The eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism consist of: a parasol, a pair of fishes, a treasure vase, a lotus, a white-spiraling conch shell, an endless knot, a victory banner, and a golden wheel.
Groupings of eight auspicious symbols were originally used in India at ceremonies such as an investiture or coronation of a king. An early grouping of symbols included: a throne, a swastika, a handprint, a hooked knot, a vase of jewels, a water libation flask, a pair of fishes, and a lidded bowl.
In Buddhism, these eight symbols of good fortune represent the offerings made by the gods to Shakyamuni Buddha immediately after he gained enlightenment. The following expounds upon these symbols.
The Parasol (umbrella): This was a traditional Indian symbol of protection and royalty. The parasol denoted wealth and status - the more included in a person's entourage, the more influential the person was, with 13 parasols defining the status of king.
Indian Buddhists who saw the Buddha as the universal monarch adopted this concept. Besides, 13 stacked parasols form the conical spire of the Buddha or Tathágata stupa. In Buddhist mythology, the king of the nagas (serpent-like creatures) gave a jeweled umbrella to the Buddha.
Symbolically, the protection provided by the parasol is from the heat of suffering, desire, obstacles, illness, and harmful forces.
A typical Tibetan parasol consists of a thin round wooden frame with 8, 16, or 32 thinly arched wooden spokes. Through its center passes a long wooden axle-pole embellished at the top with a metal lotus, a vase, and the triple jewel. White, yellow, or multicolored silk stretches over the domed frame and a folded or pleated silk skirt with 8 or 16 hanging silk pendants attached hang from the circular frame. The parasol dome represents wisdom and the hanging skirt, compassion.
The Two Golden Fishes: The two fishes originally represented the two main sacred rivers of India - the Ganges and the Yamuna. These rivers are associated with the lunar and solar channels that originate in the nostrils and carry the alternating rhythms of breath or prana (life-sustaining force).
Fish have religious significance in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions as well as in Christianity (the sign of the fish, the feeding of the five thousand). In Buddhism, the fish symbolize happiness as they have complete freedom of movement in the water. They represent fertility and abundance. They are often drawn in the form of carp, which are regarded in Asia as sacred on account of their elegant beauty, size, and lifespan.
The Treasure Vase: This is known as "the vase of inexhaustible treasures" - however much is removed from it, the vase remains perpetually full. In Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, wealth vases sealed with precious and sacred substances are commonly placed upon altars and on mountain passes, or buried in water springs. The symbol is often shown as a highly ornate, traditional-shaped vase with a flaming jewel or jewels protruding from its mouth.
The Lotus Flower: The lotus blossoms unstained from the watery mire; it is a symbol of purity, renunciation, and divinity.
The Right-Spiraling Conch Shell: The conch shell is thought to have been the original horn-trumpet; ancient Indian mythical epics relate heroes carrying conch shells. The Indian god Vishnu is also described as having a conch shell as one of his main emblems; his shell bore the name Panchajanya, meaning, "having control over the five classes of beings."
The conch shell is an emblem of power, authority, and sovereignty; its blast is believed to banish evil spirits, avert natural disasters, and scare away poisonous creatures. In Indian culture, different types of conch shells were associated with the different castes and with male and female.
In Buddhism, the conch was adopted as a symbol of religious sovereignty and an emblem that fearlessly proclaimed the truth of the dharma. One of the 32 signs of a Buddha's body is his deep and resonant voice, which is artistically symbolized in images of the Buddha by three conch-like curving lines on his throat.
Shells that spiral to the right are very rare and considered especially sacred, the right spiral mirroring the motion of the sun, moon, planets, and stars across the sky. Also, the hair curls on a Buddha's head spiral to the right, as do his fine bodily hairs, the long white curl between his eyebrows, and the conch-like swirl of his navel.
A shell is made into Tibetan ritual musical instruments by cutting off the end of its tip and furnishing it with a mouthpiece and an ornamental metal casing that extends from the shell's mouth.
The Endless Knot: This symbol was originally associated with Vishnu and represented his devotion to his consort Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and good fortune. It symbolizes the Buddha's endless wisdom and compassion. It also can represent continuity or dependent origination as the underlying basis of life.
The Victory Banner: This was traditionally carried in battle. Great warriors would often have banners with their own emblems, the banners being carried on the back of their chariots. Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu) had a banner bearing the garuda bird (a bird deity).
In early Buddhism, the banner represented Buddha's victorious enlightenment with his overcoming the armies of Mara (hindrances and defilements). Legend says the banner was placed on the summit of Mt Meru, symbolizing Buddha's victory over the entire universe.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the banner represents eleven methods of overcoming Mara: the development of knowledge, wisdom, compassion, meditation, and ethical vows; taking refuge in the Buddha; abandoning false views; generating spiritual aspiration, skilful means, and selflessness; and the unity of the three samádhis of emptiness, formlessness, and desire-less-ness.
The Golden Wheel: The wheel is an ancient Indian symbol of creation, sovereignty, protection, and the sun. The six-spoke wheel was associated with Vishnu and was know as the Sudarshana Chakra. The wheel represents motion, continuity, and change, forever moving onwards like the circular wheel of the heavens.
Buddhism adopted the wheel as a symbol of the Buddha's teachings and his first discourse at the Deer Park in Sarnath is known as "the first turning of the wheel of dharma." In Tibetan Buddhism, it is understood as "the wheel of transformation" or spiritual change.
The hub of the wheel symbolizes moral discipline, and the eight spokes represent analytical insight via rim-meditative concentration. The eight spokes point to the eight directions and symbolize the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, mindfulness, and concentration.