Imagery in the Early Buddhist Texts

Introduction to Imagery in the EBTs

Illustration by Ayya Vimalayani aka "Ven Yodha"

Buddhism has many symbols representing different layers of historical development.

Before we dive into the three main books, let’s first set the stage a bit by going back in time.

Pyrotechnic Imagery

The fire of passion being “extinguished” gives us the term “Nibbāna (nirvāna)” and the fire of samādhi (meditation) is an enduring image in both text and art. As we start to move back in time to the Buddha’s India, let us gaze a little closer into the flames:

  • Bhikkhu Analayo demonstrates the interdependence of text and early art by showing how fire motifs in early Buddhist art found their way back into the texts as miracles. It shows another way in which a visual understanding of the EBTs is critical, and hints at how the symbols we’re so familiar with (like those above) became so widespread.
Mythology as Meditation: From the Mahāsudassana Sutta to the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra – Rupert Gethin (.pdf) (.pdf)
  • We go a bit further back in time with Rupert Gethin to explore a particular myth in the DN and how it might have been read as a story of meditation.
  • Many of the Buddha’s contemporaries were fire worshipers and the vedas put fire front and center in their mythology. This paper explores how the Buddha played with the Vedic fire imagery to create his own explanation of origination, bringing us right back to the Buddha’s own intentions.

See Also:

  • Ajahn Geoff explores the symbolism of extinguishment in the context of ancient Indian physics to give us another take on this central image of Buddhist soteriology in this extra credit reading.

While a more thorough understanding of India at the time of the Buddha will have to wait for another time, I hope the above gives some sense of the thought world of ancient India that we peer back into as we…