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Tibetan Buddhist Art furniture & Antiques from the monasteries of the Ser Shong (Golden Valley)
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Tibetan Buddhist Symbolism

Our references

The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs  by Robert Beer. ~~in depth book lots of information~needs index ~~good buy

Images of Enlightenment: Tibetan Art in Practice  by Landaw and Weber ~~great book, mantras, how to practice and put it into use~~must buy~~

Buddhist Symbols  by Tatjana & Mirabai Blau ~~good basic book, has information that is contained nowhere else

Buddhist Symbolism in Tibetan Thangkas  by Ben Meulenbeld ~~good historical background and good addition to library~~should buy

Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet  by Rhie and Thurman ~~ nice pictures and good identifications~great index

The decoration of Tibetan furniture and Tibetan Buddhist art is a mixture of Tantric symbolism, bright floral designs (generally Lotus, chrysanthemum, Ashoka, or camp flowers) and the use of landscape and narrative painting as a means of conveying spiritual themes or lessons for meditation.

The photo images here are all from pieces created at the Sange Monastery.  The symbolisms depicted here are not meant to be an all-inclusive collection of Tantric Tibetan Buddhist icons, but a compilation of those icons found on the extant furniture and art from the Sange Monasteries. 

We have divided up our icons and imagery into several sections. I originally had just one page, but found as I kept adding images and meanings, that one page became too cumbersome. So this page now has some popular groupings.

Use the following links to see:
Animals
Deities & Teachers

 

Tibetan Buddhist conch shell horn filled with perfume
above image is a sense offering of a conch shell horn filled with perfume on a Lotus throne with Bilva fruit~~,
conch shell

The 1st 8 icons depicted are the 8 Auspicious symbols.

1~ The conch shell ~ sanskrit shankha ~ Tibetan dung dkar.

The right spiraling (echoing the celestial movement of the sun, moon and stars) conch shell is one of the oldest icons in Buddhism.  It is made by nature and not man. A conch horn sounds in all directions, as do the teachings of the Buddha. Consequently, the conch is seen as a vehicle fearlessly proclaiming the truth of the dharma in all directions. It is also seen as an emblem of power and authority and is thought to banish evil. The white conch shell was presented to Shakyamuni by the great sky god Indra.
Tibetan Buddhist furniture with symbol Lotus

2~ The lotus.

 The lotus flower  is another natural symbol and represents earth.  Tibetan Buddhist mystics imagined the earth floating like a lotus flower on the oceans of the universe. The heart of the flower is the cosmic mountain, the axis of the universe. The generally acknowledged meaning of the lotus flower is purity of mind or divine creation. From the muck of a pond, where the roots of the lotus reside, an immaculate white flower emerges to rest on the surface of the water as a metaphor for the harmonious unfolding of spirituality.
The lotus is an important Buddhist motif.  Images of the Buddha and other important persons often are shown seated on a lotus throne.  The growth of the lotus, with its roots in mud, growing through water, and emerging as a wonderful plant above the water's surface, is seen as an analogy of the soul’s path from the mud of materialism to the purity of enlightenment. The 3 stages of the lotus, bud, utpala (mid-blossom) and the full blossoming throne represent the past present and future respectively.

Tibetan Buddhist symbol Dharma Wheel, auspicious symbolism made in Tibet
above image is embroidered pillow-cover~made in Tibet by Tibetans~~,
dharma wheel

3~ The  Dharma Wheel ~~Sanskrit chakra ~ Tibetan `khor lo.

In three parts, the wheel exists as a hub, the center of the world.  The 8 spokes denote the 8 paths to enlightenment. These 8 steps work together, not separately.  1. right understanding . 2. right attitude  3. right speech  4. right action  5. right work    6. right effort  7. right mindfulness  8. right meditation  The rim represents the attribute of limitation.  All are contained within a circle, which is perceived to be perfect and complete, like the teachings of the Buddha. The four sections in the center of this wheel refer to the 4 noble truths that lead to the Dharma wheel.

Parasol chattra or gdugs in tibetan auspicious symbol
above image is embroidered pillow-cover~made in Tibet by Tibetans~~,
parasol

4~ The parasol ~ Sanskrit chattra~Tibetan gdugs

The parasol and the shade it casts symbolize wisdom.  Its hanging skirt indicates compassion, so the parasol becomes a symbol of protection from the painful heat of the suffering human incur from the spiritual poisons of desire, hate, greed and ignorance.  The Victory banner is an early Buddhist motif signifying the enlightenment of the Buddha and the triumph of knowledge over ignorance.  This symbol also is used to recall the Buddha’s triumph over his temptress, Mara.  It further announces that all spiritual obstacles have been overcome and good fortune has arrived.   Occasionally, an 8- sided parasol is seen.  This element refers to the eightfold path to enlightenment.

Buddhist symbol of Infinite or endless knot made in Tibet, for sale
above image is embroidered pillow-cover~made in Tibet by Tibetans~~,
infinite knot

5~ The endless knot.
 

The Eternal, or Infinite, Knot (Sanskrit, "Srivastsa"), is the classic icon for the concept of reality. The interwoven lines are graphic representations of the concept that everything in the world is interconnected, and therefore, dependent origination is the underlying reality of existence.  The knot also reflects the endless cycle of death and rebirth, mirroring infinity and the wisdom of the Buddha. It also symbolizes the Buddha's endless wisdom and compassion. The sanskrit term means 'beloved of the goddess Shri.' Shri refers to Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu, wherein the shrivatsa term in particular is the curl of hair in a 8 looped knot on the breast of Vishnu (just to further complicate the origins).
pair of golden fish

6~ The pair of golden fish.


Having complete freedom in water, fish represent happiness, fertility, and abundance.  On a spiritual level, they represent the boundless abundance of the Buddha’s energy , which never diminishes, no matter how much is given away.

Buddhist Victory banner
Tibetan buddhist symbol victory banner
above image is embroidered pillow-cover~made in Tibet by Tibetans~~

7~ The Victory banner ~~ Sanskrit dhvaja ~ Tibetan rgyal mtshan


An early Buddhist motif meaning the enlightenment of the Buddha and the triumph of knowledge over ignorance, this symbol also is used to recall the Buddha’s triumph over his temptress, Mara.
Mara and her demonic hosts personify hindrances and defilements. The Victory banner in Tibetan Buddhism symbolizes the 11 methods for overcoming these defilements. The development of knowledge, wisdom, compassion, meditation, and ethical vows; taking refuge in the Buddha; abandoning false views; generating spiritual goals, skilful means and selflessness; and the unity of the 3 samadhis: emptiness~formlessness~& desirelessness.

Tibetan Buddhist symbolism of the great TGreasure vase, 8 auspicious symbols of buddhism
above image is embroidered pillow-cover~made in Tibet by Tibetans~~
treasure jar

8~ The treasure vase ~ Sanskrit nidhana kumbha ~ Tibetan gter gy bum pa


The vase or urn (kalasa) promises the good fortune of spiritual and material fulfillment, symbolizing the treasure of spiritual wealth.  Among those treasures is the jewel of enlightenment. It also extends to the material side and it is characteristic of the deities that symbolize prosperity.

three bilva Bilva fruit, also known as the Bengal quince, is shown here with stylized peony, indicative of a deity's aura, radiating out in the top layer.  Medicinally, Bilva is a potent astringent and highly regarded for its purifying qualities in traditional Indian folk medicine.  The unripe interior of the fruit, especially when made into a jam, was the best known cure for diarrhea and dysentery.  It is regarded as one of the most sacred fruits and serves as one of the main offering fruits.  In this offering of Bilva fruit, representing the sense-offering of taste, the Buddha Amoghasiddhi is manifested as motivation or will.

wood apple tree

The wood apple, or bael fruit, is a baseball-sized fruit with a hard skin and a sticky, highly aromatic pulp.  This fruit is eaten more for its medicinal qualities than for its taste.  Bael fruit increases one's beneficial, positive karma and thus brings one closer to release from samsara.  The fruit also symbolizes the goal of recognizing emptiness and dependency and the connection between cause and effect.  It challenges us to avoid actions that will cause suffering and to increase actions that will promote healing.
Tibetan Buddhist symbol yogurt On Tibetan Furniture the slow process of making yogurt is an appropriate metaphor for transforming the spirit. By faithfully applying the principles of Buddhism, negative behavior is overcome and the clear mind is revealed. In this case an offering is made of both the yogurt and the coral, which is one of the most precious and valuable offerings.

kusha grass in bowl

Kusha grass many times appears multi-colored,
usually sprouting out of the cliffs or in
the place of flames in Tibetan Buddhist art.

Kusha grass grows to a height of two feet and is used to purify defilements.  Those wishing purification sleep in a field or patch of kusha grass for ritual purification.  Placed under a pillow at night before initiation, Kusha grass is believed to produce clear dreams; it is also used to enhance the clarity of visualization and meditation.  Kusha is the grass of choice for the manufacture of sacred meditation mats.
durva grass Grass, in sanskrit, Durva, is a symbol for long (or Longer) life and is used in life-enriching rituals. grass, being highly resilient, is believed to be immortal and so proclaims the end of samsara, the successive death and rebirth of all beings.
multi-colored cliffs The rock/cliff formation represents the syllable "E" which appears in the opening stanza of early Buddhist scriptures, ("'thus,' I have heard"). The blue, red and green cliffs represent the unmoving nature of the mind when enlightenment has been attained. The tops of these cliffs have Kusha grass growing out of them.
4-petaled flower The 4-petaled flower is symbolic of the 4 Noble truths, the middle way and the first teaching of Buddha. 1. Life is suffering. 2. Ignorance is the cause of suffering.  3. The cessation of suffering is the goal of life because it transcends pains and pleasure.  4. The way to the cessation of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path, which aligns with the eight spokes of the Dharma Wheel.
Tibetan Buddhist symbol on Tibetan furniture Ashoka

The Ashoka, the second of the  trinity of holy flowers, sprouts from the holy water-font of the Amitayus, one of the forms in which the Buddha Amitabha appeared (symbolizing the transformation from greed to discriminating wisdom).  The sprout materialized from a tear that Buddha Amitabha shed when hearing of the deeds of the great warrior Ashoka that overcame all of his enemies to win freedom for his oppressed people. True spiritual freedom comes from overcoming the sins and lusts that enslave the soul.

Ashoka ruled a vast empire 2200 years ago and put his peoples welfare and interests above his own, he supported Buddhism, however he was insistent upon religious tolerance and open dialog

Buddhist symbol Champaka

two Champaka blossoms on Tibetan Antique furniture

The Champaka is the 3rd flower of the holy trinity of flowers in Buddhist symbology, the 1st is the Lotus and the 2nd is the Ashoka. The Champaka is also called the camp flower. The Champaka is a white blossom from the wish-fulfilling tree & is an attribute of Maitreya Buddha, conferring love, compassion & beauty.
chrysanthemum The chrysanthemum symbolizes autumn & the gathering of the harvest. In this case, it is a metaphor for achieving the goal of enlightenment & its accompanying peace. The blue represents compassion. Red is the transmutation of passion into compassion. The white tips denote purity.  
elongated gold Chinese oak leaves on altar drawer The Chinese Oak is a symbol of majesty and strength, appropriate for the use on this special Tibetan Altar. The acorns of the Chinese Oak are used medicinally and its leaves provide nourishment for the wild uncultivated silkworm. The gold (24kt) used to color these leaves denotes purity. The leaves pictured on this drawer are elongated for majestic effect.
rainbow The rainbow is eternity’s expression of momentary delight. This is Auspicious and takes on a supernatural meaning: the demise of a great teacher and his rebirth.  Rainbows materialize and dissolve into nothingness, and in Tibetan tradition, it is the “Body of Light” or the “Rainbow Body”  and refers to a great master who has attained Mahamudra and no longer perceives the world as a conceptual concrete dimension; rather, he now permeates space as mist, also known as the ultimate form of reality. The self is now permeating space with luminescence transparency, with nothing solid or any sharp lines of separation.
red coral offering
The red coral is used as a jewel for ornamentation, decorating jewelry.  As Mala bead, it depicts a symbolic offering and also a wish for acquisition. It is a precious offering of great value.
phurba
The double-edged sword ("Khadga" in Sanskrit, "Phurba" in Tibetan) symbolizes the knowledge that severs and burns away the knot of ignorance, besides keeping danger at bay.  It is used by a bodhisattva who goes fearlessly wherever his help is needed by those on the path to enlightenment.  He has a special affinity for women, children, and travelers, and he is characterized chiefly by benevolence, determination, and unflagging optimism.  Oftentimes, the sword  is depicted as a flaming sword. However, here Kusha grass replaces the usual flames for denoting purification. The dark blue color, the color of iron, symbolizes its unchangeable and indestructible vajra nature. The triple blade symbolizes the overcoming or cutting through of the three root poisons of ignorance, desire, and hatred. The properties of the triangular shape represent the element fire, symbolizing wrathful activity; with the tip of the blade representing ferocious activity and the inseparable union of method and wisdom as the fearlessness and certainty of its accomplishments.
vajra or double dorje The Double Dorje is an epiphany, a sudden realization;  Dorje (Tibetan) thunderbolt, or double diamond, ("visvavajra" in sanskrit). Its four heads represent the four Dhyani Buddha. Of these, it is associated primarily with Amoghasiddhi, lord of the north, the Karma Family Buddha, whose name means "Unfailing Accomplishment."  The double Dorje represents the indestructibility of all phenomenal essence.  It serves as a symbol of harmony, immutability, and all -knowingness. The single, uncrossed representation, vajra (diamond scepter, dorje in Tibetan), symbolizing skilful means, compassion, samsara.  This compassion is an active quality rather than mere sympathetic feelings not transformed into action. Compassion refers to action that is exactly consonant with whatever is occurring and that is not self-referential.
gold mirror

The mirror is an ancient Buddhist symbol for clarity, completeness of perception, and purity of consciousness. A mirror reflects a thing objectively, but what we see in the mirror is not the thing itself.  Because the object is not seen directly, it may be seen more accurately ~ more clearly, without judgment and with greater perspective.  This can lessen the tendency to see a thing as fixed or solid and encourage better understanding.  The mirror, or perception, more effectively propels the mind toward insight and compassion than mere argument or lecture. 

Whether something is beautiful or ugly, good or evil the mirror passes no judgement and is unaffected by the image; similarly pure consciousness is unaffected by the beauty or ugly, good or evil nature of thoughts which arise and pass. Like a reflection in a mirror, their essence is void, without substance. Like a wild animal that sees and attacks an apparent rival in its own reflection in a still pool, the mind self-identifies with its own projected imagery.

The 5 small circles of this mirror make it a divination mirror, the 5 circles form a cross and symbolize the Five Buddha Wisdoms.

bell opn lotus throne The bell (ghanta in Sanskrit; drilbu in Tibetan) symbolizes the comprehension of emptiness in all its forms and additionally is a symbol of the transitoriness and the feminine principle as the "perfection of wisdom." The bell "proclaims the sound of emptiness" that arises from the voidness in its form. The sound radiates in all directions and dissolves into silence or emptiness.  The hollow interior of the bell's "mouth" is emptiness; its clapper "tongue" is form. When taken as a sexual symbol, the mouth of the bell represents the vagina and the prongs of the Vajra on top symbolize the 4 nadi which emanate from the tip of the male sexual organ, representing form or appearance.  It is the union of great bliss and compassion, again pure emptiness and form.  Taken together with the Dorje, they symbolize the path to enlightenment.  The journey and the goal are one.
lute In Tibet, the lute is known as pi wang, in Sanskrit the vina.  In Tibetan art, the lute is held by such deities as Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge and wisdom; Shabdavajra, the offering goddess of sound; Dhritarashtra, the white guardian king of the east; Vinadhara, the offering goddess of music; and the gandharvas, or celestial musicians.  The end of the lute's neck has makara-tail scrolling typical of Tibetan lutes. The sound box is covered with an animal skin. This is a sound-offering depiction.
cymbals Cymbals, or tingsha in Tibetan. The sound created by the tingsha is a plea to the gods to remain.  This is the beginning of true teaching or meditation, asking god to be manifest in your life.
long life vase or jar
Tsebum or "long-life vase", a jar in which the "nectar of immortality" is kept.
book tied with yellow ribbon
The Sacred book, Pustaka in Sanskrit, is a symbol of learning, wisdom and insight. The Perfection of Wisdom That Cuts Like a Diamond, the Prajnaparamita Sutra, is emblematic of the book. Wisdom in Buddhism is the most important spiritual power, as only wisdom coupled with will can liberate us from suffering. The book is not bound like books in the west, rather the sheets are separate sheets of parchment or rice paper placed between two wooden covers held together by a ribbon or wrapped in a silk cloth with a ribbon and coin used to secure it.
Tibetan Buddhism symbol on furniture golden trefoil cloud design
The trefoil is a cloud design that signifies the 3 Cintamani as the body, speech and mind of Buddha that the practitioner will possess.
rock formation looks like animal
This rock formation with water emanating from the mouth symbolizes the 4 great rivers, the Sutlej, Indus,  Brahmaputra and the Karnali, all of which originate in the Mt Kailash area. The sources of these rivers were believed to be springs issuing from rock formations in the likeness of the heads of an elephant, lion, horse and peacock respectively.  When Atisha (982-1054), author of Lamp of the Path to Enlightenment, came to Tibet, he was taken by the purity of the water and allowed it could be used as an offering. Tibet is the only region that has water as a sacred offering.  Pure water is said to possess eight qualities: clear, cool, odorless, soothing, healing, delicious, light, and soft.
Tibetan Buddhsit symbol- medicine bowl
The medicine bowl is a vehicle of Bhaisajyaguru, the King of Healers or the Most High Healer. Meditating on him or his vehicle creates great therapeutic energy, which is useful for healing oneself and others. The medicine inside of the bowl is gorocana, literally cow essence. The idea is to remove poisons on the physical as well as the spiritual plane. Healing can only take place if behind the meditation is the desire to purify a specific poison. In this sense, being freed from physical suffering means also being freed from suffering on all other levels and the goal is not only temporary relief, but healing in the ultimate sense. The medicine bowl is a blue iron bowl; the significance of the blue is: blue represents the destruction of ignorance and delusion. In this image the red scarf laid over the bowl would signify the transmutation of that delusion and ignorance or commonly referred to as passion in to the active verb compassion.
cintamani

Cintamani are wish-granting jewels and additionally represent wisdom.  When depicted in sets of 3, they represent the body, speech and mind of Buddha such as the practitioner may possess.  Cintamani are also referred to as the “Thinking Jewel” and symbolize the importance of teaching and as well as the enlightened mind. Pictured here are 6 flaming jewels.  15 flaming jewels are also sometimes seen. The flames around the border of the Cintamani are symbolic of the burning away of false desires and ignorance, giving way to enlightenment.

see also Chakravartin's 7 Precious Possessions below

mahamudra
The billowing clouds or mist are Mahamudra: the union of compassion and wisdom -- the ultimate realization of one’s true nature.  They are represented as the transformation of our vices into the 4 powers of regret, vow, reliance, and remedy, so the practitioner will realize purification and enlightenment.  This is also the basic meaning of the "Heart Sutra."
tibetan Buddhist symbolism on Tibetan Furniture Intermixed with the Mahamudra mists are two mare's tail cumulus clouds which are quite common in Tibet. One significance of these fast moving clouds and the pure clarity of the sky is metaphorically an illustration of the Buddha Mind. Clouds may come and go across the heavens, like the transitory thoughts or delusions which appear to obscure the mind's true nature, yet the nature of the sky remains unchanged. this is like the mirror, which is always unaffected by the appearances which arise in it, the sky is clear, transparent, infinite and immaculate.
wheel of joy
The wheel of joy is similar in style to the Chinese yin-yang, but with three or four segments rather than two.  When shown with three sections, the wheel relates to the three jewels of Buddha, dharma and sangha (body, speech, and mind).   Four sections refer to the four noble truths.
yin-yang
The yin-yang, shaped like spiraled tear drops, constitute a circle that is divided in two by an S. The dot, or in this illustration an eye, in the middle of each half symbolizes that each element at its highest point carries within itself the seed of its polar opposite, that it can change and cross over into the other. Yin is the female, the passive, the receptive, the dark and the soft. Yang is the masculine, the active, the light and the stern. The joining of the two created from the One is the source of creative energy in the Universe.
Shou or butterfly symbol from Tibetan Monastic art on Tibetan Furniture
Stylized Chinese character shou: this is presented here in the form of a butterfly. The butterfly is a favored symbol in Chinese art as well as Tibetan art: it recalls the dream of Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu. Chuang Tzu, having dreamed that he was a butterfly joyously flittering, posed the question, “Did Chuang Tzu dream he was a Butterfly? Or is the butterfly still dreaming that he is Chuang Tzu?” The caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly, as unified symbols of transmutation, resurrection and immortality, are perhaps best described in the aphorism, “What the caterpillar perceives as the end of all things, the rest of the world perceives as the beginning of the butterfly”.
The 7 possessions of the Chakravartin
The following icons are among the 7 possessions of the Chakravartin, or Wheel Turner
The term in Hinduism refers to an ideal ruler, but in Buddhism, Chakravartin has come to mean a Buddha whose all-encompassing teachings are universally true.  Chakravartin has an army of 4 divisions, infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots. Chakravartin is the lineage of 25 Kulika kings or enlightened monarchs, the 25th of which will finally defeat the "non-believers."
precious horse with cintamani on back
1.  The Precious Horse is able to travel among the clouds and mirrors the Buddha's abandonment of, or "rising above," the cares of worldly existence.  The horse is Chakravartin's riding horse, which is able to circumnavigate the globe 3 times in one day and symbolizes mobility and speed. The Cintamani on the horse's back is a magical jewel with the power to grant wishes, able to fulfill any and all desires, also called the thinking jewel.  Jewels in Buddhism are analogous with the importance of teaching, representing also the mind that has attained enlightenment.
precious elephant with cintamai on back
2. The Precious Elephant is a symbol of the strength of the mind in Buddhism. Exhibiting noble gentleness, the precious elephant serves as a symbol of the calm majesty possessed by one who is on the path. Specifically, it embodies the boundless powers of the Buddha, which are miraculous aspiration, effort, intention, and analysis.  Elephant tusks are sometimes depicted and are symbolic of the whole elephant.
Tibetan Buddhist Art on Furniture
3. The Precious King's or Minister's Earrings.  The heavy earrings are taken as a symbol of comprehension of the Buddha’s teachings.  The weight of the earrings would have caused the wearers earlobes to elongate.  The long earlobes of the Buddha are a symbol of his detachment from all things earthly. Like the Buddha, the King represents a wealth of faith, morality, honesty, modesty, learning, renunciation, and wisdom. The King is also referred to as the Precious minister. His intelligence is razor-sharp, with a great ability for patience and listening.  He desires to do only good works to promote the Dharma, to protect and benefit all beings.

Tibetan Buddhist Furniture symbol Queens earrings

4. The Precious Queen's Earrings.  The heavy earrings are taken as a symbol of comprehension of the Buddha’s teachings.  The weight of the earrings would have caused the wearers earlobes to elongate.  The long earlobes of the Buddha are a symbol of her detachment from all things earthly. The Queen speaks the truth, using no frivolous words and holding no false vices. 
crossed military insignia
5. General's insignia (Sanskrit senapatiratna)  The Precious General is one of the seven possessions of the Chakravartin. He is ready both to wage war and defend the kingdom, having attained mastery of the 64 strategic arts of war. He fights for truth and justice, does no unvirtuous acts, he causes no harm to other beings.
symbol on tibetan Furniture
6. Eight-faceted jewel, as in having eight magical properties. It cools when the days are hot, warms when the days are cold, illuminates the darkness of night, causes rain to fall or a spring to appear when one is thirsty, it brings to fruition what ever the bearer desires, it heals emotional afflictions, and cures all of the diseases of those who are in its range of its light and lastly prevents untimely death as in fathers passing on before sons.
   

 

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