Against The Stream ~ THE SWASTIKA
TOO LONG HAVE I WAITED
TO WRITE about something that should have been explained
long ago; had I written earlier, some trouble might
have been averted. However, it is ‘better late
than not at all’, and I write these words now
in the hope that they will obviate more trouble in
If we think about it, we will soon see how
much we live by symbols, which are not realities in
themselves, but only indicative of other things. Money,
for example, is the most obvious symbol in our lives:
it is a symbol of wealth, a token of exchange; but
in itself, it is not worth much. It has often happened
that a government has suddenly devalued its currency,
and, overnight, it was much reduced in value or become
even worthless! While it has value, we use it as a
means of exchange to buy things with; but what happens
if there is a famine, with no food available? Can
we eat money?
All kinds of crimes—including the
worst crime of all: War —have been and are committed
because of symbols. The Communists carried their Hammer-and-Sickle
flag with them into battle, just as the Christians
carried the Cross in their unholy ‘Holy Wars’.
Buddhists have never debased their religion by violence.
There has never been a Buddhist war, and hopefully
never will be; indeed, it is difficult to imagine
how a war could be carried out in the name of Buddhism,
the first principle of which is Reverence for Life.
Words are symbols, and not the things they
represent. All words are adjectives, no matter whether
we call them nouns, verbs, or whatever; an adjective
is a describing-word, but is not the thing it describes.
The Buddha-image is a symbol of the wise
and compassionate Teacher who lived so long ago, and
who gave us good advice to live by. Who treats the
images as living things, mistaking the symbol for
the symbolized? Who, for a moment, imagines that this
Teacher, who was born a Prince, but gave up all his
worldly wealth and position to become a homeless wanderer,
and finally an Enlightened One, really looked like
the images we have made to represent Him? How would
you feel if you saw someone looking like the Buddha-images
on the street—with a lump on his head, ear-lobes
touching his shoulders, hair curled into tight little
knots like snails, and the other signs which—according
to the books—are supposed to be the distinguishing
marks of a superman? Would you not feel rather surprised?
Some people, without a doubt, would think they were
seeing an extra-terrestrial being! Here, by speaking
thus, I am not intending to be—and hope I don’t
appear to be—disrespectful, but am merely trying
to indicate how we get stuck on symbols, and never
In 1985, I went to visit Vietnamese refugees
in Norway. While there, I was told of something unfortunate
that had happened not long before—something
that, with a little bit of foresight, could have been
avoided. A Vietnamese Buddhist had died, and his family
had had a Swastika sign engraved upon his tombstone.
Now, the Swastika, to Vietnamese Buddhists—as
it is to people of various religions in Asia—is
an auspicious symbol, else why would these people
have placed it on the tomb-stone? Many Vietnamese
and Chinese Buddhists also wear small gold swastikas
around their necks, or have them tattooed on their
arms. Having inquired of a number of people wearing
this symbol as to its meaning, however, I discovered
that not many knew. Well, according to one account
I came across, this symbol originated in ancient Persia,
about 3,500 years ago. It therefore predates Buddhism
by 1,000 years, and whichever way it is used in Asia—either
clockwise or anticlockwise, it symbolizes Safety,
Well-Being, or Happiness.
However, while in the East, the Swastika
always symbolizes something good, in the West, because
Adolph Hitler adopted it, it has come to be regarded
as a symbol of evil. Very few Westerners know of its
ancient origin and meaning.
Norway, like many other European countries,
was overrun by and suffered under the occupying forces
of Nazi Germany during World War II. So, when some
Norwegians saw the Swastika on the Vietnamese tombstone
in a public cemetery, the memories of Nazi terror
rushed to the surface, and there was a furore. At
first, the Vietnamese did not know what all the fuss
was about, as they say the way the Buddhists use the
Swastika—clockwise—is different than the
way Hitler used it—anticlockwise. Well, this
might be so to them, but I’m sure most Westerners
are not aware of the difference, and so it was in
Norway. Antagonism flared, and the Vietnamese had
to explain and apologize publicly, and remove the
mark from the stone.
I know there have been other incidents regarding
this symbol in the US, and therefore, because I do
not want to see the Vietnamese Buddhists in trouble
or danger, I have tried to explain, various times.
It is advisable not to use this symbol anymore, as
it may cause confusion and misunderstanding. It is
not the only symbol that Buddhists may use, after
all; there is the Lotus, or the Dharma-Wheel, too.
We should be practical in this, as in all things.
It would be impossible to explain to everyone, that
the Buddhist Swastika is different from the Nazi Swastika—impossible!
And not only might the use of it cause trouble, but
it can only impede our efforts to propagate the Dharma
in the West; some people, who might otherwise be sympathetic
towards Buddhism, would feel alienated by the presence
of Swastika signs in temples.
Therefore, it is we who must understand,
bend and adapt on this point, not they. If the Vietnamese
and Chinese Buddhists continue using this symbol in
the West, they will only invite trouble and have only
themselves to blame for the consequences. This is
my well-meant advice, meant to preserve, prevent and
protect, to bring about a little of the quality that
the Swastika originally symbolized: Safety and Well-Being.