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The resurrection of my late lamented website (mostly) on spiritual matters.

Symbols of the Center

A consideration of centeredness in the world's religious symbols

[This essay was originally posted to]

The Condensed Version

Throughout the world, across cultures and across time, the world's people have often used symbols the emphasize the importance of the Center. These symbols signify the psycho-spiritual idea of The Stillpoint that lies at the Center of everything.

The Center

When we think about the symbols of the world's religions, we are often so familiar with them that we fail to see what they really signify.

First, let's consider the importance of the Center. Imagine a turntable turning, and let's say that you place two little men on it, at positions A and B, like this:

Now, which little man moves faster? Remember that in any one turn of the disc, all points (say, along the red line) make a complete circle. It's clear that, if you straightened out the lines, the man at Point A made a longer trip than the man at Point B, but in the same amount of time. Therefore, he must be going faster.

So now, let's imagine Points C, D, E, and so on, getting closer and closer to the Center with each one. Each goes slower and slower. So, theoretically at least, there is a place, at the absolute center, that is not moving at all. We can call this place "the Stillpoint."

Let's turn to Buddhist teaching for a moment. The Buddhists (and the Hindus) refer to the everyday world we live in as samsara, which can be defined as "the world of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth." But the root of the word has to do with "passing through various states" and, at its very root, with "wandering."

It's "opposite," however, is nirvana, which signifies the state of absolute, unconditioned... something. Ahhh, there are no nouns! It cannot be described, except in terms of what it is not. It is not conditioned, not becoming, not... Even calling it the opposite of samsara is going too far in the way of assertion (especially as the highest understanding is that samsara and nirvana are the same--but that's another story).

So one of the things we can say about nirvana is that it is not moving. It is absolute stillness--metaphorically speaking, at least. As such, the Stillpoint that we suggested, lying at the center of the turntable, is as good a symbol of nirvana as any--and of its corollaries in other religions, such as "bliss," "the peace that passes understanding," etc.

Since the Center represents the Stillpoint, it is not surprising that the world's religious symbols would somehow stress the importance of the Center. So on this page we show some of the more popular symbols and how they manifest the Stillpoint.

The Symbols

We start with what is perhaps the most common religious symbol in the West: The Cross. Let me just say that, by discussing the cross as a symbol, I do not mean to deny its historicity. The cross, with a longer lower member, was certainly used as an instrument of torture and death by the Romans (though some say the so-called "St. Andrew's cross," in the form of an X, was more common), and there is no reason to doubt that Jesus--assuming he really lived--was crucified on such a shape. Nevertheless, this symbol was known in the world before the Romans ever imagined such a use, and has been used in various spiritual applications since.

A closer look at the cross reveals why: Imagine that you had four arrows (in this case, red) pointing toward a center point--say, from the four directions, for instance. What shape would they take? Why, a cross of course!

And so the cross, with its multitude of other meanings (such as intersection of the vertical and horizontal--that is, spiritual and material) is also defined by arrows pointing toward a center point.

This image, with variations, is true for several other symbols besides.

When, for example, the Buddha started teaching, he referred to this as "the Turning of the Wheel of the Law" (or dharma). In his first formal sermon, he spoke of the "Noble Eightfold Path." And so an eight-spoked wheel, often referred to as "the Wheel of the Dharma," has become a symbol of Buddhism, right alongside another famous Buddhist symbol: the Swastika, which is a four-spoked wheel with extensions to indicate that it is whirling. This is meant to convey the idea of the Sun, a spinning wheel of fire.

The swastika, by the way, presents an interesting case in the confusion of symbols. This sign, common to many cultures (including the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, the Celts, the Native Americans, and the Persians) was in India closely associated with the Aryans, the Central European peoples whom traditional scholars say migrated into northern India in the second millennium B.C.E. (some now dispute this). It is, as mentioned, a sun symbol. The historic Buddha was a member of a clan of Aryans, the Shakyas, that was specifically associated with the sun. (He is often called the Lion of the Shakyas, and the Lion with its radially symmetrical mane is also a well-known sun symbol.) So as the teaching of this Lion from a Sun clan spread across Asia, the Aryan symbol of the sun went with it.

Skip ahead a couple of millennia. Hitler, taking the misguided conclusions of some 19th-century scholars to heart, declared the Aryans a pure race which would rightfully come to dominate the world. Taking one of the popular Aryan symbols, he perverted it into a symbol of his Reich.

People who like to think that Hitler's symbol turns in one direction and the Indo-Buddhist sign in the other are forgetting a couple of significant points:

  1. The Buddhist sign may be shown turning in either direction (though some like to call one the swastika and the other the sauvastika; see this Wiki article). In fact, two of the "auspicious signs" on the bottom of a Buddha's foot are the swastika (Number 1) and the sauvastika (Number 4). You can see an example of this at Joruriji, a temple I visited on Shikoku in Japan was I was doing my Aki Meguri and the 88-Temple Pilgrimage. Look closely at the toes: The ones on the right foot have marks that swirl one way, and the ones on the left foot go the other.
  2. Hitler, like the Aryans, used the word swastika for his symbol.

Sun symbols are rife in religion, and all are radially symmetrical, that is, round images which balance on a center point, just like in a child's drawing.

Other circle-based religious symbols also point toward the Center. Although Islam has never adopted a universal symbol of their faith (in keeping with their strict observance of prohibitions against idolatry), one often sees the Crescent and Star associated with Islamic countries, especially on their flags. Although the design varies widely (and in fact usually the star is not centered), the symbol does suggest the idea of a balance point within a circle.

Another circular symbol of balance--though seemingly with no central point--is the classic tai chi symbol representing Taoism.

But what few people realize is that there are actually two circles within the larger circle, and the two dots define their centers.

The simple fact of circles within circles leads to some surprising mathematics, a peculiarity of this symbol.

In the picture above, "r" designates the radius of the circle--the distance from the center of the circle to its perimeter, or circumference. The radius times two--in other words, the line from one side of the circle to the other--is called the diameter. Mathematics teaches us that the circumference of this circle is equal to pi (π=3.14) times the diameter, or:

πd which is the same as 2πr

Now look at the tai chi symbol again, and notice that the radius of the big circle is the diameter of the small circles.

Let's call the large circle "A" and the smaller ones "B" and "C." And let's say the diameter of Circle B equals 1. So the diameter of Circle A equals 2.

Then the circumferences of the two circles are:

A: 2πr=2x3.14x2=12.56

B: 2πr=2x3.14x1=6.28

And of course, even without a calculator, we can see that the circumference of Circle B is half that of Circle A. Since Circles B and C are equal in size, we can take half of the circumference of each to make one circle, right? And that is half of the length of the circumference of Circle A. So the red line and the blue line in this drawing are of equal length:

So what? Well, remember that in fact, you can put two circles inside each of Circles B and C, making four circles, whose half-circumferences also add up to the same:

And you can put two circles in each of those circles, and so on.

Notice now that the width of the yellow line from side to side--the amplitude of the wave, so to speak--is half that of the red line, which is half that of the blue line. So as each circle is divided in two, the line described by the half-circumferences becomes less and less wavy.

Do you see where this is going?

Take this down to the smallest level,
with hundreds of circles lined up,
and their curvy half-circumferences
will define a straight line!

In other words, there is an extreme paradox here, because you will eventually get a line that is both 6.28 and the same time!

This is a fascinating illustration of one of the basic points of Taoism, that all the seeming "pairs of opposites" in the world are actually manifestations of the Tao--the One behind the Many.

More circular images: Wicca, like many ancient religions, uses the Pentagram, another symbol of balance.

Hinduism, like Islam, has no single symbol. The written word Aum is often used, and the Indian flag features a wheel with 24 spokes, referred to as the dharma chakra or Wheel of the Law, as found on the capital of a pillar at the ancient ruins of Sarnath, where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, the "Turning of the Wheel of Dharma" Sutra.

One of the best-known images from India is Shiva Nataraja, the Dancing Shiva. Although Shaivism (the worship of Shiva) is only one of India's many sects, it is one of the most widespread, especially in the populous south. Shiva's navel--the center of a dancer's balance--is exactly at the center of the circle of flames around him. What's more, Joseph Campbell claims that the limbs of Shiva--the four arms and two legs--resemble the shape of the letters of the word Aum, as seen above. In any case, I think this certainly qualifies as a circular symbol with a center point.

Finally, a non-circular image, but one which still indicates balance around a center point: The Star of David, symbol of Judaism.

Imagine two arrows, one pointing up toward heaven, the other pointing down toward earth. Bring them together--the union of Heaven and Earth--and then remove the arrows' shafts. This leaves the image of the six-pointed Star of David. Circular? No, but it clearly denotes balance and centeredness.

Santa Barbara's Chumash Painted Cave
(Photo by the author)

A final note: The art of early humans all over the world, including the rock art painted in caves, often contains radially symmetrical images, many of them resembling sun disks and other sorts of wheels. The image that we have chosen for the Realize! logo is one such image, and many more can be found. As mentioned in the article about our logo, these mandalas seem truly to reflect a universal structure in the mind of humans--a longing toward centeredness, perhaps?

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