Dear Venerable Tenzin Bhikkhu, what is the significance of the Ashtamangala in the Monijiao and Zhangzhung Shenpo traditions?
In Buddhism, including the school of Monijiao and the Tibetan Zhangzhung Shenpo (Chinese and Tibetan Manichaeism), we have what we refer to as the Ashtamangala or the Eight Auspicious Symbols. Every culture, from India to China has its own symbols and signs that have religious and spiritual significance.
It is often very difficult to establish the origin or dates of such symbols, but here I will explain the significance of the Ashtamangala according to Monijiao, which is shared by Zhangzhung Shenpo.
The list of the symbols include:
1. Parasol (Umbrella)
3. Two Gold Fish
4. Conch Shell
5. Endless Knot
6. Victory Banner
Sometimes this is referred to as the Precious Umbrella. The Sanskrit term is “chattra.” The artistic rendition comes in many different styles and colors, from single to triple “layers” and when made (outside of artistic form) it could shield at least four people under it. These are often made of silk with many different colors, but yellow is usually predominant. The Parasol often has several streaming silk strips.
In a simple definition, the Parasol symbolizes protection. It also signifies spiritual power, but not in a worldly sense.
This is often referred to as the Treasure Vase. The Sanskrit term is “kalasa.” It is designed both artistically and manufactured with a wide belly with a short neck. In most cases, the Vase is highly decorated. Within Monijiao, the Treasure Vase signifies complete fulfillment on a spiritual level.
Two Gold Fish
The Two Gold Fish are usually depicted facing each other, and as their name would indicate, they are gold. The Sanskrit term is “suvarnamatsya.” These Two Gold Fish represent freedom or liberation, the ability for all living beings to move freely with the truth. The Gold Fish also represent spiritual good fortune.
This is usually referred to as the “Right-Turning Conch Shell.” The Sanskrit term is “daksinavartasankha.” Often, but not always, the Conch Shell is white. Some have a tradition of painting the Conch Shell and adding jewels, beads, and other embellishments including hand drawn or painted depictions of spiritual teachers, including the Buddha. The Right-Turning Conch (clockwise spiraling) is quite rare and can be expensive if purchased on the market (especially if they are real and not manufactured in a plant). The Conch Shell is a very ancient religious symbol. They can also serve as decorations on altars (attached to the front and sides) and on picture frames.
In Monijiao and Zhanzhung Shenpo, the Conch Shell represents sacred sound and music in general. Smaller shells of similar shape or form (not always right-turning in each case) are also used as symbolic offerings on the altar.
The Endless Knot, or as some refer to it “Auspicious Drawing”, is a beautiful and highly significant ornament among the Eight Auspicious Symbols. The Sanskrit term is “srivatsa.” In some of the more artistic forms of the Endless Knot, it appears with ribbons and other fabrics draped through it.
In our tradition the Endless Know, or Glorious Endless Knot, represents reality and shows how all phenomena are connected and dependent on cause and condition. The Endless Knot also represents the infinite knowledge of the Buddha of Light.
The Victory Banner or “Sign” comes in many different forms. The Sanskrit term is “dhvaja.”
For Monijiao and Zhangzhung Shenpo, the Victory Banner symbolizes the ability to conquer the influences of Mara, unhealthy desires, obstacles and the ability to abide by the Five Precepts, the Ten Precepts and successful living of the Twelve Virtues. In its relation to overcoming obstacles, the Victory Banner is sometimes accompanied with imagery of Ganesha, the “Remover of Obstacles.” In Tibet, Ganesha is referred to as Maharakta Ganapati.
You will not find the Lotus flower in Tibet except in artistic works. The Sanskrit term is “padma.”
The Lotus symbolizes purity and divine teaching and origin, thus purification from that which is opposite of the Twelve Virtues. The Lotus has also been used as symbol to represent mental purity.
The Wheel, or Dharma Wheel, is also referred to as Dharmacakra. The Sanskrit term for “wheel” is “cakra.” It consists of a circular wheel with eight spokes.
The Dharma Wheel represents many different concepts, including light, liberation, the sun, the turning of the Dharma, and motion of the Truth and Light. The outer rim of the Dharma Wheel has also been employed to represent limitations. The Wheel also represents the Teaching (Dharma) itself and how the teaching of the Buddhas is universal and perfect.
To add a few concluding words, the Eight Auspicious Symbols are never viewed or used as “good luck charms.” In fact to do so is contrary to the very teaching of Buddha Moni. Rather, they are highly significant in expressing, at least in artistic form, religious concepts in various schools of Buddhism. They are seen in paintings, thangkas, etched in altars and reliquaries, found on the door posts of homes, on books and scrolls and just about anywhere.
In many ways, the Eight Auspicious Symbols remind us of our spiritual obligations and our commitment to the Precepts and the Twelve Virtues.
By Tenzin Bhikkhu
For images of the individual Eight Symbols and some brief explanations according to traditional Buddhism, see this page on Buddhanet.
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