This is a Nepalese banner with the Eight Auspicious Signs of Buddhism that I have hanging on my wall at home. I’ve given such banners to friends as housewarming gifts, as the signs are meant to offer good fortune. Since the symbolism is interesting, I thought I would take a look at it.
The Eight Auspicious Signs or Symbols, or Ashtamangala in Sanskrit (ashta, eight, and mangala, auspicious), can be found in a variety of different forms in Hinduism and Jainism in addition to Buddhism. In the latter, typically the Signs represent the offerings made by the gods to Buddha after he attained enlightenment. Sometimes the eight appear as a single unit, but more often as separate entities. The objects have become sacred in themselves, and are often present, or pictured, in homes, monasteries, and public buildings. They can also be sewn onto clothes or furniture. Each can be used as a visual meditation aid in the manner of a yidam (a deity or enlightened being on which one focuses during meditation). In Chinese and Tibetan traditions, the eight objects also correspond to the eight vital organs of Buddha’s body (see more on this below). The objects have been turned into mudras, or hand gestures, and are performed by monks as they chant their prayers.
In Hinduism, the Eight Signs probably began as royal insignia for coronations and other official ceremonies, and are still often present at special occasions like weddings. At some Chinese monasteries the symbols can be seen on lotus pedestals in front of statues of the Buddha. Tibetan monks sometimes create these symbols on the ground with chalk or powder in order to welcome religious dignitaries to their monasteries.
The order in which the Eight Signs are presented can vary from tradition to tradition. I’ll discuss them in the order in which they appear on my banner, which is that typical of Tibetan Buddhism.
1. The Jeweled Parasol or Sacred Umbrella is the protection offered by the Dharma, the law or teachings of Buddha. Related to the canopy of the sky, the Umbrella is often held over nobles, and therefore is a symbol of royalty and authority. Symbolically the umbrella, usually white, protects one from the heat of desire and fear and other defilement. The handle is the axis mundi, the central axis that holds up the world, and therefore anyone under the umbrella would also be at the center of the universe. Buddha is often depicted with a large, elaborate umbrella above his head. In Tibetan symbolism, religious leaders are protected by a silk parasol, and secular rulers by one with peacock feathers. The Dalai Lama is entitled to both, and therefore, in processions, you’ll see both peacock and silk parasols carried after him. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the umbrella even became a goddess – the thousand-armed, thousand-footed goddess Sitatapatra, whose name literally means “the white (sita) umbrella (atapatra).”
2. The pair of golden fish – usually depicted as standing vertically with their heads facing one another – are said to swim in samsara, floating without fear or harm to themselves in an ocean of suffering. The fish also represent the Ganges and Yamuna, two of the most important sacred rivers of India, as well as the lunar and solar channels of the breath (prana). Fish can encompass a variety of symbolism, of course; think of the role of fish and fishermen in Christianity. Fish multiply quickly, and therefore also represent abundance and fertility. They have complete freedom in the water, and therefore represent happiness. Often seen swimming in pairs, fish can also symbolize fidelity; a gift of fish at a Chinese wedding is an auspicious sign. Typically the fish are represented as carp, thought of as sacred throughout Asia because of their beauty, size, and long lifespan.
3. The Treasure Vase or Urn of Wisdom is something of a cornucopia, offering endless health and wealth and wisdom. The vase typically has a fat belly, a slim neck, and at its top a large jewel indicating it is a treasure vase. Sometimes made of gold, it is often decorated with gems or propitious symbols like the lotus. Historically the vase is also related to the water pot that is one of the few allowed possessions of a bhikku or ordained Buddhist monk. In that case, the waters held within are sacred and hold all manner of treasures. No matter how much is taken out, the vase is always full. In Buddhism it calls to mind the spiritual abundance of Buddha and his teachings, a treasure that will never diminish.
4. The Lotus Flower, floating in beauty above those same muddy waters of samsara’s desire and fear and attachment, represents the purity of mind and deed on liberation. As the third century Extensive Sport Sutra (Lalitavistara Sutra) says, “the spirit of the best of men is spotless, like the lotus in the muddy water which does not adhere to it.” The lotus has long symbolized the divine nature of Buddha. Most important Buddhist deities, in fact, are connected in some way with the lotus, which appear constantly in Buddhist art. Different colors of lotus have different meanings. A white lotus represents spiritual perfection, and is associated with White Tara. A red lotus represents love and compassion, which come from the heart, and it is the flower of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion. The blue lotus signifies knowledge, and is the flower of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. The pink lotus is associated with the stories and legends of Buddha. And the golden lotus represents enlightenment, Buddha’s own and that of all other beings.
5. The Conch, typically rightward turning, represents the sound of the Dharma. In mythology, the conch was used as a trumpet, often as a signal in battle or to generate fear in one’s enemies. Both the god Vishnu and Arjuna, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, have one. The sound of the conch will also banish evil spirits. Its loudness is very penetrating, symbolizing the spreading of Buddha’s wisdom. In Tibet, the sound of the conch is used to call together religious assemblies. It is also sometimes used as a vessel for holy water. The rightward turn of the shell is said to represent the motion of the sun, planets, and stars across the sky. When Buddha is depicted artistically, he often will have shell-like spirals on his neck, symbolizing the power of his voice and message. The spirals of his hair, the curl between his eyebrows, and the swirl of his navel also all turn to the right.
6. The Endless or Eternal Knot shows how compassion and wisdom, cause and effect, and for that matter all living beings and all worldly phenomena, are intertwined. A favorite emblem of the goddess Lakshmi, the Indian goddess of wealth and the consort of Vishnu, the Knot sometimes appears in representations of Vishnu in the form of an eight-looped knot on his chest. The mysterious powers of the Knot, which also signifies Buddha’s endless compassion and infinite wisdom, bring happiness to Buddha’s followers.
7. The Victory Banner, one of which can sometimes be seen on the roof of a monastery in places like Tibet, was a military standard used in ancient Indian warfare, bearing the symbol of that side’s champion (in the Mahabharata, for example, Krishna’s chariot featured a banner with an image of the monkey-god Hanuman). For Buddha, the victory banner represents his victory over the demon Mara, over passion, fear of death, and lust. It also represents our own victory over our fears and delusions. Victory banners in the form of cylinders made of beaten copper are traditionally placed at the four corners of monastery and temple roofs, symbolizing Buddha’s Dharma radiating to the four directions.
8. The Wheel of the Dharma or Law represents Buddha’s teaching, often referred to as “turning the wheel of Dharma.” The Wheel has long been one of the most sacred of all Buddhist symbols. In early Buddhist art, the Dharma Wheel appeared often – for instance, on the tops of the pillars built by Emperor Ashoka (reigned 268-232 BCE), four carved lions and four wheels facing the four directions proclaimed the Dharma throughout India. On images of Buddha, the wheel appears on the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. Usually the wheel is depicted with eight spokes, which represent Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path (right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration). Therefore this magical wheel represents the end of suffering, and the attainment of the most perfect form of happiness. The hub is the center of the universe, and the rim is the training of one’s concentration.
As is mentioned above, in some traditions the Eight Auspicious Signs have been seen to represent the organs of Buddha’s body. An ancient text, the Heap of Good Fortune Sutra (Aryamangalakutanama-mahayana Sutra), addresses Buddha in this way:
Veneration to you with your head like a protecting parasol,
With eyes like the precious golden fishes,
With neck like a precious, adorned vase of good fortune,
With speech like a right-turning Dharma shell,
With a mind infinite with wisdom like the never ending knot,
With a tongue open like the auspicious pink lotus,
With a body proclaiming triumph over the attacking armies of Mara,
With feet that tread the path of Dharma like the auspicious wheel.