Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Celtic and Buddhist symbolism - triskelions, triskeles.

The triskele or triskelion symbol, which resembles three commas or teardrop shaped beads chasing one another round a circle, is a Buddhist meditational symbol that represents the three aspects of Dependent Relationship which give existence to all functioning things.

The Buddhist teaching on Dependent Relationship states that phenomena exist in three fundamental ways. Firstly, phenomena exist by dependence upon causes and conditions. Secondly, phenomena depend upon the relationship of the whole to its parts and attributes. Thirdly, and most profoundly, phenomena depend upon designation by the mind [1].  The mind is a non-physical aspect of the universe that is not reducible to matter.

The appearance of motion of the three swirling teardrops symbolises that the impermanence of all compound phenomena arises from these three ever-changing relationships.

In traditional Buddhist art, triskeles are frequently seen in the centre of Dharma wheels, four-pronged vajras and auspicious symbol mandalas.

The triskelion magatama symbol is also a common feature of Celtic sacred art such as stone carvings, enamel ornaments, book illumination and knotwork.

This metaphysical symbol is probably the 'Caer Sidin' which was the object of meditation by the Druidic bard Taliesin, as he explains in this verse:

Mi a fum ynghadair flin
Uwch Caer Sidin
A honno ya troi fydd
Rhwng tri elfydd
Pand rhyfedd ir byd
Nas argennyd

Which is translated as:

I have presided in a toilsome chair
Over the circle of Sidin
Whilst that is continuously revolving between three elements;
Is it not a wonder to the world,
That men are not enlightened? [2]

The untranslated term 'Sidin' is not explained. Could it be related to the Sanskrit Siddhi ?

According to the article by John Michael Greer, the 'three elements' of Druid metaphysics to which Taliesin refers are known in old Welsh as Gwyar (change, causality), Calas (structure) and Nwyfre (consciousness).

Buddhist Triskeles

An Indian Dharma wheel with a triskele at the hub

Japanese Buddhist Dharma wheel

Dharma wheel - Manjushri Center, Cumbria

Four pronged vajra with central triskelion (click to enlarge)
Manjushri Center, Cumbria

Celtic Triskele Symbols

Scottish Carved Stone 1

Scottish Celtic sculptured stone - inner and outer triskelions

Silver object (function unknown) from Saint Ninian's Isle Treasure, Shetland

Irish metalwork showing interleaved triskelions, second century A.D.

Central triskelion surrounded by three triskelions on Celtic enamel ornament from Derbyshire

The Laxey Wheel Triskelion Isle of Man

Buddha's bunnies - the three hares/rabbits symbol

In the three hares/rabbits triskelion, the aspect of motion is especially apparent, emphasising that all phenomena arise from the three dependencies and are thus inevitably impermanent and devoid of any essence.

This symbol was originally Buddhist, but travelled westwards along the silk routes and can be found in European medieval church ornamentation.

In Buddhism, as well as Druidism, mind is a primal aspect of reality that is not reducible to matter.  For a discussion of why the mind is a non-physical, fundamental aspect of the universe which is not derived from anything else, see Confronting Materialism and the Delusion of the Mechanical Mind.

- Sean Robsville

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy

Related articles:

Mysterians, Mysterianism and the Mystery of the Mind

Cauldron, Chalice and Grail Symbolism in Buddhism and Celtic Wicca

Numinous Symbolism - Pagan, Buddhist and Christian

Celtic Buddhism - Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain

C J Jung, Buddhism, Tantra and Alchemy




[1] Victor Mansfield 'Time and Impermanence in Middle Way Buddhism and Modern Physics'. Talk at the Physics and Tibetan Buddhism Conference, University of California, Santa Barbara January 30-31, 1998

[2] Stewart, R. J. and Williamson, R. (1996) Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids , ISBN 0-7137-2563-X, publ Blandford, London, p 146.


marc said...

hello sean,
love your blog. you are very passionate and learned. i do have one question, however. regarding the japanese dharma wheel image that you have for this post, what source/book is this from? i am trying to get a high-resolution picture, as the details of the wheel are a little washed out due to compression.

Sean said...

Hi Marc I've posted some hi-res scans on 18th January 2010. The scans are from 'Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain' by Donald A. Mackenzie published 1928.

- Sean

Anonymous said...

Caer Sidin is incorrect, as is the translation. Caer means fort or castle not circle and sidin should be Sidi or siddi which means elf/elven (as in banshee= bean siddi-fairy woman) So Caer Siddi is a fairy castle.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sean,
I was interested in learning more about that Japanese Buddhist symbol in the book you mentioned. I tried to find the book online, but I couldn't find it anywhere. How did you get a hold of the book? Or would you be willing to email me the sections that relate to the symbol? Thanks for your help

ThePostman said...

Very interesting... just to complete with the ancient Greek triskelion. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triskelion

ThePostman said...

Very interesting... just to complete with the ancient Greek triskelion. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triskelion

nickmiddleton010 said...

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