When did the use of statues in Buddhism begin? What did the Buddha himself advise on their use? And wat do the various Buddha statues mean? In this text we answer all these questions and more.
This is a guide to Buddhist statues.
Of course, you could write a separate book about each chapter in this text (and in part that actually has been done by other authors), but for the ordinary practitioner those books are often too detailed, while a general idea about what your Buddha image actually means and how you can use it can indeed be fun and aid in deepening your practice.
We hope to have found the right balance between detail and readability here.
You can use this text as a kind of short reference book to look up the meaning of your image at home, you can also just read through it and see if you can discover a deeper value in it that goes beyond the image of wood, metal or stone, the drawing or photo.
In order to be able to follow the whole thing, it helps to have some basic knowledge about who the Buddha actually was, what kind of followers he had and what contemporary Buddhist movements there are.
You can read more about the Buddha in The life of the Buddha.
Explanations about the different Buddhist movements can be found in Buddhism: History and Schools.
In the chapter The Four Stages of Liberation of our extensive explanation of Buddhism we briefly consider what an Arahant (an enlightened disciple of the Buddha) actually is and the true lover can always find even more depth in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Arahants, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas.
Interested? Then read on
- The Buddha’s Advice on Devotion
- Respectful Use of Buddha Statues
- A Brief History of the Buddha Statue
- Geographical Differences in the Representation of the Buddha
- General marks of a Buddha statue
- The Meaning of the Buddha’s Postures
- The Meaning of the Buddha’s Hand Gestures
- Other Statues in Theravāda Buddhism
- Other Statues in Mahāyāna Buddhism
- Closing thoughts
1. The Buddha’s Advice on Devotion
During his life the Buddha repeatedly discouraged worship directed only at him as a person. How should we see this in relation to the use of statues and the like in daily practice?
We start with a passage from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. This sutta is about the actions and teachings of the Buddha in the last phase of his 80-year long life, right up to the moment when his body dies and he enters final Nibbāna, and even further until the first events immediately afterwards.
It is a magnificent work, in our opinion one of the most beautiful suttas in the Pali Canon, and certainly worth studying in its entirety.
For now, however, the following passage is of interest, in which Ananda, more or less the Buddha’s assistant and a disciple known for his phenomenal memory, asks a question:
“Formerly, Lord, on leaving their quarters after the rains, the bhikkhus would set forth to see the Tathāgata, and to us there was the gain and benefit of receiving and associating with those very revered bhikkhus who came to have audience with the Blessed One and to wait upon him. But, Lord, after the Blessed One has gone, we shall no longer have that gain and benefit.”
The Four Places of Pilgrimage
“There are four places, Ananda, that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence. What are the four?
“‘Here the Tathāgata was born!’ This, Ananda, is a place that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence.
“‘Here the Tathāgata became fully enlightened in unsurpassed, supreme Enlightenment!’ This, Ananda, is a place that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence.
“‘Here the Tathāgata set rolling the unexcelled Wheel of the Dhamma!’ This, Ananda, is a place that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence.
“‘Here the Tathāgata passed away into the state of Nibbana in which no element of clinging remains!’ This, Ananda, is a place that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence.
“These, Ananda, are the four places that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence. And truly there will come to these places, Ananda, pious bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen, reflecting: ‘Here the Tathāgata was born! Here the Tathāgata became fully enlightened in unsurpassed, supreme Enlightenment! Here the Tathāgata set rolling the unexcelled Wheel of the Dhamma! Here the Tathāgata passed away into the state of Nibbana in which no element of clinging remains!’
“And whoever, Ananda, should die on such a pilgrimage with his heart established in faith, at the breaking up of the body, after death, will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness.” …
… Then the Venerable Ananda said: “How should we act, Lord, respecting the body of the Tathāgata?”
“Do not hinder yourselves, Ananda, to honor the body of the Tathāgata. Rather you should strive, Ananda, and be zealous on your own behalf, for your own good. Unflinchingly, ardently, and resolutely you should apply yourselves to your own good. For there are, Ananda, wise nobles, wise brahmans, and wise householders who are devoted to the Tathāgata, and it is they who will render the honor to the body of the Tathāgata.”
Then the Venerable Ananda said: “But how, Lord, should they act respecting the body of the Tathāgata?”
“After the same manner, Ananda, as towards the body of a universal monarch.”
“But how, Lord, do they act respecting the body of a universal monarch?”
“The body of a universal monarch, Ananda, is first wrapped round with new linen, and then with teased cotton wool, and so it is done up to five hundred layers of linen and five hundred of cotton wool. When that is done, the body of the universal monarch is placed in an iron oil vessel, which is enclosed in another iron vessel, a funeral pyre is built of all kinds of perfumed woods, and so the body of the universal monarch is burned; and at a crossroads a stupa is raised for the universal monarch. So it is done, Ananda, with the body of a universal monarch. And even, Ananda, as with the body of a universal monarch, so should it be done with the body of the Tathāgata; and at a crossroads also a stupa should be raised for the Tathāgata. And whosoever shall bring to that place garlands or incense or sandalpaste, or pay reverence, and whose mind becomes calm there — it will be to his well being and happiness for a long time.
“There are four persons, Ananda, who are worthy of a stupa. Who are those four? A Tathāgata, an Arahant, a Fully Enlightened One is worthy of a stupa; so also is a Paccekabuddha, and a disciple of a Tathāgata, and a universal monarch.
“And why, Ananda, is a Tathāgata, an Arahant, a Fully Enlightened One worthy of a stupa? Because, Ananda, at the thought: ‘This is the stupa of that Blessed One, Arahant, Fully Enlightened One!’ the hearts of many people will be calmed and made happy; and so calmed and with their minds established in faith therein, at the breaking up of the body, after death, they will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness. And so also at the thought: ‘This is the stupa of that Paccekabuddha!’ or ‘This is the stupa of a disciple of that Tathāgata, Arahant, Fully Enlightened One!’ or ‘This is the stupa of that righteous monarch who ruled according to Dhamma!’ — the hearts of many people are calmed and made happy; and so calmed and with their minds established in faith therein, at the breaking up of the body, after death, they will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness. And it is because of this, Ananda, that these four persons are worthy of a stupa.”
At the same time, in the same sutta, the following passage can be found:
“Yet it is not thus, Ananda, that the Tathāgata is respected, venerated, esteemed, worshipped, and honored in the highest degree. But, Ananda, whatever bhikkhu or bhikkhuni, layman or laywoman, abides by the Dhamma, lives uprightly in the Dhamma, walks in the way of the Dhamma, it is by such a one that the Tathāgata is respected, venerated, esteemed, worshipped, and honored in the highest degree. Therefore, Ananda, thus should you train yourselves: ‘We shall abide by the Dhamma, live uprightly in the Dhamma, walk in the way of the Dhamma.'”
In Buddhist monasteries all over the world, verses praising the qualities of the Buddha ae regularly chanted, such as the Dhajagga Paritta Chant (iti pi so) which is in essence also an expression of devotion.
One step further, you could say that the Buddhanusati meditation method, bringing into mind the Qualities of the Buddha, of which meditation on buddho is a form, is also deeply anchored with faith in and devotion for the Buddha.
From all of the above, the following tentative conclusion can be distilled: Although during his lifetime the Buddha repeatedly discouraged worship that was only aimed at him as a person, devotion as an expression of a deep faith, stemming from right view (or wisdom) or from the intention to further develop the Buddhist path within oneself, is indeed beneficial.
Specifically for meditation on buddho, there comes a point when refining and deepening the respect and faith (saddhā) in the Buddha helps to further refine and deepen the meditation practice itself.
It is for a reason that saddhā, as one of the five controlling factors (indriya) and forces (bala) is part of the 37 factors of enlightenment (Bōdhipakkhiya Dhamma).
And Ahba refers again and again to these five factors when it comes to the development of one’s mind, about which more is written in Developing the Mind Through Samatha Meditation.
That honor, respect, faith or perhaps with a more beautiful word, devotion, is an important part of the Buddhist path forms the subjectof the beautiful text Devotion in Buddhism by Nyanaponika Thera.
All in all, the use of statues of the Buddha and his disciples is therefore appropriate within the practice of the Buddhist path. However, it is always about what these images stand for and what positive mental qualities they evoke and strengthen in the practitioner.
2. Respectful Use of Buddha Statue
You can find them for for sale in garden centers, they decorate the houses in your neighborhood, and most likely found their place in your local yoga center.
Buddha statues can be seen everywhere nowadays.
The fact that a Buddha statue has become commonplace in the West is not necessarily a problem, but it may make it more difficult to figure out how to give a Buddha statue the place and respect it deserves in the context of Buddhist practice.
And if you wish to use a Buddha statue to deepen your meditative practice, then that is precisely what is important.
The easiest way to gain more insight into this is to look at how people in countries where Buddhism is deeply rooted deal with Buddha statues. In those countries, respect is often deeply woven into the culture itself.
Is it Respectful to Buy Your Own Buddha Statue?
We start by how to obstain a Buddha statue.
In the West it is often stated that you can only receive a Buddha statue as a gift and that buying your own statue is not done.
Although the idea that generosity (dāna) syands at the basis of Buddhia statue in your home is very beautiful, this is essentially a typical piece of Western Buddhism.
In Myanmar and Thailand, for example, two countries that are almost entirely Buddhist, people are far more relaxed when it comes to getting a Buddha statue. If you want to decorate the ‘shrine-room’of your house, your meditation room or temple, you simply purchase the statue that you find inspiring and appropriate yourself. No worries.
In Thailand it is even the case that giving a Buddha statue to laymen is something exceptional that is reserved for important events such as a house-warming. Giving a Buddha statue to a temple is a very common and a highly regarded way to acquire merits (good karma) though.
So, in conclusion, purchasing your own Buddha statue does not go against the teachings of the Buddha.
Why Should You Buy a Buddha Statue?
In itself, we have already considered this at the beginning of this text. A Buddha statue can serve as inspiration, refinement and help deepen your meditation practice.
From a Buddhist perspective, a Buddhist image is not an art object to display anywhere, let alone an object to offer in a garden center for anyone looking for some ‘Zen’ in addition to the hydrangeas.
If you want the image to contribute to your own practice, it is important to buy the image with that intention and then treat it with the necessary respect. Try seeing it as more then just a piece of matter that looks beautiful, try seeing it as an expression, a representation of the Buddha and his Dhamma.
Where to Place a Buddha Statue?
In a respectful place.
The Buddha himself, of course, never said anything specific about this, because no images of him were used during his life.
Culturally (at least from a Southeast Asian perspective) a respectful place is not the windowsill, certainly not the bathroom and very definitely not somewhere on the floor.
In Myanmar, for example, if you wish to put a Buddha statue in your living room, it is customary to use the highest place.
If you place a Buddha in your meditation room or temple, always place it higher than you are sitting yourself.
From the same cultural point of view, it is not done to have the soles of your feet point towards the Buddha. Especially in countries like Thailand that is considered very disrespectful.
So putting a Buddha statue on the floor in front of your yoga mat is, culturally speaking, just about the most disrespectful thing you can do.
Anyway, the Westerner may be inclined to look at this differently, from their own cultural context, and dismiss this as nonsensical. After all, respect is something from the inside and doesn’t have to bound by external rules or concepts.
However, for those who regularly go on long meditation retreats in Buddhist monasteries and develop an ever deeper appreciation for the beauty of the Buddha and his teachings, the approach they take in Southeast Asia may become increasingly appropriate and eventually even self-evident.
It is not at all strange, at least if you practice samatha meditation on buddho, if during a retreat you start to see more and more of the qualities of the Buddha in an image and can even get emotional with gratitude when you bow in front of a Buddha statue. Not necessarily because of the image itself but because of what the image stands for.
When you begin to experience that, it is only natural that you give the image as a representation of the qualities of the Buddha the most prominent place you can find.
3. A Brief History of the Buddha Statue
We quote the fitting text Buddhism and Buddhist Art by Vidya Dehejia of Columbia University’s Department of Art History and Archaeology, written for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in 2007:
The cremated relics of the Buddha were divided into several portions and placed in relic caskets that were interred within large hemispherical mounds known as stupas. Such stupas constitute the central monument of Buddhist monastic complexes. They attract pilgrims from far and wide who come to experience the unseen presence of the Buddha. Stupas are enclosed by a railing that provides a path for ritual circumambulation. The sacred area is entered through gateways at the four cardinal points.
In the first century B.C., India’s artists, who had worked in the perishable media of brick, wood, thatch, and bamboo, adopted stone on a very wide scale. Stone railings and gateways, covered with relief sculptures, were added to stupas. Favorite themes were events from the historic life of the Buddha, as well as from his previous lives, which were believed to number 550. The latter tales are called jatakas and often include popular legends adapted to Buddhist teachings.
In the earliest Buddhist art of India, the Buddha was not represented in human form. His presence was indicated instead by a sign, such as a pair of footprints, an empty seat, or an empty space beneath a parasol.
In the first century A.D., the human image of one Buddha came to dominate the artistic scene, and one of the first sites at which this occurred was along India’s northwestern frontier. In the area known as Gandhara, artistic elements from the Hellenistic world combined with the symbolism needed to express Indian Buddhism to create a unique style. Youthful Buddhas with hair arranged in wavy curls resemble Roman statues of Apollo; the monastic robe covering both shoulders and arranged in heavy classical folds is reminiscent of a Roman toga. There are also many representations of Siddhartha as a princely bejeweled figure prior to his renunciation of palace life. Buddhism evolved the concept of a Buddha of the Future, Maitreya, depicted in art both as a Buddha clad in a monastic robe and as a princely bodhisattva before enlightenment. Gandharan artists made use of both stone and stucco to produce such images, which were placed in nichelike shrines around the stupa of a monastery. Contemporaneously, the Kushan-period artists in Mathura, India, produced a different image of the Buddha. His body was expanded by sacred breath (prana), and his clinging monastic robe was draped to leave the right shoulder bare.
A third influential Buddha type evolved in Andhra Pradesh, in southern India, where images of substantial proportions, with serious, unsmiling faces, were clad in robes that created a heavy swag at the hem and revealed the left shoulder. These southern sites provided artistic inspiration for the Buddhist land of Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India, and Sri Lankan monks regularly visited the area. A number of statues in this style have been found as well throughout Southeast Asia.
The succeeding Gupta period, from the fourth to the sixth century A.D., in northern India, sometimes referred to as a Golden Age, witnessed the creation of an “ideal image” of the Buddha. This was achieved by combining selected traits from the Gandharan region with the sensuous form created by Mathura artists. Gupta Buddhas have their hair arranged in tiny individual curls, and the robes have a network of strings to suggest drapery folds (as at Mathura) or are transparent sheaths (as at Sarnath). With their downward glance and spiritual aura, Gupta Buddhas became the model for future generations of artists, whether in post-Gupta and Pala India or in Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia. Gupta metal images of the Buddha were also taken by pilgrims along the Silk Road to China.
Over the following centuries there emerged a new form of Buddhism that involved an expanding pantheon and more elaborate rituals. This later Buddhism introduced the concept of heavenly bodhisattvas as well as goddesses, of whom the most popular was Tara. In Nepal and Tibet, where exquisite metal images and paintings were produced, new divinities were created and portrayed in both sculpture and painted scrolls. Ferocious deities were introduced in the role of protectors of Buddhism and its believers. Images of a more esoteric nature, depicting god and goddess in embrace, were produced to demonstrate the metaphysical concept that salvation resulted from the union of wisdom (female) and compassion (male). Buddhism had traveled a long way from its simple beginnings.
4. Geographical Differences in the Representation of Buddha Statues
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. In order to get a feel for some of the gross differences in the way the Buddha is represented in different countries, the people at Asean Art have made the following beautiful collage.
Of course, this is only a rough and superficial classification and within each country there exists a wide variety of used material, posutres, expressions and styles, which also change throughout history and influence each other.
But still, if you take that into account, the above gives a nice gross insight into how the humanization of the Buddha image in each culture managed to find its own way.
5. General Marks of a Buddha Statue
If you look at different images of the Buddha, even if they come from completely different regions, you will see that the images always have some similarities.
The Buddha is usually represented with proportionally long fingers, a long nose, long earlobes, a bun on his head and broad shoulders to name a few.
The large earlobes symbolize wisdom, the bun on his head refers to his liberation. But actually these external features arerepresentations of the 32 main traits that were attributed to a great man in the time of the Buddha.
In the Brahmāyu Sutta, the ancient and prominent brahmaan Brahmāyu sends his disciple Uttara to the Buddha to investigate whether the Buddha really live up to the reputation that precedes him.
After having spoken to the Buddha briefly, Uttara follows him for seven months and observes him well. Then he goes back to Brahmāyu to report:
When seven months had passed he set out wandering towards Mithilā. There he approached the brahmin Brahmāyu, bowed, and sat down to one side. Brahmāyu said to him, “Well, dear Uttara, does Master Gotama live up to his reputation or not?”
“He does, sir. Master Gotama possesses the thirty-two marks. (1) He has well-planted feet. (2) On the soles of his feet there are thousand-spoked wheels, with rims and hubs, complete in every detail. (3) He has projecting heels. (4) He has long fingers. (5) His hands and feet are tender. (6) His hands and feet cling gracefully. (7) His feet are arched. (8) His calves are like those of an antelope. (9) When standing upright and not bending over, the palms of both hands touch the knees. (10) His private parts are covered in a foreskin. (11) He is gold colored; his skin has a golden sheen. (12) He has delicate skin, so delicate that dust and dirt don’t stick to his body. (13) His hairs grow one per pore. (14) His hairs stand up; they’re blue-black and curl clockwise. (15) His body is as straight as Brahmā’s. (16) He has bulging muscles in seven places. (17) His chest is like that of a lion. (18) The gap between the shoulder-blades is filled in. (19) He has the proportional circumference of a banyan tree: the span of his arms equals the height of his body. (20) His torso is cylindrical. (21) He has an excellent sense of taste. (22) His jaw is like that of a lion. (23) He has forty teeth. (24) His teeth are even. (25) His teeth have no gaps. (26) His teeth are perfectly white. (27) He has a large tongue. (28) He has the voice of Brahmā, like a cuckoo’s call. (29) His eyes are deep blue. (30) He has eyelashes like a cow’s. (31) Between his eyebrows there grows a tuft, soft and white like cotton-wool. (32) His head is shaped like a turban. These are the thirty-two marks of a great man possessed by Master Gotama.”
“When he’s walking he takes the first step with the right foot. He doesn’t lift his foot too far or place it too near. He doesn’t walk too slow or too fast. He walks without knocking his knees or ankles together. When he’s walking he keeps his thighs neither too straight nor too bent, neither too tight nor too loose. When he walks, only the lower half of his body moves, and he walks effortlessly. When he turns to look he does so with the whole body. He doesn’t look directly up or down. He doesn’t look all around while walking, but focuses a plough’s length in front. Beyond that he has unhindered knowledge and vision.”
“When entering an inhabited area he keeps his body neither too straight nor too bent, neither too tight nor too loose.”
“He turns around neither too far nor too close to the seat. He doesn’t lean on his hand when sitting down. And he doesn’t just plonk his body down on the seat. When sitting in inhabited areas he doesn’t fidget with his hands or feet. He doesn’t sit with his knees or ankles crossed. He doesn’t sit with his hand holding his chin. When sitting in inhabited areas he doesn’t shake, tremble, quake, or get nervous, and so he is not nervous at all. When sitting in inhabited areas he still practices seclusion.”
“When receiving water for rinsing the bowl, he holds the bowl neither too straight nor too bent, neither too tight nor too loose.”
“He receives neither too little nor too much water. He rinses the bowl without making a sloshing noise, or spinning it around. He doesn’t put the bowl on the ground to rinse his hands; his hands and bowl are rinsed at the same time. He doesn’t throw the bowl rinsing water away too far or too near, or splash it about. When receiving rice, he holds the bowl neither too straight nor too bent, neither too close nor too loose. He receives neither too little nor too much rice. He eats sauce in a moderate proportion, and doesn’t spend too much time saucing his portions. He chews over each portion two or three times before swallowing. But no grain of rice enters his body unchewed, and none remain in his mouth. Only then does he raise another portion to his lips. He eats experiencing the taste, but without experiencing greed for the taste.”
“He eats food thinking of eight reasons: ‘Not for fun, indulgence, adornment, or decoration, but only to sustain this body, to avoid harm, and to support spiritual practice. In this way, I shall put an end to old discomfort and not give rise to new discomfort, and I will live blamelessly and at ease.’”
“After eating, when receiving water for washing the bowl, he holds the bowl neither too straight nor too bent, neither too tight nor too loose. He receives neither too little nor too much water. He washes the bowl without making a sloshing noise, or spinning it around. He doesn’t put the bowl on the ground to wash his hands; his hands and bowl are washed at the same time. He doesn’t throw the bowl washing water away too far or too near, or splash it about.”
“After eating he doesn’t put the bowl on the ground too far away or too close. He’s not careless with his bowl, nor does he spend too much time on it.”
“After eating he sits for a while in silence, but doesn’t wait too long to give the verses of appreciation. After eating he expresses appreciation without criticizing the meal or expecting another one. Invariably, he educates, encourages, fires up, and inspires that assembly with a Dhamma talk. Then he gets up from his seat and leaves.”
“He walks neither too fast nor too slow, without wanting to get out of there.”
“He wears his robe on his body neither too high nor too low, neither too tight nor too loose. The wind doesn’t blow his robe off his body. And dust and dirt don’t stick to his body.”
“When he has gone to the monastery he sits on a seat spread out and washes his feet. But he doesn’t waste time with pedicures. When he has washed his feet, he sits down cross-legged, with his body straight, and establishes mindfulness right there. He has no intention to hurt himself, hurt others, or hurt both. He only wishes for the welfare of himself, of others, of both, and of the whole world. In the monastery when he teaches Dhamma to an assembly, he neither flatters them nor rebukes them. Invariably, he educates, encourages, fires up, and inspires that assembly with a Dhamma talk.”
“His voice has eight qualities: it is clear, comprehensible, charming, audible, rounded, undistorted, deep, and resonant. He makes sure his voice is intelligible as far as the assembly goes, but it doesn’t extend outside the assembly. And when they’ve been inspired with a Dhamma talk by Master Gotama they get up from their seats and leave looking back at him alone, and not forgetting their lesson.”
“I have seen Master Gotama walking and standing; entering inhabited areas, and sitting and eating there; sitting silently after eating, and expressing appreciation; going to the monastery, sitting silently there, and teaching Dhamma to an assembly there. Such is Master Gotama; such he is and more than that.”
When he had spoken, the brahmin Brahmāyu got up from his seat, arranged his robe over one shoulder, raised his joined palms toward the Buddha, and uttered this aphorism three times:
“Homage to that Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha! Homage to that Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha! Homage to that Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha! Hopefully, some time or other I’ll get to meet him, and we can have a discussion.”
The Brahman Brahmāyu gets this chance, because not much later the Buddha comes close to the village where he is staying and the old Brahmin seizes the moment, visits the Buddha out of deep respect, and the Buddha teaches him:
Then the Buddha taught him step by step, with a talk on giving, ethical conduct, and heaven. He explained the drawbacks of sensual pleasures, so sordid and corrupt, and the benefit of renunciation. And when the Buddha knew that Brahmāyu’s mind was ready, pliable, rid of hindrances, elated, and confident he explained the special teaching of the Buddhas: suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path. Just as a clean cloth rid of stains would properly absorb dye, in that very seat the stainless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma arose in the brahmin Brahmāyu: “Everything that has a beginning has an end.”
Then Brahmāyu saw, attained, understood, and fathomed the Dhamma. He went beyond doubt, got rid of indecision, and became self-assured and independent of others regarding the Teacher’s instructions.
Just see if you can see the calm, pure mind, strong mindfulness, and the impeccable behavior that arises from such a mind the next time you look at an image of the Buddha.
If you succeed, your heart will open and you may feel something similar to what the Brahman Brahmāyu is expressing here. A deep appreciation for the Buddha and his teachings and the desire to connect to it.
And who knows, maybe you too can reach the liberating insight into the Dhamma.
6. The Meaning of the Buddha’s Postures
The Buddha is usually depicted four postures (iriyā patha): seated in the lotus position (or a derivative thereof), standing, walking and lying down.
What do these postures symbolize?
The Seated Buddha
The posture in which the Buddha is most often depicted is without a doubt seated in a lotus position or a derivative thereof, such as the half lotus or cross-legged positiom.
This is the posture in which the Buddha gave many of his teachings and it is the posture of meditation.
Sitting offers the best balance between making an active physical effort on the one hand and being able to close the sensory doors on the other hand. When you lie down you fall asleep more easily because there is no longer any physical effort needed to stay upright, when standing you need many continuous movement adjustments so as not to fall over, making it much more difficult to acquire deep concentration, and while wlkaking you have to look at where you put the foot, making concentration virtually impossible to achieve.
Therefore, the sitting position is the only posture in which you can really develop deep concentration (samādhi). In the other postures you can practice mindfulness (sati), an important condition for deep concentration.
Since the Buddha has made the highest possible meditative effort and it was in this posture that he finally achieved complete liberation (Nibbāna), and because it was in this posture that he stayed most often when he taught, inspired and motivated others to achieve the same liberation, it is not surprising that this is such a popular posture in Buddha statues.
Usually the Buddha is depicted sitting in the vajrasana-position (also known as lotus pose), with each foot resting on the opposite thigh, or in the virasana-position where the right foot rests on the left thigh and the left foot is placed under the right thigh.
In Theravāda Buddhism the virasana-position is the most common, in Mahāyāna Buddhism the vajrasana-position is found more often.
A much rarer sitting position is the pralambapadasana, the Buddha sitting in a chair or throne (also known as the European posture).
In the seated posture the Buddha can be found to make several different hand gestures (mudra), each emphasizing a special quality of the Buddha. We will dwell on these mudra later on in the text.
The Standing Buddha
If you look at a standing Buddha, you will see that he is standing firmly with two feet on the ground. Fixed and immobile.
Depending on the hand gesture (mudra) the Buddha makes in this posture, the image radiates determination, calm or even pacification.
You can almost imagine how, after attaining his enlightenment and having risen from his meditation, the Buddha firmly stood looking out into the world, with his physical and mental eye, to see which beings he could help on the path to freedom.
And that it is this posture in which he averted dangers and clamed crowds.
Later on, in text about the mudra, we will give some specific examples where the Buddha took on the standing position.
The Walking Buddha
Standing on one leg, with the other trailing behind, moving forward, that is the image of the walking Buddha, specific to Thailand beginning in the 13th century.
Where Buddhist art until then often emphasized his superhuman qualities and an almost godly status (almost because the Buddha made it clear at all times that he was not a god), the image of the walking Buddha emphasizes that the Buddha went among the people, went on foot through the country and went on alms round with his begging bowl.
The Buddha is close to the common man, his teaching is for anyone who wants to listen to it.
He lived as an example, put his money where his mouth was, and did what he instructed his enlightened disciples to do:
“Go forth, monks, for the good of many, for the happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, well-being and happiness of gods and men. Don’t let two of you go the same way.”
In this image, the Buddha always has his left hand in either the abhaya mudra,the hand gesture of safety and freedom from fear, or the vitarka mudra, the hand gesture of wisdom. We shall dwell on these mudra in more detail later on in this text.
In Thailand, the walking Buddha is also sometimes seen as a symbol for the return of the Buddha from the Tavatimsa heaven after he had taught the Abhidhamma to his mother who resided there.
The Reclining Buddha
The reclining Buddha always lies on his right side, with his head on his hand, leaning on a pillow or his right elbow.
This posture symbolizes the Buddha in his last hours.
Because this Buddha statue is not dependent on hand gestures (mudra)we will dwell on this posture in more detail.
At the age of 80, the Buddha falls ill after eating a meal given to him as an offering. The Buddha eats this meal alone, saying that the meal is only suitable for a Buddha.
Contrary to what you might think, the Buddha indicates that this meal, which will mark the beginning of the end of the physical existence of the Buddha’s body, will bring a lot of good karma for the giver of the meal.
After all, just like all conditioned elements, the body of the Buddha has also arisen and so it will also perish. As a result of the decay of the physical body, the Buddha can enter parinibbāna, the final Nibbāna without a physical element.
The passage about the last meal in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta is as follows:
And Cunda the metalworker came to know: “The Blessed One, they say, has arrived at Pava, and is staying in my Mango Grove.” And he went to the Blessed One, and having respectfully greeted him, sat down at one side. And the Blessed One instructed Cunda the metalworker in the Dhamma, and roused, edified, and gladdened him.
Then Cunda spoke to the Blessed One, saying: “May the Blessed One, O Lord, please accept my invitation for tomorrow’s meal, together with the community of bhikkhus.” And by his silence the Blessed One consented.
Sure, then, of the Blessed One’s consent, Cunda the metalworker rose from his seat, respectfully saluted the Blessed One, and keeping his right side towards him, took his departure.
And Cunda the metalworker, after the night had passed, had choice food, hard and soft, prepared in his abode, together with a quantity of sukara-maddava, and announced it to the Blessed One, saying: “It is time, O Lord, the meal is ready.”
Thereupon the Blessed One, in the forenoon, having got ready, took bowl and robe and went with the community of bhikkhus to the house of Cunda, and there sat down on the seat prepared for him. And he spoke to Cunda, saying: “With the sukara-maddava you have prepared, Cunda, you may serve me; with the other food, hard and soft, you may serve the community of bhikkhus.”
“So be it, Lord.” And with the sukara-maddava prepared by him, he served the Blessed One; and with the other food, hard and soft, he served the community of bhikkhus.
Thereafter the Blessed One spoke to Cunda, saying: “Whatever, Cunda, is left over of the sukara-maddava, bury that in a pit. For I do not see in all this world, with its gods, Maras, and Brahmas, among the host of ascetics and brahmans, gods and men, anyone who could eat it and entirely digest it except the Tathāgata alone.”
And Cunda the metalworker answered the Blessed One saying: “So be it, O Lord.”And what remained over of the sukara-maddava he buried in a pit.
Then he returned to the Blessed One, respectfully greeted him, and sat down at one side. And the Blessed One instructed Cunda the metalworker in the Dhamma, and roused, edified, and gladdened him. After this he rose from his seat and departed.
And soon after the Blessed One had eaten the meal provided by Cunda the metalworker, a dire sickness fell upon him, even dysentery, and he suffered sharp and deadly pains. But the Blessed One endured them mindfully, clearly comprehending and unperturbed.
Then the Blessed One spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying: “Come, Ananda, let us go to Kusinara.” And the Venerable Ananda answered: “So be it, Lord.”
The Buddha then went to Kusinara, his last abode. Along the way he taught those who would benefit from his teaching, and he spoke the following words about Cunda to Ananda:
Then the Blessed One spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying: “It may come to pass, Ananda, that someone will cause remorse to Cunda the metalworker, saying: ‘It is no gain to you, friend Cunda, but a loss, that it was from you the Tathāgata took his last alms meal, and then came to his end.’ Then, Ananda, the remorse of Cunda should be dispelled after this manner: ‘It is a gain to you, friend Cunda, a blessing that the Tathāgata took his last alms meal from you, and then came to his end. For, friend, face to face with the Blessed One I have heard and learned: “There are two offerings of food which are of equal fruition, of equal outcome, exceeding in grandeur the fruition and result of any other offerings of food. Which two? The one partaken of by the Tathāgata before becoming fully enlightened in unsurpassed, supreme Enlightenment; and the one partaken of by the Tathāgata before passing into the state of Nibbana in which no element of clinging remains. By his deed the worthy Cunda has accumulated merit which makes for long life, beauty, well being, glory, heavenly rebirth, and sovereignty.”‘ Thus, Ananda, the remorse of Cunda the metalworker should be dispelled.”
Immediately after the Buddha has uttered these words comes the passage that describes the image of the reclining Buddha in full:
Then the Blessed One addressed the Venerable Ananda, saying: “Come, Ananda, let us cross to the farther bank of the Hiraññavati, and go to the Mallas’ Sala Grove, in the vicinity of Kusinara.”
“So be it, Lord.”
And the Blessed One, together with a large company of bhikkhus, went to the further bank of the river Hiraññavati, to the Sala Grove of the Mallas, in the vicinity of Kusinara. And there he spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying:
“Please, Ananda, prepare for me a couch between the twin sala trees, with the head to the north. I am weary, Ananda, and want to lie down.”
“So be it, Lord.” And the Venerable Ananda did as the Blessed One asked him to do.
Then the Blessed One lay down on his right side, in the lion’s posture, resting one foot upon the other, and so disposed himself, mindfully and clearly comprehending.
At that time the twin sala trees broke out in full bloom, though it was not the season of flowering. And the blossoms rained upon the body of the Tathāgata and dropped and scattered and were strewn upon it in worship of the Tathāgata. And celestial mandarava flowers and heavenly sandalwood powder from the sky rained down upon the body of the Tathāgata, and dropped and scattered and were strewn upon it in worship of the Tathāgata. And the sound of heavenly voices and heavenly instruments made music in the air out of reverence for the Tathāgata.
And the Blessed One spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying: “Ananda, the twin sala trees are in full bloom, though it is not the season of flowering. And the blossoms rain upon the body of the Tathāgata and drop and scatter and are strewn upon it in worship of the Tathāgata. And celestial coral flowers and heavenly sandalwood powder from the sky rain down upon the body of the Tathāgata, and drop and scatter and are strewn upon it in worship of the Tathāgata. And the sound of heavenly voices and heavenly instruments makes music in the air out of reverence for the Tathāgata.
“Yet it is not thus, Ananda, that the Tathāgata is respected, venerated, esteemed, worshipped, and honored in the highest degree. But, Ananda, whatever bhikkhu or bhikkhuni, layman or laywoman, abides by the Dhamma, lives uprightly in the Dhamma, walks in the way of the Dhamma, it is by such a one that the Tathāgata is respected, venerated, esteemed, worshipped, and honored in the highest degree. Therefore, Ananda, thus should you train yourselves: ‘We shall abide by the Dhamma, live uprightly in the Dhamma, walk in the way of the Dhamma.'” After saying this the Buddha gave his last teaching and inspired and instructed those who were present.
The image of the reclining Buddha symbolizes these last hours of the Buddha, lying under the twin sala trees.
Until his last breath, the Buddha teaches, and despite the severe pains in his body, he remains calm, mindful, knowing.
In his very last moments, the Buddha enters the purest and most concentrated states of consciousness imaginable, until the moment that he has Nibbāna as an object with his consciousness and perception and feeling disappear.
However, he does not die in this state as Anuruddha, a prominent disciple of the Buddha indicates, but ultimately does so from the fourth jhāna, the stage of mental absorption in which the mind remains fully concentrated, calm and equanimous.
Here are the buddha’s last words and then his death. May we all die with such a clean and calm mind!
And the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: “Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!”
This was the last word of the Tathāgata.
And the Blessed One entered the first jhāna. Rising from the first jhāna, he entered the second jhāna. Rising from the second jhāna, he entered the third jhāna. Rising from the third jhāna, he entered the fourth jhāna. And rising out of the fourth jhāna, he entered the sphere of infinite space. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of infinite space, he entered the sphere of infinite consciousness. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of infinite consciousness, he entered the sphere of nothingness. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of nothingness, he entered the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. And rising out of the attainment of the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, he attained to the cessation of perception and feeling.
And the Venerable Ananda spoke to the Venerable Anuruddha, saying: “Venerable Anuruddha, the Blessed One has passed away.”
“No, friend Ananda, the Blessed One has not passed away. He has entered the state of the cessation of perception and feeling.”
Then the Blessed One, rising from the cessation of perception and feeling, entered the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, he entered the sphere of nothingness. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of nothingness, he entered the sphere of infinite consciousness. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of infinite consciousness, he entered the sphere of infinite space. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of infinite space, he entered the fourth jhāna. Rising from the fourth jhāna, he entered the third jhāna. Rising from the third jhāna, he entered the second jhāna. Rising from the second jhāna, he entered the first jhāna.
Rising from the first jhāna, he entered the second jhāna. Rising from the second jhāna, he entered the third jhāna. Rising from the third jhāna, he entered the fourth jhāna. And, rising from the fourth jhāna, the Blessed One immediately passed away.
7. The Meaning of the Buddha’s Hand Gestures
In the sitting, standing and walking postures you can find the Buddha depicted with various hand gestures.
These hand gestures are called mudra in Sanskrit. We will give the names of the mudra in Sanskrit because they are best known in this language. Where possible we will also give the Pali name.
Each of the mudra has its own meaning. We’ll take a look at the most common mudra here.
The Bhumi-sparsa Mudra
Bhumi-sparsa (Pali: Bhumi-pasa) means as much as touching the earth, and stands for calling the earth as a witness.
In Southeast Asia, this mudra is also known as the maravijaya mudra, the overcoming of evil.
This is by far the most well-known and common mudra seen in Buddhist statues.
According to the ancient scriptures (the Pali Canon) it is in this mudra in which Siddhartha Gautama achieved the complete unsurpassed enlightenment and thus becomes the Buddha.
That’s what this posture and hand gesture essentially symbolizes.
After Siddharta had lived for years in severe asceticism, completely emaciated and close to death, he came to the understanding of the middle way.
He strengthens his body somewhat by eating solid food and resolves to meditate under the bodhi tree ntil he either attains the complete liberation from suffering, or dies.
After gradually achieving deeper and deeper concentration and purifying his mind further and further, he gains a series of great insights.
Ultimately, this culminates in the understanding of the Four Noble Truths, the core of the Buddha’s teachings, as can be read in the Maha-saccaka Sutta:
“When my mind had immersed in samādhi like this—purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable—I extended it toward knowledge of the ending of defilements. I truly understood: ‘This is suffering’ … ‘This is the origin of suffering’ … ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering.’ I truly understood: ‘These are defilements’ … ‘This is the origin of defilements’ … ‘This is the cessation of defilements’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of defilements.’”
“Knowing and seeing like this, my mind was freed from the defilements of sensuality, desire to be reborn, and ignorance. When it was freed, I knew it was freed.
I understood: ‘Rebirth is ended; the spiritual journey has been completed; what had to be done has been done; there is no return to any state of existence.’”
According to legend the Buddha takes on the bhumi-sparsa mudra in this last moment before his enlightenment. We quote our text The Life of the Buddha – Siddhartha Gautama becomes Buddha:
According to legend, Mara, the evil one, the seducer, the personification of death, challenges Siddharta during this last night.
First he sends his army to Siddharta to frighten him. Mara’s horrible and terrifying forces scream and roar and fire arrows at Siddharta, but Siddharta’s infinite loving kindness turns the arrows into flowers upon reaching him.
Then Mara sends his three beautiful daughters (desire, aversion and attachment) to Siddharta to seduce him and bind him to the world. They dance and sing with their voluptuous bodies and beautiful voices, but Siddharta remains completely untouched due to his concentration, separated from sensory desires and unwholesome mental qualities.
Finally, Mara, despairing that Siddharta will escape from his chains, asks why Siddharta thinks he has the right to free herself from all suffering.
Siddharta touches the earth with the fingertips of his right hand and calls upon the universe as a witness to the effort he has made in all his countless livetimes, during all those endless eons, with the sole goal of attaining liberation.
The universe trembles in achknowledgement and Mara is defeated.
Thus Siddharta Gautama, meditating under the Bodhi Tree, attains the complete, universal enlightenment of a Buddha. The Dharma chakra Pravartana Mudra.
The Dharmachakra Pravartana Mudra
Dharmachakra Pravartana (Pali: Dhammacakkappavatana) means the ‘bringing in motion of the Wheel of Dhamma’.
After Siddhartha Gautama had achieved complete liberation under the bodhi tree in northern India, he decided to teach the way to this liberation to others, for the good of the world.
He went to the deer park in Sarnath where the five ascetics resided that had followed him for a long time but had left him when he gave up his extreme asceticism after discovering the middle way.
Once there, he gives first teaching in the Dhamma, meaning the Four Noble Truths, which he himself had come to see through his meditative effort.
One of the listeners directly internalized the Buddha’s message and was thus able to understand the true nature of reality himself.
In the teaching on Setting in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, we read the following about this event:
And while this discourse was being spoken, there arose in the Venerable Kondañña the dust-free, stainless vision of the Dhamma: “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.”
The mudra refers to this first teaching, the moment when the Dhamma can again be heard in the world.
From a Buddhist perspective, this is the moment when light arises in the darkness of the universe, a light that lasts for as long as the wheel of Dhamma continues to turn, for as long as the Buddha’s teachings can be heard and followed in all its purity and it is possible for us mere mortals to follow the way the Buddha pointed out and free ourselves from suffering by your own effort.
The Dhyāna Mudra
Dhyāna (Pali: Jhāna) refers to the deep concentration that can be achieved through Buddhist meditation and can be translated as ‘mental absorption’ because when you reach jhāna your mind completely merges with the object of your concentration meditation.
In Southeast Asia it is also called the samādhi mudra. Samādhi can literally be translated as concentration.
In order to appreciate the importance of this mudra, it is good to realize that the whole teaching of the Buddha can be summarized in three trainings. The training in moral behavior (sīla), the training in concentration (samādhi) and the training in wisdom (paññā).
These three are interdependent and only those who practice all three of them enter an upward spiral:
“The purpose and benefit of wholesome virtuous behavior is non-regret; the purpose and benefit of non-regret is joy; …of joy is rapture; …of rapture is tranquility; …of tranquility is pleasure; …of pleasure is concentration; …of concentration is the knowledge and vision of things as they really are; …of the knowledge and vision of things as they really are is disenchantment and dispassion; and the purpose and benefit of disenchantment and dispassion is the knowledge and vision of liberation.”
When the Buddha spoke of meditation, he was talking about developing concentration. Jhāna is the purest and most profound form of concentration and the Buddha advised the monks to regularly attain these pure states of consciousness:
“There are the roots of trees; there are secluded dwellings. Practice concentration, monks. Do not be careless. Have no regrets later. That’s my message to you.”
It is concentration by which the mind is purified so that reality can be seen as it is, and wisdom can arise:
“For a person whose mind is concentrated, it is not necessary to think ‘may I know and see things as they really are’. It is the nature of things that a person whose mind is concentrated knows and sees things as they really are.”
It is to this deep concentration, and the underlying emphatic advice of the Buddha to develop concentration, that this mudra refers.
One of the variations in the images in which the Buddha sits in the samādhi mudra is with a dragon hanging over him. I this variation the Buddha sits on the coiled tail of Muccalinda, the king of the Naga (celestial dragon or serpent-like creatures) who protects him with his seven-headed body.
The story about this is in the Muccalinda Sutta:
Thus have I heard. At one time the Lord was staying at Uruvela beside the river Nerañjara at the foot of the Mucalinda Tree, having just realized full enlightenment.
At that time the Lord sat cross-legged for seven days experiencing the bliss of liberation. Now it happened that there occurred, out of season, a great rainstorm and for seven days there were rain clouds, cold winds, and unsettled weather. Then Mucalinda the naga-king left his dwelling place and having encircled the Lord’s body seven times with his coils, he stood with his great hood spread over the Lord’s head (thinking) to protect the Lord from cold and heat, from gadflies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and the touch of creeping things.
At the end of those seven days the Lord emerged from that concentration. Then Mucalinda the naga-king, seeing that the sky had cleared and the rain clouds had gone, removed his coils from the Lord’s body. Changing his own appearance and assuming the appearance of a youth, he stood in front of the Lord with his hands folded together venerating him.
Then, on realizing its significance, the Lord uttered on that occasion this inspired utterance:
“Blissful is detachment for one who is content,
For one who has learned Dhamma and who sees;
Blissful is non-affliction in the world,
Restraint towards living creatures;”
“Blissful is passionlessness in the world,
The overcoming of sensual desires;
But the abolition of the conceit “I am” —
That is truly the supreme bliss.”
The Abhaya Mudra
Abhaya (Pali: Abhaya) means as much as ‘freedom from fear’ or ‘safety’.
The Buddha can be found using this mudra both in a sitting posture, with his forearm resting on his leg, and the standing and walking postures, with his hand at elbow or shoulder height.
The mudra is usually taken on with the right hand, but it can also be made with the left hand or even with both hands.
It symbolizes bringing safety and protection, dispelling fear, and if the Buddha holds both hands in this position, calming the ocean.
For example, the Buddha used the abhaya mudra with his right hand when he tamed the elephant Nalagiri. In this story, Devadatta, the Buddha’s nephew, who was out for his position, tries to use an elephant to kill the Buddha. But the Buddha tames the beast through loving-kindness (mettā), as can be read in Vinaya II, 194 f:
Devadatta, after several futile attempts to kill the Buddha, received Ajātasattu’s permission to use Nālagiri as a means of bringing about the Buddha’s death.
Nālagiri was a ferocious elephant, and to increase his ferocity, Devadatta instructed his keeper to give him twice his usual amount of (alcoholic) ‘toddy’. By beating drums it was announced that the streets of the city had to be evacuated because Nālāgiri would be released.
When the Buddha was informed of this and warned not to go to the city for alms, he ignored the warning and entered Rājagaha with the monks of the eighteen monasteries of the city.
At the sight of Nālāgiri, all the people fled in agony. Ānanda, seeing the elephant advancing in the direction of the Buddha, stood before the Buddha, despite the Buddha’s command to the contrary, who had to use his supernatural power to remove him from his place.
The Buddha spoke to the elephant, imbued him with all the loving-kindness at his disposal, and as he extended his right hand, he caressed the animal’s forehead.
Elated with joy at the touch, Nālāgiri sank on his knees before the Buddha. The Buddha returned to Veḷuvana.
The story of calming the ocean, which is indicated by the abaya mudra with two hands, is that the Buddha, through his mental strength, stopped a river that threatened to flood while making this mudra. We could not find the source of this story.
The abhaya mudra is also sometimes combined with the varada mudra, about which more information follows.
The Vitarka Mudra
Vitarka (Pali: Vitakka) in this context means as much as ‘directed thinking’ or ‘discernment’ in the sense of the ability to see reality as it is, namely that all things are impermanent (anicca), without self (anattā)and unsatisfactory (dukkha).
This mudra symbolizes the wisdom of the Buddha, but also the insightful dialogue and the transmission of insight.
This mudra resembles the abhaya mudra with the difference that index finger and thumb touch each other, and is very close in meaning to the dhammacakkappavatana mudra, with the latter mainly symbolizing the first moment of the exposition of the Dhamma and the vitarka mudra symbolizing the general transmission of the Dhamma.
It will therefore come as no surprise that this mudra is also known in Sanskrit as the vyākhyāna mudra, the mudra of teaching.
Although we cannot say whether the Buddha really took on the vitarka mudra during the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, this is a teaching that very nicely reflects the underlying meaning of the mudra, namely the understanding of the core of dhamma and the transmission of this insight:
Thus I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Benares, in the Deer Park at Isipatana (the Resort of Seers). There he addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five: “Bhikkhus.” — “Venerable sir,” they replied. The Blessed One said this.
“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’
“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self…
“Bhikkhus, perception is not-self…
“Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self…
“Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’
“Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”
“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?…
“Is perception permanent or impermanent?…
“Are determinations permanent or impermanent?…
“Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent pleasant or painful?” — “Painful, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”
“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’
“Any kind of feeling whatever…
“Any kind of perception whatever…
“Any kind of determination whatever…
“Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.’
“Bhikkhus, when a noble follower who has heard (the truth) sees thus, he finds estrangement in form, he finds estrangement in feeling, he finds estrangement in perception, he finds estrangement in determinations, he finds estrangement in consciousness.
“When he finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that he is liberated. He understands: ‘Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.'”
That is what the Blessed One said. The bhikkhus were glad, and they approved his words.
Now during this utterance, the hearts of the bhikkhus of the group of five were liberated from taints through clinging no more.
If this mudra is combined with the walking posture, then it is a reference to the teaching that the Buddha gave to his mother in the Tavatimsa heaven. He later summarized this teaching for Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, in what is known today as the Abhidhamma.
The Varada Mudra
Varada (Pali: Varada) means as much as ‘giver of the best things’ and it is the mudra of offering.
Generosity is one of the core values of the Buddhist path. The Buddha mentions generosity (dāna) along with moral behavior (sīla) and meditative effort (bhāvanā) as the foundation of wholesome behavior.
This mudra is often combined with another mudra, for example the abhaya mudra in standing and sitting position.
it is also this mudra that can be seen in the rare ‘European’ sitting position. We could not find the source to the storry of the European posture, but it goes more or less as follows.
As the Buddha passed through the Palileyyeka forest, he sat down to rest. When they saw him sitting like this, an elephant and a monkey knelt before the Buddha and gave him food and comfort – a piece of fruit and honeycomb respectively. The Buddha then accepts the gift with the varada mudra, for the welfare of the animals.
The Bodhyangi Mudra
Bodhyanga (Pali: Bojjhaṅga) means ‘the seven factors of enlightenment’.
The seven are:
- Mindfulness (sati)
- Analysis of reality (dhamma-vicaya)
- Energy (viriya)
- Rapture (pīti)
- Tranquility (passaddhi)
- Concentration (samādhi)
- Equanimity (upekkhā)
These factors are developed during Buddhist meditation and must be balanced and maintained in order to achieve complete liberation.
You can read more about the seven factors in the different parts of Factors for Awakening by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
This mudra is also called the ‘fist of wisdom’ and is only seen in Mahāyāna or Vajrayāna Buddhism, where it is also known as the vajra mudra.
The vajra is a mythical weapon that is said to be as indestructible as a diamond and as powerful as a thunderbolt.
Tibetan Buddhism is also called Vajrayāna, which means as much as ‘diamond vehicle’ or ‘thunderbolt vehicle’.
The vajra mudra is also called the ‘lightning hand gesture’ or ‘hand gesture of knowledge’.
The posture is used during tantric meditation in countries such as Tibet or in more esoteric forms of Japanese Buddhism.
The Karana Mudra
The karana mudra is the mudra that dispels demons and removes obstacles, such as illness or negative thoughts.
This mudra is made by raising the index finger and the little finger, and folding the other fingers. It is almost the same as the Western ‘sign of the horns’, the difference being that in the karana mudra the thumb does not hold the middle and ring finger.
This mudra is also known as tarjanī mudrā and is specific to tantric practice.
8. Other Statues in Theravāda Buddhism
The Venerable Sariputta and Maha Mogallana
In the time of the Buddha, there were many who achieved complete liberation and became Arahant. These Arahants are all equal in the sense that they have all completely destroyed the defilements of the mind and achieved permanent liberation from the unsatisfactoriness of existence, but thy differ in many other respects.
For example, the degree of concentration may differ or the ability to see the paramis (qualities) of others and thus give fitting teachings.
Also, their own paramis and their own karma (kamma) differ, so each of the Arahants went about in the world differently equipped to help others.
The Buddha recognized several Arahants who distinguished themselves from others by having achieved the highest possible level in a specific area.
Venerable Sariputta and Maha Mogallana were two very special Arahants. They were the Buddha’s chief disciplines and formed his left and right hand.
Sariputta and Mogallana were childhood friends who together sought spiritual development. They promised each other that if one of them had found a worthy teacher, he would immediately inform the other.
It is Sariputta who at one point (at that moment still known by the name Upatisa) meets the monk Assaji. He is immediately deeply impressed by the calmness that Assaji radiates and asks him about his teacher and teaching. Assaji answers with the follwing verse, which is very well known in Buddhism:
“Of all those things that from a cause arise, the Tathagata the cause thereof has told; And how they cease to be, that too he tells, this is the doctrine of the Great Recluse”
Sariputta is deeply touched and goes directly to Mogallana (at that moment still known by the name Kolita) and together they go to the Buddha where they join his order as monks. The Buddha immediately recognizes them as his two chief disciplines (aggasāvaka), which every Buddha has, in the past and in the future.
It is noteworthy that, unlike many other great disciples, both have to make an effort for a long time before they reach complete liberation. It is conceivable that the reason behind this is that they had to develop their paramis to the highest possible level in order to fulfill their role.
The venerable Sariputta became the Arahant with the deepest insight into the workings of reality. It was for this reason that the Buddha taught the Abhidhamma to the venerable Sariputta, for he would be able to understand it.
So great was the wisdom of Sariputta that the Pali Canon even includes some of his teachings.
The venerable Maha Mogallana (maha means great) was the Arahant with the greatest mental power. That is, through his enormous concentration, he possessed supernatural powers like no other Arahant.
Maha Mogallan, like Sariputta, appears with some regularity in the Pali Canon when he is in dialogue with the Buddha, serving to educate others.
Together they instructed many monks and devas, using their individual powers and referring to each other when it would be beneficial to the desciple.
For a much more complete story about both disciples, we recommend the book Great Disciples of the Buddha by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker.
The Venerable Sivali
In Buddhist monasteries in Southeast Asia you regularly see an altar somewhere on the monastery grounds with a standing monk with a walking stick in one hand and an umbrella or fan in the other hand, and he often wears a beaded necklace (mala) and begging bowl.
In short, it is an image of an itinerant monk who carries all his possessions with him.
In the passage above about the venerable Sariputta and Maha Mogallana we briefly explained that there are Arahants who reached the highest possible level in a specific area.
As a result of unprecedented generosity during countless previous lives, Sivali became, in his life at the time of the Buddha, the Arahant who was highest in obtaining the 4 requisites, the four things that the Buddha taught were necessary for life and thus that a monk could possess, namely clothing, food, shelter and medicine.
As a result, the venerable Sivali was always giftet with these requisites wherever he went.
When the Buddha sent a number of monks through a particularly rough and inhospitable terrain to promote the well-being of the people in a distant city, he sent the venerbale Sivali with them, so that the monks would always receive sufficient requisites during their journey.
It will therefore come as no surprise that the venerable Sivali can be seen as the ‘patron saint’ of the traveler.
The Venerable Upagupta
Images of the venerable Upagupta can mainly be found in Northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. In Myanmar he is called Shin Upagutta (or Shin Upagot), in Thailand he is known as Upakhut.
The image is characterized by a monk sitting in a half-lotus position with his hand reaching into a large begging bowl on his lap, while looking up at an angle. His seat is usually decorated with fish.
Under the name Upagupta he does not feature in the Pali Canon of Theravāda Buddhism, but even though his story may have its origins in Mahāyāna Buddhism his legend has been fully incorporated into Theravāda Buddhist History.
Upagupta might even be another name for the venerable Moggaliputta-Tissa, the monk who oversaw the third Buddhist council at the time of the great king Asoka. In the legend about Upagupta there are many similarities between the two. Or Upagupta was an Arahant who transcended the various Buddhist schools at that time because of which he was approached by Moggaliputta-Tissa for advice.
Be that as it may, the venerable Upagupta did not live at the time of the Buddha but in the 3rd century BC, so about a hundred years after his death.
He is seen as a master of samatha meditation who was able to see the paramis of everyone who came to him and by this ability adapt his teaching perfectly to his listener.
According to legend, after the death of the Buddha, the venerable Maha Kassapa went into a mountain with the robes of the Buddha by means of his supernatural power to watch over them until the arrival of the next Buddha.
Before doing so he handed over the task of protecting the Dhamma to the venerable Ananda, who before his death transferred the task to Madhantika, who transferred it to Sanakavasin, who transferred it to Upagupta.
In his time, Upagupta was such a highly regarded teacher that contemporaries equated him with the Buddha himself, and attributed to him the defeat of Mara, the personification of evil.
It is the latter with which he is associated in countries such as Myanmer and Thailand: defeating, or averting, the negative influence of Mara.
According to the Sanskrit texts, the Buddha foretold the life of Upagupta, and also that Upagupta would put Mara on the right path. Upagupta not only defeats Mara but coverts him to the Dhamma. After Upagupta has done this, he makes the prediction that Mara will also become a Buddha in the future.
According to legend, Upagupta has not died, but lives on in deep concentration in a palace at the bottom of an ocean. That is more or less the reason that in Myanmar, during ceremonies, statues of him are put on a raft and move downriver with current..
For those who want to know more about Upagupta, we recommend The Life and Cult of Upagupta by John Strong.
Specific to Myanmar is the worship of Weikza (also called Weizza or Pali: Vijjadhara).
The two most famous Weikza are Bo Bo Aung and Bo Min Aung.
A Weikza is a practitioner of Buddhist samatha meditation (concentration-meditation) to the highest possible level.
The Weikza postpones complete liberation until the coming of the next Buddha, Metteya.
In the time leading up to the coming of Buddha Metteya, the Weikza is dedicated to the preservation and protection of the Dhamma and the promotion of the well-being of all beings (and thus have some resemblance to the venerable Upagupta).
To protect the Dhamma, the Weikza uses supernatural powers acquired by concentration. Think of mantra (powerful sounds), yantra (powerful symbols), manipulating objects, specialized medicine, and the Weikza can learn a very old language related to Pali that one cannot learn from books but that comes through meditation.
If the Weikza has built up sufficient mental strength through samatha meditation, the Weikza can, if desired, prolong his or her life and renew the body, or enter into a higher world from which the well-being of humanity is promoted.
The path of the Weikza can be seen as the fourth, much less known paths within Buddhism, in addition to the paths to become Buddha, Paccekha-Buddha (a Budha who does not teach) or Arahant.
In Myanmar, the path of the Weikza has now become more of a movement with a mainly social character where joining a ‘weikza-order’ can provide work and prestige. However, this is not the actual path of the Weikza as it has been passed down for centuries but seems to be more of a post-colonial phenomenon.
If you want to know more about this latter, more anthropological aspect, with an occasional glimpse into the actual Weikza path, we recommend Champions of Buddhism – Weikza Cults in Contemporary Burma by Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière, Guillaume Rozenberg and Alicia Turner.
9. Other Statues in Mahāyāna Buddhism
The Laughing Buddha
Many people in the World think of the Buddha as the fat smiling man with the bald head that you often see at Chinese restaurants.
However, this is not the Buddha but a Chinese monk named Pu-Tei (also called Budei or Hotei). Known in China as ‘the friendly’.
Pu-Tei is semi-historically based on an eccentric Ch’an (Zen) monk who lived around the 10th century, and he is seen as the ‘patron saint’ of the weak, the poor and children.
His name means something like ‘cloth bag’ and refers to the bag he often carries with him (which is never empty) while traveling without a destination. You often see him surrounded by children, sometimes handing out coins or candy, and he is always in a good mood.
An image of Pu-Tei is supposed to bring happiness, wealth and well-being to the family, so it is a true family image.
It is perhaps not surprising that Pu-Tei comes from China, where, even at the time Buddhism first arrived, the well-being of the family or group was placed above that of the individual.
Pu-Tei is a good example of how Buddhism has adapted to a local culture and found common ground there.
The Five Dhyani Buddhas
The Five Dhyani Buddhas are one of those subjects that we will certainly fail to give the proper amound of space and depth in this guide.
They are central to Mahāyān and Vajrayāna Buddhism and are deeply rooted in the philosophical concepts of these vehicles.
Central to Mahāyāna is the great compassion of the Buddha, a train of thought that gained momentum in the years after even the last disciple who had known the Buddha personally had died, and the realization really began to sink in that the Buddha was no longer physically present.
Very briefly, the reasoning is as follows: The Buddha cannot really have entered Parinirvana (Pali: Parinibbāna) after his death. After all, parinirvana, the final, complete liberation after the body has died, would mean that the Buddha’s compassion is finite because after that moment he would no longer be able to care for other beings. And the Buddha’s compassion is infinite, so this is not possible.
If Buddha Gautama (the Buddha of our time) were truly compassionate, he would still, even at this time, make an unrelenting effort for the well-being of all beings.
Buddha Gautama cannot have been an ‘ordinary’ human being as stated in Theravāda Buddhism, but must have been a physical manifestation of reality (nirmanakaya), or the aspect of enlightenment (dharmakaya), that unthinkable and inconceivable (acintya) aspect of reality from which all Buddhas originate and into which they return after the passing of the physical form.
Buddha Gautama was a physical manifestation of the deepest truth, and this truth can also manifest itself in other ways, even now that Buddha Gautama is no longer physically present in the world.
It is the manifestation of this truth ‘in other ways’ where the Dhyani Buddhas make their appearance.
At first, you see the emergence of two Buddhas as manifestations of wisdom and compassion: Akshobhya and Amithaba respectively. They were followed by two more Buddhas as the manifestations of strength and spiritual wealth: Amoghasiddhi and Ratnasambhava respectively.
The fifth Buddha, Vairocana, is often depcited at the center of these four Buddhas and is a representation of truth.
The Five Dhyani Buddhas can be seen as the embodiment of these five qualities of the Adi Buddha, or ‘First Buddha’. Sometimes the Adi Buddha is added to the group as the sixth Buddha.
The Five Dhyani Buddhas are thus Akshobya, Ratnasambhava, Vairocana, Amithaba and Amoghasiddhi. These manifestations are not so much physically present in our world, but more on a spiritual level, where they work relentlessly to free beings from suffering.
You see the five frequently in Tibetan mandalas and they form a prominent part in the tantric practice.
There is much more to tell about these five Buddhas, each having their own color, family, attitude, direction, mantra and the like, but that goes too far for this text.
Those who want to know more could, for example, read the not too long text Cosmic Buddhas in the Himalayas by Kurt Behrendt.
In addition to the Dhyani Buddhas mentioned above, various bodhisattvas play an important role in helping beings on earth.
Bodhisattvas are beings who have the intention to become a Buddha themselves in the future, and make a great effort in order to reach this goal, life after life.
In Theravāda Buddhism, the path of the bodhisattva is reserved for very special people who at the time of a previous Buddha, when they had already developed their own qualities (paramis) to a very high level, have received the prediction by that Buddha that they will succeed in their goal.
According to the Theravāda Buddhist teaching the Buddha Gautama (the Buddha of our time) received this prediction at the time of the previous Buddha Sumedha, many eons ago.
In Mahāyāna, this changes (see Buddhism: History and Schools for more information) and the Bodhisattva path becomes the primary goal of every practitioner.
Although within Mahāyāna many have the goal of becoming a bodhisattva, there are also beings who have already achieved this goal and work as bodhisattva for the well-being of others.
Manjushri is the oldest and most important of these bodhisattvas in Mahāyāna literature (read, for example, the Prajnaparamita Sutra).
Vajrayāna Buddhism (mainly practiced in Tibet) goes one step further and sees Manjushri not as a bodhisattva but as a complete Buddha, and he is included in esoteric transmissions.
Whether he is seen as bodhisattva or Buddha, he symbolizes the transcendental wisdom that can be achieved through meditative effort.
He is usually represented with a burning sword in his right hand, symbolizing the all-pervading wisdom that cuts through the roots of ignorance and duality. The lotus flower in his left hand shows his full development (or blooming) of wisdom. Sometimes you see him on a lion or lion’s fur as a sign for his taming of the mind.
Besides Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara (known in Tibet as Chenrezig, and in China as Guanyin about whom we write more below) is perhaps the most well known bodhisattva.
He is mentioned in important Mahāyāna texts such as the Lotus Sutra and embodies great compassion.
The name Avalokiteshvara can be translated in different ways, as ‘the one who looks at the world’ or ‘the one who hears the sound of the world’. In the last translation, ‘sound’ can be read as ‘the sound of the cries of beings in need of help’.
What is special is that Avalokiteshvara is one of the few (if not only) Mahayana bodhisattvas that is also respected in the Theravāda Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia, where he is known as Natha-deva (Sri Lanka), Lokanat (Myanmar) or Lokesvara (Thailand). There he is often seen as equal to the bodhisattva Metteya, who is respected by all Buddhist traditions as the next Buddha to be.
In Tibet, every Dalai Lama is thought to be a physical manifestation of Avalokiteshvara.
Avalokiteshvara is depicted in many ways, but the most famous is perhaps with many arms and sometimes many heads. Underlying this image is a touchingly beautiful story. The story goes something like this:
Avalokiteshvara has the deep desire and intention to free all beings from samsāra. To fulfill this wish, he makes an incredible effort. But no matter how much effort he makes, there remain many beings who are unhappy. Deeply touched by his inability to help all beings, and engulfed by the cries of so many needing help, he bursts apart. When the Buddha Amithaba (one of Dhyani Buddhas) sees the fate of Avalokiteshvara, he glues him back together, giving him eleven heads and a thousand arms. With his eleven heads and a thousand arms, Avalokiteshvara sets to work with renewed energy and now a much greater power. And where he hears the cries of beings who need help, he comes to the rescue.
Guanyin (or Kuan Yin) is in fact nothing less than a Chinese manifestation of Avalokiteshavara, the bodhisattva of compassion, which we discussed above.
Guanyin, originating from Guanshuyin, means ‘the one who perceives the sound of the world’, and is thus nothing more than a translation of the Sanskrit Avalokiteshvara.
She is seen as the ‘goddess’ of forgiveness and compassion and enjoys immense popularity among Chinese Buddhists, especially in the schools where devotion predominates.
In the latter case, in Pure Land Buddhism, a movement within Mahāyāna Buddhism, she is seen as one of the saviors who frees followers from the wheel of samsāra and brings them to the pure land, where they can build up the necessary karma to become a Buddha themselves.
Although she is often depicted as a woman, the bodhisattva can manifest itself in any gender, depending on the need.
For example, Guanyin in a male form is central to the Shurangama Sutra.
Guanyin is also seen as the warrior for the unfortunate, the sick, the poor and those in trouble, and she is the “patron saint” of mothers.
10. Closing Thoughts
This is where this guide about the use, history and meaning of statues in Buddhism ends.
Of course, this text only superficially touches on the multiplicity and depth of the Buddhist image and there is much more to tell, but we hope that the reader has found what he was looking for. If you have any additions or questions, please don’t hesitate to let us know.
Finally, a small reminder. No matter how beautiful an image is, how rich the history, how deep the meaning, the most important thing is one’s own experience arising from one’s own effort.
Through your own efforts you can understand the Dhamma yourself. And whoever understands the Dhamma sees the Buddha in all his true beauty.
As the Buddha himselfobs taught during his visit to Vakkali, a very sick monk:
Now the Venerable Vakkali saw the Blessed One coming from a distance, and tried to get up. Then the Blessed One said to the Venerable Vakkali: “Enough, Vakkali, do not try to get up. There are these seats made ready. I will sit down there.” And he sat down on a seat that was ready. Then he said:
“Are you feeling better, Vakkali? Are you bearing up? Are your pains getting better and not worse? Are there signs that they are getting better and not worse?”
“No, Lord, I do not feel better, I am not bearing up. I have severe pains, and they are getting worse, not better. There is no sign of improvement, only of worsening.”
“Have you any doubts, Vakkali? Have you any cause for regret?”
“Indeed, Lord, I have many doubts. I have much cause for regret.”
“Have you nothing to reproach yourself about as regards morals?”
“No, Lord, I have nothing to reproach myself about as regards morals.”
“Well then, Vakkali, if you have nothing to reproach yourself about as regards morals, you must have some worry or scruple that is troubling you.”
“For a long time, Lord, I have wanted to come and set eyes on the Blessed One, but I had not the strength in this body to come and see the Blessed One.”
“Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.”
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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the wayBuddha, Dhp 276