Tibetan Buddhist Symbolic Animals and Mythical Creatures

Whether imaginary or real, animals are a recurring decorative and symbolic element of ancient Tibetan art. Animal symbols contain a wealth of meaning in both social and religious contexts. Various animal forms have multiple psychological meanings and their powerful symbolism taps into the unconscious realm. The rich and varied animal motifs in Tibet culture can be divided into three major categories, each with its own symbolic connotations: domestic animals, wild animals, and mythical beasts.

In fact, Tibetans believe that these symbols not only can bring good luck, long life, and prosperity but can also bring the highest realization of the real nature of all existences. They can help sentient beings to develop their own inner wisdom and attain the level of a Buddha, no matter what other name they want to give to it. And that is why symbols do exist as manifestations of this wisdom inherent in all sentient beings ‘mind.  Some of the depictions of Tibetan Buddhist symbolic creatures and their motifs in Tibetan art and life are described briefly as follow.

The Wind Horse

The wind horse is an allegory for the human soul in the shamanistic tradition of Central Asia. In Tibetan Buddhism, it was included as the pivotal element in the center of the four animals symbolizing the cardinal directions and a symbol of the idea of well-being or good fortune. It has also given the name to a type of prayer flag that has the five animals printed on it.

On prayer flags and paper prints, wind horses usually appear in the company of the four animals of the cardinal directions, which are “an integral part of the Lungta composition”: Garuda or Kyung, and dragon in the upper corners, and tiger and snow lion in the lower corners. In this context, the wind horse is typically shown without wings, but carries the Three Jewels, or the wish fulfilling jewel. Its appearance is supposed to bring peace, wealth, and harmony. The ritual invocation of the wind horse usually happens in the morning and during the growing moon. The flags themselves are commonly known as wind horse. They flutter in the wind and carry the prayers to heaven like the horse flying in the wind.

In Buddhism symbolism the four guardian animals namely Garuda, Dragon, Lion and Tiger that surround the wind horse in the directional corners symbolize overcoming of the four great fears of birth, diseases, old age and death. In addition, the arrangement of the colors, blue, red, yellow, and white with the green wind horse at the center, corresponds to the Buddhist mandala arrangement, with Amoghasiddhi representing the green element of air at the center.


Garuda is the mythical ‘Lord of Birds” in both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. In Tibet the Indian Garuda became assimilate with the Bon Khading the golden “horned eagle” king of birds and the Bon bird of fire. In his sharp beak Garuda devours a Naga king. Textual sources usually describe Garuda as biting on the head of a serpent whilst holding its tail in his hands. However, Garuda is usually illustrated with a long snake held between both hands and biting into it in the middle. He is also described as wearing the eight great Nagas as ornaments. One binds his hair, two others serve as earrings, two as bracelets, two as anklets and one as a belt or necklace. Garuda appears in many forms according to different traditions and lineages, assuming greatest prominence in the Dzogchen transmissions of the Nyingma and Bon traditions.


Unlike its demonic European counterpart, the Tibetan dragon is a creature of great creative power; a positive icon, representing the strong male yang principle of heaven, change, energy, wealth and creativity. Dragons are shape shifters, able to transform at will, from as small as the silkworm to a giant that fills the entire sky. Dragons are depicted in one of two colors, green or brown. The green, or azure dragon of Buddhism ascends into the sky at the spring equinox; it represents the light’s increasing power in springtime and the easterly direction of the sunrise. The brown dragon is the autumn equinox, when it descends into a deep pool, encasing itself in mud until the next spring, but its spirit is still with the practitioner bringing wealth and health. The pearls, or jewels clutched in the claws of the dragon represent wisdom and health. The dragon can control the weather by squeezing the jewels to produce dew, rain or even downpours when clutched tightly. The dragon is the vehicle of Vairochana, the white Buddha of the center or the east.

The Snow Lion

The lion, as the king of all beasts, is an ancient Indian symbol of sovereignty and protection. Early Buddhism adopted the lion as a symbol of Shakyamuni Buddha. As a symbol of his sovereignty the Buddha is represented seated upon throne supported by eight lions. These eight directional lions symbolize the eight great Bodhisattvas disciples of Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. Associations: main quality is fearlessness, dominance over mountains, and the earth element.

The “Lion’s Roar”, is a name given to a form of Avalokiteshvara, where the term lion’s roar refers to the supremacy of the Buddha’s teachings overall all other heretical doctrines. The lion is a vehicle of many Vajrayana deities, including Vaishravana, Manjushri, Ganapati, and Tashi Tseringma.


The tiger is a symbol of strength, fearlessness and military prowess. Tigers were indigenous to eastern Tibet, where the Wutun Monastery is located. A subtler meaning has to do with Tantric Buddhism. Tiger skins were a favored meditational mat for Tantric sages. In Tantric Buddhism, the tiger skin represents the transmutation of anger into wisdom and insight, also offering protection to the meditator from outside harm or spiritual interference. Tiger icons in Tibetan Buddhism are most prevalent in eastern Tibet, appearing on more furniture and rugs here than anywhere else in Tibet.

The Wheel and Deer Emblem

The Buddhist emblem of a golden eight spoked wheel flanked by two deer represents the Buddha’s first discourse, which he gave in the Deer Park at Saranath, near Varanasi. This discourse is known as the “first turning of the when of Dharma, when the Buddha taught the doctrines of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path to five Indian mendicants. As a symbol of the Buddha’s teachings a gilded three-dimensional wheel and deer emblem is traditionally placed at the front of monastery and temple roofs, from where it shines as a crowning symbol of Buddha dharma. This emblem similarly appears over the four gateways of the divine mandala palace.

The two deer peacefully rest in attentive obedience on either side of the golden wheel, with the male deer to the right and the female to the left. The male deer is sometimes depicted with the single horn of the Seru deer or rhinoceros, and gilded bronze sculptures the sexual organs of the two deer may be shown. The gentleness and grace of the deer represent the qualities of the true Buddhist mendicant.

The Makara

Makara is a Sanskrit word which means “sea dragon” or “water-monster” and in Tibetan language it is called the “Chu Srin”. An ancient mythological symbol, this hybrid creature is formed from a number of animals such that collectively possess the nature of a crocodile. During the Vedic times when Indra was the God of heaven, Varuna, the Vedic water god became the God of the seas and rode on makara, which was called “the water monster vehicle”.

In the Tibetan Buddhist format it evolved from the Indian form of makara. However, it is different in some ways such as, “display of lions fore paws, a horse’s mane, the gills and tendrils of a fish, and the horns of a deer or dragon. From its once simple feathered fishtail it now emerges as a complex spiraling pattern known as makara-tail design.

In Tibetan iconography, it is depicted in the Vajrayana weaponry of strength and tenacity which is the hall mark of crocodiles, since crocodiles hold on its hapless victim is nothing but death. The Vajrayan weapons which have crocodile symbolism are; axe, iron hook, curved knife, vajra, ritual dragon in all of which the theme is “emergence from the open mouth of makara”.

Its symbolic representation in the form of a makara head at the corner of temple roofs is as water element which also functions as a “rainwater spout or gargoyle”. It is also seen as water spouts at the source of a spring. The artistic carving in stone is in the form of identical pair of makaras flanked by two Nagas (snake gods) along with a crown of Garuda, which is called the Kirthimukha face. Such depictions are also seen at the entrance of wooden doorways as the top arch and also as a torana behind Buddha’s images.

The Kirtimukha

The Kirtimukha or face of majesty, fame or glory is commonly known as the “Monster Mask” or the creature without a name. Kirtimukha is the name of a fierce Hindu demon face with horns, huge fangs, and gaping mouth often used as a decorative motif in Indian and Southeast Asian temple architecture. It is generally placed above openings such as gates, windows and archways.

In Tibetan art the Kirtimukha forms a heraldic device on armor, helmets, shields and weapons of war. A connected frieze of Kirtimukha faces, forming a continuous net of jewels, is often painted across the upper beams of temple walls.

The Four Friends or Harmonious Brothers

The familiar Tibetan motif of “the four friends” which appears an elephant, monkey, hare and partridge standing on each other’s back.

One version of the story relates to Shariputra, one of Buddha’s oldest disciples, who was unable to find lodging in the village of Vaisali. The younger disciples had all hurried to the town and secured all available lodgings. When Buddha found out that Shariputra had spent the night without shelter beneath a tree, he told the following parable in response to the younger disciples self-cherishing attitude. “Once, beneath a great banyan tree in the Himalayan foothills, there lived 4 friends, a partridge, a hare, a monkey and an elephant.

Their mutual respect had diminished, and in order to determine who was the most senior, they began discussing the age of the banyan tree. The elephant first related how, when he was but a baby, the banyan tree was but a small bush. The monkey then related how, in his infancy, the tree was merely a shrub. The hare related how he had seen it as a leafless sapling. Last, the partridge spoke, telling how he had once swallowed the original seed and from his droppings this mighty tree had sprouted. The partridge then was acclaimed the eldest and most honored. Once again, harmony was attained in the kingdom.” Buddha then decreed that henceforth age would confer priority within the sangha. The moral tale illustrates that age must be respected above learning, greatness or noble birth.

The Six Symbols of Long Life

The six symbols or signs of longevity are of Chinese origin, and appear as secular rather than religious images in Tibetan art. They are frequently carved on wooden panels and furniture or painted as wall panels and decorative motifs on porcelain Chinaware. The six longevity symbols are the old man of long life, and the tree, rock, water, birds and deer of longevity.

The old man is Shou Lao, the Chinese god of longevity, who was originally a star-god Canopus in the southern hemisphere represented by the bright star Canopus in the southern constellation of Argo. Since Canopus is most prominently visible low on the horizon in March and April, Shou Lao came to represent springtime, renewal peace and longevity.

The tree of longevity underneath which the old man sits in usually represented as a fruit-laden peach tree. The divine peach tree of the Chinese gods yielded the fruit of eternal life. Imbued with the eight medicinal qualities it blossomed and ripened over and immense period of time. The development of these blossoms into ripe peaches symbolized fidelity and longevity.

The immutable rock of longevity is an auspiciously shaped rock whose geomantic properties are believed to be beneficial to mankind. The rock usually takes the form of a Vajra or conch-shaped rock whose fissures and striations turn towards the right. An area which is in close proximity to such an empowered rock formation is considered highly auspicious in the geomantic siting of monasteries, temples, stupas, retreat caves and habitations.

The water of longevity possesses the eight qualities of pure water, and essentially pours forth as the nectar of immortality which is contained in the flask held by the long-life deity Amitayus. The water springs from the rock of longevity nourishing the tree, which in turn nourishes the man, deer and cranes.

The cranes of longevity are a very popular motif in Chinese cultural art. Birds were twice born, once as an egg and again when the egg hatches. Cranes are believed to live to an advanced age, especially the black crane, which is said to survive on water alone. The stork is also a longevity symbol, and like the crane is believed to have only one mate in in its lifetime. A pair of cranes or storks symbolize happiness, fidelity and longevity.

The deer is the vehicle of Shou Lao, and he is usually represented riding on a stag with mature antlers. Deer were believed to live to a great age and were credited with the Plant of Immortality. This divine plant is a cultivated fungus which grows on the roots and lower trunk of certain trees and is consumed as a tonic. The deer is often depict

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