Buddha-Dharma-Sangha History

Early Buddhist Symbols


“A notable feature of early Buddhist art is that it did not depict Gautama, or any previous Buddha, in a human form; even before his enlightenment, Gautama is only shown by symbols. This must have been because of the feeling that the profound nature of one nearing or attained to Buddhahood could not be adequately represented by a human form. Even contemporary Brahmanism only portrayed minor deities such as yakṣas (Pāli yakkhas) in non-symbolic ways; the major gods were represented only by symbols. Early Buddhism used a range of symbols to represent the Buddha and his nature, and these have continued in use even after portrayals of him in human form developed from the second century CE.” (EoBDKPHA)

Bodhi trees

“The most important focus of devotion in early Buddhism would have been the Buddha’s bodily relics within the ten original stūpas. More numerous than these, and second in importance, were trees grown from the cuttings or seeds of the three under which Gautama attained Buddhahood, and the original tree itself: bodhi (“awakening” or “enlightenment”) trees. These were greatly revered as tangible links with the Buddha’s great spiritual powers, like bodily relics. They were accordingly seen as having wondrous powers, as seen in the Mahāvaiṃsa chronicle (XVIII.38–44), which says that when Emperor Aśoka (Pāli Asoka, c. 268–239 BCE) wished to take a cutting of the original tree to send to Sri Lanka, a branch severed itself from the tree, floating in the air while it grew roots, and later emitted rays of light in six colors. Bodhi trees were also reminders and symbols of Gautama’s attainment of awakening and the awakened state itself, which role could also be fulfilled by any species of the same tree (aśvattha (Pāli assattha), pīpal or ficus religiosa) or depictions of such a tree.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In pre-Buddhist India, there was already a cult of sacred trees such as the aśvattha. They were often surrounded by a railing and had a mud platform at the base as a place to put offerings to the tree or to the minor deity seen as inhabiting it. When worshipped, they were seen as fulfilling wishes and granting fertility. The Buddha frequently recommended the roots of trees as places for his monks to meditate, and he meditated beneath one on the night of his enlightenment. According to Vinaya 1.1–4, the Buddha stayed near the bodhi tree for four weeks after his enlightenment. The Nidānakathā (p. 77) says that, for the second of these, the Buddha continually contemplated the tree with feelings of deep gratitude for its having sheltered him at his most important time.” (EoBDKPHA)

“As in pre-Buddhist worship of trees, devotion to bodhi trees was expressed by watering them, attaching flags to their branches, and placing offerings such as flowers on the platform at their base. Devotees would also perform the act of clockwise circumambulation or pradakṣiṇā (Pāli padakkhiṇā), literally “keeping to the right.” This action is a common one in the Buddhist tradition; it is also performed round a stūpa and, especially in Tibet, round any sacred object, building, or person. Keeping one’s right side towards someone is a way of showing respect to them: in the suttas, people are often said to have departed from the Buddha keeping their right side towards him. The precedent for actual circu-mambulation may have been the Brahmanic practice of the priest walking around the fire-sacrifice offerings or of a bride walking around the domestic hearth at her marriage. All such practices demonstrate that what one walks around is, or should be, the “centre” of one’s life.” (EoBDKPHA)

“Originally Buddhist tree-shrines were, like their predecessors, simply surrounded by a wooden railing (vedikā). During Aśoka’s time the increasing popularity of the religion led to the development of more elaborate enclosures known as “bodhi-houses” (bodhi-gharas). From their gallery devotees could circumambulate and water the trees without churning up a sea of mud.” (EoBDKPHA)

“On stone reliefs that embellished stūpas, the Buddha could also be symbolized by a bodhi tree, or his life could be symbolically depicted by a bodhi tree (awakening), Dharma-wheel (first sermon) and stūpa (parinirvāṇa at death). In a wider sense, these three symbols represent the Buddha’s nature as an Awakened One, as the teacher of a universal message and as passed into nirvāṇa. Past Buddhas could also be symbolized by their bodhi trees, said to be of a range of species (Dīgha Nikāya 2.2–8). Buddhists also prize the heart-shaped leaves of bodhi trees, especially of descendents of the original tree, an aged revered specimen of which grows on the putative spot where this grew, in Bodhgayā.” (EoBDKPHA)

The lotus

“One of the most common and important early Buddhist symbols is the lotus. In India this has always been looked upon as the most beautiful of flowers. Its bursting into blossom above the water made it a symbol for the birth of gods and the birth of the world. In the Brahmanical Rig Veda, the fire god Agni is said to have been born from a lotus; in the Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇyakas, the lotus was the seat of the creator Prajāpati or the base on which he placed the earth after he had dredged it up from the cosmic ocean. The lotus was particularly associated with the goddess Śrī or Śrī-Lakśmī, described in a late portion of the Rig Veda as “lotusborn” and holding a lotus in her hand. According to coomaraswamy, she and the lotus represented the earth, the waters (of life) and all the potential and creative energy latent in the waters: “that wherein/whereon there is or can be manifestation.”” (EoBDKPHA)

“In early art, medallions depicting a circle of open lotus petals were particularly common (Figure 6(b)), but motifs involving lotuses and Śrī-Lakṣmī were also used to depict the birth of Gautama. Yet the lotus did not just symbolize physical birth:” (EoBDKPHA)

“Just as, monks, a lotus, blue, red or white, though born in the water, grown up in the water, when it reaches the surface stands there unsoiled by the water; just so, monks, though born in the world, grown up in the world, having overcome the world, a Tathāgata abides unsoiled by the world.” (EoBDKPHA)

(Saṃyutta Nikāya 3.140; cf. Majjhima Nikāya 1.169)

“Just as the lotus blossom grows up from the mud and water, so one with an enlightened mind develops out of the ranks of ordinary beings, by maturing the spiritual potential latent in all. Like the Bodhi tree, the lotus is a symbol drawn from the vegetable kingdom. While both suggest spiritual growth, the lotus emphasizes the potential for growth, whereas the Bodhi tree indicates the culmination of this growth: awakening.” (EoBDKPHA)

“The fact that drops of water roll off a lotus (cf. “like water off a duck’s back”) gives this unsoiled flower an added symbolic meaning in Buddhism, as a simile for non-attachment. As Maudgalyāyana (Pāli Moggallāna) says of himself, “he is not soiled by conditioned phenomena as a lotus is not soiled by water” (Theragāthā 1180). Nirvāṇa is also likened to a lotus in being “unsoiled by defilements” (Milindapañha 318), as it is beyond attachment, hatred and delusion that worldly beings are involved in. Milindapañha 375 also shows other aspects of lotus symbolism: the “earnest student of yoga” must be like the lotus above water, for “having overcome and risen above the world, he must stand firm in the supramundane state”; like a lotus trembling in the slightest breeze, he or she must also “exercise restraint among even the slightest defilements; he should abide seeing the peril (in them).”” (EoBDKPHA)

The Dharma-wheel

“The Dharma-wheel (dharma-cakra, Pāli dhamma-cakka) has been one of the major Buddhist symbols since early times. A crucial key to the understanding of its meaning are the canonical stories of just and compassionate emperors of the past known as cakravartins or “wheel-turners,” for whom a glowing thousand-spoked “divine wheel” appears on a full moon night. The king anoints the wheel with water, setting it spinning. He then urges it to roll forth and accompany him in the peaceful conquest of the four directions of the whole world. The wheel is the first of the cakravartin’s seven “treasures,” and such a list, also beginning with the wheel, occurs in the Brahmanical Rig Veda as pertaining to Agni or Soma-Rudra; the Mahābhārata 1.18 also lists seven “treasures” which appear at the churning of the cosmic ocean, starting with the “mild moon of 1,000 rays”; five of the seven “treasures” are the same in all three lists if the moon disc is seen as a kind of wheel.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In Buddhist stories on the cakravartin, the wheel’s continuing presence is a sign that a compassionate ruler is still on his throne. The key aspect of its meaning is that it symbolizes the emperor’s just rule radiating outwards to all the lands of the earth. The commentator Buddhaghosa explains that on the exterior of the wheel’s rim are 100 parasols, each accompanied by two spear-heads. The latter symbolize the emperor’s power of peaceful conquest, while the parasols as emblems of royalty represent all the kings of the earth who come willingly to accept the righteous rule of the emperor (Dīgha Nikāya commentary 2.617–19).” (EoBDKPHA)

“The “treasure-wheel” and the Dharma-wheel are said, not surprisingly, to look exactly alike. For practical purposes each is depicted with fewer than 1,000 spokes and 100 parasols (Figure 6(a)). In time the spear-heads disappeared and the parasols degenerated into residual bumps. While the parasols on the cakravartin’s wheel stand for kings who come to accept his rule, on the Dharma-wheel they can be seen to represent the great beings who come to follow the teachings of the Dharma. These include kings, spiritually advanced teachers of other sects and also gods. The Buddha taught for the benefit of “gods and humans” and Śakra (Pāli Sakka), that is, Indra, the ruler of the Vedic gods, is said to have become a stream-enterer (Dīgha Nikāya 2.288), while a Great Brahmā deity, seen by brahmins as the overlord or “creator” of the world, is said to have requested the Buddha to teach the world (Vinaya 1.5–7). The protective parasols and sharp spears also suggest, respectively, the Buddha’s compassion and wisdom.” (EoBDKPHA)

Figure 6(a) Wheel design from Sāñcī, first century CE.

Figure 6(b) Lotus medallion design from the railing on the Bhārhut stūpa (second century BCE).

“It is in the Buddha’s first sermon, “The Setting in Motion of the Dharma-wheel,” that the notion of the “Dharma-wheel” is rooted. In this, the wheel does not roll until the first member of the Buddha’s audience gains insight into his teachings, so attaining the “Dharma-eye” (Skt. dharma-cakṣu, Pāli dhamma-cakkhu), thus becoming a stream-enterer. At this the gods are said to have cried out, “The supreme Dharma-wheel rolled thus by the Lord in the deer park at Sārnāth cannot be rolled back by … anyone in the world.” By his act of teaching, so that there was the first experiential realization based on it, the Buddha inaugurated the “rule” or influence of Dharma in the world, paralleling how a cakravartin inaugurates his rule. This link is explicitly made when the Buddha says to Śāriputra (Pāli Sāriputta), “Just as the eldest son of a cakravartin ruler rolls on aright the wheel set rolling by his father, even so do you, Śāriputra, roll on aright the supreme Dharma-wheel set rolling by me” (Saṃyutta Nikāya 1.191).” (EoBDKPHA)

“In its simplest sense, then, the Dharma-wheel represents the transmission of Dharma in the first sermon. From this it naturally came to symbolize the Buddha as teacher, the Dharma as teaching, and the power of both to transform people’s lives. The two are, of course, intimately related, with the Buddha embodying the Dharma. As with most symbols, the meaning of the Dharma-wheel is multivalent. In Rig Veda 1.164, the sun is likened to a revolving wheel, “the immortal wheel which nothing stops, on which all existence depends.” Buddhaghosa likens the spokes of the Dharma-wheel to the sun’s rays and the hub to a full moon. It seems appropriate, then, to see the radiating spokes of the Dharma-wheel as suggesting that, like the sun, the Buddha shed the “warmth” of his compassion and the light of his wisdom on all who came to him.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In the Rig Veda, the solar deity Mitra is said to be the “eye of the world”: that is, the sun both illuminates and watches over the world. certain Dharma-wheels (Figure 7) are reminiscent of an eye in their appearance, and can thus be seen as symbolizing the spiritual vision of the Buddha at whose death certain followers said, “The eye has disappeared in the world!” (Dīgha Nikāya 2.158). The eye-like nature of the Dharma-wheel also links to its first “turning” when a disciple of the Buddha first gained the “Dharma-eye.” In all this there may well be a pun on cakra, wheel, and cakṣu, eye (Pāli cakka and cakkhu).” (EoBDKPHA)

Figure 7 Symbolic portrayal of the Buddha giving his first sermon. The design is from a relief from a stūpa at Nāgārjunakoṇḍa (third century CE).

“In the Rig Veda, the wheel is a possession of the god Varuṇa, the “universal monarch” (sam-rāj) and lord of ṛta, cosmic order. The wheel is also a symbol of the regular course of things, and thus of cosmic order, in that the one wheel of the sun’s chariot is said to have twelve, five or 360 spokes, corresponding to the number of months, seasons or days in the year. In Buddhism, the cakravartin’s rule according to Dharma leads to peace and order in his realm. It thus seems appropriate to take the regularly spaced spokes of the Dharma-wheel as symbolizing the spiritual harmony and mental integration produced in one who practices the Dharma.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (2.5.15), all gods, worlds, and beings are said to be held together in the ātman (Self) like spokes in the hub and felly of a wheel; in Chāndogya Upaniṣad (7.15.1) all is said to be fastened on prāṇa, the vital breath, like spokes in a hub. In the Buddhist “wheel-turner” legend, the state of the empire depends on the emperor. The Dharma-wheel, then, with its spokes firmly planted in the hub, can be seen to symbolize that the Buddha, by discovering and teaching Dharma, firmly established its practice in the world. The radiating spokes can be seen as representing the many aspects of the path taught by the Buddha, though it should be noted that they do not just have eight spokes representing the factors of the Eightfold Path, the overall path consisting of many interrelated skillful qualities.” (EoBDKPHA)

“The spokes of the Dharma-wheel are not only fixed in but also converge on the hub. This can be taken to symbolize that the factors of the Dharma in the sense of path lead to Dharma in the sense of nirvāṇa. In this respect it is worth noting that the Buddha said that his “setting in motion of the Dharma-wheel” was the “opening of the doors” to the “deathless” (amata), i.e. nirvāṇa (Vinaya 1.6). When Dharma-wheels were placed above the gateways to stūpas, it may have been to symbolize that the Dharma offers an entrance to deathlessness.” (EoBDKPHA)

“As the centre of a spinning wheel is still, so the Buddha’s mind was seen as ever still, even when he was busy teaching. In line with this, the hubs of some Dharma-wheels are in the form of open lotuses, suggesting the non-attachment of the Buddha’s mind. As the centre of a wheel is an empty hole, so the Buddha’s mind was empty of any idea of an unchanging “I,” the root of all suffering.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In early Buddhist art, Dharma-wheels often appear on top of pillars, the most famous example being that at Sārnāth erected by Aśoka. It probably symbolized the power of both the Buddha and Aśoka, who may well have been inspired by the cakravartin ideal. As the legendary wheel remains aloft near the ruler’s palace while he rules but starts to sink down when he is near death (Dīgha Nikāya 3.59), it appears most appropriate to place it high up on a pillar, to symbolize the health of imperial rule or of the sovereignty of the Dharma.” (EoBDKPHA)

The “vase of plenty”

“An early Buddhist symbol of some importance which became one of the eight auspicious symbols in the Sinhalese and Tibetan traditions is the pūrṇa-ghaṭa (Pāli puṇṇa-ghaṭa) or pūrṇa-kumbha, the “vase of plenty.” It is also an auspicious symbol in Hinduism, probably equivalent to the golden kumbha containing amṛta, the gods’ nectar of immortality, which emerged at the churning of the cosmic ocean by the gods.”

“In Buddhism, water pouring out from an upturned kumbha is likened to a noble disciple getting rid of unskillful states (Saṃyutta Nikāya 5.48 and Aṅguttara-Nikāya 5.337), and a kumbha being gradually filled by drops of water is likened to a person gradually filling himself with evil or karmically fruitful qualities (Dhammapada 121–2). In this way the kumbha is generally likened to the personality as a container of bad or good states. Quite often, though, a full kumbha is used as a simile for a specifically positive state of being: a person who truly understands the four Ennobling Truths is like a full kumbha (Aṅguttara Nikāya 2.104); a person of wide wisdom (puthu-pañño), who bears in mind the Dharma he has heard, is like an upright kumbha which accumulates the water poured into it (Aṅguttara Nikāya 1.131).”

“The implication of these passages is that the full kumbha would be a natural symbol for the personality of someone who is “full” of Dharma: a Buddha or arhat. While the Hindu pūrṇa-ghaṭa contains amtṛa, the Buddhist one contains Dharma, that which makes life fruitful and brings a person to the Buddhist amṛta (Pāli amata), the “deathless”: nirvāṇa.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In early Buddhist art, the “vase of plenty” was often shown with a lotus or Bodhi tree sprouting from it, so suggesting spiritual growth from the reservoir of Dharma which it symbolized. Figure 8 shows two vases as part of a composite symbol. The upper vase has the disc of an open lotus shown at its lip. Above the lotus is a triśūla (Pāli tisūla) or trident which represents the three Buddhist “treasures” (tri-ratnas, Pāli ti-ratanas): the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.” (EoBDKPHA)

Figure 8 Composite symbol design from the railing of the stūpa at Sārnāth, early centuries CE.

Buddha footprints and feet

“Like relics and bodhi trees, footprints of the Buddha (Buddha-padas), in the form of depressions in rocks, are seen as tangible links with him that also act as reminders that the he actually walked on earth and left a spiritual “path” for others to follow. Whether they were part of the earliest Buddhist cult is unclear, but they were used in symbolic representations of his presence in scenes from his life.” (EoBDKPHA)

“One of the most famous “footprints” is the depression measuring 1.7 by 0.85 meters in the rock on top of Mount Siripāda (Adam’s Peak) in Sri Lanka. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Faxian records having seen it in 412 CE. The sixth-century Mahāvaṃsa (1.77–8), based on earlier chronicles, refers to the “footprint” as having been made by the Buddha when he once flew to Sri Lanka by means of his meditation-based psychic power.” (EoBDKPHA)

“Other than putative “real” Buddha footprints, large depictions of the Buddha’s feet also became important. By at least the second century CE, these were used as cult objects in the art of Amarāvatī and Gandhāra. On them were various symbols such as wheels, a type of mark of a great man said to have been on the body of Gautama from his birth, lotuses and svastikas, an ancient Indian auspicious sign, also used in Jainism and Hinduism, whose name derives from su + asti, well + be; its form was originally to suggest the rotation of the sun in the sky. Later art embellished such feet or footprints with up to 108 (= 22 × 33) auspicious signs such as the sun, moon and Mount Meru – a huge mountain said to be the centre of the world (seen as a flat disc): all marvelous things of importance, though shown as “lower” than the Buddha. Such symbols also sometimes adorn the feet of images of the Buddha reclining, while svastikas sometimes appear on the chests of Buddhas in East Asia.” (EoBDKPHA)

Figure 9 Rāhula being presented to his father, the Buddha (second century CE stūpa railing at Amarāvatī).

Aniconic “bodies” of the Buddha

“In early Buddhist art, symbols were often combined to form aniconic “bodies” of the Buddha, so paving the way for the development of images of him in human form, as in Figure 9, where a Dharma-wheel stands for the Buddha’s head, a short pillar or column for his body and a throne, again suggestive of the Buddha’s sovereignty, for his legs. Sometimes, a column fringed by flames represents the body of the Buddha. Such flaming columns were no doubt intended to recall the story of the Buddha’s conversion of three fire-worshipping ascetics by overcoming, with his meditative psychic power, two venomous snakes by returning their heat and flames with his own (Vinaya 1.24–5). Flaming columns may also recall the “wonder of the pairs” at Śrāvastī (Pāli Sāvatthī) where the Buddha is said to have risen into the air with a mass of fire coming from the upper part of his body and a mass of water from the lower part (Dhammapada commentary 3.204–5 and Paṭisambhidāmagga 1.125). Again, flaming columns may symbolize the spiritual energy of the Buddha, later symbolized by flames arising from the crown of the head of Thai and some Sri Lankan Buddha images. As expressed at Dhammapada v. 387, “all day and night the Buddha shines in glory.”” (EoBDKPHA)

Figure 10 A stūpa in Sri Lanka.

Figure 11 A stūpa in Chiang Mai, Thailand.


“The final and perhaps most important symbol of early Buddhism is the stūpa (Pāli thūpa) or “(relic) mound.” These are known in Sri Lanka as a dhātu-gabbha (Pāli), “womb/container for (relic)-elements,” which in Sinhala is dāgoba (Figure 10). The mispronunciation of this by Portuguese colonialists may be the origin of the word “pagoda,” now mainly used for the multi-roofed East Asian form of the stūpa. In Thai, the term used for a stūpa is cedi (from Pāli cetiya, Skt. caity: a shrine) (Figure 11), and in Tibetan mchod rten (pronounced chorten).” (EoBDKPHA)

“Stūpas became important in Buddhism because of the holy relics they contained, their symbolizing the Buddha and his parinirvāṇa (entry into nirvāṇa at death), and in some cases their location at significant sites. Relics placed in stūpas are said to have been those of Gautama, arhats and even of past Buddhas. Where funerary relics could not be found, hair or possessions of holy beings, copies of bodily relics or possessions, or Buddhist texts came to be used in their place. The stūpa is more than a symbol of the parinirvāṇa. It is a complete symbol-system incorporating many of the other symbols discussed above, representing the Buddha and the Dharma he embodied.” (EoBDKPHA)

“Though the development of the Buddha image provided another focus for devotion to the Buddha, stūpas remain popular to this day, especially in Theravāda countries. They have gone through a long development in form and symbolism, but this entry concentrates on their early significance.” (EoBDKPHA)

“The best-preserved ancient Buddhist stūpa, dating from the first century CE in its present form, is at Sāñcī in central India. It was built over one dating from the third century BCE, which may have been built or embellished by Aśoka. Its diagrammatic representation in Figure 12 gives a clear indication of the various parts of an early stūpa.” (EoBDKPHA)

“The four gateways (toraṇas) of this stūpa put it, symbolically, at the place where four roads meet, as specified in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 2.142). This is probably to indicate the openness and universality of the Buddhist teaching, which invites all to come and try its path, and also to radiate loving-kindness to beings in all four directions. In a later development of the stūpa in north India, the orientation to the four directions was often expressed by means of a square, terraced base, sometimes with staircases on each side in place of the early gateways. At Sāñcī, these gateways are covered with carved reliefs of Jātaka stories on the career of Gautama as bodhisattva and also, using symbols, of his final life as a Buddha. Symbols also represent previous Buddhas.” (EoBDKPHA)

Figure 12 The Great Stūpa at Sāñcī

“Encircling the Sāñcī stūpa, connecting its gateways, is a stone railing (vedikā), originally made of wood. This marks off the site dedicated to the stūpa, and encloses the first of two paths for circumambulation (pradakṣiṇā-pathas). The stūpa dome, referred to in Sri Lanka and certain early texts as the kumbha or “vase,” is the outermost container of the relics, which are housed in an inaccessible chamber near the dome centre in a series of containers, the innermost one often of gold. The dome is thus associated with the “vase of plenty,” and symbolically acts as a reminder of an enlightened being as “full” of uplifting Dharma. In the third century CE Divyāvadāna, the dome is also called the aṇḍa or “egg.” As the relics within are sometimes called bījas, “seeds,” this is all suggestive of stūpa-devotion as leading to a fruitful spiritual life, and to the production of new enlightened ones in the future. From above, the circle of the stūpa dome is also suggestive of a Dharma-wheel or an open lotus medallion, and inner radial walls in some stūpas enhance this imagery. In Burma, the tapering shape of their stūpas is also likened to that of a lotus bud.” (EoBDKPHA)

“On top of the Sāñcī stūpa is a pole (skt. yaṣṭi, Pāli yaṭṭhi) and discs, which represent ceremonial parasols. As parasols were used as insignia of royalty in India, their inclusion on stūpas can be seen as a way of symbolizing the spiritual sovereignty of the Buddha. The kingly connection probably derives from the ancient custom of rulers sitting under a sacred tree at the centre of a community to administer justice, with mobile parasols later replacing such shading trees. The parasol-structure on stūpas also seems to have symbolized the Buddhist sacred tree, which in turn symbolized enlightenment. This is suggested by a second-century BCE stone relief of a stūpa which shows it surmounted by a tree with parasol-shaped leaves. The structure at the base of the pole and discs (the harmikā, “top enclosure”) has also been found, on a number of stūpas, to have resembled the design of bodhi-tree enclosures.” (EoBDKPHA)

“The parasol pole was often mounted on top of an eight-sided axial pole inside the stūpa, sometimes called a yūpa. This was originally the term for a Vedic post where animals were tethered prior to being sacrificed. Some early Buddhist stūpas had a wooden axis, and these may have originally been Brahmanical sacrificial posts on a sacred site taken over by Buddhists. For Buddhism, the idea of “sacri-fice” suggested the self-sacrifices of the path: in the Kūṭadanta Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 1.144–7), the best “sacrifice” is explained in terms of the path, and at Dīgha Nikāya 3.76, a yūpa is where a future cakravartin ruler distributes goods to all and then becomes a monk. In the Milindapañha (21–2), the monk Nāgasena is described as:” (EoBDKPHA)

“bearing aloft the yūpa of Dharma … thun-dering out the thunder of Indra (the Vedic rain god) and thoroughly satisfying the whole world by thundering out sweet utterances and wrapping them round with the lightning flashes of superb knowledge, filling them with the waters of compassion and the great cloud of the deathlessness of Dharma. That is, Vedic symbolism is effectively put to Buddhist use.” (EoBDKPHA)

“Another term for the stūpa axial pillar is indra-kīla (Pāli inda-khīla), or “Indra’s stake.” This was a term for the huge stone pillars used to secure open the gates of cities in India and Sri Lanka. The term derived from Vedic mythology, in which the god Indra was seen to stabilize the earth by staking it down. In early Buddhist texts, the term is used as an image for the unshakeability of the mind of an arhat or stream-enterer (Saṃyutta Nikāya 5.444, Suttanipāta 229, Dhammapada 95, Theragāthā 663). The stūpa axis representing their unshakeable mind fits in well with the idea of the dome, as a kumbha, symbolizing the enlightened person as full of Dharma-related qualities.” (EoBDKPHA)

“The axial pillar is also linked to Mount Meru, home of many of the gods, with the base of the circular dome as like the circle of the earth, home to humans. Here, the stūpa superstructure, linked to the Bodhi tree, is suggestive of the Buddha, who stands above both humans and gods as their teacher.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In later stūpas the top part was fused into a spire, and several platforms were often added under the dome to elevate it in an honorific way. It then became possible to see each layer of the structure as symbolizing a particular set of spiritual qualities. In the Caityavibhāgavinayabhāva Sūtra and the Stūpalakṣaṇkārikāvivecana, respectively from the first and second centuries CE, a stūpa’s seven layers from the bottom up to the harmikā are seen to symbolize the seven sets of qualities making up the “thirty-seven factors conducive to awakening”: the four applications of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four bases of success, the five faculties, the five powers, the seven factors of awakening (the dome), and the factors of the Eightfold Path (harmikā). The spire of the stūpa symbolizes the thirteen powers and ten knowledges of a Buddha. At Dīgha Nikāya 2.120, the Buddha, not long before his death, taught the seven sets as to be practiced to prolong the holy life. They can be seen to summarize the Dharma that he embodied.” (EoBDKPHA)

See also: Art, Buddhist; Bodhi tree; Bodhgayā; Buddha; Sacred places; Sāñcī; Stūpa; Stūpas of Sāñcī, Bhārhut, and Amarāvatī

“Overall, the stūpa can be seen to symbolize the Buddha and Dharma. Indeed, in some early Vinayas where a stūpa is seen as having its own property (land and offerings), it is sometimes seen as “the property of the stūpa” and sometimes as the “property of the Buddha.” That the stūpa’s basic configuration symbolizes the Buddha’s enlightened person is suggested by a simile at Saṃyutta Nikāya 4.194–5. This likens the body (kāya) to a city with six gates (the senses, including the mind), at the centre of which sits the “lord of the city” (consciousness), who receives a message (nirvāṇa), from messengers (calm and insight) from the four directions. He sits in the middle of the city, where four roads meet, representing the four great elements (mahā-bhūtas) that are the basis of the body. As a stūpa is also ideally at a crossroads, and the relics at its centre are also termed dhātus, another term for elements, it is akin to the “city” of the Buddha’s personality, centered on a consciousness that has experienced nirvāṇa.” (EoBDKPHA)



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