By Paul Hansen
Symbolism of color is frequently used throughout the Buddhist tradition. Essentially, Esoteric Buddhism presents its abstract concepts through visual images to make those very concepts more universal. The main color concept that exists in Buddhism is that of the rainbow body which is considered the "penultimate transitional state of meditation in which matter begins to be transformed into pure light." This is the highest state attainable in the realm of samsara (round of rebirth) before attaining the clear light of nirvana (enlightenment and liberation from the round of rebirth). To simplify, one must achieve the characteristics associated with each color in hopes of attaining the final white light (which is essentially a combination of all colors).
One of the most widely known Buddhist art forms is the Wheel of Life painting that is primarily a representation of the round of rebirth and the various levels of suffering within those rounds. It is traditionally placed outside the sanctuary of a Buddhist temple and its purpose is to remind one of death and impermanence – that death is definite, the time of death is indefinite, and at the time of death nothing helps but religious practice. The earliest example of this representation was found in the Ajanta caves, dating back to nearly a century before Christ. There are six sections on this painting that represent the six states of temporary rebirth to which a sentient being may migrate while in the round of rebirth. In certain Wheel of Life representations, a Buddha of particular color is located in each realm (other styles show only one Buddha located outside all of the realms to signify that enlightenment is completely separate from this round of rebirth). I will describe each realm starting with that of the lowest status.
The first realm is that of the Hell Beings. These beings suffer through the longest lives in samsara and endure the worst physical torment. However, as in all the rebirth rounds it is only temporary. In this realm, the Buddha is colored black. Black symbolizes killing and anger as well as primordial darkness. Fierce deities are often rendered in black in order to signify the darkness of hate and ignorance as well as the role that these qualities have to play in the awakening of clarity and truth. So while black may symbolize certain evils, one must understand that these evils must be overcome in order to reach eventual enlightenment.
The next realm is that of the Hungry Ghosts. They do not suffer as much as Hell Beings but they still endure long and miserable lives mainly from hunger and thirst. Here the Buddha is red, which is for subjugation and summoning. Red has developed two distinct facets in modern culture, whether denoting the preservation of life (American Red Cross) or indicating threats to life (ambulance lights). Most information for the color red deals with it being the color of passion and rituals. For my purposes, I see it to mean that although when you leave this temporary state of being, one may fall back with the Hell Beings but there is more opportunity to move ahead and essentially improve your situation and surroundings.
More fortunate than the Hungry Ghosts are the Animals. These beings suffer especially from dullness and having their bodies used for other purposes. Here the Buddha is portrayed in green. Green is in the middle of the visible color spectrum (as is this particular realm). This is also the color we relate to in nature, trees, and plants (all having to do with the animal world as we know it). In addition, green denotes youthful vigor and mischievous activity. This becomes even more applicable because the particular Buddha in this realm is also shown holding a book to indicate that these immature animals need learning.
The next migration includes Humans. Our suffering is our constant struggles through life including birth, aging, sickness, and death. In this realm, the Buddha is yellow which stands for restraint and nourishment. The color yellow actually was previously associated with the color worn by criminals but was chosen by the Buddhist faith as a symbol of humility and separation from a materialistic society. Therefore it is said to signify renunciation and being the color of earth, it is also a symbol of the equanimity of the earth. As humans, we must learn to control our passions and use our minds to attain enlightenment and eventually leave the cyclic existence.
Above the Humans, live the Demi-Gods. These beings share an environment with the Gods (the last realm) and suffer from the jealousy they gain by viewing all of the benefits given only to the Gods. The Buddha here is blue. Across cultural boundaries, blue is associated with eternity, truth, devotion, faith, purity, chastity, peace, spirit and intellect. Despite the envy and jealousy that the Demi-Gods exhibit, they have reached a significant status in the round of rebirth and are close to reaching nirvana if they can only deal with their petty differences. They have every right to be highly respected but that means nothing if they can’t come to the realization that the ultimate victory is over ignorance and suffering.
The final realm is that of the Gods. The only suffering they experience is the knowledge that if they don’t leave the round of rebirth, they will be reborn into a lower realm. It is thought that although they reap many benefits of living in a beautiful environment and enjoying ambrosia, they suffer the greatest mental suffering because they are aware of the fact that their state of being in this realm is merely temporary. For purposes of convenience, the Buddha in this realm is white and signifies rest and thinking. However, white is not usually thought of as an actual color. It occurs when the whole spectrum of lights is seen together, therefore a combination of all the colors. This helps with the idea that one must experience all the temporary states of being and use their combined knowledge to grasp the idea of enlightenment.
Another way color symbolism is used in Buddhist tradition is with the International Buddhist Flag. Their associations for the colors and their origins are slightly different than what was stated above but the overall message is rather similar:
The combination of these five colors symbolizes that it is the one and only Truth. In addition, the horizontal bars signify peace and harmony between all the races of the world and the vertical bars represent eternal peace within the world.
In conclusion, despite slight differences in the exact association of a particular color, one must realize that the importance in color symbolism is unmistakable. It can be used to define certain aspects of a culture and more importantly, it can transcend all cultural barriers. Another important point to take away is understanding how the combination of these colors and their meanings lead to a balance so that one may be well rounded, and in the case of Buddhism, reach an eventual liberation from a cyclic existence.
Perdue, Daniel. Religions of the World. Copyright, 2002.