The world is enormous, acting as home to nearly eight billion people globally. We can now trace our ancestry back hundreds of thousands of years with modern technology, giving people a connection with their roots they couldn’t have even a decade or two ago.
But finding out who your relatives were is only one part of the story. Connecting with what they believed in can also give you insight into where you came from, and spiritual beliefs are a massive piece of that puzzle.
To help, we wanted to provide you with a list of some of the most common culturally accepted enlightenment symbols across the globe. If you find yourself connecting with one, do a little more research! You may find a connection you didn’t know existed.
#1 The Ensō
Buddhism is one of the oldest religions in the world, originating in India more than 2,500 years ago. With so much history, it’s no surprise that we can trace many of the most well-known enlightenment symbols back to Buddhism.
The basic idea behind the Buddhist belief system is that humans were born into a life marred by suffering. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t make your life meaningful by living it well. Meditation, labor (spiritual and physical), and good behavior can raise you out of the cycle and help you reach enlightenment (referred to by Buddhists as nirvana).
To help guide Buddhists toward nirvana, The Buddha laid out teaching known as the eightfold path. This path is comprised of eight primary teachings — right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration — that can be applied to everyday living in a way that heads toward enlightenment.
The ensō is one of the most well-known Zen Buddhist symbols. The symbol appears as a circle, made by a watercolor brush, featuring brush strokes and not closing entirely. Symbolically, the ensō represents the circle, with its many dips and turns. As we know, life always has surprises in store, but those surprises are a big part of its beauty.
#2 The Lotus
The Lotus is another of the Buddhist enlightenment symbols. While the actual flower itself does not have roots in the modern-day stronghold of Buddism, Tibet, it is associated with many of the core values of the religion.
The story of the lotus is one of perseverance. After all, as the saying goes, the lotus blooms in mud. If something so beautiful can come from such humble origins, any of us can change our lives into something beautiful too.
Keep in mind that the lotus flower can be portrayed in multiple forms. If its petals are closed, and it has not yet bloomed, it symbolizes the unrealized potential of enlightenment. If its petals are fully open, it indicates the reaching of nirvana and the highest consciousness humans can find.
Color also plays a part in interpreting each of the lotus enlightenment symbols. The color blue is connected with perfected wisdom, while the color red may represent an enlightened heart. Gold and pink lotuses are most often seen as symbols of the Buddha, and purple lotus flowers are rare. And finally, as with most symbolism, the color white represents purity and innocence.
#3 The Om Symbol
When most people think of om (sometimes written as aum), they can hear it being chanted or spoken in their heads. That’s where the power of the om symbol starts and why it continues to be one of the most easily recognizable enlightenment symbols in the world.
At its core, the om symbol represents a core philosophy of Hinduism. If you’re unfamiliar with the fundamental theology of the religion, its creation story comes from a divine, all-encompassing consciousness. This consciousness created the first vibration, which manifested as the om sound. Before that sound, there was nothing. Because of the om, the world as we know it began.
While most know it by its sound alone, a Sanskrit symbol also represents om. The character's left side looks like the number three, with a curved tail coming from the middle and moving right. Above the tail is a semi-circle that opens upward, with a dot directly above it in the center. Each piece of the om symbol represents different states of consciousness as well, from our unconscious state to our absolute state (where we are our highest selves).
#4 The Endless Knot
The endless knot is associated with Buddhism, Hinduism, and another religion known as Jainism. However, it is most closely related to Buddhism and is one of eight auspicious symbols of that religion. It is also a symbol of balance.
As opposed to other enlightenment symbols, the endless knot is much more visually complex. The knot consists of a pattern of lines and loops that continually overlap and intersect at right angles without end (hence the name). While there isn’t a specific meaning or symbolism behind each area of the knot, as a whole, it represents the endless amount of compassion and wisdom that the Buddha has to share.
In Jainism, a non-theistic religion that also originates out of India, the endless knot is said to represent the 24 chests of the Tirthankaras (the religion’s teaching gods or saints). Their combined wisdom can help anyone dedicated enough to obtain enlightenment, and it runs from birth to death and eventual rebirth.
Although the symbol appears complicated when you look at it up close, when you step back and view the endless knot as a whole, you can see just how it all ties together. It’s more than just you in the world; each of us is connected to other people through cause and effect. The endless knot is also a reminder that none of us can escape our ultimate destiny, so we should just enjoy the ride.
#5 The Buddha
Displaying Buddhas around your home is much like hanging crucifixes or pictures of Jesus on your walls. For a Buddhist, Buddha (or Siddhartha Gautama) isn’t a god in the same way a Christian or a Hindu may think of the term.
Buddha was simply an incredibly wise man who was able to achieve enlightenment through hard work and focus. The name Buddha even means “one who is awake,” and he is a reminder that any of us can achieve enlightenment too if we work at it hard enough.
Statues and pictures of the Buddha may feature his entire body or just his head, and he can be found either appearing completely zen or smiling and laughing. Many Buddhists like to create a sort of altar in a visible place, with candles, crystals, incense, and a statue of the Buddha. This altar works as a daily nudge to continue down the path toward enlightenment, even if just unconsciously.
#6 The Peacock
One of the enlightenment symbols that may surprise you is the peacock. Most of the symbols of enlightenment are more abstract or even quite literal, like the Buddha. However, the peacock is also an essential symbol in the Buddhist religion. While it represents wisdom, it is also directly connected to a concept in Buddhism known as the bodhisattva.
There are a few different definitions of a bodhisattva, and some Buddhists believe that anyone actively walking the path toward enlightenment can be given this label. However, the term bodhisattva most often refers to a person who has the ability to achieve enlightenment but chooses to put it off to help others along their paths first.
The reason that bodhisattvas and peacocks are so closely related comes down to an interesting fact about peacocks that not many people know. Peacocks have a unique ability to be able to eat a poisonous plant without being negatively impacted by that poison, much the same way as bodhisattvas can walk down a poisonous path without being thrown off their own. Although there are plenty of distractions, especially at the beginning, the opening of the peacock’s tail can be directly related to the feeling of enlightenment at the end of the road.
#7 The Wheel of Dharma
The Wheel of Dharma, also referred to as the Dharmachakra, the Dharma Wheel, or the Wheel of Transformation, is an eight-spoked wheel that consists of three parts — the spokes, the rim, and the hub. However, if you break it down to its most basic shape, the wheel really is a circle, just like another popular Buddhist enlightenment symbol, the ensō. Circles represent completion, the endless circle of birth, life, death, and rebirth that continues on undisturbed until we can learn what we were put on the earth to learn.
It’s also essential to break the Wheel of Dharma down and look at its components separately. The wheel's rim represents the natural limitations we all face, no matter what we are and who we are. The hub in the middle is the axis that we all revolve around, and each of the eight spokes represents a portion of the Eightfold Path.
#8 The Bodhi Tree
The teachings of the Buddha can help anyone dedicated enough to achieve enlightenment. Still, before he became the figurehead of an entire religion, he was just a man sitting under a fig tree.
It would have been impossible for anyone to guess how crucial that moment would be, as that was the place that Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha. That tree, known as the bodhi tree (bodhi is the Sanksrit word for enlightenment), is now a common symbol representing the importance of that moment and everything that would come as a result of it.
The bodhi tree is seen both above and below the ground as a reflection of itself. It is symbolic of how life can be reflected back through a greater sense of awareness. The leaves are usually drawn in heart shapes to remind us to approach life with a loving heart. The tree is a reminder of the incredible potential we all have, both at birth and all throughout our lives.
#9 The Unalome
More than any other symbol of enlightenment on this list, the unalome also doubles as a popular tattoo. In addition to being a physical representation of transcendence, it is also very beautiful and artistic in nature. It is made from a single line, twisting and turning from top to bottom.
There are various interpretations of what the unalome means. To Hindus, the symbol is representative of the all-seeing third eye of the highest Hindu god, Shiva. Shiva is sometimes referred to as The Destroyer, but not for the reasons you may think. He is responsible for helping to destroy any obstacles in your life, both in the present and in the future. He also uses his third eye to watch from afar, transforming life and reality into what he believes it should be.
The unalome is made up of multiple patterns in its design. The bottom of the pattern is a spiral, which signifies the third eye and your life, which you are given without any concrete direction on how to live it. It is up to you to discover how you should live your life.
Above those spirals is a line with various knots and kinks, which are symbolic of the different milestones that occur in your life (especially spiritually). And at the very top is a blossoming lotus flower, representing ultimate enlightenment.
#10 The Celtic Knot
While every other enlightenment symbol on the list comes from Buddhism or Hinduism, we wanted to feature one from another large culture — the Celts. Although this group often gets condensed into just the Irish, there is much more to this beautiful, historical culture.
The Celtic Knot, or Celtic Spiral, is a symbol that represents enlightenment and harmony with all aspects of life. There isn’t just a single Celtic Knot, though; there are many different varieties of them. Each knot has an interlacing pattern, representing completion and eternity like other enlightenment symbols on our list do. Also, like the unalome, the Celtic Knot is made from one single line.
The line has no start or finish and reminds us that the world continues to march forward no matter what happens in life. The less we attach ourselves to things in life, especially those that don’t serve any positive purpose, the closer we get to achieving enlightenment and peace within ourselves.
One of the more popular variations of the Celtic Knot is known as the Triquetra or Trinity Knot. The number three was very important to the Celts and is considered to be a sacred number. Each part of the symbol represents a different part of life — past, present, or future, most commonly. Trinity Knots are often seen at weddings as a symbol of the lifelong commitment the two people make to each other.
Every culture has its own enlightenment symbols. While these symbols won’t help to reach enlightenment on their own, they can act as a reminder that it is possible. If you work hard enough, even when life gets difficult, you can also achieve a state of higher consciousness. Home of Chiji would love to be part of your process and help you along the way with tips and tools to keep you mindful.