Jewels occupy important narrative and ritual spaces throughout the history of Buddhism. Buddhism, insofar as it constitutes the faith dedicated to elimination of desire, would seem at first consideration to be a religion at variance with objects that are culturally most directly associated with wealth. However, from an early stage Buddhists incorporated jewels into their teaching as part of a discourse on value.
The Buddha routinely employed the metaphor of the jewel (ratna) in a variety of sūtras to refer to the unlimited value of enlightened wisdom, a value that can be seen as represented in the form of an infinitely beautiful and valuable jewel that at the same time stands in contrast to the limitations of material jewels. Likewise, the jewel was often used as a metaphor to depict the conquest of death that is accomplished in Buddhist liberation—an item that, as with the metaphor of the diamond (vajra), represents absolute solidity, beauty, and permanence. Both of these metaphors are represented in their quintessential form in the Gaṇḍhavyūha-sūtra (Flower Garland Scripture), which elaborately deploys jewels and other glittering metaphors to illustrate enlightened vision of the absolute character of the interpenetration of all phenomena (dharma). While such discourse was often abstract, the jewel was also used in the phrase "Three Jewels" (triratna) to refer to the Buddhist tradition in its three basic, most treasured, aspects: Buddha, his teaching (dharma), and his community (saṅgha).
Jewels have also been an essential feature in iconographic representations of celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas of the Mahāyānist and tantric traditions. While the glittering character of the jewels and gold of the Buddha AmitĀbha's Pure Land Sukhāvatī are well known, a series of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other beings protective of Buddhism are routinely represented as carrying one or more jewels, which constitutes their so-called samaya (attribute). Among such figures are the bodhisattvas Ksitigarbha (Chinese, Dizang; Japanese, Jizō) and Avalokiteśvara (Chinese, Guanyin; Japanese, Kannon), the female protective deity Śrī-mahādevī (Japanese, Kichijōten), and figures of esoteric Buddhism, such as the Jewel Buddha Ratnasambhava. The so-called seven jewels (saptaratna), likewise, represent the splendid treasures of the ideal wheel-turning Buddhist king: the wheel, the white elephant, the deep blue horse, the sacred jewel, the jewel woman, the merchant-artisan, and the military commander. The same term was also used to refer to seven precious substances used in the construction of elaborate Buddhist edifices, such as brilliant stŪpas.
The jewel was also the subject of the more elaborate discourse of the "wish-fulfilling jewel" (cintāmaṇi), which represents the absolute merit (puṇya) offered by the Buddhist dharma and scriptures. While originally an image, the term in some East Asian tantric traditions came to be venerated as an object of esoteric ritual, and was even regarded by some in medieval Japanese Shingon as equivalent with Buddha relics—and the greatest treasure of Shingon—or the product of alchemical production that used relics and other precious substances, and was coveted by the sovereign.
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Cleary, Thomas, trans. The Flower Ornament Scripture. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1984.
Cook, Francis D. Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977.
Go yuigō (attributed to Kūkai). Taishō shinshū daizōkyō 77, no. 2431.
Uehara Kazu. "Higashi ajia no bukkyō bijutsu ni mirareru mani hyōgen no shosō" (Forms of expression of cintā[maṇī] as seen in East Asian Buddhist art). In Kodai no saishiki to shisō: higashi ajia no naka no nihon, ed. Nakanishi Susumu. Tokyo: Kadokawa shoten, 1991.
Brian O. Ruppert