Tashi delek|The metaphor and aesthetics of Tibetan symbols

Tashi delek|The metaphor and aesthetics of Tibetan symbols

Himalayan monks

Picture:Sonja Laukkanen


Theology of Beauty

 The Himalayas, as a natural barrier, have maintained the unique and mysterious culture of Tibet to a certain extent for a long period of history. Perhaps due to the isolation, distance creates associations with beauty. Throughout history, countless people from all over the world have come together by chance, and even after experiencing many hardships and obstacles, they cannot extinguish their deep fascination and longing for this plateau of snow and ice in their hearts, stopping their exploration and recording of it.


Nestled above the majestic mountains, shielded and isolated, the fertile forms of art are like fine wine kept in stillness, fermenting and refining in closed environments through various mediums, eventually releasing a strong and captivating charm. Just as a pure white lotus blossoms in the mud, on the harsh and unforgiving high plateau, the art born here is even more magnificent and filled with divinity.





Tibetan artists do not stop at observing and perceiving the reality of their environment, but through abstract or figurative artistic means, they come infinitely close to the super-real, engaging in dialogue with the divine, depicting and conveying the beauty and truth they perceive in their hearts. Their transcendent expressions not only break through the environment in which they are placed, but also transcend their temporary material bodies in this world, allowing the spirit to ascend endlessly towards a kind of ultimate and eternal leap, ultimately forming an art that belongs to the spirit, its beauty and energy deeply moving the soul.


Through these extraordinary artworks, it seems that we can reach a different exotic space, moving from flat to three-dimensional, from single to multi-dimensional. It is a universe and dimension beyond what words and physical movement can reach. We can only resonate and enter that elegant, beautiful, solemn and sacred realm from the spiritual and mental level.


Eight Auspicious Knots

Thangka artist: Zaxi Dakar


The mysterious symbols, ancient myths, and fixed forms that are imbued with auspicious and blessed meanings reflect people's inner spiritual activities in the closely connected Tibetan culture. People's reverence, longing, pursuit, and prayers are subtly and privately placed in these symbols. It is difficult to easily understand the hidden meanings behind these symbols without delving deep into the interpretation of religious texts, rituals, mythological stories, and various monumental existences.


In this article, we will delve into several highly representative and important auspicious symbols in Tibetan culture. We will explore the connection between sacred symbols and human emotions, and witness the divine aesthetics embedded in these artistic forms.


Himalayan Staircase


The Himalayas ladder (2015) Director: Xiao Han / Liang Junjian

Film stills


People who have traveled through the Tibetan Plateau will not be unfamiliar with ladders. The towering mountain walls are almost covered with rock paintings of various shapes and sizes.


In the specific practice and form, if a relative in a Tibetan family passes away, they will choose to draw a ladder on the high mountains for the deceased relative, wishing to convey blessings of the beauty of the world to them in this way.


While the ladder may be a common symbol in Tibetan culture, it is not unique to it. In fact, throughout history and across different regions and civilizations, the ladder has been used as a tool to aid the human body in ascending to higher levels. In various cultures, the ladder is imbued with metaphors of support and advancement. In almost all religions and their practices, the ladder symbol is used as a fixed form to represent spiritual ascent. People view the ladder as a means to reach higher spiritual levels.



In ancient cosmology, the ladder symbolized the connection between the heavens and the earth. Deities could freely travel between the heavens and the earth through this ladder. Regardless of the specific form it takes, the image of the ladder is closely associated with end-of-life rituals and as a symbolic pillar for gaining higher energy from the celestial realms. The common depiction of this symbol in Tibetan murals on mountain walls serves as a cultural representation, urging sentient beings to transition to a higher state of rebirth.


Lotus Master Subduing Demon Iron Scorpion


The Scorpion Curse, woodblock print, 1970s

Symbolizing liberation from evil and illness

Image: philamuseum


Compared to the ubiquitous presence of the ladder symbol, scorpions may only appear in certain regions of Tibet. They can be found in places like Sakya and Gyantse in Shigatse, as well as in some areas of Shannan. Scorpions are often depicted in various styles on the doorways or walls of homes in these regions. In some places, during the Tibetan New Year celebrations, a specially made scorpion-shaped Kapse (a type of special Tibetan fried bread) may even be fried and placed on the stove first.


Scorpion symbol on the wall of a Tibetan dwelling

Image: Zhang Ying


In Tibetan culture, the scorpion is often associated with the practice of the Lotus Guru, so the scorpion is also known as the Lotus Guru Iron Scorpion, or the Lotus Guru Demon-Subduing Iron Scorpion. According to legend, the Lotus Guru received the teachings of the Vajrayana (Diamond Sutra) through a scorpion. This giant scorpion, with nine heads, eighteen pincers, and three eyes on each head, discovered the Diamond Sutra scripture from a triangular stone box, which the Lotus Guru immediately understood by reading it. Therefore, the Wrathful Lotus Guru (one of the eight aspects of the Lotus Guru) is often depicted with a scorpion in his left hand.


Fierce Wrathful Guru Padmasambhava Thangka, late 18th century

Image: invaluable


The image of the scorpion, which is often feared in Han culture, is rarely used as a unique symbol with special significance for worship. However, in Tibetan culture, the intense and destructive energy of the scorpion is seen as a symbol of warding off evil and bringing good luck to the household, much like using poison to counteract poison. The scorpion represents overcoming obstacles and the transformation of negative energy into positive energy.


Raging Lotus Master, fierce and burning with fiery iron scorpion wheel guard.

Image: yishineihua


The sun and the moon in my heart


In the crowded prayer path, the Tibetan elder's clothes adorned with red sun and yellow moon patterns on his back stand out in the sea of people. However, the significance of this pattern in Tibetan culture goes beyond mere decoration, carrying a unique meaning. Generally, only elders aged over eighty have the privilege of adorning their clothing with sun and moon patterns, symbolizing "the shining of the sun and the moon together."


Tibetan elderly person wearing a white vest embroidered with sun, moon, and Yongzhong patterns.

Caption: Rain fields compete for buzzing.


In the legend of the creation of the God of Light, at the beginning of the world, three kinds of light emerged from emptiness. The white light brought forth the gods, the blue light brought forth humans, and the black light brought forth ghosts. The ghost, who governs all evil things leading to suffering, created the stars and all demons; while the god, whose light radiates beauty and goodness, created the sun and moon, and guided humanity towards the enlightenment of religious belief. The two forces engaged in a continuous battle of good and evil in the world. Such a struggle also exists within each person's heart. But evil thoughts will eventually be overcome by good thoughts, and the light of the sun and moon will always reside in the hearts of people. The sun and moon here symbolize the positive energies of light, courage, goodness, and justice that humans seek to pursue inwardly.


Tsakali card with sun and moon symbol, 14th century.

Image: default


Not only in the clothing and decorations of the elderly, but also in Tibetan homes, temple buildings, or daily furniture and utensils, various forms of sun and moon symbols can be seen. However, these symbols may have different meanings when presented in different forms, for example, the sun and moon sometimes symbolize wisdom and compassion respectively. Fundamentally, the sun and moon reflect the worship of nature in Tibetan primitive religious beliefs, showing the simple moral views and ancient cosmology of the ancient people.


Astrological Chart Thangka, 17th Century

Image: pbase


Gathering of Good Fortune


The symbol "卍" (English: swastika, Sanskrit: Srivatsa), transliterated as "shì lì jū cuō luò shā nà", formerly translated as "auspicious sea cloud phase", meaning "gathering of auspiciousness". The symbol "卍" is pronounced as "yōng zhōng" in Tibetan. It is closely connected to religious and cultural significance. The "yōng zhōng" symbol has the most widespread use and representation in Tibetan culture.




As a symbol of good fortune, it appears in almost every decoration related to daily life details of Tibetan people, such as house buildings, doors and windows, kitchens, tents, furniture, clothing, and so on. When the Yongzhong symbol is painted on the rafters, it symbolizes that the house will be more sturdy; when it is painted on the door, it symbolizes that it can ward off all disasters and misfortunes; when it is painted on clothes, it symbolizes the beautiful wishes of achieving all goals and everything going smoothly... The essence of the plateau civilization is almost entirely condensed in this religious and ancient mysterious character.


Not only in Tibet, but also in many cultures around the world, this symbol is familiar. It is a symbol of good fortune and also a symbol of endless time.


A piece of fabric with a swastika pattern from the Himalayan region, early 20th century.

Image: 1stdibs


One detail is that this character has different rotational directions. Clockwise "卐" represents Buddhism, while counterclockwise "卍" represents Bon. In Tibetan culture, there is a custom of circumambulating mountains, water, temples, and stupas. When visiting Tibet to experience Tibetan culture, it is important to adapt to local customs. One thing to keep in mind is that before worshipping a temple, it is important to know whether the temple belongs to Bon or Buddhism. If it is Bon, it is necessary to rotate counterclockwise. Regardless of its direction of rotation, the Yongzhong symbol is considered the most auspicious symbol in Tibetan culture.


A festival ceremony with a blue "卍" symbol on a tent in the distance

Photo by Gorakh Bista


The wisdom is limitless and unobstructed.


As one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols in Tibetan religious culture, the ancient and symbolically rich Endless Knot (also known as Auspicious Knot or Eternal Knot, with its Sanskrit meaning "heart") is also the most commonly seen auspicious symbol. Its most distinctive feature is its complex yet tightly ordered intertwining structure, which appears endless and without a beginning or end. Within its infinite structure, it symbolizes the nature of cyclic existence. In Tibetan culture and Buddhist philosophy, it holds profound significance.




Eight Auspicious Symbols

Image: The Conch Shell of Victory(སྒྱུ་རྩལ་གྱི་ཞིང་།)


The endless knot symbol is believed to have originated from the ancient Vedic tradition in India and later adopted by Tibetan Buddhism. The intricate interwoven pattern represents the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things in the universe, while also symbolizing the Buddha's endless wisdom and the union of wisdom and compassion. The concept of dependent origination and emptiness in Buddhist philosophy is precisely depicted in visual form on the endless knot.


The infinity symbol is seen as a symbol of good luck, harmony, and protection from negative energies. It is widely used in many exquisite handicrafts and beautiful home decorations in Tibet. The profound symbolic meaning of infinity is integrated into every aspect of Tibetan daily life.


Infinite Knot on a Tibetan Door Curtain

Image: Nova Wangili


Religious symbols have always been an important part of Asian cultures. Houston Smith, the author of "The World's Religions," once said that symbolism is the language that portrays the human spirit. Tibetan culture is full of rich and colorful symbolic representations, with important religious and philosophical concepts embedded in various specific and beautiful symbols. These symbols have been effectively used for centuries to serve as vehicles for people's beliefs and guide their practices. They serve as a bridge between people's inner spiritual world and the material world, enabling the transmission and preservation of Tibetan knowledge and culture.


In the social life and evolution of the times, these symbols not only gradually form a mature and complete system, but also transcend their own meanings, connecting with literature and art, reaching broader and more creative fields. Tibetan civilization thus releases a more enduring and rich vitality.


Treasure vast


This article is translated from Sorang Wangqing's blog.


Back to blog

Leave a comment