Many of the symbols we now know as ‘Buddhist’ originated from the Hindu tradition, since it was into the Hindu culture and religion that PrinceSiddharthaÂ Gautama, later known as the Buddha, was born. Not until several centuries after his death did symbols relating specifically to the Buddha, and the religion he inspired, come into being.
The first archeological evidence of Buddhist symbols were from the time of the Hindu King Ashoka, who was inspired by the teachings of Buddha. The king lived around 250 BC in Sarnath, India, a site still visited today for its wealth of archeological discoveries pertaining to early Buddhism. Ashoka’s devotion to the Buddha’s teachings gave birth to the creation of many of the symbols and images familiar in Buddhism today.
It was not until around 100 BC that any actual images of the Buddha himself appeared. In his lifetime, Buddha – a term that simply means one who has attained enlightenment – had discouraged any attempts by his disciples to venerate him personally. Buddhism, unlike Hinduism into which he was born, includes no references to gods,Â goddesses, or mono-theism. It was the teachings that were important, not his physical incarnation. All of us, on the path to enlightenment, has the potential to become a Buddha.
The earliest symbols of those teachings were the Eight Spoked Dharma Wheel and the Bodhi Tree. Other representations of the Buddha appeared as the Buddha’s Footprints, the Lotus, an Empty Throne, a Begging Bowl, and a Lion.
Padma – Symbol of Purity. Can be of any colour except blue.
The wheel of the law. The eight spokes represent the eightfold path.
The stupa is a symbolic graveÂ monumentÂ where relics or the ashes of a holy monk are kept. It also symbolises the universe.
The threeÂ jewelsÂ – the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.
A parasol – protection against all evil; high rank.
Banner – the victory of the Buddha’s teachings.
The deer -usually in pairs- symbolises the firstsermonÂ of the Buddha which was held in the deer park of Benares.
The snake king. Vestige of pre-Buddhist fertility rituals and protector of the Buddha and the Dhamma.
Around 600 AD there appeared an abundance of new imagery andÂ artworkÂ associated with the Buddha and his teachings. This was due to theÂ spiritualÂ practice of ‘imagination andÂ visualization’ as aÂ techniqueÂ for self-realization – achieving Nirvana – which had become popular at that time. This tradition is preserved mainly in Tibetan Buddhism and the Japanese Shingon tradition.
The Buddha image eventually became very popular in Buddhism, although to this day, those early symbols have remained in use, especially in Theravada Buddhism which is practiced inÂ countriesÂ like Sri Lanka and Thailand.
As Buddhism spread out from India into neighbouringÂ countriesÂ like Tibet, the symbolism became further enriched and elaborated upon. In places like Tibet, the ‘Eight Auspicious Symbols’ became central to their religious practice, most commonly appearing on prayer flags andÂ incorporatedÂ into mandalas for meditative contemplation. Tibetan Buddhism also established the Wheel of Life as a meditation on the universe and its karmic laws.
The Bodhi Tree, symbol of Buddha’s enlightenment, is a reminder of the ultimate human potential that lies within us all. ‘Bodhi’ in the SanskritÂ language, means ‘fully awake’.
Some people see this sacred Buddhist symbol as the ‘World Tree’, the mythical tree whose roots lie deep in the earth and whose branches support the heavens. A ‘tree of life’. In fact, the tree under which Buddha attained his enlightenment was an asiatic fig, orÂ ficusÂ religiosa. Of all the tattoo symbols that one couldadopt, there are few more immediately suggestible of spiritual practice than the Bodhi tree.
Prince Siddhartha Guatama, said to have lived some 2500 years ago on the northern plains of India, abandoned his life of luxury and privilege – not to mention his wife and child – and began wandering the countryside in search of eternal truths. Frustrated after years of living as an ascetic with nothing to show for it, he committed himself to sitting in complete stillness until he ‘woke up’. There he would stay,Â meditatingÂ under a Bodhi tree until he realized the true nature of suffering and existence. The rest is history, or myth, but in any event, the origins of a religion ofcompassionÂ that thrives to this day.
As well as symbolizing ‘enlightenment’, the Bodhi tree is synonymous with the very place of Buddha’s awakening, Bodhgaya, India. It also represents ourÂ human evolutionÂ towards liberation from endless reincarnations in which suffering is inescapable. Buddha’s tree is also sacred because of its age. At the site of Buddha’s enlightenment, a descendent of the original tree is said to be growing today. And at some Buddhist centres around the world, offshoots of the famous Bodhi tree can be found.
The Bodhi tree as a symbol was already popular in India, so that elevating the Bodhi tree, or itsÂ leafÂ to sacred status was not a great leap ofÂ faith, belief or imagination for most people. In the third century BC, India’s King Ashoka bolstered the Bodhi tree’s reputation by converting to Buddhism and practising hisÂ meditationsÂ under the original tree. His Queen, failing to appreciate the subtler points of his time-consumingconversion, had the tree chopped down, in an attempt to regain the attention of her beloved. Ashoka is said to have nourished the remaining stump and its roots with milk, and the tree revived, eventually growing once again to its full stature again. His daughter became a Buddhist nun and transplanted a cutting to a garden in a monastery in Sri Lanka, where it stands today as the oldest continually documented tree in the world.
Buddha, the original Prince Siddhartha Gautama, never intended for his enlightenment to metamorphisize into a religion complete with dogma and prayers. He was sure, however, that his experience would be helpful to others. Whatever wisdom he left behind was intended to be used as a guide for anyone who truly yearned to triumph over the suffering of this world and achieve a state of ‘Nirvana’. A potent beginning is simply to appreciate the ultimate wisdom symbolized by the Bodhi tree.
As such a Bodhi tree tattoo design is a powerful symbol indeed. Australian client gets a buddha meditating behind the bodhi tree design, done in morbid tattoo parlor in cash and carry mall Makati Manila, Philippines.