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Top 9 Symbols of Zen and Their Meanings

Top 9 Symbols of Zen and Their Meanings

The word ‘Zen’ is the Japanese pronunciation of the word ‘Ch’an’ in Chinese. These words stem from Sanskrit, with the root meaning being ‘meditation, absorption or thought.’ At the very heart of the concept of Zen is meditation. Emphasis on insight and self-control is also essential. Many Zen Buddhists also look up to their teachers for wisdom and guidance throughout their practice. 

Zen is also a type of Buddhism that initially began in China and flourished throughout Japan. Zen Buddhism involves meditation and controlling the flow of one’s breath. It also includes insight into the human mind, awareness and mindfulness, and peace

The concept of Zen has influenced various philosophies throughout South Asia. Taoism was the first to incorporate Zen, as it is one of the oldest Chinese religions. 

The term Zen stems from the Sanskrit term ‘Dhyana,’ which literally means ‘meditation .’The primary Zen belief is that anyone can awaken with proper spiritual cultivation and instruction. 

Let’s consider the Top 9 Symbols of Zen below:

1. Enso 

The Ensō.
The Ensō
Ensō by Nick Raleigh from the Noun Project

This is considered a sacred symbol in the Zen school of Buddhism. Enso means a Mutual Circle or Circle of togetherness. Zen is a circle of a large space that does not contain any excess things and still does not lack anything.

This symbol refers to the beginning and end of all things. It can also be referred to as the circle of life and further symbolizes emptiness or fullness, presence or absence. It also denotes infinity and the perfect meditative state. 

Enso can be an elegant state which can also accept imperfection as perfect and the spirit of harmonious cooperation. This is a universal symbol of wholeness and completion. The Zen masters often paint an Enso symbol for their students to meditate upon. This is usually done on silk or rice paper in only one movement. (1)

2. Yin Yang Symbol

Yin Yang on a black sand.
Yin Yang on a black sand
Image from

This Zen symbol shows the opposing forces in the universe. One is a good force and the other is an evil force. The Yin side is the black coloured side of the circle, which symbolizes darkness. It also symbolizes passiveness and stillness. At the same time, the other white side symbolizes light warmth, hardness, and masculinity.

The curved lines in the Yin-Yang symbol represent the movement and dynamic flow of energies. The dots of opposing colors represent that no one is absolute and contain some opposite. This symbol represents harmony and peace in motion, which is the central concept of Zen.

3. Om Symbol

Om symbol painted on temple wall.
Om symbol painted on temple wall / Tibetan, Buddhism
Image courtesy:

The Om Symbol is also sometimes written as “Aum .”This symbol consists of a single syllable and traces its origins to Hinduism. However, it is common to Buddhism and other religions too. The sound of the syllable ‘Om’ is considered sacred, and common thought is that it is the sound of the universe.

The characters that make the syllable metaphorically stand for the mind, the body, and the spirit. (2) The Om symbol is often chanted independently, during meditation, or before spiritual recitation within the realms of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism.

This prominent symbol is also part of ancient and medieval manuscripts and is present in spiritual retreats, temples, and monasteries of the above-stated faiths. (3)(4)

4. The Lotus Flower

The white lotus flower.
The white lotus flower
Image courtesy:

Within the realm of Buddhism, the Lotus is a highly symbolic flower. This flower symbolizes Buddha’s image himself. This flower also emanates a strong message that every creature can achieve illumination if applied. The Lotus flower sprouts out of the mud and ascends to the water‘s surface in magnificence.

Similarly, humans too can uncover their genuine nature and build up to the ideals of Buddha. They can ascend above want and gain control over themselves. The different phases of the lotus flower also represent various world ways.

For example, a closed lotus bud represents the beginning of an excursion. A lotus that has bloomed halfway represents strolling along the way. A full bloom represents the end of the excursion or the enlightenment. (5)

5. The Buddhist Bell

Buddhist Bells.
The bell is a popular symbol in Buddhism and Christianity 
Image by Milada Vigerova from Pixabay

Bells have been used in temples to summon nuns and monks for thousands of years, if not more. Bells help monks and nuns focus on the present moment while meditating or chanting. Hence bells create a peaceful atmosphere that helps the meditation process. For this very reason, you often see bells in Buddhist temples.

These bells are considered meditation enhancers, and they are known to promote peace and calmness. Buddhist meditators that are on an advanced level practice with bells and various other instruments for hours sometimes. (6)

At times, the ring of the Buddhist bell also represents the enlightened voice of Buddha teaching the dharma. It is also thought of as a call for protection to ward off evil spirits. (7)

6. The Swastika

The Indian Swastika Lamp.
The Indian Swastika Lamp
Image courtesy:

The swastika is one of the most ancient images on earth. It can represent harmony, positive energy, and good karma. Within the realm of Buddhism, the swastika has a particular meaning. It represents the seal of the Buddha’s heart.

Within the swastika lies the entire psyche of the Buddha. Hence, the swastika is often seen engraved on the Buddha in pictures, such as on his palms, chest, or feet. In China, the swastika refers to the number ‘ten thousand.’ This is a reference to propitiousness and limitlessness. In the ancient world, the swastika represented good fortune.

The term ‘swastika’ comes from the Sanskrit term ‘conducive wellbeing .’This symbol was widely popular in ancient Mesopotamian coinage. With Buddhist ideals traveling towards the west, this symbol gains some of its prior significance. (8)

7. Recitation Beads

Buddhist Recitation Beads.
Buddhist Recitation Beads
Antoine Taveneaux, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Buddhist recitation beads are also known as Mala. The Mala is a strand of, traditionally, 108 beads used to keep count during meditation. The Mala beads have been in use for over a thousand years. The earliest example of Mala beads dates back to the 8th century.

The Mala beads help retain focus and concentration during spiritual practice, meditation, reflection, or prayer. It is said that mala beads become one with your spiritual energy and your energy. You develop a bond with your beads, and the more frequently you meditate, the stronger the connection with your beads is. (9) The Mala beads also represent us as humans.

It is thought that a single mala bead isn’t just one bead, but all the beads are linked together to form a strand. Similarly, we as humans cannot function singularly. We function together and are associated and linked to one another. One cannot survive without the other. 

8. Dharmachakra

John Hill, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Dharmachakra is also known as the wheel of dharma. This is a common symbol in the south Asian regions. It holds particular importance in Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. The Dharmachakra is described as the eight-spoke wheel. It represents the end of suffering and eight separate paths to attain wisdom.

The swirl present in the middle of the wheel represents the image of the Buddha himself and the Dharma, which is the moral code of entirety or the universe. The central swirl also represents the spiritual community or the Sangha.

Hence the Dharmachakra is referred to as the Buddha himself and his philosophy – all rolled into one. This is the reason the Buddha is also known as the wheel turner. He is the person who sets teachings into motion.

9. Hamsa

Hamsa Accessory.
Hamsa Accessory
Image Courtesy:

The Hamsa symbol is highly symbolic. It holds vital but different symbolic meanings in various faiths. The Hamsa symbol is described as an open palm with an eye drawn over the palm. This symbol can be used in many things and is popularized in jewelry. The symbology is interpreted differently by different people.

For Buddhists and Hindus, the Hamsa represents the different roles of the chakras. Chakra is the energy that flows within the body and affects your five senses. The Hamsa also represents the mudras or the specific hand gestures that are used while meditating or practicing Yoga.

In Christianity, the Hamsa is linked to the power of the Virgin Mary. Virgin Mary represents all that is feminine as well as compassion and strength. Within Judaism, the Hamsa represents the number 5. Five is an important number in the faith as there are five books in the Torah. The Hamsa is also known as the ‘hand of Fatima’ within the Islamic faith. The symbol is also used to ward off the evil eye. 


Zen is an ancient meditation concept that has been incorporated into the major South Asian religions.


  2. Jan Gonda (1963), The Indian Mantra, Oriens, Vol. 16, pp. 244–297
  3. Julius Lipner (2010), Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Routledge, ISBN 978-0415456760, pp. 66–67

Header image courtesy: Salambayoga, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Valentine c.

Saturday 10th of June 2023

Zen symbols are thinking mind.

Emptiness is form. Form is emptiness.

The stone statue cries silent tears.

Grass grows by itself.