Symbolic Representation in Buddhism

By Prasopchigchana, Sarunya | International Journal on Humanistic Ideology, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

Symbolic Representation in Buddhism


Prasopchigchana, Sarunya, International Journal on Humanistic Ideology


1. Symbolic representations in Buddhism

1.1. On the meaning of symbolic representations

The word "symbol" derived and distorted from its usual Greek meaning, signifying a sign of recognition or password, has become synonymous with the representation of a concept by a conventional sign.

Every culture has its own conception of symbolism, as do various groups of philosophers, historians and sociologists. Many of the theories used to explain and understand them are contradictory, and some people, such as the anthropologist Dan Sperber, have doubted that it is possible even to define symbolism. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) attempted to put together a typology of symbols that includes such elementary, "natural" forms as the icon and the image, using the term "symbol" to refer to "arbitrary signs" functioning within a complex communication system. Conversely, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) employed the word "symbol" to refer only to "predetermined signs". For Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, symbolism is "the art of thinking in images", an art now lost to civilized man, notably in the last three hundred years, perhaps in consequence of the "catastrophic theories of Descartes", to quote Schneider. Coomaraswamy, then, shares the views of Erich Fromm, and of Bayley, explicit in the titles of their respective works: The Forgotten Language of Symbolism. However, this loss - as anthropology and psychoanalysis have shown - is limited to consciousness and not to the "unconscious", which, to compensate, is perhaps now overloaded with symbolic material. Fromm, steering his course along the normal channels of symbolic knowledge, lays down three kinds of symbols which are different in degree: (a) the conventional, (b) the accidental, (c) the universal. The first kind comprises simple acceptance of a constant affinity stripped of any optical or natural basis: for example, many signs used in industry, in mathematics and in other fields. The second type springs from strictly transitory conditions and is due to associations made through casual contact. The third kind is that which the scholars defined, according to Fromm, as the existence of the intrinsic relation between the symbol and what it represents. It is obvious that this relation does not always have the same vitality. For this reason, scholars have already pointed out; it is difficult to classify symbols with exactitude.

A characteristic of symbol, it is claimed, is its "innate power". But if the concept of "innate power" means that symbols possess some kind of inherent power in the magical sense or that their meaning lies within themselves, then clearly that is at odds with the notion of acceptability of symbols and their value, importance and meaning as being related to the thing symbolized. It is not possible for symbols both to possess "innate power" in the magical sense and to be socially determined or acceptable.

Many of these symbols might have originated in the dark recesses of the unconscious, although in course of time they acquired an accepted meaning and recognized value. Recent researches in psychoanalysis, ethnology and the history of religion have greatly widened the scope of the study of symbols and symbolism. Symbolic thinking is considered as "an autonomous mode of cognition". It is consubstantial with human existence; it comes before language and discursive reason.

1.2. Buddhist symbolic representations

Significantly, the Buddha himself is absent from the very early images. Instead of representing his physical form, early Buddhist artisans employed a range of visual symbols to communicate aspects of the Buddha's teachings and life story: the wheel of Dharma (dharmacakra), denoting his preaching ("turning") his first sermon, and also, with its eight spokes. The eight-fold Buddhist path; the Bodhi tree, which represents the place of his enlightenment (under a papal ficus tree at Bodhgayä) and also serves to signify the enlightenment experience itself (as well as the very powerful moment of enlightenment, the beginning of Buddhism); the throne, symbolizing the Buddha's status as "ruler" of the religious realm, and also, through its emptiness, his passage into final nirvana; the deer, evoking both the place of his first sermon, the deer park at Sarnath, and also the protective qualities of the Dharma; the footprint (or foot-prints), which denote both his former physical presence on earth and the reality of his temporal absence; the lotus, symbolic of the individual's journey up through the "mud" of existence, to bloom, with the aid of the Dharma, into pure enlightenment; and the stüpa, the reliquary in which are contained the Buddha's physical remains, a powerful symbol of both his physical death and his continued presence in the world. …

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