World Religions > Buddhism
The Conch Shell

The conch shell, or dun, is used in Buddhist ritual as a horn or offertory vessel and represents the spoken word of Buddha.

The uses and symbolism of the conch in Buddhist tradition are many and varied. Heroes of ancient Indian mythical epics are often portrayed carrying conch shells, which represent power, authority, and sovereignty. The conch is also an emblem of religious sovereignty, and its sound is believed to drive away evil spirits. One of the thirty-two physical characteristics of the Buddha is his deep, resonant voice, which in images of the Buddha is represented by three curving lines on the throat. This association with the voice of the Buddha also means that conch shells symbolize the dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. In Tibetan ritual, musical instruments are made from shells by cutting off the end and fitting it with an ornamental mouthpiece that extends from the mouth of the shell.

Conch shells that spiral to the right are exceptionally rare. This type of shell is considered particularly sacred as the right spiral imitates the movement of the sun, moon, planets, and stars across the sky. In Buddha images, the spirals characteristics depicted on his body all curl to the right—the spiral hairs on his head, the curl between his eyebrows, and the conch-like whorl of his navel.

Spiral insense burning in a buddhist temple
Three Universal Truths as Taught by Buddha:

  • Everything in life is impermanent and always changing.

  • Because nothing is permanent, a life based on the acquisition of material possessions or attachment to people cannot yield happiness.

  • There is no eternal, unchanging soul: the self is merely a collection of constantly changing characteristics.

Representational Art

Many of the key differences between Eastern and Western thought can be observed in the classical art of the two traditions. Western theology is deeply concerned with static form, as indicated in the precise gestures and angles of hand and arm, the tilt of the head, or the naturalistic reproduction of shape. Eastern tradition works differently, as represented by the quick, broad strokes of the artist, the energy of which proclaims the inherent transience of forms in motion. In short, Eastern art embraces change while Western art clings to stasis: an embodiment of the essential difference between the Platonic and Buddhist traditions.

"Traditional Western artists have seldom faced up squarely to the challenge of change. It is not easy to paint something that is never still. Yet to the traditional chinese artist, that can be the whole point of the exercisee—to capture the fundamenntal forms of motion." 

Philip Ball

Browse our bookstore: