The Symbolism of the Traditional Temple

The following is extracted from a talk given by Venerable Geshe Kelsang on the occasion of the opening of the First Kadampa Temple August 1 1997.

‘At the very beginning when we were designing this building we based it on the mandala of Buddha Heruka, who is the Compassion Buddha of Highest Yoga Tantra. From this point of view it has many special preeminent qualities that indicate it is not an ordinary building.

The Temple has four doors, and is surrounded by eight auspicious signs. On top of the wall, on each side, are two deer and a Dharma Wheel. At the very top there is a golden five-pronged vajra. These things indicate special preeminent qualities which reveal that this Temple is a holy place.

The four doorways

The four doors symbolize the four doors of liberation. These are four different types of wisdom realizations that are explained in Essence of Vajrayana. These are the four doors through which we can enter the path to liberation. They are the basic understandings that are methods for attaining permanent liberation from suffering.

The four doors have the same symbolism as Heruka’s four faces. They teach us that if we want to attain permanent liberation from suffering we must enter the four doors, that is, develop four special wisdom realizations that understand the ultimate truth of things; that understand directly the way things actually exist.

The four doors therefore teach us the spiritual path. Whenever we see any of the four doors of the Temple it should remind us that if we really want to attain permanent liberation from suffering and problems we must enter one of the four doors of liberation. Whenever we enter, we should imagine, ‘I am now entering the gateway or doorway to liberation.’ This will create a special imprint or potential, or karma, in our mind.

There are many extensive explanations of the four doors. According to Sutra there are three doors of liberation, but according to Highest Yoga Tantra there are four. However, there is no contradiction. We can understand more details about this later.

The eight auspicious signs

This Temple is surrounded by the eight auspicious signs:

  1. The precious umbrella
  2. The precious fish
  3. The precious vase
  4. The precious flower
  5. The precious conch
  6. The precious knot
  7. The precious victory banner
  8. The precious wheel

These show us how to progress along the Buddhist path to enlightenment.

1 The precious umbrella

The umbrella symbolizes the umbrella of the Buddhist community and teaches us that those who have the sincere wish to progress on the Buddhist path to enlightenment should first enter the Buddhist family, which means taking refuge in the Three Jewels and becoming a Buddhist.

We are not saying that Buddhists are good and others are not but what this is saying is that those who wish to progress along the Buddhist path to enlightenment should enter Buddhism because outside Buddhism you cannot progress along the Buddhist path!

So we must go inside without hesitation, without doubt, with a hundred percent trust, enter and then go in one direction, and then every year, year by year, month by month, you can make progress. Therefore the first important thing is to enter Buddhism and then understand how to begin, progress along, and complete the stages of the path to enlightenment.

2 The precious fish

The fish symbolize harmony and peace, and teaches us that under this umbrella you should always live in harmony and peace. Whenever you see a fish, please remember this, it is very important.

Not only Buddhists, every community, society, and family, whether big groups or small groups, every individual should live in harmony and peace, of course that is important. So the two fish playing remind you, show that they are so happy, peaceful, and harmonious. Even though they are animals they are so enjoying themselves with harmony and peace, so of course we need to!

3 The precious vase

The vase symbolizes wealth and teaches that Buddhist practitioners always enjoy the inner wealths of your faith, your moral discipline, your study and practice of Dharma, your benefiting others, your sense of shame, your consideration for others, and your wisdom. There are seven wealths.

Of course normally everyone regards external wealth, money, and external conditions as important but Buddhist practitioners believe that internal wealth is more important because this wealth makes your mind happy all the time and helps in this and future lives.

The first wealth, faith in holy Dharma, makes our mind peaceful, calm, and pure so that we perceive everything as pure. Then there is no difficulty or basis for experiencing problems because if the mind is pure we perceive everything as pure. If the mind is impure, negative, angry, jealous, and other wrong views, then we perceive everything bad, everything unpleasant, and then criticism, arguing, fighting, disharmony and all other difficulties arise from the impure mind. Faith makes our mind become pure so therefore we become pure beings.

Whereas faith in holy Dharma makes our mind become pure, the practice of moral discipline makes our physical and verbal actions become pure. In this way, these kinds of inner wealth transform you into a pure, holy being.

Study and practice of Dharma is the most important wealth because wisdom is very beneficial. It protects you and others, it teaches you everything.

Benefiting others is giving material things, Dharma teachings, love, and protection or fearlessness – any kind of help to others. These actions come from our good heart and are such wonderful, beautiful internal qualities.

The fifth wealth, sense of shame, is a special inner mental quality that always thinks, for example, ‘I cannot do such bad actions because I am a Buddhist, because I am a practitioner…’ etc. Or, ‘I can’t kill people because I am a human being,’ ‘I cannot destroy others’ spiritual life, others’ happiness, because I am a spiritual practitioner …’ etc. This is an inner good quality, a very special wealth.

There are many people in the world who destroy others’ lives, environments, and enjoyments due to lacking sense of shame. Therefore sense of shame is a special internal wealth that makes people special great beings.

With consideration for others we think, for example, ‘I can’t do bad actions because other people will suffer. I can’t harm other people because they will suffer,’ – always thinking that others are important. For example, ‘I can’t kill because that being will experience suffering,’ ‘I can’t steal because people will experience problems,’ ‘I can’t destroy others’ happiness because their happiness is also important.’ This kind of attitude is a very special inner wealth. It makes us become spiritually rich.

Wisdom is the best wealth – our best friend. Wisdom is the best wealth because it can be used in any situation, in any country. There is no danger of it being stolen by thieves. Wisdom can be used in any situation. Wisdom is the best friend to help you. It tells you everything that you should and should not do. If you have inner wisdom you don’t need to seek advice from other people; your wisdom tells you everything, your direction, where you go, and so forth.

So the vase symbolizes wealth and teaches us that we should always enjoy inner wealth such as faith and wisdom. We should not grasp too much, hoping for external enjoyments, because we don’t know if these will make us happy or make us suffer. Of course we need human happiness but we also need less grasping, less attachment. Instead, enjoy inner wealth and then there is no danger – you will always be happy.

4 The precious flower

The lotus flower symbolizes purity, which indicates that we need to put great effort into becoming a pure being by practising the Bodhisattva’s way of life – cultivating and maintaining a good heart and then trying to engage in actions that are similar to those of Bodhisattva. In other words, the lotus reminds us that we should not remain always as an impure, ignorant being, but strive to become a pure being by practising the Bodhisattva’s way of life.

5 The precious conch

The conch shell symbolizes the Dharma Jewel and teaches us that we should accomplish the Dharma Jewel, the realization of the stages of the path to enlightenment, within our mind. These realizations directly protect us from suffering and problems.

6 & 7 The precious knot & precious victory banner

The knot of eternity symbolizes an uncommon quality of Buddha’s realizations – his realization of omniscient wisdom – and the victory banner symbolizes an uncommon quality of Buddha’s abandonment – his abandonment of delusions and mistaken appearance.

These last two signs together, the knot of eternity and the victory banner, indicate that through gaining the Dharma Jewel, the realization of the stages of the path to enlightenment, we shall attain these two uncommon qualities of Buddha.

8 The precious wheel

The Dharma Wheel indicates that having attained these two uncommon qualities of Buddha we now have the ability to lead all living beings to permanent liberation from suffering, principally by turning the Wheel of Dharma, that is, by giving Dharma teachings. This is our final goal.

So the eight auspicious signs show how to begin, progress along, and complete the spiritual path. First we need to gain the realization of the stages of the path. Through this we shall attain the two uncommon qualities of Buddha; and through this we have the ability to lead all beings to permanent liberation from suffering by giving Dharma teachings, which is our final goal.

Therefore the symbolism of This Temple being surrounded by these eight auspicious signs reminds you that you should put the meaning of these signs into practice and integrate them into your daily life.

The deer, Dharma Wheel, and vajra

Above each doorway there are two deer and a Dharma Wheel, and at the very top of the Temple there is a vajra. Together, these symbolize the stages of the path of Highest Yoga Tantra. The eight auspicious signs symbolize in general how to progress along the Buddhist path, and the deer, Dharma Wheel, and top vajra teach us the stages of the path of Highest Yoga Tantra.

The male deer symbolizes the realization of great bliss, the female deer the realization of emptiness, and the Dharma Wheel the union of these two. Through progressing in this union of great bliss and emptiness, finally we will attain the five omniscient wisdoms of a Buddha, which are symbolized by the top five-pronged vajra.

In summary, the symbolism of the Temple is as follows: Through progressing in the basic practice symbolized by the eight auspicious signs and then progressing in the uncommon spiritual path of Highest Yoga Tantra that is the union of great bliss and emptiness, finally we will attain Buddha’s five omniscient wisdoms.

In this way we can understand that this Temple is not ordinary but a very holy place.