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Buddha Shakyamuni, the "historical buddha," is sometimes called Lion of the Shakya (shakya or sakya is the name of his clan) and he is therefore depicted seated on a lion throne. 

The Sakyas originally came from central Asia where, as the Persians have described, the lion still roamed the land.   It may have been their totemic animal.  In any event, it is the animal most often associated with the Buddha in all cultures.  

There is also the fact of the golden hue of a lion's coat that reminds us of the traditional description of Shakyamuni's complexion.

Lion Throne

 Long before his time (6th-century BCE) the lion had already assumed its association with royalty in general, and especially the role of vehicle [Skt. vahana]  -- a "familiar" or animal associated with divinity.

Whenever Buddha is shown seated there are eight lions -- one at each corner of the base or dais -- supporting his lotus throne.

The warlike king, Ashoka, converted to Buddhism, and converted his north Indian kingdom into a peaceful domain.  He had pillars set up all through his territory proclaiming the rule of peace.

 < One of the Ashokan edict pillars.

Fa-hsien, the Chinese pilgrim who toured India in 400 CE, wrote that at Sarnath where King Ashoka had erected one of his edict pillars, there was living a group of monks.  When a member of an opposing sect questioned their right to live there, the lion sitting atop the post gave a loud roar which frightened him away. 

"What do you do when the stone lion roars?" is a Zen Buddhist koan.

The Lion's Roar

It is interesting to note that prey animals pay no heed to the roaring of lions. although they certainly can hear it.  The impressive sound is "directed" at other members of its species.  

A future buddha called Simha (or, Sinha; that is, The Lion) has been predicted, and a number of Buddhist authorities agree that he will arise from the line of the Karmapas.

"The Lion's Roar" is a traditional metaphor for the Buddha's Doctrine of Awakening.

  • Lion's Roar of Queen Shrimala is a text summarizing this doctrine.
  • Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche introduced the tantric system to Western students with The Lion's Roar
  • A 2002 video of the 16th Karmapa is also entitled, The Lion's Roar.
  • Karmapa: The Lion Begins to Roar, is a video by Ward Holmes (85 min.) on the first teachings of the 17th Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje.

Experiencing the Divine

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi (Mohammed b. Md. b. Hussain al-Balkhi, 1207-1273) founder of Tassawuf (Sufi) the mystical sect of Islam, also made reference to the lion (Feeling the Shoulder of the Lion. Putney, VT: Threshold Press, 1991): 

Once a farmer went out on a moonless night to check on an ailing mule.  He could not know that there, in the dark shed where there was no ray of light, a lion had lain down in place of the mule. The farmer unwittingly puts out his hand and, there in the utter darkness, he touches the shoulder of the lion. 

His heart is stirred and he reassuringly pats that shoulder.  If he could see what he was doing, he would surely have heart failure.

Rumi uses this situation as a metaphor for that mysterious occasional contact that produces a kind of roaring in us.  Zen teacher Susan Murphy said, ". . . to hear it is to be devoured by it, torn free from all habitual familiarity into a familiarity far more profound and terrifying."


Once, Lady Peldarbum said to Jetsun Milarepa:

When I meditated on the ocean,
My mind was very comfortable.
When I meditated on the waves,
My mind was troubled.
Teach me to meditate on the waves!

The great yogi responded:

The waves are the movement of the ocean.
Leave them to subside by themselves in its vastness.

Thoughts are the play of pure awareness. They arise within it, and dissolve back into it. To recognize pure awareness as where your thoughts come from is to recognize that your thoughts have never come into existence, remained, or ceased. At that point, thoughts can no longer trouble your mind.

When you run after your thoughts you are like a dog chasing a stick; every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. But if, instead, you look at where your thoughts are coming from, you will see that each thought arises and dissolves within the space of that awareness, without engendering other thoughts. Be like a lion, who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. You only throw a stick at a lion once.

~ Milarepa, quoted by the late Dilgo Khyentse in Like a Mirror, Like a Rainbow, Like the Heart of the Sun.


Vehicle of the Great Goddess

Anyone observant of the behaviour of lions in the prides, will recognize that the maned, male lion is not the leader as far as hunting goes; the lionesses certainly out-perform him.  And it is the lioness -- in fact, a pair of them -- that are associated with the Great Goddess of very ancient times, who was later called (by the classical Greeks) Kybele (Cybele, pron. Koubili.)  In fact, In a Chariot Drawn by Lions is the title of Asphodel Long's book on the subject of this deity, who is not merely a consort or divine aspect, but a representation of Supreme Being. 

Qadesh or Qetesh, the Egyptian goddess of love and beauty was generally depicted nude and standing or riding upon a lion.  She holds flowers, sometimes, a mirror, or snakes.  She is one of the rare deities to be depicted full-face (rather than in profile.)  Later, she is called "Beloved of Ptah," and is the consort of Min and the mother of Reshep.  However, that she originated as a form of the Syrian  love/fertility goddess seems obvious, for in Semitic languages her very name means "Holy."

Popular fiction writer, Anne Rice, wrote one of her earlier (1993) vampire novels, Queen of the Damned, inspired by this figure. 

Not surprisingly, the lion is the vahana of Devi, India's Great Goddess.

A mythological turquoise or lapis lazuli blue-maned white lion known as a snow lion has become the national symbol of Tibet.  And Achi Chokey Dolma is the protector who rides this lion.  In that way, she is the counterpart of India's protector-goddess, Durga, who is also associated with the tiger.

Classical Mythology

Atalanta, the Greek huntress-heroine whose tendency was to murder her suitors, was beaten by Melanion in a foot race arranged by her father.   The young man distracted her with some golden apples donated by Aphrodite.  They were both transformed into lions as a punishment for making love in the temple of Zeus, whereby they could never mate again.  (The ancient Greeks thought that lions were only male and had to mate with leopards.) 


The lion does need to eat large amounts of fresh meat.  However, folklore portrays him as having a constant and ravenous hunger.  In order to mount his milk-white bull, Nandi, the Great God Shiva is depicted setting his foot on a lion.  This lion's name is Ventru or Kumbhodara.  Here the lion stands for the hunger that is at the root of all desire.  The conquest of one's appetite for food is considered fundamental to self-mastery.

The lion is called simham in Sanskrit.  The 4th avatar (or, active form) of Hindu Lord Vishnu is Narasimha, the deity who is part lion, part man.  Emerging from a golden pillar in the form of a giant, Narasimha vanquished the ashuras and subdued their king.

In the Punjab, simha is pronounced singh.  Many Sikhs took this as their surname sometime in the late 17th-century, when the synthesis of Hinduism and Islam which is Sikhism emerged as a separate religion entirely.

Lion-face Dakini

Sakhmet (or Sekhmet) is the lion-headed form of the Egyptian goddess Hathor in her manifestation as destroyer.  In this instance, the lioness aspect is considered a solar symbol.  She illuminates the darkest corners, burning out any opposition.

  • Simhamukha (Tib.: as a form of the activity [Skt. karma] dakini, is blue with green hair.  With a snarling lion face, she is wearing the vestments and ornaments associated with wrathful deities, including the elephant hide and human skin. 

Her right hand raises the curved knife, the left holds a skullcup to her heart and a katvanga rests against her shoulder. At the bottom right is a wrathful figure, black, with a lion face holding a spear in the right hand and a skullcup and heart in the left, wearing a cloak she rides on a black horse. 

In this form which derives from the Chakrasamvara cycle, she is not regarded as the embodiment of Guru Padmasambhava, but rather Vajravarahi.  This was the vision of a woman, Jetsun[ma] Lochen Dharmashri (17th C.)

Leo in Astrology

The lion was once the leader of the constellations, the procession of animal shapes we perceive in the night sky, and that is one of the reasons it is considered "King of Beasts. "

Because of the wobbling path of the earth as it moves against the backdrop of the heavens, (sometimes called Hamlet's Mill or in Indian mythology, the Churning of the Sea of Milk) the first or Spring astrological sign changes every 26 thousand years.  This causes the day of equinox (the 2 days -- one in spring and one in autumn -- when the amounts of daylight and darkness are equal) to shift over the years, and results in a precession of the equinoxes.   Precess means to get closer, to come nearer.

Giorgio de Santillana & H. de Dechend.  Hamlet's Mill. 1977/1992.

This precession has affected astrology, which would certainly cause any skeptic to further question the validity of contemporary natal-chart interpretation.

In the 20th century, researchers found that around 10, 500 BCE, the pyramids at Gizeh in Egypt perfectly mirrored the placement of the three belt stars in the constellation Orion.  At that time (the historical period known as early Old Kingdom,)  Leo, the star pattern seen as the outline of a lion, was the spring sign.    That is, for people living in the northern hemisphere, when the Lion appeared in the night sky, it heralded the time for new growth.

Some scholars believe that the monumental Egyptian Sphinx once stood at the very edge of the Nile Delta facing its constellation counterpart as it rose.  When there was a perfect correspondence of position, the flooding of the Nile was anticipated.  Today, the sphinx bears a much too small human head (in proportion to its crouching body) but the head may not always have been that of a man, and it certainly was once in proportion to the body.

Perhaps not all pre-historic peoples viewed that formation of stars as a lion, but when they did, for a long time that animal was associated with the initial steps in fertility of the land.  In Egypt, it was associated with Osiris, the deity who was both the culture hero who introduced agriculture, and the one associated with the resurrection of the dead.  In 2003, the remains of a lion were found buried near the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy-king, Tutankhamen.

Chinese Lion

In Chinese architecture two lions placed outside grand residences and institutions act as protectors/guardians.  Also known as Shi-shi, one is a male playing with a ball of ribbon, and the other is a female with her cub.  Their mouths are shaped to form, respectively, the mantric sounds AH and HUM.   

Burkhardt (b. 1884) wrote that the Chinese believed the mythological lioness suckled her young through her claws.  Since the milk had "mystic" qualities, it was the role of the male lion to collect it.  A custom arose whereby people left hollow balls up in the mountains, hoping that the lions would play with them and some of the milk would remain inside.

The dog known as the Pekinese (named after the capital city of Peking, now Beijing) is one of a number of breeds developed to resembled these protector lions.  Today, longhaired cats are sometimes shorn to resemble these guardians. 

Lion of Judah

Each of the 12 Tribes of Israel (descendants of the sons of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob) had an emblem.  That of the tribe of Judah was a lion.  Judah was a group whose southern territory included the capital city of Jerusalem, where the kings ruled.  The Romans called the united Israel-Judah territory Judea after it, and the Jews received their name from that. 

Ras Tafari took the name Hailie Selassie on becoming first emperor of Ethiopia (1929.)  To emphasize his link with the tradition that the Queen of Sheba (widely thought of as Ethiopia, although scholars think it was Yemen) was a consort of Solomon, King of Israel, he adopted the Lion as his emblem and Lion of Judah as one of his titles.  

Today 21 lions are descended from his pet male, Molla, re-establishing the sub-species that is the Barbary lion. This variety, which once ranged North Africa,  is very large with a dark mane extending almost to its loins.  The last one in the wild was killed in the Atlas Mountains in 1922. 


Other Associations

Compassion and Karma


  • (Daniel 6: 1-28) The protection of God is manifest, when the mouths of the ravening beasts are kept closed, after Daniel is thrust into the Lions' Den by Darius, King of the Persians. (17th-century Peter Paul Rubens' painting.)


  • La Force, meaning Strength is the card in the Marseilles tarot numbered 11 in the series of 22 figures known as the Major Arcana.  The cards begin with the Fool, number 0, so La Force is the encouraging indication that lies midway in the symbolic evolution depicted by the original Tarot.   This card portrays the triumph of discipline over desire that can culminate in "eternal life" as emphasized by the infinity symbol of the hat's brim. 


still roamed:  Today,  the Asian lion can only be found in India's Sasan Gir Reserve.

Singh: The tenth guru of the Sikhs instituted a “Community of the Pure” into which members are initiated with water stirred by a sword. They adopt the name of Singh and the five K's: (1) Kesh, uncut hair (2) Kangh, a comb (3) Kach, underdrawers  (4)  Kara, the steel bangle of restraint (5) Kirpan, the symbolic sword.

the Sea of Milk: We still call our galaxy [a word that refers to milk,] "The Milky Way."

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