Symbolism in Tibetan Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhism is one of the most visually rich of all Buddhist traditions. This is often a paradox to westerners: We are introduced to Buddhism as a tradition of personal exploration in which an external God does not figure. And yet in Tibetan Buddhism we are greeted with a panoply of what appear to be gods, demi-gods, saints and other spiritual figures of reverence and supplication.
Vajrayana Buddhism is crowded with symbols. In addition to beings, there are mandalas, icons, diagrams, ritual scepters, bells, drums, prayer wheels, and clothing. Each convey multiple levels of meaning to practitioners.
This seems to be the exactly opposite to the other tradition well known in the west, Japanese Zen. What's going on?
First, over the centuries Buddhism has been adopted by a wide variety of cultures throughout Asia. New teachings naturally incorporate aspects of existing cultural influences. In Tibet, the pre-Buddhist religion of Bon had many Gods and manifestations of God in the material world. So it was natural for Tibetans to incorporate an existing visual tradition as a way of describing the teachings.
But cultural influences are only a minor explanation. The more significant reason is the quality of the teachings. Vajrayana works with the mind in a very direct way: it strikes at the intuitive, non-linear, non-rational part of our capabilities. Vajrayana very quickly moves a practitioner into mental awareness which cannot easily be expressed in words.
Poetry and art are often our way of expressing the inexpressible. The symbolism of Vajrayana Buddhism can be best seen in this way; it is the poetic expression of the ineffable. The images are points of focus for various meditation practices, guides and reminders as we move through layers of understanding, and poetic expressions of the experience of the true nature of mind - and what we may encounter along the way.