To obtain an all-embracing approach to the symbolism of the gem, such individual entries as crystal, diamond, jade, pearl, stone should be consulted, although admittedly each provides only a facet of the symbol as a whole. This entry examines some aspects of this symbolism taken from Middle and Far Eastern traditions which, it is agreed, have always paid avid attention to gems.
In Muslim esotericism the al-jawhar alfard (the jewel beyond price) conveys a sense of the Intellect or incorruptible essence of being. The Buddha’s glittering urna was a gem, while from the emerald which Lucifer wore on his forehead and lost when he was cast down from Heaven, angels are supposed to have carved the Holy Grail. Both are assuredly symbols, too, of either exalted or debased intellect. Emeralds were long believed to enhance sight and to restore memory, derivatives of the same order of symbolism. They were used at the oracle of Jupiter-Ammon and were worshipped in pre-Inca Peru. The table of Hermes Trismegistus was an emerald table.
At Jerusalem, gems were set on the High Priest’s breastplate as symbols of truth. They are also symbols of spiritual perfection, since Muhammad is called ‘a precious gem among gems’.
In India, one of Vishnu’s attributes was a gem. It was ‘Ocean’s treasure’, ‘born of the waves’, but it had undergone all the stages of the ascent of matter. It symbolized atman, the Universal Spirit, in its bright and shining manifestations. In some contexts there are groups of five gems corresponding to the five elements - for example, sapphire = Earth; pearl = Water; kaustubha = Fire; cat’s eye = Air; topaz = Ether. The kaustubha forms the centre-piece, its birth from the waves resulting from the churning of the Sea of Milk and thus relating it to the symbolism of immortality.
In addition to the mirror and the sword, the emblems of the Japanese imperial dynasty include famous gems expressly symbolizing the power of domination. Granet observes that their shape is akin to that of a half T’ai-ki, and must have some relation to the phases of the Moon.
Jizo Bosatsu, patron of the dead in Buddhist tradition, has powers to prolong life. He is depicted seated, holding in his right hand a ringed staff and in his left the gem which satisfies all desires.
A gem’s virtues are not always inherent in its nature or its shape, but sometimes can only operate when it is in the hands of its rightful owner. This was true of the jade slab mentioned in the Tzo Chuang, which became mere stone in the hands of commoners, but regained its properties in those of the king. Dagen used the symbol of the glitter immanent in the gem and only made manifest by polishing, when he taught that the virtues inherent in the individual were only revealed by spiritual training.
According to Tantric physiology the manipitha (altar studded with gems) in the manidvipa (island of gems) is located in the sahasrarapadma (lotus with a thousand petals) on the crown of the head. The ‘altar’ is that of Ishtadevata, the deity adored within; and the ‘isle of gems’ is the highest state of consciousness. ‘The jewel in the lotus’ in any case evokes Avalokitesvara’s great mantra, Оm mani padmi оm, at the heart of Tibetan spirituality. A generally accepted interpretation makes its six syllables correspond to the six loka, the six kingdoms of the phenomenal world, and to the six segments of the Wheel of Life.
In Buddhist terms, the triratna (triple gem) is the synthesis of teaching -Buddha, Dharma, Sangha; or Buddha, Law, Assemblage.