Buddhism - Introduction and Symbols

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What is Buddhism

The primary inspiration in the evolution of Buddhism was the discovery of human suffering caused by diseases, poverty and old age, ending in death. This is the inevitable consequence of life from birth, recognized and treated by Hinduism, but mainly concerned with the Underlying Principle of human existence and of the phenomenal universe.

Buddhism deals primarily and directly with the reality of human existence by delving into the mind and human consciousness. It is not concerned with or seeks to deny the metaphysical fundamentals of life and the cosmos. It emphasizes the alleviation of the human condition, based on human psychology, employing analytical methods and finally taking up meditation, the spiritual path that led Siddhartha into Buddhahood.

The human being is a composite of body, mind and spirit. It focuses on the mind and its psychological insight is indeed incisive and profound, for its constitution affects the body and the spirit. It is really holistic in its approach. For enlightenment, which brings salvation, the Buddha laid out The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Paths . The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are constructed on the logic of syllogism with the proposition or premise — the thesis:—

1. That suffering is caused by worldly bonds;

2. That its origin is linked to samsara, the cycle of human existence, caused by desire, such as lust, possession and happiness;

3. That suffering must be eliminated by the destruction of desire through the elimination of ignorance;

4. And that the elimination of ignorance, the ultimate cause of human misery, must be made through The Eightfold Paths which leads to enlightenment.

Mani Stone
Mani Stone at Buddhist Temple

The Eightfold Paths recommend the following:-

1. Right understanding

2. Right attitude

3. Right speech

4. Right action

5. Right conduct

6. Right effort

6. Right effort

8. Right meditation

These are the dynamics, the mechanism and the process of attaining enlightenment and therefore salvation. This involves seeking sanctuary in The Three Jewels, made up of The Buddha , the embodiment of enlightenment; the Dharma, the Cosmic Law; and The Sangha, the community of monks. Everyone therefore has to become a student, a disciple or a monk for his education, homing and enlightenment.

Conscious of karmic differences in human evolution the Buddha propounded the Three Vehicles representing three levels: the school, college or university and the postgraduate:

1. Hinayana — The Small Vehicle

Also known as Theravada, its basic doctrine is that enlightenment can be achieved alone, by self-discipline, by studying The Four Noble Truths and following The Eightfold Paths. The aim is to reach Nirvana , a state of peace, the final emancipation. This method could cover many lifetimes before Nirvana could be attained.

2. Mahayana — The Large Vehicle

Known as the Middle Doctrine — The Middle Path — it teaches moderation. This requires the assistance of an enlightened teacher. It leads to Buddhahood, but its main precept is the enlightenment of everybody. Hence, the teacher defers Buddhahood until everybody has been enlightened. The goal is the Absolute Void.

3. Vajrayana — The Diamond Vehicle

Buddhism Gods

Known as Tantrayana, its doctrine is that everyone is a potential Buddha, and that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime. Every element in human nature, considered as energy, is utilized in the attainment of enlightenment. This is considered the highest, but is extremely difficult.

This introductory work on Mahayana symbolism deals on the whole with Tantrayana mystical concepts. Being pre-Vedic, it was pervasive all over the subcontinent including the Himalaya and Tibet, where, isolated for centuries from the outside world, it retained the original and pure form of occult practices.

In particular the Tibetan Buddhism developed many of their own symbols, which are original in concept. Along with the emergence of different deities , there developed also different divine attributes, ritual artefacts and paraphernalia in ritual worship. They naturally acquired a different significance from those of Hinduism and to a slight extent, from those of the Mahayana discipline.

With the Tibetan exodus in the early 1960s when China occupied Tibet, the influx of Tibetans into the subcontinent brought about the introduction and spread of the sacred symbols . In a modern world these symbols seem strange, mysterious, and steeped in occult science or mysticism.

Because of its syncretistic nature, a background knowledge of Hinduism would help the reader to understand Vajrayana and the Mahayana symbolism to a greater extent by association. Also by extension the symbolism of pre-Vedic creeds, the original source of their evolution.


Buddhism Symbols
Compassion is the essence of Buddhism . In Tibetan this is known as Nin-jhi. It is compassion towards all living creatures, but most of all towards oneself. One must liberate oneself from human suffering, which will eventually culminate in a spiritual quest.

Worship is not central to the teachings of the Buddha , but in the development of Buddhism the Buddha himself is now worshipped. It is more a form of emulation of an exemplary human being who became a Buddha. It is because of him that a monk or student is aware that he himself is a potential Buddha.

Along with the old Hindu Gods & deities , there is now a proliferation of Bodhisattvas who are worshipped; but worship is not the Dharma —The Law. The Dharma must be studied and followed, or even worshipped.

The Law is practical, direct and incisive. It delves into the human psyche, the basic source of suffering. It contains the philosophy, the principles and the symbols to help acquire a deeper insight into human nature, which teaches that perfection is attainable.

In the Third Vehicle — Vajrayana, or the Diamond Vehicle, Buddhism and Hinduism tread on the same pre-Vedic mystical practice of Tantrism. In the end the would-be Bodhisattva must go it alone.

It is a lonely struggle. The Buddha has a powerful influence on the human mind, for his solitary figure evokes and exudes from the deepest source — the Absolute Void — the profound unfathomable quietude of a quiescent being who has attained perfection. Alone, the monk, or aspirant dwells on his own being, relying mainly on himself to attain perfection.

His ultimate and mystical destiny is back to the Source from where he came — The Void.

Symbols as Sacred Art

Buddhist Monk

Emerging out of the deeply mystical spiritual landscape of India, Buddhism naturally absorbed, almost by osmosis, the philosophy and principles already institutionalized as traditions in the culture of Hinduism. And Tantra in particular was pervasive, it was not adopted, but was inherent in the mystical lore of the land.

Thus Buddhist Tantrayana has the same basic philosophy, principles, ritual artefacts and symbols as Tantrism in Hinduism.

Tantric art has for its purpose the attainment of a higher level of perception. Its real significance lies, not in its aesthetic value, but in the philosophy of life it displays. ‘Tantra art is visual metaphysics’. It is a synthesis of the external and internal worlds. The psychophysical unity, man’s link with the cosmos, is a reality.

They are allegorical, products of creative psychic manifestations. Their real significance lies in their enigmatic metaphysical undertones. It is in this symbolism that the real is made visible; it becomes a visual aid for self- enlightenment .

The symbols are ageless, they have survived ages, through generations. They have a timeless quality representing governing principles of life. Tantric art has for its goal emancipation from ignorance: it is to realize what is intuitively known. This is the motif of the entire symbolism.

The symbols are ageless, they have survived ages, through generations. They have a timeless quality representing governing principles of life. Tantric art has for its goal emancipation from ignorance: it is to realize what is intuitively known. This is the motif of the entire symbolism.

The physical world is the workshop in which to realize the inner reality for a deep sense of fulfillment—enlightenment.


Buddhism Gods

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism and the Eightfold Paths, the Hinayana and the Mahayana Vehicles are original and exclusive Buddhist concepts . The Vajrayana or Tantrayana Vehicle was adopted as Buddhist training, eventually culminated in a spiritual quest.

Vajrayana, the thunderbolt path, also known as the Diamond Vehicle, is the most powerful of all the three Buddhist vehicles.

In Mahayana, however, Buddhahood is a group endeavour, with the attainment of the Absolute Void deferred even over several lifetimes until everyone is ready. In Tantra , because of its power-method and individual struggle, Buddhahood could be achieved in an amazingly quick manner, not over several lifetimes but in a single lifetime.

Vajrayana, in its mystical secrecy, appears subsumed under Mahayana, but it is the real spirit, the substance, the light that illuminates Buddhism . Its occult art or sciences evoke mysticism. Its central method is yogic meditation, which is considered supreme.

It is apparently in principle, but not metaphysically, antithetical with the core teaching of the Buddha in regard to human desire — the cause of human misery — for it is this very weakness that is employed in tantra. The desire, the intense passion, is harnessed and used in the attainment of Buddhahood . Its fundamental characteristics remain; detachment, asceticism, and renunciation of worldly life.

It is the same Tantra that emerges supreme in the attainment of self-realization in Hinduism. It is for the same reason therefore that, except for the libetan variations, Buddhist symbols remain practically the same as Hindu. Central to the system are also the three principles called the Triguya; the yantra for the spirit, the mantras for the mind or soul, and the asanas or physical yogic exercises for the body.

Vajrayana expounds a mystical philosophy and applies the three principles of action all together in a concentrated powerful way to attain Buddha hood.

In Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism there are three major symbols: the bell , the vajra or dorje , and the thunderbolt scepter. Together they represent incorruptible purity of the diamond — the truth — that no force can destroy.

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