Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism

By Claude B. Levenson

As its title suggests, this is a book about symbols. Claude Levenson here provides a series of photos of Buddhist icons and temples with brief commentary on each. Since Buddhism was largely driven from India in the 19th Century by the sword of the Muslims, it has made its principal home in Tibet, Sri Lanka and similar, smaller countries – where it has seemed safe from later Muslim attacks. As Buddha, like most ancient religious philosophers, wrote no books, and since his beliefs are grounded so closely in the Hinduism from which it sprang, Buddhism relies primarily on Hindu scriptures as supplemented by the limited writings of Buddha’s followers – all generally based on the memories of those who heard the stories as passed down over the centuries that followed Buddha’s death.

Buddha (“the Enlightened One”) is believed to have been born somewhere between 560 and 450 BCE and to have lived more than 70 years. The son of a wealthy family, he was raised in luxury, which he abandoned for rags and a self-imposed life of meditation and abstemious asceticism, while he perfected his yoga techniques and his own brand of Hinduism. There are as many different interpretations of Buddhism as there are interpreters. Hence, it is impossible to know which interpretation is the most accurate reflection of Buddha’s beliefs. Unlike the dominant views of Hindus, some Buddhists apparently reject “reason”; that is to say that they join some Christians in blind acceptance of the pain of the world as part of “God’s plan”.

Buddha developed followers, who established Buddhism in his wake, which can fairly be said to be the largest sect of Hinduism’s roughly 3,000 sects, so large that it is considered a separate religion, despite the obvious overlapping of its beliefs with Hinduism. Today, approximately 6% of the world’s population ascribe to Buddhism, while some 15% are Hindus; 20% are Muslims; 33% are Christians, 6% are Confucian-Chinese philosophers, only .2% are Jewish; roughly 15% are non-believers, and the rest are “other”.

In any event, for those interested in seeing photos of some of the more popular icons of Buddhism, Levenson’s glossy-page presentation is worthwhile. Hindu and Buddhist icons no longer reflect a belief in multiple gods, but, rather, represent “the different faces” of the one God, and the icons themselves are not worshipped, even though offerings of food, etc., are brought to them and placed at their alters. This fine distinction is lost on most Christians and Muslims, who are quick to erroneously dismiss Hindus and Buddhists as “idolaters”. For reader in pursuit of knowledge of Buddhism, however, this book will be of little value.