Signs and Symbols

Have Buddhists always depicted the Buddha in painting and sculpture?

For generations after the Buddha’s death his followers hesitated to depict the Teacher in human form. Perhaps they avoided direct visual representation out of respect for the Buddha, one too sacred to be so portrayed. Whatever the motivation, early Buddhist artists chose a variety of symbols to represent the Buddha. Early Christian artists likewise refrained from depicting Christ in human form, opting for symbols like the fish and the empty cross. The most important symbols for the Buddha included the riderless horse, the parasol, the tree, the empty throne, footprints, the eight-spoked wheel, and the stupa. A riderless horse recalled the Buddha’s renunciation and departure from his father’s palace. Parasols were symbols of royalty and represented the great honor due to an Enlightened One. Buddha reached enlightenment beneath the Bo tree, and artists often left a space before the tree to suggest the presence of the Buddha. Some scenes place an empty throne beneath the tree. Artists sometimes choose to show a pair of footprints just in front of the throne. Footprints also appear by themselves somewhere in a scene to indicate where the Buddha would have been. A wheel of eight spokes was a reminder of the Eightfold Noble Path and the Four Noble Truths. Depictions of a stupa, resting place of the Buddha’s remains, frequently served as a reminder of his spiritual presence. Several other items especially popular in China among the “Eight Auspicious Signs” include a pair of fish, symbol of universal Indian monarchy; the lotus blossom of purity; and the conch shell of victory. Chinese Buddhist altars often held clay or carved wooden images of these symbols.


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