.
Gendun Drupa (1391-1474) founded the great monasteries of Drepung and Tashillhunpo, and during his life, he was among the most respected scholars in Tibet.
The Dalai Lama
A few years after Gendun Drupa died, a young boy of central Tibet was recognized as his tulku, or rebirth. Eventually, this boy, Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542) would serve as abbot of Drepung, Tashillhunpo, and Sera.
Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588) was recognized as the rebirth of Gendun Gyatso. This tulku became the spiritual adviser to a Mongol leader named Altan Khan. Altan Khan gave Gendun Gyatso the title “Dalai Lama,” meaning “ocean of wisdom.” Sonam Gyatso is considered to be the third Dalai Lama; his predecessors Gendun Drupa and Gendun Gyatso were named first and second Dalai Lama, posthumously.
These first Dalai Lamas had no political authority. It was Lobsang Gyatso, the “Great Fifth” Dalai Lama (1617-1682), who forged a fortuitous alliance with another Mongol leader, Gushi Khan, who conquered Tibet. Gushi Khan made Lobsang Gyatso the political and spiritual leader of the entire Tibetan people.
Under the Great Fifth a large part of another school of Tibetan Buddhism, Jonang, was absorbed into Gelugpa. The Jonang influence added Kalachakra teachings to Gelugpa. The Great Fifth also initiated the building of Potala Palace in Lhasa, which became the seat of both spiritual and political authority in Tibet.
Today many people think the Dalai Lamas held absolute power in Tibet as “god-kings,” but that is inaccurate. The Dalai Lamas who came after the Great Fifth was, for one reason or another, mostly figureheads who held little real power. For long stretches of time, various regents and military leaders were actually in charge.
Not until the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933), would another Dalai Lama function as a real head of government, and even he had limited authority to enact all the reforms he wished to bring to Tibet.
The current Dalai Lama is the 14th, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso (born 1935). He was still an adolescent when China invaded Tibet in 1950. His Holiness has been exiled from Tibet since 1959. Recently he relinquished all political power over the Tibetan people in exile, in favor of a democratic, elected government.
The Panchen Lama
The second highest lama in Gelugpa is the Panchen Lama. The title Panchen Lama, meaning “great scholar,” was bestowed by the Fifth Dalai Lama on a tulku who was fourth in a lineage of rebirths, and so he became the 4th Panchen Lama.
The current Panchen Lama is the 11th. However, His Holiness Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (born 1989) and his family were taken into Chinese custody shortly after his recognition was made public in 1995. The Panchen Lama and his family have not been seen since. A pretender appointed by Beijing, Gyaltsen Norbu, has served as Panchen Lama in his place.
The original Ganden monastery, Gelugpa’s spiritual home, was destroyed by Chinese troops during the 1959 Lhasa uprising. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard came to finish whatever was left. Even the mummified body of Tsongkhapa was ordered burned, although a monk was able to recover a skull and some ashes. The Chinese government is rebuilding the monastery.
Meanwhile, exiled lamas re-established Ganden in Karnataka, India, and this monastery is now Gelugpa’s spiritual home. The current Ganden Tripa, the 102nd, is Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu. (Ganden Tripas are not tulkus but are appointed to the position as adults.) The training of new generations of Gelugpa monks and nuns continues.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has lived in Dharamsala, India since he left Tibet in 1959. He has dedicated his life to teaching and to gain greater autonomy for Tibetans still under Chinese rule.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-gelug-school-of-tibetan-buddhism-449627.