Lama Surya Das sets the record straight on golden fishes, parasols, vases, and other auspicious signs.
Q: I am interested in religious symbols. I heard that the fish is an ancient Buddhist symbol, as well as a sign of Jesus. Is there some connection?
A: The fish is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols in Buddhism. These ancient symbols predate both Christianity and Buddhism, originating in the very early spiritual traditions of India. I have read that in the face of Roman persecution, early Christians used a simple line drawing of a fish as a secret sign or password to stand in for the name of Christ, since the Greek word for fish, ichthus, is an acronym for the phrase “Jesus Christ, God, Son, Savior,” if the first letters of the Greek words are used. This symbol of faith has been found inscribed on the stone walls of the dungeon-like catacombs beneath Rome where Christians were imprisoned.
I believe there is a common thread between the Buddhist and Christian uses of the cosmic, water-connected symbol of the fish.
The use of the fish as a symbol for Jesus may be connected to the miracle of spiritual abundance described in the story of the loaves and fishes, or to the notion of Jesus as “a fisher of men.” I believe that a common thread between the Buddhist and Christian uses of this cosmic, water-connected symbol is the universal notion that religious leaders such as Buddha and Christ provide spiritual wisdom that provides relief—-just as water alleviates thirst.
The golden fishes, found on Indian vases from centuries before the Christian era, originally represented the two sacred rivers Ganges and Jamuna in ancient India. These were adopted as a symbol of fertile abundance and good fortune by both the Jain and Buddhist religions.
In Buddhism, the Eight Auspicious Symbols, also known as the Eight Signs of Good Fortune, are the following: the parasol, the golden fishes, the treasure vase, the lotus, the conch shell, the endless knot, the victory banner, and the wheel (click here to see what they look like).
The Eight Auspicious Symbols are inscribed everywhere in Tibetan Buddhist temples and architecture, art and iconography, and on amulets and reliquaries, jewelry, carpets, offering scarves, prayer flags, and banners–wherever Tibetans are found. In brief, these are their significance: The parasol, which provides shade and shelter, was a symbol of personal rank or power in ancient India and signifies protection from suffering and the enjoyment of many benefits in its shade. The golden fishes suggest life through the life-giving waters of spirit.
The treasure vase is a sign of supernatural powers, inexhaustible abundance, and the fulfillment of spiritual and material wishes.
The lotus symbolizes inner purity, as it grows out of the mud and blossoms above the water’s surface and raises its face to the sunlight. The right-turning conch–originally a symbol of the sacred feminine principle among the Hindu gods–in Buddhism symbolizes the sounds of Buddhist teachings being heard far and wide. The endless knot, an intricately intertwined yet simply designed graphic ornament, symbolizes truth’s wholeness and consistency and the infinite interconnectedness of all things in the web of karma.
The victory banner stands for the supremacy of knowledge and wisdom over ignorance and confusion–the ascendance of spiritual light over darkness and the ultimate triumph of spirit. The eight-spoked wheel represents the Buddhist dharma (wisdom or teachings) and the Noble Eightfold Path of enlightenment taught by the Buddha when he first set the dharma in motion–rolling, as it were–in his original teachings in the Deer Park outside Benares some 2,500 hundred years ago; thus we often see a deer on either side of the eight-spoked wheel atop the roof of temples and monasteries, representing the teachings of the Buddha.
Buddhism, like all the major world religions and spiritual traditions, uses symbols to encode its teachings and values. Iconography was one of the ancients’ means of transmitting knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation, especially in preliterate times and oral cultures. Certain shapes and forms, as well as sounds, vibrate in subtle ways that can be skillfully utilized in order to produce certain effects or to inculcate certain states of mind. It is likely for this reason that we have universal archetypes such as six-pointed stars, crosses, mandalas, rainbows, sun and moon, wings, and the like, which resonate in people’s consciousness, regardless of creed or culture, transmitting spiritual energy across the generations.
A Tibetan teacher named Lama Dagyab Rinpoche writes: “From the Tibetan point of view, symbols are signs which we use to remind ourselves of the interrelations between inward and outward, between mental activities and material appearances, so that we can recognize them more clearly. This awareness, in turn, enables us to influence reality–even in its future developments.”
Buddha himself prohibited the making of images and idols, and during his lifetime he discouraged replicas of himself.
Buddha himself prohibited the making of images and idols, and during his lifetime he discouraged replicas of himself. Yet in later centuries, human nature being what it is, people began to make reproductions of their teacher’s image in order to aid inspiration and memory. Today, the image of a peacefully smiling, seated Buddha is found throughout the world–even as garden ornaments embodying tranquility and peace. The recent destruction by the Taliban of Afghanistan’s great, ancient stone Buddha statues, although a great loss to world culture, reminds us that Buddhism, like all deep wisdom traditions, does not depend on statues or images. As Shantideva, the great seventh-century Indian sage said, in the face of a similar onslaught, “the Buddhas don’t mind.”