Quan Am Temple
Mahayana Buddhist Practice
Buddhist Symbols

Images of Buddha                                                              
The Buddha statue or other depiction is a symbol in the same sense as the American flag. The American flag is a symbol of a country. It has 13 stripes and 50 stars, which represent the original 13 colonies and the 50 states. The 3 colors, red white, and blue, represent the spirit of courage, purity and loyalty. This flag stands for our country; therefore, we as citizens, respect and honor our flag. The Buddha image is a symbol of an ideal, the enlightened one. It represents perfect compassion and perfect wisdom.

The Buddha image is not an idol as many non-Buddhists think. While it is placed upon the altar, it also exists in our minds and hearts. Buddhists do not worship the image; In fact, the word “worship” as it is known in the West does not exist in Buddhism. The word “Buddha” means Enlightened One. Buddha was a man, a human being, just as you and I are, but he was enlightened; that is to say, he came to understand the truth about life and the world and he lived that truth.

If we imagine our head as a "cup" which is currently full of our self-centeredness, the act of bowing "empties our cup" so that it can then be filled with the Dharma (truth). This is the essence of the Buddhist awakening.

The Lotus (padma) is a very important symbol in India and of Buddhism.  In brief, it refers to the complete purification of body, speech and mind, and the blossoming of wholesome deeds in liberation.  The lotus refers to many aspects of the path, as it grows from the mud (samsara), up through muddy water it appears clean on the surface (purification), and finally produces a beautiful flower (enlightenment).  The white blossom represents purity, the stem stands for the practice of Buddhist teachings which raise the  mind above the (mud of) worldly existence, and gives rise to purity of mind.  An open blossom signifies full enlightenment; a closed blossom signifies the potential for enlightenment.

Flowers are beautiful for decoration. However, flowers in Buddhist temples symbolize the teaching of transience. The Buddha taught that all things in this world are in constant change, and nothing is permanent. Flowers are beautiful in the morning but fade in the heat of the day. The flowers remind us of this constant change of things and life. We are faced with the facts of old age, sickness, and death, regardless of whether we desire them or not.

This is one of the meditations used in the offering of flowers:

These flowers I offer in memory of the Buddha, the Supremely Enlightened One. These flowers are now fair in form, glorious in color, sweet in scent. Yet all will soon have passed away, their fair form withered, the bright hues faded, their scent gone. It is even so with all conditioned things which are subject to change and suffering and are unreal. Realizing this, may we attain Nirvana, perfect peace, which is everlasting.

Incense is used in the same sense as in the offering of flowers. It is offered in memory of the Buddha, and is another form of meditation. It is a symbol which signifies the spirit of self-purification and self-dedication. Incense has the potential of producing a sweet fragrance, but only when it burns does it diffuse this fragrance. As this incense burns, it is our joy to diffuse sweet fragrance: “I will dedicate my body for higher purposes, more than just for myself.”

Incense has different colors and different shapes. Some kinds of incense are powdered; others are in the form of sticks or cakes of various shapes. There are also different colors: purple, black, yellow, green, and brown. But regardless of the shape or color, when incense burns it transcends its individual shape and color and becomes one in the smoke. This symbolizes the transcending of individual selfishness or ego to become one with all others, to become one with the oneness of life.

Meditation Beads     

There are no prayers in Buddhism. The words we recite are meditations and not prayers. We recite to ourselves the virtues of the Buddha and his Doctrine so that we may acquire such mental dispositions as are favorable to the attainment of similar qualities in our own minds, in however small a degree. According to Buddhism, the universe is governed by everlasting unchangeable laws of righteousness, not by any Supreme being who can hear and answer prayers. These laws are so perfect that no one, no god or man, can change them by praising them or by crying out against them.

Meditation beads (mala in Sanskrit and Pali and ojuzu in Japanese, pictured above) are a symbol of unity and harmony. The strand is composed of beads strung on a string, each bead representing an individual. However, the bead is not isolated and independent but is connected with all others to compose the whole strand. We individuals may seem independent, but we are not independent or isolated individuals. We are related to each other in the association of life which we call Buddha nature or Buddha thought. We are interrelated and inter-dependent, and one cannot exist without the others. Thus, meditation beads symbolize the unity of all beings and harmony among them.

Eight-Spoked Dharma Wheel                                               
or 'Dharmachakra' (Sanskrit) symbolises the Buddha's turning the Wheel of Truth or Law (dharma - truth/law, chakra = wheel). 

The wheel (on the left and right) refers to the story that shortly after the Buddha achieved enlightenment, Brahma requested the Buddha to teach by offiering him a Dharmachakra.  The Buddha is known as the Wheel-Turner: he who sets a new cycle of teachings in motion and in consequence changes the course of destiny.

Gongs are used in Buddhist Temples and homes for three purposes: to announce the time of a meeting; to mark different phases of services or tempos of chanting; and, as a symbol aiding in mediation--when a beautiful sound is heard, we listen to it resonate through to the soundless sound upon which depends the meditation.

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