Tag Archives: Buddhism

Buddhism 101: Shakyamuni Buddha

Why Is the Historical Buddha Called “Shakyamuni”?

Shakyamuni Buddha. MarenYumi / flickr.com, Creative Commons License

Although we often speak of “the Buddha,” there are many Buddhas in Buddhism. On top of that, the many Buddhas come with many names and forms and play multiple roles. The word “Buddha” means one who woke up,” and in Buddhist doctrine, any such enlightened individual is technically a Buddha. In addition, the word Buddha is often used to mean the principle of Buddha-nature. But of course, there is one historical figure that normally is considered the Buddha. 

Shakyamuni Buddha is a name given to the historical Buddha, especially in Mahayana Buddhism. So it’s nearly always the case that when someone is talking about Shakyamuni, he or she is speaking of the historical figure who was born Siddhartha Gautama but then became known as Shakyamuni only after he became the Buddha. This person, after his enlightenment, is also sometimes called Gautama Buddha.

However, people also speak of Shakyamuni as a more transcendent figure who still is, and not as a historical figure who lived a long time ago. Especially if you are new to Buddhism, this may be confusing. Let’s take a look at Shakyamuni Buddha and his role in Buddhism.

The Historical Buddha

The future Shakyamuni Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in the 5th or 6th century BCE in what is now Nepal. Although historians believe there was such a person, much of his life story is shrouded in legend and myth.

According to legend, Siddhartha Gautama was the son of a king, and as a youth and young adult, he lived a sheltered and pampered life. In his late 20s, he was shocked to witness sickness, old age, and death for the first time, and he was filled with such dread he resolved to give up his royal birthright to seek peace of mind.

After several false starts, Siddhartha Gautama eventually settled determinately into deep meditation under the famous Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, in North Eastern India, and realized enlightenment, at about the age of 35. From this point on he was called the Buddha, which means “one who woke up.” He spent the rest of his life teaching and died at about the age of 80, achieving Nirvana. More detail about the life of the Buddha can be read in The Life of the Buddha.

About the Shakya

The name Shakyamuni is Sanskrit for “Sage of the Shakya.” Siddhartha Gautama was born a prince of the Shakya or Sakya, a clan who appear to have established a city-state with a capital in Kapilavatthu, in modern-day Nepal, about 700 BCE. The Shakya were believed to have been descendants of a very ancient Vedic sage named Gautama Maharishi, from whom they took the name Gautama. There is a bit of legitimate documentation of the Shakya clan that can be found outside of Buddhist texts, so it appears the Shakya was not just an invention of Buddhist story-tellers.

If indeed Siddhartha was the heir of the Shakya king, as legends suggest, his enlightenment may have played a small role in the clan’s downfall. The Prince had married and had fathered a son before he left his home to seek wisdom, but the son, Rahula, eventually became his father’s disciple and a celibate monk, as did many young men of the Shakya nobility, according to the Tipitaka.

Early scriptures also say the Shakya and another clan, the Kosala, had long been at war. A peace agreement was sealed when the Kosala crown prince married a Shakya princess. However, the young woman sent by the Shakya to marry the prince actually was a slave, not a princess–a deception not discovered for a long time. The couple had a son, Vidudabha, who swore revenge when he learned the truth about his mother. He invaded and massacred the Shakya, then annexed Shakya territory into Kosala territory.

This happened near the time of the Buddha’s death. In his book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist Stephen Batchelor presents a plausible argument that the Buddha was poisoned because he was the most prominent surviving member of the Shakya royal family.

The Trikaya

According to the Trikaya doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, a Buddha has three bodies, called dharmakaya, Samb Hoga kaya, and Nirvana kaya. The Nirvana kaya body is also called the “emanation” body because it is the body that appears in the phenomenal world. Shakyamuni is considered a Nirvana kaya Buddha because he was born, and walked the earth, and died.

The samghogakaya body is the body that feels the bliss of enlightenment. A Samb Hoga kaya Buddha is purified of defilement and is free of suffering, yet maintains a distinctive form. The dharmakaya body is beyond form and distinction.

The three bodies actually are one body, however. Although the name Shakyamuni usually is associated with the Nirvana kaya body only, occasionally in some schools Shakyamuni is spoken of as all bodies at once.


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “Shakyamuni Buddha.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/shakyamuni-buddha-449787.

Buddhism 101: The Birth Of The Buddha – Legend And Myth

Queen Maya’s retreat to Lumbini to gave birth to Prince Siddharta Gautama (Buddha), the panel of Lalitavistara, Borobudur, Central Java, Indonesia. Gunawan Kartapranata/Wikimedia Commons

Aspects of the story of Buddha’s birth may have been borrowed from Hindu texts, such as the account of the birth of Indra from the Rig Veda. The story may also have Hellenic influences. For a time after Alexander the Great conquered central Asia in 334 BCE, there was a considerable intermingling of Buddhism with Hellenic art and ideas. There also is speculation that the story of the Buddha’s birth was “improved” after Buddhist traders returned from the Middle East with stories of the birth of Jesus.

The Traditional Tale of the Buddha’s Birth

Twenty-five centuries ago, King Suddhodana ruled a land near the Himalaya Mountains.

One day during a midsummer festival, his wife, Queen Maya, retired to her quarters to rest, and she fell asleep and dreamed a vivid dream, in which four angels carried her high into white mountain peaks and clothed her in flowers. A magnificent white bull elephant bearing a white lotus in its trunk approached Maya and walked around her three times. Then the elephant struck her on the right side with its trunk and vanished into her.

When Maya awoke, she told her husband about the dream. The King summoned 64 Brahmans to come and interpret it. Queen Maya would give birth to a son, the Brahmans said, and if the son did not leave the household, he would become a world conqueror. However, if he were to leave the household he would become a Buddha.

When the time for the birth grew near, Queen Maya wished to travel from Kapilavatthu, the King’s capital, to her childhood home, Devadaha, to give birth. With the King’s blessings, she left Kapilavatthu on a palanquin carried by a thousand courtiers.

On the way to Devadaha, the procession passed Lumbini Grove, which was full of blossoming trees. Entranced, the Queen asked her courtiers to stop, and she left the palanquin and entered the grove. As she reached up to touch the blossoms, her son was born.

Then the Queen and her son were showered with perfumed blossoms, and two streams of sparkling water poured from the sky to bathe them. And the infant stood, and took seven steps, and proclaimed “I alone am the World-Honored One!

Then Queen Maya and her son returned to Kapilavatthu. The Queen died seven days later, and the infant prince was nursed and raised by the Queen’s sister Pajapati, also married to King Suddhodana.


There is a jumble of symbols presented in this story. The white elephant was a sacred animal representing fertility and wisdom. The lotus is a common symbol of enlightenment in Buddhist art. A white lotus, in particular, represents mental and spiritual purity. The baby Buddha’s seven steps evoke seven directions—north, south, east, west, up, down, and here.

Buddha’s Birthday Celebration

In Asia, Buddha’s birthday is a festive celebration featuring parades with many flowers and floats of white elephants. Figures of the baby Buddha pointing up and down are placed in bowls, and sweet tea is poured over the figures to “wash” the baby.

Buddhist Interpretation

Newcomers to Buddhism tend to dismiss the Buddha birth myth as so much froth. It sounds like a story about the birth of a god, and the Buddha was not a god. In particular, the declaration “I alone am the World-Honored One” is a bit hard to reconcile with Buddhist teachings on nontheism and anatman.

However, in Mahayana Buddhism, this is interpreted as the baby Buddha speaking of the Buddha-nature that is the immutable and eternal nature of all beings. On Buddha’s birthday, some Mahayana Buddhists wish each other happy birthday, because the Buddha’s birthday is everyone’s birthday.


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “The Birth of the Buddha.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-birth-of-the-buddha-449783.

Buddhism 101: The Tibetan Wheel of Life

The Bhavachakra is a Tibetan Buddhist representation of the “wheel of life,” or cycle of existence. MarenYumi/Flickr

The rich iconography of the Wheel of Life can be interpreted on several levels. The six major sections represent the Six Realms. These realms can be understood as forms of existence, or states of mind, into which beings are born according to their karma. The realms also can be viewed as situations in life or even personality types—hungry ghosts are addicts; devas are privileged; hell beings have anger issues.

In each of the realms, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appears to show the way to liberation from the Wheel. But liberation is possible only in the human realm. From there, those who realize enlightenment find their way out of the Wheel to Nirvana.

The gallery shows sections of the Wheel and explains them in more detail.

The Wheel of Life is one of the most common subjects of Buddhist art. The detailed symbolism of the Wheel can be interpreted on many levels.

The Wheel of Life (called the Bhavachakra in Sanskrit) represents the cycle of birth and rebirth and existence in samsara.

This gallery looks at different parts of the Wheel and explains what they mean. The main sections are the hub and the six “pie wedges” depicting the Six Realms. The gallery also looks at the Buddha figures in the corners and at Yama, the fearsome creature holding the Wheel in his hooves.

Many Buddhists understand the Wheel in an allegorical, not literal, way. As you examine the parts of the wheel you might find yourself relating to some of it personally or recognizing people you know as Jealous Gods or Hell Beings or Hungry Ghosts.

The outer circle of the Wheel (not shown in detail in this gallery) is the Paticca Samuppada, the Links of Dependent Origination. Traditionally, the outer wheel depicts a blind man or woman (representing ignorance); potters (formation); a monkey (consciousness); two men in a boat (mind and body); a house with six windows (the senses); an embracing couple (contact); an eye pierced by an arrow (sensation); a person drinking (thirst); a man gathering fruit (grasping); a couple making love (becoming); a woman giving birth (birth); and a man carrying a corpse (death).

Yama, Lord of the Underworld

The Wrathful Dharmapala of Hell Yama, Lord of the Underworld, represents death and holds the wheel in his hooves. MarenYumi/Flickr

The creature holding the Wheel of Life in his hooves is Yama, the wrathful dharmapala who is Lord of the Hell Realm.

The terrible face of Yama, who represents impermanence, peers over the top of the Wheel. In spite of his appearance, Yama is not evil. He is a wrathful dharmapala, a creature devoted to protecting Buddhism and Buddhists. Although we may be frightened of death, it is not evil; just inevitable.

In legend, Yama was a holy man who believed he would realize enlightenment if he meditated in a cave for 50 years. In the 11th month of the 49th year, robbers entered the cave with a stolen bull and cut off the bull’s head. When they realized the holy man had seen them, the robbers cut off his head also.

But the holy man put on the bull’s head and assumed the terrible form of Yama. He killed the robbers, drank their blood, and threatened all of Tibet. He could not be stopped until Manjushri, Bodhisattva of Wisdom, manifested as the even more terrible dharmapala Yamantaka and defeated Yama. Yama then became a protector of Buddhism.

The Realm of the Gods

Being a God Isn’t Perfect The Realm of the Gods of the Bhavachakra. MarenYumi/Flickr

The Realm of the Gods (Devas) is the highest realm of the Wheel of Life and is always depicted at the top of the Wheel.

The Realm of the Gods (Devas) sounds like a nice place to live. And, no question, you can do a lot worse. But even the Realm of the Gods isn’t perfect. Those born in the God Realm live long and pleasure-filled lives. They have wealth and power and happiness. So what’s the catch?

The catch is that because the Devas have such rich and happy lives they don’t recognize the truth of suffering. Their happiness is, in a way, a curse, because they have no motivation to seek liberation from the Wheel. Eventually, their happy lives end, and they must face rebirth in another, less happy, realm.

The Devas are perpetually at war with their neighbors on the Wheel, the Asuras. This depiction of the Wheel shows the Devas charging the Asuras.

The Realm of Asuras

Jealous Gods and Paranoia The Realm of Asuras, also called Jealous Gods or Titans. MarenYumi/Flickr

The Asura (Jealous God) Realm is marked by paranoia.

Asuras are hyper-competitive and paranoid. They are driven by a desire to beat their competition, and everyone is competition. They have power and resources and sometimes accomplish good things with them. But, always, their first priority is getting to the top. I think of powerful politicians or corporate leaders when I think of Asuras.

Chih-i (538-597), a patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school, described the Asura this way: “Always desiring to be superior to others, having no patience for inferiors and belittling strangers; like a hawk, flying high above and looking down on others, and yet outwardly displaying justice, worship, wisdom, and faith — this is raising up the lowest order of good and walking the way of the Asuras.”

Asuras, who are also called “anti-gods,” are perpetually at war with the Devas of the God Realm. Asuras think they belong in the God Realm and fight to get in, although here it seems the Asuras have formed a line of defense and are fighting the attacking Devas with bows and arrows. Some depictions of the Wheel of Life combine the Asura and God realms into one.

Sometimes there is a beautiful tree growing between the two realms, with its roots and trunk in the Asura Realm. But its branches and fruit are in the God Realm.

The Realm of Hungry Ghosts

Craving That Can Never Be Satisfied The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. MarenYumi/Flickr

Hungry Ghosts have huge, empty stomachs, but their thin necks don’t allow nourishment to pass. Food turns to fire and ash in their mouths.

Hungry Ghosts (Pretas) are pitable things. They are wasted creatures with huge, empty stomachs. Their necks are too thin to allow food to pass. So, they are constantly hungry.

Greed and jealousy lead to rebirth as a Hungry Ghost. The Hungry Ghost Realm often, but not always, is depicted between the Asura Realm and the Hell Realm. It is thought the karma of their lives was not quite bad enough for a rebirth in the Hell Realm but not good enough for the Asura Realm.

Psychologically, Hungry Ghosts are associated with addictions, compulsions and obsessions. People who have everything but always want more may be Hungry Ghosts.

The Hell Realm

Fire and Ice The Hell Realm of the Wheel of Life. MarenYumi/Flickr

The Hell Realm is marked by anger, terror and claustrophobia.

The Hell Realm is depicted as a place partly of fire and partly of ice. In the fiery part of the realm, Hell Beings (Narakas) are subjected to pain and torment. In the icy part, they are frozen.

Interpreted psychologically, Hell Beings are recognized by their acute aggression. Fiery Hell Beings are angry and abusive, and they drive away anyone who would befriend or love them. Icy Hell Beings shove others away with their unfeeling coldness. Then, in the torment of their isolation, their aggression increasingly turns inward, and they become self-destructive.

The Animal Realm

No Sense of Humor The Animal Realm of the Wheel of Life. MarenYumi/Flickr

Animal Beings (Tiryakas) are solid, regular and predictable. They cling to what is familiar and are disinterested, even fearful, of anything unfamiliar.

The Animal Realm is marked by ignorance and complacency. Animal Beings are stolidly un-curious and are repelled by anything unfamiliar. They go through life seeking comfort and avoiding discomfort. They have no sense of humor.

Animal Beings may find contentment, but they easily become fearful when placed in a new situation. Naturally, they are bigoted and likely to remain so. At the same time, they are subject to oppression by other beings — animals do devour each other, you know.

The Human Realm

The Hope of Liberation The human realm of the Wheel of Life. MarenYumi/Flickr

Liberation from the Wheel is possible only from the Human Realm.

The Human Realm is marked by questioning and curiosity. It is also a realm of passion; human beings (Manushyas) want to strive, consume, acquire, enjoy, explore. Here the Dharma is openly available, yet only a few seek it. The rest become caught up in striving, consuming and acquiring, and miss the opportunity.

The Center

What Makes the Wheel Turn The center of the Wheel of Life. MarenYumi/Flickr

At the center of the Wheel of Life are the forces that keep it turning — greed, anger and ignorance.

At the center of every Wheel of Life are a cock, a snake and a pig, which represent greed, anger and ignorance. In Buddhism, greed, anger (or hate) and ignorance are called the “Three Poisons” because they poison whoever harbors them. These are the forces that keep the Wheel of Life turning, according to the Buddha’s teaching of the Second Noble Truth.

The circle outside the center, which is sometimes missing in depictions of the Wheel, is called the Sidpa Bardo, or intermediate state. It is also sometimes called the White Path and the Dark Path. On one side, bodhisattvas guide beings to rebirths in the higher realms of Devas, Gods and Humans. On the other, demons lead beings to the lower realms of Hungry Ghosts, Hell Beings and Animals.

The Buddha

The Dharmakaya Buddha The Buddha. MarenYumi/Flickr

In the upper right-hand corner of the Wheel of Life, the Buddha appears, representing hope for liberation.

In many depictions of the Wheel of Life, the figure in the upper right-hand corner is a Dharmakaya Buddha. The dharmakaya is sometimes called the Truth Body or the Dharma Body and is identified with shunyata. Dharmakaya is everything, unmanifested, free of characteristics and distinctions.

Often this Buddha is shown pointing to the moon, which represents enlightenment. However, in this version the Buddha stands with his hands raised, as if in blessing.

The Door to Nirvana

The upper left-hand corner of a Bhavachakra is filled with a scene or symbol representing liberation from the Wheel. MarenYumi/Flickr

This depiction of the Wheel of Life shows the entry to Nirvana in the upper left-hand corner.

In the upper left-hand corner of this depiction of the Wheel of Life is a temple with a seated Buddha. A stream of beings rise from the Human Realms toward the temple, which represents Nirvana. Artists creating a Wheel of Life fill this corner in various ways. Sometimes the upper left-hand figure is a Nirmanakaya Buddha, representing bliss. Sometimes the artist paints a moon, which symbolizes liberation.


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “The Wheel of Life.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-wheel-of-life-4123213.

Buddhism 101: The Five Dhyani Buddhas

Heavenly Guides to Spiritual Transformation

The Five Dhyani Buddhas are icons of Mahayana Buddhism. These transcendent Buddhas are visualized in tantric meditation and appear in Buddhist iconography.

The five Buddhas are Aksobhya, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, Ratnasaṃbhava, and Vairocana. Each represents a different aspect of enlightened consciousness to aid in spiritual transformation.

Often in Vajrayana art, they are arranged in a mandala, with Vairocana in the center. The other Buddhas are depicted in each of the four directions (north, south, east, and west).

Each Dhyani Buddha has a specific color and symbol which represent his meanings and the purpose for meditating on him. Mudras, or hand gestures, are also used in Buddhist art to distinguish one Buddha from another and convey the appropriate teaching.

1. Akshobhya Buddha: “Immovable One”

The Immovable Buddha Akshobhya Buddha. MarenYumi / Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

Akshobhya was a monk who vowed never to feel anger or disgust toward another being. He was immovable in keeping this vow. After striving for a long period, he became a Buddha.

Akshobhya is a heavenly Buddha who reigns over the Eastern paradise, Abhirati. Those who fulfill Akshobhya’s vow are reborn in Abhirati and cannot fall back into lower states of consciousness.

It’s important to note that the directional ‘paradises’ are understood to be a state of mind, not physical places.

Depictions of Akshobhya

In Buddhist iconography, Akshobhya is usually blue though sometimes gold. He is most often pictured touching the earth with his right hand. This is the earth-touching mudra, which is the gesture used by the historical Buddha when he asked the earth to bear witness to his enlightenment.

In his left hand, Akshobhya holds a vajra, the symbol of shunyata — an absolute reality that is all things and beings, unmanifested. Akshobhya is also associated with the fifth skandha, consciousness.

In Buddhist tantra, evoking Akshobhya in meditation helps overcome anger and hatred.

2. Amitabha Buddha: “Infinite Light”

Buddha of Boundless Light Amitabha Buddha. MarenYumi / Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

Amitabha Buddha, who is also called Amita or Amida Buddha, is probably the best known of the Dhyani Buddhas. In particular, devotion to Amitabha is at the center of Pure Land Buddhism, one of the largest schools of Mahayana Buddhism in Asia.

In a long-ago time, Amitabha was a king who renounced his kingdom to become a monk. Called Dharmakara Bodhisattva, the monk practiced diligently for five eons and realized enlightenment and became a buddha.

Amitabha Buddha reigns over Sukhavati (the Western paradise) which is also called the Pure Land. Those reborn in the Pure Land experience the joy of hearing Amitabha teach the dharma until they are ready to enter Nirvana.

Depictions of Amitabha

Amitabha symbolizes mercy and wisdom. He is associated with the third skandha, that of perception. Tantric meditation on Amitabha is an antidote to desire. He is sometimes pictured in between the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta.

In Buddhist iconography, Amitabha’s hands are most often in a meditation mudra: fingers barely touching and gently folded over the lap with palms facing upward. His red color symbolizes love and compassion and his symbol is the lotus, representing gentleness and purity.

3. Amoghasiddhi Buddha: “Almighty Conqueror”

The Buddha Who Unerringly Achieves His Goal Amoghasiddhi Buddha. MarenYumi / Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

In the “Bardo Thodol” — the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” — Amoghasiddhi Buddha appears to represent the accomplishment of all action. His name means ‘Infalliable Success” and his consort is the well-known Green Tara, in the ‘Noble Deliverer.’

Amoghasiddhi Buddha reigns in the North and is associated with the fourth skandha, volition or mental formations. This can also be interpreted as impulses, which is strongly associated with action. Meditation on Amoghasiddhi Buddha vanquishes envy and jealousy, two often impulsive actions. 

Depictions of Amoghasiddhi

Amoghasiddhi is most often depicted in Buddhist iconography as radiating a green light, which is the light of accomplishing wisdom and promoting peace. His hand gesture is the mudra of fearlessness: his right hand in front of his chest and palm facing outward as if to say ‘stop.’

He holds a crossed vajra, also called a double dorje or the thunderbolt. This represents accomplishment and fulfillment in all directions.

4. Ratnasambhava Buddha: “Jewel-Born One”

The Jewel-Born One Ratnasambhava Buddha. MarenYumi / Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

Ratnasambhava Buddha represents richness. His name translates to “Origin of Jewel” or the “Jewel-Born One.” In Buddhism, the Three Jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha and Ratnasambhava is often thought of as the giving Buddha.

He reigns in the South and is associated with the second skandha, sensation. Meditation on Ratnasambhava Buddha vanquishes pride and greed, focusing instead on equality.

Depictions of Ratnasambhava

Ratnasambhava Buddha has a yellow color which symbolizes earth and fertility in Buddhist iconography. He often holds a wish-fulfilling jewel.  

He holds his hands in the wish-fulfilling mudra: his right hand facing down and the palm outward and his left in the mudra of meditation. This symbolizes generosity.

5. Vairocana Buddha: “Embodiment of Light”

He Who Is Like the Sun Vairocana Buddha. MarenYumi / Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

Vairocana Buddha is sometimes called the primordial Buddha or Supreme Buddha. He is thought to be the embodiment of all the Dhyani Buddhas; also everything and everywhere, omnipresent and omniscient.

He represents the wisdom of shunyata, or emptiness. Vairocana is considered a personification of the dharmakaya — everything, unmanifested, free of characteristics and distinctions.

He is associated with the first skandha, form. Meditation on Vairocana vanquishes ignorance and delusion, leading to wisdom.

Depictions of Vairocana

When the Dhyani Buddhas are pictured together in a mandala, Vairocana is at the center. 

Vairocana is white, representing all colors of light and all the Buddhas. His symbol is the Dharma wheel, which, at its most basic, represents the study of the dharma, practice through meditation, and moral discipline.

His hand gesture is known as the Dharmachakra mudra and is often reserved for the iconography of either Vairocana or the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. The mudra represents the turning of the wheel and places the hands so that the thumbs and index fingers touch at the tips to form a wheel.


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “The Five Dhyani Buddhas.” Learn Religions, Jan. 29, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-five-dhyani-buddhas-4123189.

Buddhism 101: Eleven Legendary Buddhist Temples

1. Taktsang: The Tiger’s Nest

The Tiger’s Nest or Taktsang Monastery in Paro, Bhutan. © Albino Chua / Getty Image

Taktsang Palphug Monastery, also called Paro Taktsang or The Tiger’s Nest, clings to a sheer cliff more than 10 thousand feet above sea level in the Himalayas of Bhutan. From this monastery there is about a 3,000 foot drop to the Paro Valley, below. The original temple complex was built in 1692, but the legends surrounding Taktsang are much older.

Taktsang marks the entrance of a cave where Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. Padmasambhava is credited with bringing Buddhist teachings to Tibet and Bhutan in the 8th century. 

2. Sri Dalada Maligawa: The Temple of the Tooth

Elephants on display at the entrance of the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka. © Andrea Thompson Photography / Getty Images

The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy was built in 1595 to hold the single most sacred object in all of Sri Lanka — a tooth of the Buddha.  The tooth is said to have reached Sri Lanka in the 4th century, and in its complex history was moved several times and even stolen (but returned).

The tooth has not left the temple or been displayed to the public for a very long time. However, every summer it is celebrated in an elaborate festival, and a replica of the tooth is placed in a golden casket and carried through the streets of Kandy on the back of a large and elaborately decorated elephant, festooned with lights.

3. Angkor Wat: A Long-Hidden Treasure

The famous temple of Ta Prohm at Angkor Wat, Cambodia where the roots of the jungle trees intertwine with these ancient structures. © Stewart Atkins (visualSA) / Getty Images

When construction began in the 12th century Cambodia’s Angkor Wat was intended to be a Hindu temple, but it was rededicated to Buddhism in the 13th century. At that time it was in the heart of the Khmer empire. But by the 15th century water shortages forced the Khmer to relocate, and the beautiful temple was abandoned except by a few Buddhist monks. In time much of the temple was reclaimed by the jungle.

It is renowned today for its exquisite beauty and for being the largest religious monument in the world. However, until the mid-19th century it was known only to Cambodians. The French were so astonished at the beauty and sophistication of the ruined temple that they refused to believe it had been built by the Khmer. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and work to restore the temple is ongoing.

4. Borobudur: A Massive Temple Lost and Found

Sunrise at Borobudur, Indonesia. © Alexander Ipfelkofer / Getty Images

This massive temple was built on the Indonesian island of Java in the 9th century, and to this day it is considered the largest entirely Buddhist temple in the world (Angkor Wat is Hindu and Buddhist). Borobudur covers 203 acres and consists of six square and three circular platforms, topped by a dome. It is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and hundreds of Buddha statues. The meaning of the name “Borobudur” has been lost to time.

The entire temple almost was lost to time as well. It was abandoned in the 14th century and the magnificent temple was reclaimed by the jungle and forgotten. All that seemed to remain was a local legend of a mountain of a thousand statues. In 1814 the British governor of Java heard the story of the mountain and, intrigued, arranged for an expedition to find it.

Today Borobudur is a United Nation World Heritage Site and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.

5. Shwedagon Pagoda: An Inspirer of Legend

The Great Golden Stupa towers over the Shwedagon Pagoda complex. © Peter Adams / Getty Images

The great Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) is a kind of reliquary, or stupa, as well as a temple. It is believed to contain relics not only of the historical Buddha but also of three Buddhas who preceded him. The pagoda is 99 feet fall and plated with gold.

According to Burmese legend, the original pagoda was built 26 centuries ago by a king who had faith a new Buddha had been born.  During his reign two merchant brothers met the Buddha in India and told him about the pagoda built in his honor. The Buddha then pulled out eight of his own hairs to be housed in the pagoda. When the casket containing the hairs was opened in Burma, many miraculous things happened.

Historians believe the original pagoda actually was built some time between the 6th and 10th centuries. It has been rebuilt several times; the current structure was built after an earthquake brought down the previous one in 1768.

6. Jokhang, the Holiest Temple of Tibet

Monks debate at Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. © Feng Li / Getty Images

According to legend, Jokhang Temple in Lhasa was built in the 7th century by a King of Tibet to please two of his wives, a princess of China and a princess of Nepal, who were Buddhists. Today historians tell us the princess of Nepal probably never existed. Even so, Jokhang remains a monument to the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet.

The Chinese princess, Wenchen, brought with her a statue said to have been blessed by the Buddha. The statue, called the Jowo Shakyamuni or Jowo Rinpoche, is considered the most sacred object in Tibet and remains enshrined in Jokhang to this day.

7. Sensoji and the Mysterious Golden Statue

Historic Asakusa Senso-ji, Tokyo, at dusk. © Future Light / Getty Images

Long ago, about 628 CE, two brothers fishing in the Sumida River netted a tiny golden statue of Kanzeon, or Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy. Some versions of this story say the brothers repeatedly put the statue back into the river, only to net it again.

Sensoji was built in honor of the bodhisattva, and the tiny golden statue is said to be enshrined there, although the statue the public may view is acknowledged to be a replica. The original temple was completed in 645, which makes it Tokyo’s oldest temple.

In 1945, during World War II, bombs dropped from American B-29s destroyed much of Tokyo, including Sensoji. The present structure was built after the war with donations from the Japanese people. On the temple grounds there is a tree growing from the remains of a tree hit by a bomb. The tree is cherished as a symbol of the undying spirit of Sensoji.

8. Nalanda: A Lost Center of Learning

The ruins of Nalanda. © De Agostini / G. Nimatallah

Eight centuries after its tragic destruction, Nalanda remains the most famous learning center in Buddhist history. Located in the present-day Bihar state of India, in Nalanda’s heyday the quality of its teachers attracted students from all over the Buddhist world.

It’s not clear when the first monastery was built at Nalanda, but one appears to have been there by the 3rd century CE. By the 5th century it had become a magnet for Buddhist scholars and had grown into something like a modern-day university. Students there not only studied Buddhism but also medicine, astrology, mathematics, logic and languages. Nalanda remained a dominant learning center until 1193, when it was destroyed by a nomadic army of Muslim Turks of central Asia. It is said that Nalanda’s vast library, full of irreplaceable manuscripts, smoldered for six months. Its destruction also marked the end of Buddhism in India until modern times. 

Today the excavated ruins may be visited by tourists. But the memory of Nalanda still attracts attention. Presently some scholars are raising money to rebuild a new Nalanda near the ruins of the old one. 

9. Shaolin, Home of Zen and Kung Fu

A monk practices kung fu at Shaolin Temple. © China Photos / Getty Images

Yes, China’s Shaolin Temple is a real Buddhist temple, not a fiction created by martial arts movies. The monks there have practiced martial arts for many centuries, and they developed a unique style called Shaolin kung fu. Zen Buddhism was born there, established by Bodhidharma, who had come to China from India early in the 6th century. It doesn’t get more legendary than Shaolin. 

History says Shaolin was first established in 496, a few years before Bodhidharma arrived. The buildings of the monastery complex have been rebuilt many times, most recently after they were gutted during the Cultural Revolution. 

10. Mahabodhi: Where the Buddha Realized Enlightenment

The Mahabodhi Temple marks the place where the Buddha realized enlightenment. © 117 Imagery / Getty Images

Mahabodhi Temple marks the place where the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and realized enlightenment, more than 25 centuries ago. “Mahabodhi” means “great awakening.” Next to the temple is a tree said to have been grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. The tree and temple are located in Bodhgaya, in the Bihar state of India.

The original Mahabodhi Temple was built by the Emperor Ashoka about 260 BCE. In spite of its significance in the Buddha’s life, the site was largely abandoned after the 14th century, but in spite of neglect it remains one of the oldest brick structures in India. It was restored in the 19th century and is protected today as a UN World Heritage Site. 

Buddhist legend says that Mahabodhi sits on the naval of the world; when the world is destroyed at the end of the age it will be the last place to disappear, and when a new world takes the place of this one, this same spot will be the first place to reappear. 

11. Jetavana, or Jeta Grove: The First Buddhist Monastery?

The Anandabodhi Tree at Jetavana is said to have been grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. Bpilgrim, Wikipedia, Creative Commons License

The Anandabodhi Tree at Jetavana is said to have been grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. Bpilgrim, Wikipedia, Creative Commons License

The ruins of Jetavana are what is left of what may have been the first Buddhist monastery. Here the historical Buddha gave many of the sermons recorded in the Sutta-pitaka. 

Jetavana, or Jeta Grove, is where the disciple Anathapindika purchased land more than 25 centuries ago and built a place for the Buddha and his followers to live during the rainy season. The rest of the year the Buddha and his disciples traveled from village to village, teaching (see “The First Buddhist Monks”).

The site today is a historical park, located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which borders Nepal. The tree in the photograph is the Anandabodhi Tree, believed to have been grown from a sapling of the tree that sheltered the Buddha when he realized enlightenment. 


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “Eleven Legendary Buddhist Temples.” Learn Religions, Jan. 29, 2020, learnreligions.com/eleven-legendary-buddhist-temples-450158.

Buddhism 101: Overview of the Lotus Sutra

Jeff Miller / Getty Images

Of the countless scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, few are more widely read or revered than the Lotus Sutra. Its teachings thoroughly permeate most schools of Buddhism in China, Korea, and Japan. Yet its origins are shrouded in mystery.

The sutra’s name in Sanskrit is Maha Saddharma-pundarika Sutra, or “Great Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law.” It is a matter of faith in some schools of Buddhism that the sutra contains the words of the historical Buddha. However, most historians believe the Sutra was written in the 1st or 2nd century CE, probably by more than one writer. A translation was made from Sanskrit to Chinese in 255 CE, and this is the earliest historical documentation of its existence.

As with so many of the Mahayana sutras, the original text of the Lotus Sutra is lost. The several early Chinese translations are the oldest versions of the sutra that remain to us. In particular, a translation into Chinese by the monk Kamarajiva in 406 CE is believed to be the most faithful to the original text.

In the 6th century China the Lotus Sutra was promoted as the supreme sutra by the monk Zhiyi (538-597; also spelled Chih-i), founder of the Tiantai school of Mahayana Buddhism, called Tendai in Japan. In part through Tendai influence, the Lotus became the most revered Sutra in Japan. It deeply influenced Japanese Zen and also is an object of devotion of the Nichiren school.

The Setting of the Sutra

n Buddhism, a sutra is a sermon of the Buddha or one of his principal disciples. Buddhist sutras usually begin with the traditional words, “Thus I have heard.” This is a nod to the story of Ananda, who recited all of the historical Buddha‘s sermons at the First Buddhist Council and was said to have begun each recitation this way.

The Lotus Sutra begins, “Thus I have heard. At one time the Buddha was in Rajagriha, staying on Mount Gridhrakuta.” Rajagriha was a city on the site of present-day Rajgir, in northeastern India, and Gridhrakuta, or “Vulture’s Peak,” is nearby. So, the Lotus Sutra begins by making a connection to a real place associated with the historical Buddha.

However, in a few sentences, the reader will have left the phenomenal world behind. The scene opens to a place outside ordinary time and space. The Buddha is attended by an unimaginable number of beings, both human and nonhuman — monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen, heavenly beings, dragons, garudas, and many others, including bodhisattvas and arhats. In this vast space, eighteen thousand worlds are illuminated by a light reflected by a hair between the Buddha’s eyebrows.

The Sutra is divided into several chapters — 28 in the Kamarajiva translation — in which the Buddha or other beings offer sermons and parables. The text, part prose, and partly verse contains some of the most beautiful passages of the world’s religious literature.

It could take years to absorb all the teachings in such a rich text. However, three principal themes dominate the Lotus Sutra.

All Vehicles Are One Vehicle

In early passages, the Buddha tells the assembly that his earlier teachings were provisional. People were not ready for his highest teaching, he said and had to be brought to enlightenment by expedient means. But the Lotus represents the final, highest teaching, and supersedes all other teachings.

In particular, the Buddha addressed the doctrine of triyana, or “three vehicles” to Nirvana. Very simply, the triyana describes people who realize enlightenment by hearing the Buddha’s sermons, people who realize enlightenment for themselves through their own effort, and the path of the bodhisattva. But the Lotus Sutra says that the three vehicles are one vehicle, the Buddha vehicle, 

All Beings May Become Buddhas

A theme expressed throughout the Sutra is that all beings will attain Buddhahood and attain Nirvana. 

The Buddha is presented in the Lotus Sutra as dharmakaya — the unity of all things and beings, unmanifested, beyond existence or nonexistence, unbound by time and space. Because the dharmakaya is all beings, all beings have the potential to awaken to their true nature and attain Buddhahood.

The Importance of Faith and Devotion

Buddhahood may not be attained through intellect alone. Indeed, the Mahayana view is that absolute teaching cannot be expressed in words or understood by ordinary cognition. The Lotus Sutra stresses the importance of faith and devotion as a means to the realization of enlightenment. Among other significant points, the stress on faith and devotion makes Buddhahood more accessible to laypeople, who do not spend their lives in ascetic monastic practice.

The Parables

A distinctive feature of the Lotus Sutra is the use of parables. The parables contain many layers of metaphor that have inspired many layers of interpretation. This is merely a list of the major parables:

  • The Burning House. A man must lure his playing children out of a burning house (Chapter 3).
  • The Prodigal Son. A poor, self-loathing man gradually learns that he is wealthy beyond measure (Chapter 4).
  • The Medicinal Herbs. Although they grow in the same ground and receive the same rain, plants grow in different ways (Chapter 5).
  • The Phantom City. A man leading people on a difficult journey conjures an illusion of a beautiful city to give them the heart to keep going (Chapter 7).
  • The Gem in the Jacket. A man sews a gem into his friend’s jacket. However, the friend wanders in poverty not knowing that he possesses a gem of great value (Chapter 8).
  • The Gem in the King’s Top-Knot. A king bestows many gifts but reserves his most priceless jewel for a person of exceptional merit (Chapter 14).
  • The Excellent Physician. A physician’s children are dying of poison but lack the sense to take medicine (Chapter 16)


Burton Watson’s translation of The Lotus Sutra (Columbia University Press, 1993) has gained great popularity since its publication for its clarity and readability.

A newer translation of The Lotus Sutra by Gene Reeves (Wisdom Publications, 2008) is also very readable and has been praised by reviewers. 


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “Overview of the Lotus Sutra.” Learn Religions, Jan. 29, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-lotus-sutra-an-overview-450024.

Buddhism 101: The Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism

The Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism originated in Indian iconography. In ancient times, many of these same symbols were associated with the coronations of kings, but as they were adopted by Buddhism, they came to represent offerings the gods made to the Buddha after his enlightenment.

Although westerners may be unfamiliar with some of the Eight Auspicious Symbols, they can be found in the art of most schools of Buddhism, especially in Tibetan Buddhism. In some monasteries in China, the symbols are placed on lotus pedestals in front of statues of the Buddha. The symbols are often used in decorative art, or as a point of focus for meditation and contemplation 

Here is a brief overview of the Eight Auspicious Symbols: 

The Parasol

 Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

The parasol is a symbol of royal dignity and protection from the heat of the sun. By extension, it represents protection from suffering.

The ornate parasol usually is depicted with a dome, representing wisdom, and a “skirt” around the dome, representing compassion. Sometimes the dome is octagonal, representing the Eightfold Path. In other uses, it is square, representing the four directional quarters.

Two Golden Fish

Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

The two fish were originally symbolic of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna, but came to represent general good fortune for Hindus, Jainists, and Buddhists. Within Buddhism, it also symbolizes that living beings who practice the dharma need have no fear to drown in the ocean of suffering, and can freely migrate (chose their rebirth) like fish in the water.

The Conch She’ll

Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

In Asia, the conch has long been used as a battle horn. In the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, the sound of the hero Arjuna’s conch terrorized his enemies. In ancient Hindu times, a white conch also represented the Brahmin caste.

In Buddhism, a white conch that coils to the right represents the sound of the Dharma reaching far and wide, awakening beings from ignorance.

The Lotus

Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

The lotus is an aquatic plant that roots in deep mud with a stem that grows up through murky water. But the blossom rises above the muck and opens in the sun, beautiful and fragrant. So perhaps its no surprise that in Buddhism, the lotus represents the true nature of beings, who rise through samsara into the beauty and clarity of enlightenment.

The color of the lotus also has significance:

White: Mental and spiritual purity

Red: The heart, compassion and love

Blue: Wisdom and control of the senses

Pink: The historical Buddha

Purple: Mysticism

The Banner of Victory

Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

The victory banner signifies the Buddha’s victory over the demon Mara and over what Mara represents–passion, fear of death, pride and lust. More generally, it represents the victory of wisdom over ignorance.  There is a legend that the Buddha raised the victory banner over Mount Meru to mark his victory over all phenomenal things.

The Vase

Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

The treasure vase is filled with precious and sacred things, yet no matter how much is taken out, it is always full. It represents the teachings of the Buddha, which remained a bountiful treasure no matter how many teachings he gave to others. It also symbolizes long life and prosperity.

The Dharma Wheel, or Dharmachakra

Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

The Dharma Wheel, also called the dharma-chakra or dhamma chakka, is one of the most well-known symbols of Buddhism. In most representations, the Wheel has eight spokes, representing the Eightfold Path. According to tradition, the Dharma Wheel was first turned when the Buddha delivered his first sermon after his enlightenment. There were two subsequent turnings of the wheel, in which teachings on emptiness (sunyata) and on inherent Buddha-nature were given. 

The Eternal Knot

Osel Shen Phen Ling, / Bob Jacobson

The Eternal Knot, with its lines flowing and entwined in a closed pattern, represents dependent origination and the interrelation of all phenomena. It also may signify the mutual dependence of religious doctrine and secular life; of wisdom and compassion; or, at the time of enlightenment, the unions of emptiness and clarity.  


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “The Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Jan. 29, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-eight-auspicious-symbols-of-buddhism-449989.

Buddhism 101: Buddhist Monks’ Robes

01 – The Saffron Robe

 B.S.P.I./Getty Images

As Buddhism spread through Asia, the robes worn by monks adapted to local climate and culture. Today, the saffron robes of southeast Asian monks are thought to be nearly identical to the original robes of 25 centuries ago. However, what monks wear in China, Tibet, Japan, Korea and elsewhere can look quite a bit different.

This photo gallery doesn’t come close to showing all the variations in styles of monks’ robes. Monks’ robes of the many schools and lineages, and even individual temples can be quite distinctive from each other. There are countless variations of sleeve styles alone, and you could probably find a monks’ robe to match every color in the crayon box.

Instead, this gallery is a sampler of Buddhist robe images that represent and explain common features. The images also illustrate how most robes retain some characteristics of the original robes if you know where to look.

Theravada monks of southeast Asia wear robes thought to be very similar to the robes worn by the historical Buddha and his disciples.

The robes worn by Theravada monks and nuns of southeast Asia today are thought to be unchanged from the original robes of 25 centuries ago. The “Triple robe” consists of three parts:

The uttarasanga or kashaya is the most prominent robe. It is a large rectangle, about 6 by 9 feet, that can be wrapped to cover both shoulders, but most often it is wrapped to cover the left shoulder but leave the right shoulder and arm bare.

The antaravasaka is worn under the uttarasanga. It is wrapped around the waist like a sarong, covering the body from waist to knees.

The sanghati is an extra robe that can be wrapped around the upper body for warmth. When not in use it is sometimes folded and draped over a shoulder, as you see in the photograph.

The original monks made their robes from discarded cloth found in rubbish heaps and on cremation grounds. After washing, the robe-cloth was boiled with vegetable matter—leaves, roots and flowers—and often spices, which would turn the cloth some shade of orange. Hence the name, “saffron robe.” Monks today wear robes made of cloth that is donated or purchased, but in Southeast Asia, the cloth usually is still dyed in spice colors.

02 – The Buddha’s Robe In Cambodia

Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

When it is too cold to be bare-armed, Theravada monks wrap themselves in the sanghati.  Theravada is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar) and Laos. The monks in those countries wear very similar robes in the style of early Buddhist monks’ robes.

The monks have their sanghati robe folded and carried over the shoulder. These monks at Angor Wat, Cambodia, have wrapped the sanghati around their upper bodies for warmth.

03 – The Buddha’s Robe: The Rice Field

Details of a rice field pattern in a Kashaya Robe. Michael McCauslin/CC BY 2.0/Flickr

The rice field pattern is common to Buddhist robes in most schools of Buddhism. According to the Vinaya-pitaka of the Pali Canon, one day the Buddha asked his cousin and attendant, Ananda, to sew a robe in the pattern of a rice field. Ananda did this, and the pattern has been repeated on monks’ robes in most schools of Buddhism ever since.

Rice paddy fields can be roughly rectangular and separated by strips of dry ground for paths. The rice field pattern in the Theravada robe shown in the photo is in five columns, but sometimes there are seven or nine columns.

04 – The Buddha’s Robe in China

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images 

Chinese monks abandoned the bare-shoulder style in favor of a robe with sleeves. When Buddhism got to China, the bare-shoulder style of the original monks’ robes became a problem. In Chinese culture, it was improper not to keep the arms and shoulders covered in public. So, Chinese Buddhist monks began to wear sleeved robes similar to a Taoist scholar’s robe of the early 1st millennium CE.

Because Chinese Buddhist monks lived in self-sufficient monastic communities, monks spent part of each day doing custodial and gardening chores. Wearing the kashaya all the time was not practical, so it came to be saved for formal occasions. The robe in the photograph is an “everyday” robe for non-ceremonial wear.

05 – The Ceremonial Buddha’s Robe in China

China Photos/Getty Images

Monks in China wear the kashaya over their sleeved robes on ceremonial occasions. The rice paddy pattern is preserved in the Chinese kashaya, although an abbot’s kashaya might be made of ornate, brocaded cloth. Yellow of a common color for monks’ sleeved robes. In China, yellow represents earth and is also the “central” color that might be said to represent equanimity.

06 – The Buddha’s Robe: Kyoto, Japan

Cultura Exclusive/Getty Images

The Chinese practice of wearing a kashaya wrapped over a sleeved robe continues in Japan. There are many styles and colors of Buddhist monks’ robes in Japan, and they don’t all resemble the ensembles worn by the monks in this photograph. However, the robes in the photograph do illustrate how the Chinese style was adapted in Japan.

The practice of wearing a shorter outer robe over a longer white or gray kimono is distinctively Japanese.

07 – The Buddha’s Robe in Japan

Oleksiy Maksymenko/Getty Images

The rakusu is a small garment representing the kashaya robe that is worn by Zen monks. The “bib” worn by the Japanese monk in the photograph is a rakusu, a garment unique to the Zen school that may have originated among Ch’an monks in China sometime after the T’ang Dynasty. The rectangle worn over the heart is a miniature kashaya, complete with the same “rice field” pattern seen in the third photo in this gallery. The rice field in a rakusu may have five, seven, or nine strips. Rakusu also come in a variety of colors.

Generally, in Zen, the rakusu may be worn by all monks and priests, as well as laypeople who have received jukai ordination. But sometimes Zen monks who have received full ordination will wear a standard kashaya, called in Japanese the kesa, instead of the rakusu. The monks’ straw hat is worn to partly cover his face during the alms ritual, ortakahatsu, so that he and those who give him alms do not see each others’ faces. This represents the perfection of giving—no giver, no receiver. In this photo, you can see the monk’s plain white kimono peaking out from under the black outer robe, called a koromo. The koromo is often black, but not always, and comes with different sleeve styles and diverse numbers of pleats in the front.

08 – The Buddha’s Robe in Korea

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images 

Big and little monks in South Korea wear big and little kashaya robes. In Korea, as in China and Japan, it is common for monks to wrap the kashaya robe over a sleeved robe. Also as in China and Japan, robes can come in a variety of colors and styles.

Every year, this Chogye (Korean Zen) monastery in Seoul “ordains” children temporarily, shaving their heads and dressing them in monks’ robes. The children will live in the monastery for three weeks and learn about Buddhism. The “little” monks wear “little” kashaya robes in the style of a rakusu. The “big” monks wear a traditional kashaya.

09 – The Buddha’s Robe in Tibet

Berthold Trenkel/Getty Images 

Tibetan monks wear a shirt and a skirt instead of a one-piece robe. A shawl-type robe may be worn as an outer layer. Tibetan nuns, monks and lamas wear an enormous variety of robes, hats, capes, and even costumes, but the basic robe consist of these parts:

  • The dhonka, a wrap shirt with cap sleeves. The dhonka usually is maroon or maroon and yellow with blue piping.
  • The shemdap is a maroon skirt made with patched cloth and a varying number of pleats.
  • The chögu is something like a sanghati, a wrap made in patches and worn on the upper body, although sometimes it is draped over one shoulder like a kashaya robe. The chögu is yellow and worn for certain ceremonies and teachings.
  • The zhen is similar to the chögu, but maroon, and is for ordinary day-to-day wear.
  • The namjar is larger than the chögu, with more patches, and it is yellow and often made of silk. It is for formal ceremonial occasions.

The Gelugpa Tibetan monks in the photograph have shed their zhen robes in the heat of debate.

10 – The Buddha’s Robe: A Tibetan Monk and His Zhen

Keven Osborne/Getty Images

Tibetan Buddhist robes are distinctively from robes worn in other schools of Buddhism. Yet some similarities remain. Monks of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism wear somewhat different robes, but the dominant colors are maroon, yellow, and sometimes red, with blue piping on the sleeves of the dhonka.

Red and maroon came to be traditional monk robe colors in Tibet mostly because it was the most common and cheapest dye at one time. The color yellow has several symbolic meanings. It can represent wealth, but it also represents earth, and by extension, a foundation. The sleeves of the dhonka represent a lion’s mane. There are a number of stories explaining the blue piping, but the most common story is that it commemorates a connection to China.

The zhen, the maroon “everyday” shawl, often is draped to leave the right arm bare in the style of a kashaya robe.


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “Buddhist Monks’ Robes.” Learn Religions, Jan. 29, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-buddhas-robe-p2-4123187.

Gay History: Gay Marriage: What Would Buddha Do?

As a gay Buddhist, and someone who has a lot of respect for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I often have his sometimes controversial/sometimes contradictory comments on gays and gay marriage, thorn at me. It’s a difficult question, I know…how can I support someone who seems to be non-supportive if gays within the Buddhist community, yet support gay issues for non-Buddhists. I personally consider the Dalai Lama as a great man, capable of great compassion and understanding. I also know he is the head of a traditional Tibetan sect of Buddhism called the Gelug sect, and as such has his moral teachings within the beliefs of that sect. I would like to think that being the intelligent and loving man that he is, that these questions are something he has to often contemplate, and try to understand within an old tradition that has to live in the modern world. Buddhism is not just one sect, but many different sects all following diverse interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings. As such, there are conservative and liberal strands of Buddhism, so beliefs are not universal. The Dalai Lama is but the leader of one sect, and only speaks for that sect. I choose not to judge him to harshly! Om mani padme hum 📿🏳️‍🌈

A lot of people ask me what the “Buddhist take” on gay marriage is. Well, it depends on who you talk to. A few years back, in an interview with the CBC, the Dalai Lama rejected same-sex relationships to the surprise of many convert Buddhists, who sometimes too easily assume that Buddhist ethics are consistent with their typically progressive views.

As the Canadian interview bounced around the internet, some people were shocked and perplexed, but the Dalai Lama’s position shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the issue. After all, he has been consistent. At a conference some 12 years ago, when gay leaders met with him in San Francisco to discuss the Tibetan Buddhist proscriptions against gay sex, he reiterated the traditional view that gay sex was “sexual misconduct.” This view was based on restrictions found in Tibetan texts that he could not and would not change. He did, however, advise gay Buddhist leaders to investigate further, discuss the issue, and suggested that change might come through some sort of theological consensus. But at a time when same-sex marriage has taken front-stage center in American politics, the Dalai Lama’s more recent statements come as unwelcome news to proponents of civil rights.

A lot of people ask me what the “Buddhist take” on gay marriage is. Well, it depends on who you talk to. A few years back, in an interview with the CBC, the Dalai Lama rejected same-sex relationships to the surprise of many convert Buddhists, who sometimes too easily assume that Buddhist ethics are consistent with their typically progressive views.

As the Canadian interview bounced around the internet, some people were shocked and perplexed, but the Dalai Lama’s position shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the issue. After all, he has been consistent. At a conference some 12 years ago, when gay leaders met with him in San Francisco to discuss the Tibetan Buddhist proscriptions against gay sex, he reiterated the traditional view that gay sex was “sexual misconduct.” This view was based on restrictions found in Tibetan texts that he could not and would not change. He did, however, advise gay Buddhist leaders to investigate further, discuss the issue, and suggested that change might come through some sort of theological consensus. But at a time when same-sex marriage has taken front-stage center in American politics, the Dalai Lama’s more recent statements come as unwelcome news to proponents of civil rights.

Friends of mine have argued that the Dalai Lama doesn’t really look askance same-sex relationships, that he has no choice but to uphold his tradition’s dictates; and that maybe the Dalai Lama is just stuck with the old texts’ proscriptions in the same way that a Catholic, say, must deal with Thomas Aquinas. Of course, we can’t know and must take his public statements at face value. In his case, though, our expectations tend to be different than they might be for the local minister, priest or orthodox rabbi. And so many of us who have benefited greatly from his teachings are apt to feel disappointed.


We’re Queer and We’ve Been Here

This article has been reproduced from tricycle.org, and was written by Dr. Jay Michaelson, and published July 02, 2018. To me, this article encapsulates why myself, and many others, have deserted conventional beliefs – and in my case, both Catholicism & Atheism – to follow the path of The Buddha. Atheism gave me a stance, a soap box to denounce what is…and has been for centuries…the hypocrisy of conventional & fundamentalist religion. With its emphasis on bible bashing, “family values” – which is not inclusionist – xenophobia, misogyny, racism, homophobia, general prejudice & discrimination, stigma, and love of power, influence and money, has…well…totally gone against every precept and doctrine that was meant to make it great! Today, especially in light of the recent expose of sexual abuse, which has covered EVERY religion, and their associated charities and institutions, people are deserting churches, mosques and temples in hordes. As a gay man, conventional religion left me bereft of choice and hope decades ago. But like many, I still have this strange yearning for some form of spirituality, or belief or…if you like…enlightenment. Something that has a base in history, something unadulterated, something that isn’t based on ethereal deities, son’s of God, messengers of God, heavily adulterated books, myths and fantasies, something that doesn’t leave me feeling empty and dirty!For me, Buddhism has provided that spark. Not bogged down in doctrines, theologies, enforced beliefs, and lists of do’s and don’ts, it gives you choice. You enter into things voluntarily. If you transgress, you are answerable only to yourself. How deeply you travel down the road to enlightenment is up to you. Nothing is forced upon you! It provides a path that is rich and based in ancient culture. It is a path worthy of investigation.

Om mani padme hum 📿

Rediscovering Buddhism’s LGBT history of gay monks, homoerotic samurai, and gender-nonconforming practitioners and gods

It’s no secret that many LGBTQ people have found refuge in the dharma, and it’s easy to see why.  It helps us work with the wounds of homophobia, recognizing internalized self-hatred for the delusion and dukkha [suffering] that it is. Yet when queer people interact with the dharma, there is often something missing: visibility. It’s nice that Buddhism doesn’t say many bad things about us, but does it say anything good? Where are we among the Dogens and Milarepas and Buddhaghosas?

This is not, of course, a question limited to Buddhism. Everywhere, queers have been erased from history. Often we find ourselves only when we are being persecuted; we have to read in between the lines of our interlocutors, trying to reconstruct a lost past.  

But there is much to be gained from the effort. Finding ourselves in history, for better or for worse, reminds us that we have one. We can see the different ways in which gender and sexuality were understood across time and cultures, and we are reminded that sexual and gender diversity has always been a part of human nature.

The history of queer Buddhism does not always paint a rosy picture. We find a mixed tapestry that includes stories of acceptance and persecution as well as examples that are problematic or offensive to modern Western sensibilities. While books can be (and have been) written about this subject, here I will limit myself to four examples that demonstrate the breadth of queer experience throughout Buddhism.


First, and I think least interestingly, there are various levels of injunctions against male-male sexual behavior. What’s interesting here, apart from the mere visibility—yes, the monks were doing it with each other—is the minor nature of the offense. In the Theravadan monastic code, for example, sexual (mis)conduct between monks or novices was no more egregious than any other sexual misconduct, and did not warrant additional sanctions. The offense is similarly minor in Vajrayana monastic communities, leading both to consensual “thigh sex” (frottage) among monks, and, tragically, to many documented instances of sexual abuse.

Conflicting statements by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama have reflected this ambivalence. In 1994, he said that as long as there were no religious vows at issue, consensual same-sex intimacy “is OK.”  But in an interview published two years later, he said that only when “couples use organs intended for sexual intercourse” could sex be considered “proper.” After meeting with gay and lesbian activists in 1997, he noted that the same rules applied to straight and gay people alike, and that they were not part of the direct teachings of the Buddha and thus might evolve over time. In 2014, he reiterated the view that for Buddhists, homosexual acts are a subset of sexual misconduct, but that this was a matter of religious teaching and did not apply to people of another or no religion. Other rinpoches have disagreed and fully affirmed gay and lesbian lives.  There is no clear position. 


Second, there are several instances of what today might be called gender-nonconforming people in Buddhist texts, now newly accessible thanks to historian Jose Cabezon’s recently published 600-plus page tome, Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism. Many Theravada and Mahayana texts, for example, refer to the pandaka, a term which, Cabezon shows, has a wide variety of meanings, encompassing “effeminate” male homosexuals, intersex persons, and others who exhibited non-normative anatomical, gender, or sexuality traits. (The term pandaka is often translated “eunuch,” but insofar as a eunuch is someone who chooses to be castrated, this is an inaccurate translation. Because of the breadth of the term, Cabezon himself renders it “queer person.”)

By and large, the pandaka is not depicted positively. As Cabezon describes in great detail, the Theravadan monastic code prohibits the ordaining of a pandaka—“the doctrine and discipline does not grow in them,” it says. And a Mahayana sutra called A Teaching on the Three Vows says bodhisattvas should not befriend them. But to me, just the visibility of the pandaka is encouraging. Here we are! And if we have been stigmatized, well, as Cabezon notes, that is hardly comparable to how queer people have been treated in other religious traditions.


Third, there is a fair amount of male-male homoeroticism in Buddhist textual history. The Jataka tales [parables from the Buddha’s past lives] include numerous homoerotic stories featuring the future Buddha and the future Ananda; in addition to the tales themselves apparently being told without a sense of scandalousness, these stories suggest an interesting appreciation of the homoerotics or at least homosociality of the teacher-disciple relationship. Like Batman and Robin, Achilles and Patroclus, and Frodo and Sam, the Buddha and Ananda are, emotionally speaking, more than just friends.

Japanese Buddhism probably had the most fully developed form of same-sex eroticism—nanshoku—that endured for hundreds of years, beginning in the 1100s and fading out only in the 19th century, under the influence of Christianity.  These relationships—sometimes called bi-do (the beautiful way) or wakashudo (the way of the youth)—were pederastic in nature, often between an adolescent boy (probably aged 12–14) and a young man (aged around 15–20), and thus not role models for contemporary LGBT people, but a queer love nonetheless.

As with Greek pederasty, these relationships combined a sexual relationship with a mentoring relationship. And as in the Greek model, there were clear rules and roles that needed to be followed; nanshoku was not hedonism but a homosexuality that was socially constructed.

The legendary founder of the institution of nanshoku was the 12th-century monk Kukai, also called Kobo Daishi (“the great teacher who spread the dharma”), who was also credited with founding of the Shingon school of Japanese esoteric Buddhism, which incorporates tantric practice. Although there is not much historical evidence for this, it’s interesting that the institution of nanshoku became linked with tantra, which has its own polymorphous eroticism in the service of awakening.

This culture has left us the greatest collection of homoerotic Buddhist texts of which I am aware. Nanshoku Okagami (the Great Mirror of Male Love), published in 1687 and available in a fine translation by Paul Gordon Schalow, is a collection of love stories, some requited and others not, between samurai warriors and Buddhist monks, actors, and townspeople. Now available in multiple translations, the book is an almost unbelievable artifact of Edo-period hedonism, warrior love conventions that closely resemble the Mediterranean ones, and Romeo-and-Juliet-like stories of forbidden love, impossible love, and star-crossed lovers. If you can get past our cultures’ very different ethics regarding intergenerational sex, it’s an amazing queering of history.


Finally, the fluidity and play of gender within some Buddhist texts is often inspiring but also frequently problematic. Numerous Buddhist enlightenment stories feature women suddenly transforming into men, for example. On the one hand, that’s kind of awesome from a queer and trans point of view. On the other hand, it’s often a way of explaining how deserving women can become fully enlightened—by becoming men.  

That highlighting the role of a prominent female bodhisattva like Kuan Yin or a female deity like Tara has enabled many Western dharma centers to manifest their commitments to gender egalitarianism—awesome. That Kuan Yin is but one manifestation of the male bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara—less awesome. And yet, that a male bodhisattva occasionally manifests as a female figure—maybe more awesome.

So too the feminization of the principle of wisdom, prajnaparamita, and the Vajrayogini, who is female, erotic, and enlightened. These figures may be gender-essentialistic, gender-binaried, and heteronormative, but especially for Westerners, they productively queer the assumptions of what is masculine and feminine.

These examples of queerness in Buddhist text and history are just a sampling; there are many more. When queers look at these echoes in the past, we’re doing several things: We are finding ourselves in history and theology. We are claiming and acknowledging our existence, albeit in different forms from those we know today. And we are, hopefully, keeping our senses of irony and historicity intact. This isn’t gay-hunting or a naïve apologetics that siphons off the bad and leaves in only the good. We are, instead, searching for a usable past, not with a faux nostalgia or appropriative orientalism, but with a sophisticated relationship to what has gone before and what is present now.

Correction (7/5): An earlier version of this article translated Kobo Daishi as “the great master from Kobo.” A more accurate translation is “the great teacher who spread the dharma.” The article also identified Kukai as the founder of the Shingon school, which is disputed.