One of the Buddhist Ashtamangala (Eight Auspicious Signs) is a pair of golden fish called in Sanskrit, Suvarnamatsya (in Tibetan, gSer.nya) that generally symbolize happiness.
In the Indian tradition, they represent the two rivers of north India, the Ganges and the Yamuna.
Besides their universal appeal as symbols of the beauty and the abundance of the natural world, they also represent the condition of all samsaric beings.
Fish live in and know about water. They generally have little or no awareness of the world above and unless something intrudes into their sphere, are not concerned by it. Hence, the fish is a potent symbol for embodied consciousness, such as ordinary human awareness.
While we are caught in the confusion and ignorance of our minds, we may be unaware of the potential that is inherent in our nature -- just like fish with their ignorance of the world outside the water. But like them, a few manage to experience the wider reality often unknowingly, seeing as they are not attentive to it (leaping after an insect, perhaps) and sometimes, at great risk to their lives.
Also, fish tend to travel in groups or schools. They follow each other and in so doing, can easily be trapped.
Fish are thought to move smoothly and swiftly, able to leap barriers and obstacles so they are also understood as indomitable, determined travelers.
In traditional woodcuts, such as the one drawing at the top, the fish are released from the bondage of samsara and their noses almost touch the very rare right-turning conch shell that announces the Dharma. Sometimes they are depicted saluting the Precious Jewel that their tails have churned up from the depths of the Ocean.
Traditional Indian literature sometimes compares the form of a lovely eye to that of a beautiful fish. Thus, the two fish are symbolic of the elongated brows of the Buddha.
In the modern Mongolian flag called soyambo [>Swayambhu? =independence as self-manifestation; it obviously derives from stupa symbolism] there is a Dao or yin-yang circle (also appearing on the Korean flag) that represents the two fish. It stands for the fact that fish never close their eyes and therefore signify "reason and wisdom." No doubt the interpretation formerly would have been "wisdom and compassion."
Emblems of Karma
There once was a powerful king who wanted to marry his son into the Gautama clan. Since the Gautamas
were of a higher rank, they did not favour the idea, but they did not dare
outright to refuse since the neighbouring king was so powerful. Therefore,
they decided on a subterfuge. They offered one of their beautiful servant
girls instead of a Gautami daughter. The next year, a son was born to the
young couple and he was called Crystal.
The boy was no fool, and he said to his attendants, "Remember what you
have heard here, today. When I am king remind me, for one day I will get
Now Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha's most devoted and accomplished disciples, got wind of this and informed the Master. But the Buddha didn't say anything. Therefore Maudgalyayana used his spiritual powers to put five hundred members of the Gautama clan into his precious bowl, and sent them off to one of the heavens where he thought they would be safe.
When the king thought he had completed the extermination, Maudgalyayana told Shakyamuni
Buddha that he had had saved 500 Gautama members. However,
Distressed and disappointed, the Great Bodhisattva asked the Buddha to explain what had happened -- "the causes and conditions."
Buddha explained, "A long time ago, at a place where it was very hot, there was a pool with two schools of fish in it. The leaders of the schools were named Bran and Many Tongues. After awhile, the water in the pool evaporated in the intense heat, and since the people in the area had little else to eat as a consequence of the drought, they ate the fish. Finally, there was just a mud-hole left, but then they noticed some a movement in the mud.
Digging in, they uncovered the two big fish -- Bran and Many Tongues. At that time, I, Shakyamuni, was only a child among these people who later become the Gautama clan. Seeing that the two fish were about to be devoured alive, I beat them over the head three times with a club to knock them out first, in hopes of preventing some suffering. Bran was the present King Crystal, and Many- Tongues was the attendant who reminded him of the words spoken by the angry Gautama clan to the king as a child.
Thus was the extermination of the Gautama clan determined. And even though Shakyamuni was a Buddha, he could not rescue his people from the karma they were destined to "repay." Some say that in his life as a Buddha, Shakyamuni had to endure a three-day headache as a kind of retribution for beating the two fish.
~ Shurangama Sutra, VII. (A Chinese Mahayana scripture.)
Each and Every One
In the folktale version of the origin of bodhisattva Chenresi, water-dwellers are not only numerous, but each is unique. That fact underlies the general loathing to consume them, for in a culture based in a physically demanding environment in which meat is eaten only with the understanding that to do so entails negative karma, it is considered far better to eat the fewest possible individuals.
When the mountains opened up to let water pour forth over the land and down
into the Indian Ocean, Chenrezik (Avalokiteshvara)
appeared on an island in the middle of Lhasa. Seeing the suffering of all beings,
he vowed to help them all reach the state of enlightenment so they could achieve
everlasting peace. He vowed never to withdraw from the world until all living beings,
"right down to the last blade of grass," attained that state.
Realizing what an impossible task he had set for himself, he cried to
Opame (Buddha Amitabha who dwells in the Pure Land called Sukhavati) that he wanted to give back his noble
vow to help each and every suffering being: the task was far too great for him
to fulfill. Then torn between despair and compassion,
Chenrezik's body shattered into innumerable pieces.
Still Chenrezik saw his task as impossible, for even with the use of a thousand arms and eleven heads, there were so many beings and their minds were so clouded and confused. Chenrezik wept for them, and from a crystal teardrop on his cheek, Dolma (Tara) was born to help him. Now there is no being, no matter how insignificant, whose suffering is not seen by Chenrezik or Dolma, and who cannot be touched by their compassion.
When Naropa (10th century) met his teacher, Tilopa, the latter was dressed as a beggar and sitting by a stream engaged in eating live fish and frogs. Tilopa, one of India's 84 greatly accomplished masters, was sufficiently enlightened to be able to liberate the consciousness (Tib. p'howa) of each animal by snapping his fingers while in the act of eating it.
In the Matsya Purana a sacred Indian myth, a cycle of Brahma is about to end when an immortal saint called Markandeya, who has been wandering inside the body of Lord Vishnu, creator of the cosmos, slips out of His mouth and falls into the Ocean. It is there that terrified, he begins to question the nature of Reality and the nature of Maya, or illusion. Then the holy man notices a gigantic Fish and, helpless to prevent it, is swallowed up.
This fish [Skt.: matsya] is the first of ten manifestations, or avatars, of Vishnu. Vishnavites [worshippers of Vishnu] count Buddha Shakyamuni as the ninth of these. They praise him, saying:
Consider the Judeo-christian myth of Jonah, who was swallowed by the "whale." Given our understanding of the meaning of the giant fish, we can see how Muslims consider Jonah (Arab. Yunis) one of the prophets.
An anecdote about Chagudud Tulku Rinpoche:
Fertility, Prosperity and Abundance
To Chinese, the carp is the king of fish, and once it was thought it could turn into a dragon. Like our salmon, it has to reach the headwaters of a stream to spawn, so it was observed leaping the Wu Men cataract and swimming the Long Men rapids in the third month of the year. Due to this remarkable display of power and perseverance, the carp was held up to the young as an example.
Due to the reproductive power of fish, they stand for abundance through regeneration. In fact, fish are so much a symbol of fertility, plenty, and the bounty of the seas, that even when we can see from the diminishing numbers in our nets that they are a limited resource (like everything on this blue world,) we find it almost impossible to accept. Any attempt to legislate quotas in the fishing industry are generally treated with scorn for that very reason.
Goldfish especially remind us of precious metal. All these notions have contributed to the breeding of decorative goldfish and koi (as Japanese decorative carp are called) for garden pools.
The Chinese word for "fish" (yu) is a homophone for "surplus," while "carp" sounds like "profit." Two fish are a traditional component of the Chinese New Year's meal, but one doesn't actually eat them.
In Toronto, people who observe east Asian traditional ways have the custom of buying a pair of carp for dinner and liberating one of the two. However, this practice can have serious negative consequences if the freed fish is an Asian carp. An interesting species that is known to take to the air when experiencing sounds of disturbance in the water, they are also voracious eaters. That means they can leave little food for the local species, and this is especially worrisome as they make their way to the Great Lakes system. In the USA, there is an electrical fence that is hoped will prevent their entry into Lake Michigan, but there is no such barrier to Lake Ontario.
Mindfulness should be applied to this, as to all our practices.