Hail to the Tantra
Mudras - Sacred Gestures
Mandalas - Sacred Circles
Prayer Flags and Wheels
Some Other Rituals
For the untrained, especially the symbolism in tantra can be extremely confusing. However, it should be noted that in modern psychology, Freud and Jung have clarified many aspects of the sub-consciousness in terms of symbolism. (In Buddhism, something like sub-consciousness is an impossibility by definition - an awareness without consciousness does not make sense.) In order to access these more hidden and subtle aspects of our mind, symbols can be very effective in mind transformation. As Jean Shinoda Bolen writes in The Tao of psychology:
"Jung describes archetypes as 'patterns of instinctual behaviour'. ... One definition of archetypes that Jung uses refers to 'primordial images', or archetypal figures that become activated and then clothed with personally derived emotional coloration. This occurs when an emotional [or spiritual] situation develops that corresponds to a particular archetype. .. For example the 'Wise Old Man', the 'Divine Child', 'All-Giving Mother', 'Patriarchal Father', 'Temptress' or 'Trickster' - all are symbolic, recurring figures in dreams, literature and religions. When the archetypal level of the collective unconscious is touched in a situation, there is emotional intensity as well as a tendency for symbolic expression. Then the usual everyday level of experience becomes altered; there is more 'magic' in the air. One can become 'inspired' or be on a 'crusade'."
The very last word of this quote is important in the entire concept of tantra; it can be efficient in enhancing spiritual progress, but if used unskilful, it can lead to madness like personal 'crusades' and 'holy wars'. This presents another good reason for the traditional secrecy of tantric practice and reliance on a true spiritual master.
Another important aspect is the fact that the Buddha clearly explained that "meaningless ritual" should not be practised. So by definition, one could say that ritual in Buddhism is filled with symbolic meaning.
Most of below symbols are taken from the Tibetan traditions, as they can be considered to have preserved the most complete tantric canon.
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The Vajra is a very important symbol in Buddhist tantra. In fact, the tantric teachings are even referred to as the Vajrayana or Vajra-vehicle. The vajra is probably a derivation of a weapon and a sceptre, and may have its origins in the trident and a mendicants' staff, and symbolises being indestructible, therefore sometimes compared to a diamond.
To give an impression of the vast symbolic meaning of many objects used in Tibetan Buddhist tantra, below is a summary excerpt from the excellent book "The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs" by Robert Beer. It describes the most common version of the five-pronged vajra. (There are also the one-pronged, three-pronged and nine-pronged vajra, the double vajra etc., each with their own extensive symbolism....)
At the centre of the vajra is a flattened sphere representing the dharmata as the 'sphere of actual reality'. This sphere is sealed within by the syllable HUM, whose three component sounds represent freedom from karma (Hetu), freedom from conceptual thought (Uha) and the groundlessness of all dharmas (M). On either side of the central hub are three rings [which] symbolise the spontaneous bliss of Buddha nature as emptiness, signlessness and effortlessness. Emerging from the three rings on either side are two eight-petalled lotuses. The sixteen petals represent the sixteen modes of emptiness. The upper lotus petals also represent the eight bodhisattvas, and the eight lower petals, the eight female consorts.Above the lotus bases are another series of three pearl-like rings, which collectively represents the six perfections of patience, generosity, discipline, effort, meditation and wisdom. A full moon disc crowns each of the lotuses, symbolising the full realisation of absolute and relative bodhichitta. Emerging from the moon discs are five tapering prongs, forming a spherical cluster or cross. The four [outer] curved prongs curve inwards to the central prong, symbolising that the four aggregates of form, feeling, perception and motivation depend upon the fifth aggregate of consciousness. The five upper prongs of the vajra represent the Five Buddhas (Akshobhya, Vairochana, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amogasiddhi), and the unity of their five wisdoms, attributes and qualities. The five lower prongs represent the female consorts of the Five Buddhas (Mamaki, Lochana, Vajradhatvishvari, Pandara and Tara) and the unity of their qualities and attributes. The Five Buddhas and their consorts symbolise the elimination of the five aggregates of personality. The ten prongs together symbolise the ten perfections (the six mentioned above plus skilful means, aspiration, inner strength, and pure awareness); the 'ten grounds' or progressive levels of realisation of a bodhisattva; and the ten directions. Each of the outer prongs arise from the heads of Makaras (sea monster). The four Makaras symbolise the four immeasurables (compassion, love, sympathetic joy and equanimity); the four doors of liberation (emptiness, signlessness, wishlessness and lack of composition); the conquest of the four Maras (emotional defilements, passion, death, divine pride and lust); the four activities or karmas; the four purified elements (air, fire, water, earth); and the four joys (joy, supreme joy, the joy of cessation and innate joy).
The tips at the end of the central prong may be shaped like a tapering pyramid or four-faceted jewel, which represents Mount Meru as the axial centre of both the outer macrocosm and inner microcosm. The twin faces of the symmetrical vajra represent the unity of relative and absolute truth.
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SOME OTHER TANTRIC IMPLEMENTS
In tantric rituals, the Vajra is normally held in the right hand, and the
Bell in the left. In this combination, the Vajra symbolises method, bliss and
male aspects, and the Bell symbolises wisdom, emptiness, the female
The Bell is traditionally topped by a half-vajra and engraved with syllables. It symbolises the sound of the Dharma and is often used in tantric rituals to offer sound.
Whenever one holds these objects, one should try to remember these symbolic meanings, with which the mind will gradually familiarise; this is the main idea behind meditation.
An implement carried around by most Tibetans is the Mala or a
rosary of prayer beads. These are not unlike the Christian rosary, or
the beads used in Islam and Hinduism. They are used to focus ones' mind on the
recitation of mantras, and to count them as part of a practice. There are for
example practices for which one is required to recite 100,000 mantras; obviously
a simple counter is needed to keep track of this huge number. The Tibetan mala
usually has at least 108 beads - this number probably originates to the 108
names for Hindu deities (the same number is used in Islam to refer to God).
Tibetans often attach strings to their malas which have little sliding rings on
them, these are to keep count of the number of malas; in such a way one can
count up to 10,000 or even more on one mala using two or more simple counters.
This site contains solid information on vajra, bell en prayer beads.
A very special object within Tibetan tantric practice is the Kapala or skullcup (see right), a stunning one is depicted on the beautiful site of Miya Shimada. The skullcup is, probably needless to say, related to detachment and transformation of the world we experience.
The Tibetan Bumpa is a ritual vase which represents the palace of the deities. It is used as a vessel of purification, to bestow blessings and confer empowerments
Some implements are typical for specific practices, like Phurbas (see left); ritual stakes used to subdue and subsequently enlist negative, uncontrolled, or otherwise wrathful powers. Phurbas refer to the Buddhist theme of self-control, and to the tantric employment of negative powers on the path to enlightenment.
Swords, like the one of Buddha Manjushri symbolise the ability to cut
through delusion or obstacles, as such they represent wisdom, knowledge, or the
protection given by Buddhist doctrine.
Mallets or Hammers (Skt. mudgara) and a Club (Skt. gada) symbolise crushing strength or power.
Bow and Arrow refer to single pointed concentration to achieve the goal of liberation.
The Trident is a piercing weapon, its, three points also carrying connotations of the power of the three jewels.
The Lasso relates to the constraint of negative forces.
See also the image at the Kadarshan Art page and the referred essay.
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MUDRAS - SACRED GESTURES
To make the tantric experience complete, actions of one's body, speech and mind are to be transformed. A typical example of the actions of the body is the practice of mudras. These are movements and positions of the hands which have profound symbolic meaning. One uses mudras to symbolise for example the various offerings, but they also convey general meanings like e.g. teaching or meditation.
The image on the left is of the planned Maitreya statue in Bodhgaya, it happens to be an unconventional posture to depict Maitreya: his right hand on the knee signifies giving refuge and loving compassion to all beings; the left hand at his heart is in the teaching mudra: the thumb and index finger are pressed together to symbolise the united practice of method and wisdom, and the three remaining fingers are raised to symbolise the Three Jewels of Refuge - Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
The image on the right represents a traditional depiction of Shakyamuni
Buddha, just after his enlightenment. His right hand touches the earth to
symbolise it has witnessed his enlightenment, and his left hand is in the
meditation mudra. (Sometimes the meditation mudra is performed with both hands
on top of each other in the lap.
More mudras and their significance can be found at this site.
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MANDALAS - SACRED CIRCLES
In Tibetan Buddhism, Mandalas come in two varieties; it can represent the conventional universe (see the image left), as it is used in the Mandala Offering Ritual, where one symbolically offers the entire universe. For this, several rings can be placed on top of each other filled with rice and precious objects (see right). During the offering one recites mandala offering prayers.
The best-known mandalas represent the "3D Palace" of a specific Buddha-form or deity. In the Tibetan tradition, they come as thangkas (scroll-paintings), wall paintings, sand-drawings and 3D models of e.g. wood or metal. A mandala can also be a mental construction in concentrated meditation.
A mandala can be "read" and studied like a text and most important, be used for tantric meditation. The purpose of a mandala is to acquaint the student with the tantra, and thus allowing the student to identify with the deity and its surroundings as the mandala. (See also Tantra.)
The mandala of
Kalachakra like the one on the left, symbolises the entire universe in terms
of planets and time cycles, as well as aspects of our body and mind, and even
the practice. Deities and other images within the mandala represent for example
the sense organs, the elements and mental aspects, all in a purified state.
Every implement held by each deity has again its own meaning.
A sand mandala represents a full 3 dimensional palace, often of more than one. For example, the image on the right is from an actual 3D mandala of Zhi-Khro (the six bardos) with 2 stories. These mandalas are used in many ways; as a focal point of intense meditation, in the practice of actually making one, and in their destruction (like sand mandalas after an initiation is completed) to teach impermanence. In the practice of Kalachakra, one strives at visualising the complete mandala, including its hundreds of deities in perfect detail within the size of a tiny drop. This should give an idea of the level of concentration required for transforming oneself into a Buddha.... Creating a Kalachakra mandala of some 2 meters diameter, traditionally takes 6 days, employing as many as 16 monks.
(Click for a large number of weblinks to mandalas on
Fascinating images and movies of the VajraYogini mandala can be found on this website of Miya Shimada.
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PRAYER FLAGS AND WHEELS
Typically found in Tibetan areas are the many prayer flags that decorate
monasteries, houses and even mountain passes. It is believed that the special
power of the mantras printed on them is spread all over the world by the
Prayer wheels are another typical Tibetan phenomena. They are usually crammed with mantras, and similar to prayer flags, it is taught that the power of the mantras will spread when the wheel is turned. The more mantras, the better. Prayer wheels come in many variations; from handheld, to huge ones that require serious muscle power to set in motion. They are also called Mani-wheels, as the wheels usually contain the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM (the central letters below show this famous mantra in Tibetan).
They can also be driven by water or wind - even your harddisk can function as a prayer wheel. Or what about a screensaver with prayer wheels?
Teachings on prayer flags and wheels can be found on the FPMT website. Or view the Dharma Haven site for much information.
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Offering rituals come in many different forms, from placing offering cakes (Tib. torma) on an altar, to blessings of sacred objects (Tib. rabne), dance rituals, feast-offerings (Tib. tsog) and fire-pujas, to name but a few.
Offering Cakes or Tormas (Tib.) contain several substances with
their own symbolic meaning. In India, this offering traditionally contained
three sweet substances: molasses, honey and sugar and three white substances:
curd, butter and milk. In Tibet, these would be mixed with tsampa or parched
barley flour to make an offering cake. For specific practices, grains, alcohol,
meat, or medicine may be added. Adding five types of grains is believed to
overcome poverty and famine, while the 6 medicinal aromatics are thought to
overcome illness and epidemics. Tormas can have many different shapes, again
related to their specific purpose. For example, typical stepped, pyramid shaped
tormas are specific to wrathful deities with wavy outer lines representing smoke
and flames. The colour of these sometimes match the colour of the attending
deity. Cakes for peaceful deities often contain round shapes. The tormas are
traditionally decorated with sculptures made of butter and colorants. For some
occasions, a cross of coloured threads, believed to have been introduced by Guru
Rinpoche, is added to the torma. Two wooden sticks are bound together in the
shape of a cross on which coloured threads are woven to create a cobweb-like
Tormas can be vary from a simple small clump, to very large and complicated, measuring up to a few meters in size. They can be used as devices to which all the evil and sickness of an individual or a community are transferred and thereby eliminated. Every year in many of the temples, monasteries and dzongs the ritual of "casting away torma" is performed on the twenty-ninth day of the last month of the year, in some places accompanied by dances. In this way, negativities of the past year can be ended.
Feast Offerings (Tsog (Tib.) or Ganacakra (Skt.) are regarded as an indispensable means for conferring accomplishment and pacifying obstacles. There are three aspects to the feast-offering: the gathering of fortunate practitioners in the feast; the outer, inner and secret sacraments of the ritual which are offered and consumed during the feast; and Buddhas - whether actual or visualised - who receive the offerings and bring the ritual to its successful conclusion. The overall purpose is to distribute merit and wisdom in the context of a specific tantric ritual.
Fire Pujas can be as simple as in the Vajra Daka practice (see the page on tantra), or can be very elaborate, like at the completion of a long tantric retreat. Fire pujas are also held to bless the ground before the construction of temples or stupas. Fire offerings can be of different types: peaceful to overcome obstacles and defilements (like usually after a retreat); increasing to expand wealth, wisdom and merit and to gain longevity, controlling to subdue harmful forces; forceful to banish negative forces.
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SOME OTHER RITUALS
Consecration. Upon completion of a temple or an image for meditation,
people invite lamas to perform a consecration ceremony on an auspicious day
fixed by an astrologer. The main purpose of the consecration ritual is to invite
the wisdom beings from their pure Buddha-fields through the power of the
practitioner's meditation, the potency of the ritual and the devotion of the
hosts. The wisdom beings are invited, merge into the object being consecrated,
and their presence is sealed by the procedures of the ritual until the object is
damaged. Thus the object is blessed and becomes sacred. A similar ritual, a
deconsecration or transformation ritual, is performed when a consecrated image
has to be repaired or renovated.
However, Sakya Pandita wrote in his book The Right Practice of Different Views (Domsum Rabgye):
"Consecration of images is not taught in the Sutras. However, if blessing ceremonies and offering rituals on auspicious occasions, such as those performed for a king at his enthronement are consecration rituals, then one may say that consecration rituals are taught therein."
See here for more information on the web on consecration and other rituals.
Sacred Dances are carried out by monks for various purposes; from
rituals to remove obstacles prior to the creation of a sand mandala ("protecting
and consecrating the site", in which interfering forces are summoned to protect
the mandala site) to offering dances and acting out the life stories of famous
Buddhist saints. Several monasteries are famed for their annual sacred dances. A
lively description the Mani
Rimdu festival is found here on the web.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is known however to have warned for making these festivals too worldly; they are intended to be spiritual practices, and should not be reduced to simple entertainment.
An excellent book on symbolism is Robert Beer's "Encyclopedia of Tibetan
Symbols and Motifs", Serindia publications.
A good classical one is Lama Anagarika Govinda's "Foundation of Tibetan Mysticism", which describes a vast amount of symbolism surrounding the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM.
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Last updated: February 25, 2001