When we think about the symbols of the world's
religions, we are often so familiar with them that we fail to
see what they really signify.
First, let's consider the importance of the
Center. Imagine a turntable turning, and let's say
that you place two little men on it, at positions A and B,
Now, which little man moves faster?
Remember that in any one turn of the disc, all points (say,
along the red line) make a complete circle. It's clear
that, if you straightened out the lines, the man at Point A
made a longer trip than the man at Point B, but in the
same amount of time. Therefore, he must be going
So now, let's imagine Points C, D,
E, and so on, getting closer and closer to the
Center. Each goes slower and slower. So,
theoretically at least, there is a place, at the absolute
center, that is not moving at all. We can call this
place "the Stillpoint."
Let's turn to Buddhist teaching for a
moment. The Buddhists (and the Hindus) refer to the
everyday world we live in as samsara, which can be
defined as "the world of birth, suffering, death, and
rebirth." But the root of the word has to do with
"passing through various states" and, at its very root,
It's "opposite," however, is nirvana,
which signifies the state of absolute, unconditioned...something.
are no nouns! It cannot be described, except in terms of
what it is not. It is not conditioned, not
becoming, not ... Even calling it the opposite
of samsara is going too far in the way of assertion
(especially as the highest understanding is that samsara
and nirvana are the same--but that's another story).
So one of the things we can say about nirvana
is that it is not moving. It is absolute
stillness--metaphorically speaking, at least. As such, the
Stillpoint that we suggested, lying at the center of the turntable,
is as good a symbol of nirvana as any--and of its corollaries in
other religions, such as "bliss," "the peace that
passes understanding," etc.
Since the Center represents the
is not surprising that the world's religious symbols would
somehow stress the importance of the Center. So on this page we show some
of the more popular symbols and how they manifest the Stillpoint.
We start with what is perhaps the most common
religious symbol in the West: The Cross. Let me
just say that, by discussing the cross as a symbol, I do not
mean to deny its historicity. The cross, with a longer
lower member, was certainly used as an instrument of torture
and death by the Romans (though some say the so-called "St.
Andrew's cross," in the form of an X, was more common), and
there is no reason to doubt that Jesus was crucified on such a
shape. Nevertheless, this symbol was known in the world
before the Romans ever imagined such a use, and has been used in
various spiritual applications since.
A closer look at the cross reveals why: Imagine
that you had four arrows (in this case, red) pointing toward a
center point--say, from the four directions, for instance.
What shape would they take? Why, a cross of course!
And so the cross, with its multitude of other
meanings (such as intersection of the vertical and
horizontal--that is, spiritual and material) is also defined by
arrows pointing toward a center point.
This image, with variations, is true for several
other symbols besides.
Wheel of Dharma
.When, for example, the Buddha started teaching,
he referred to this as "the Turning of the Wheel of the
Law" (or dharma). In his first formal sermon,
he spoke of the "Noble Eightfold Path." And so an
eight-spoked wheel, often referred to as "the Wheel of the
Dharma," has become a symbol of Buddhism, right alongside
another famous Buddhist symbol: the Swastika, which is a four-spoked
wheel with extensions to indicate that it is whirling.
This is meant to convey the idea of the Sun, a spinning wheel of
The swastika, by the way, presents an
interesting case in the confusion of symbols. This sign,
common to many cultures (including the
Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, the Celts, the Native Americans, and the
Persians) was in India closely associated with the Aryans, the Central European
peoples whom traditional scholars say migrated into northern India in the second
millennium B.C.E. (but see below ). It
is, as mentioned above, a sun symbol. The historic Buddha
was a member of a clan of Aryans, the Shakyas, that was
specifically associated with the sun. (He is often called
the Lion of the Shakyas, and the Lion with its radially
symmetrical mane is also a well-known sun
symbol.) So as the teaching of this Lion from a Sun clan
spread across Asia,, the Aryan symbol of the sun went with it.
Skip ahead a couple of millennia.
Hitler, taking the misguided conclusions of some 19th-century
scholars to heart, declared the Aryans a pure race which would
rightfully come to dominate the world. Taking one of the
popular Aryan symbols, he perverted it into a symbol of his Reich.
People who like to think
that Hitler's symbol turns in one direction and the
Indo-Buddhist sign in the other are forgetting a couple of
1. The Buddhist sign
may be shown turning in either direction (though some like to
call one the swastika and the other the sauvastika;
see below). In fact, two of the
"auspicious signs" on the bottom of a Buddha's
foot are the swastika (Number 1) and the sauvastika
(Number 4). You can see an example of this at Joruriji,
a temple I visited on Shikoku in Japan was I was doing
Meguri and the 88-Temple
Pilgrimage. Look close at the toes: The ones
on the right foot have marks that swirl one way, and the
ones on the left foot go the other.
2. Hitler, like the
Aryans, used the word swastika for his symbol.
Sun symbols are rife in religion, and all are
radially symmetrical, that is, round images which balance on a
center point, just like in a child's drawing.
religious symbols also point toward the Center. Although
Islam has never adopted a universal symbol of their faith (in
keeping with their strict observance of prohibitions against
idolatry), one often sees the Crescent and Star associated with
Islamic countries, especially on their flags.
Although the design varies widely (and in fact usually the star
is not centered), the symbol does suggest the idea of a
balance point within a circle.
Another circular symbol of
balance--though seemingly with no central point--is the
classic tai chi symbol representing Taoism.
But what few people realize
is that within the circle there are actually two circles
within the larger circle, and the two dots define their centers.
|The simple fact of
circles within circles leads to some surprising
mathematics, a peculiarity of this symbol.
In the picture above,
"r" designates the radius of the
circle--the distance from the center of the circle to its
perimeter, or circumference. The radius times
two--in other words, the line from one side of the circle
to the other--is called the diameter.
Mathematics teaches us that the circumference of this
circle is equal to pi (π=3.14)
times the diameter, or:
which is the same as 2πr
look at the tai chi symbol again, and notice that
the radius of the big circle is the diameter
of the small circles.
Let's call the large circle
"A" and the smaller ones "B" and
"C." Let's say the diameter of Circle B
equals 1. So the diameter of Circle A equals 2.
circumferences of the two circles are:
of course, even without a calculator, we can see that the
circumference of Circle B is half that of Circle A.
Circles B and C are equal in size, we can take half of the
circumference of each to make one circle, right? And
that is half of the length of the circumference of Circle
A. So the red line and the blue line in this drawing
are of equal length:
So what? Well,
remember that in fact, you can put two circles inside each
of Circles B and C, making four circles, whose
half-circumferences also add up to the same:
And you can put two
circle in each of those circles, and so on.
Notice now that the width
of the yellow line from side to side--the amplitude of the
wave, so to speak--is half that of the red line, which is
half that of the blue line. So as each circle is
divided in two, the line described by the
half-circumferences becomes less and less wavy.
Do you see where this
Take this down to
the smallest level,
with hundreds of circles lined up,
and their curvy half-circumferences
will define a straight line!
In other words, there
is an extreme paradox here, because you will eventually
get a line that is both 6.28 and 2...at the same
This is a fascinating
illustration of one of the basic points of Taoism, that
all the seeming "pairs of opposites" in the
world are actually manifestations of the Tao--the One
behind the Many.
More circular images:
Wicca, like many ancient religions, uses the Pentagram,
another symbol of balance. You can read an excellent
article about it here.
here pictured within a circle
flag of India with the Wheel of Dharma
Wheel of Dharma on the Lion Pillar at Sarnath
Hinduism, like Islam, has
no single symbol. The written word Aum is often used, and
flag features a wheel with 24 spokes, referred to as the
"dharma chakra" or Wheel of the Law, as found on the
capital of a pillar at the ancient ruins of Sarnath,
where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, the "Turning
of the Wheel of Dharma" Sutra.
One of the best-known
images from India is Shiva Nataraja, the Dancing Shiva.
(the worship of Shiva)
is only one of India's many sects, it is one of the most
widespread, especially in the populous south. Shiva's
navel--the center of a dancer's balance--is exactly at the
center of the circle of flames around him. What's more,
Joseph Campbell claims that the limbs of Shiva--the four arms
and two legs--resemble the shape of the letters of the word Aum,
as seen above. In any case, I think this certainly
qualifies as a circular symbol with a center point.
Finally, a non-circular
image: The Star of David, symbol of Judaism.
Imagine two arrows, one
pointing up toward heaven, the other pointing down toward
earth. Bring them together--the union of Heaven and
Earth--and then remove the arrows' shafts. This leaves the
image of the six-pointed Star of David. While not
circular, it clearly denotes balance and centeredness.
Cave art by Chumash people,
(Photo by James)
A final note: The art of
early humans all over the world, including the rock art painted
in caves, often contains radially symmetrical images, many of
them resembling sun disks and other sorts of wheels. The image
that we have chosen for the Realize! logo is one
such image, and many more can be found. As mentioned in the
article about our logo, these mandalas seem truly to reflect
a universal structure in the mind of humans--a longing toward
(C) 2006 James Baquet