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There are four main types of images found in Buddhist temples, each conveying a different level of being in Buddhist cosmology: 1) images of The Buddha; 2) images of Bodhisattvas; 3) images of deities, spirits, heavenly beings, and guardian god; and sometimes 4) images of kings of wisdom and light that serve as protectors of Buddhism.

Most Buddhist art consists of depictions of Buddha, usually in statue from and to lesser extent in murals, frescoes and other paintings. The way in which Buddha is depicted often says more about the culture that created it than about Buddhism itself.

There are lots of symbols and codes in Buddhist art. Simple things like hand positions and the shape of the arms can convey symbolic meaning. Western viewers often have a hard time making sense of it all because they have little exposure to the symbols. Buddhist Flag. Each color and stripes has its own meanings. Blue : Universal Compassion. Yellow : The Middle Path.Red : Blessings. White : Purity and Liberation.Orange : Wisdom [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

For about five centuries after Buddha's death, it was forbidden to produce images of the Buddha. During that time various devices such as set of large footprints or a treelike post with three Dharma wheels were used to represent the Buddha without actually showing him. The Buddha and his early Disciples opposed the personalization of the Buddha’s message and discouraged speculation about their existence after they were dead. The Buddha hoped that his followers would find salvation though meditation, not through the worship of images. That didn’t stop millions of images of The Buddha and Bodhisattvas from being created though. If he were alive today The Buddha would no doubt be appalled by the number of images of him that have been raised around the globe.

“Scenes from the life of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, are a popular subject in Buddhist art. According to tradition, Siddhartha ("he who achieves his goal"), the founder of Buddhism, was born a prince of the Shakya clan in 563 B.C. in what is now southern Nepal. Confined by his father to the palace grounds so that he would not become exposed to anything that might deter him from becoming the next ruler, Siddhartha first visited the outside world at the age of twenty-nine. Moved by the suffering he saw, he abandoned his luxurious existence for a life of ascetic practice and sought to understand why we should be born to a life of physical decay, sickness, and death. He spent six years as an ascetic, attempting to conquer the innate appetites for food, sex, and comfort. Near death from vigilant fasting, he was offered a bowl of rice from a young girl. After accepting it, he had a revelation that physical austerities were not the means to achieve spiritual liberation. He then sat and meditated beneath a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) and reached enlightenment in one night. That tree became known as the "enlightenment" (bodhi) tree. He set about teaching others what he had learned, encouraging people to follow a path he called "The Middle Way," a path of balance rather than extremism. Shakyamuni Buddha ("sage of the Shakya clan") presented himself only as a teacher and not as a god or object of worship. Traditional accounts say that he died at the age of eighty, in 483 B.C.

Among the museums with great collections of Asian and Buddhist art are the Musee Guimet in Paris and the Museum for Indische Kunst in Berlin.

Kushan coin from 100 BC, the earliest surviving Buddha image

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Buddhist Art: Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Buddhist Symbols viewonbuddhism.org/general_symbols_buddhism ; Wikipedia article on Buddhist Art Wikipedia ; Guimet Museum in Paris guimet.fr ; Buddhist Artwork buddhanet.net/budart/index ; Asian Art at the British Museum britishmuseum.org ; Buddhism and Buddhist Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Buddhist Art Huntington Archives Buddhist Art dsal.uchicago.edu/huntington ; Buddhist Art Resources academicinfo.net/buddhismart ; Buddhist Art, Smithsonian freersackler.si.edu

Buddha Images

Perhaps because the Buddha put so much emphasis on self-denial no images of him were made for some time after his death. When images were made they were not true likenesses. Instead they were highly stylized and symbolic with features like long era lobes, stretched by earrings, a sign of royal birth; wheel-shaped marks on the soles of his feet, reminders that his ministry had started the wheel of truth spinning.

Buddhist images are not idols. They do not represent any god and strictly-speaking are meant as a tool to help a person on the road to enlightenment. Even so they must be treated with great respect. In the old days people who desecrated the images or scraped the gold off them endured harsh punishments.

While it is difficult to imagine Buddhism without the Buddha image or Rupa, it was not until about 500 years after the passing away (Parinirvana) that the practice of making images of the Buddha started. Since that time, Buddha images have been the object of Buddhist devotion and identify for over 2000 years, acting as the inspirational focus and the means for devotees to express their reverence and gratitude for the Buddha's Dharma or Teachings. [Source: buddhanet.net +]

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Kushan-style Buddha
with vajrapani Mathura, AD 110
Technically, Buddha statues should not exist. They could be condemned as idolatry because the Buddha asked that no images be carved in his likeness. After his death devotees only paid tribute to representations of his identity — footprints, the chair he sat on, among other relics.“Eventually, the devotional impulse won out,’’ scholar Gary Gach told the Malaysian newspaper The Star.

The reasons for the Buddha image in shrine or temple are: 1) to remind one of the qualities of Perfect Wisdom and Perfect Compassion of the Buddha; 2) to inspire Buddhists to develop these qualities as we recall the greatness of the Buddha and His Teachings. According to Buddhanet.com: Some days, we may feel agitated, angry or depressed. When we pass by a shrine in our homes or visit a temple, and see the peaceful image of the Buddha, it helps us to remember that there are beings that are peaceful and we can become like them too. Automatically, our minds settle down.

Vidya Dehejia, a professor at Columbia University, wrote: “The Buddha is usually portrayed wearing a monastic robe draped so as to cover both shoulders or to leave the right shoulder bare. The Buddha is said to have had thirty-two marks of superhuman perfection. The ushnisha, a cranial bump that signifies his divine knowledge, was transformed by artists into a hair knot, while the urna, a tuft of hair between the eyebrows, was depicted as a rounded mark. Elongated earlobes, indicating divine or elevated status, are given not only to the Buddha but also to all Hindu and Jain deities and to saintly figures. Images of the Jain tirthankaras (jinas) are similar to the Buddha; however, they have a shrivatsa emblem on the chest, are often unclothed, and do not have the ushnisha or urna.” [Source: Vidya Dehejia, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan Museum of Art]

According to the Asia Society Museum: “Buddhist images are remarkably recognizable, regardless of their country or period of origin. They are usually made according to descriptions found in Indian texts intended to help the practitioner mentally invoke the form of the deity. These texts provide the artist with the basic schema of the image, detailing what an image should look like, from the posture, gesture, and color of the deity, to the attributes (objects he or she holds that symbolize specific powers or knowledge). Further similarities stem from the tendency of artists working elsewhere to emulate Indian models. Coming from the homeland of Shakyamuni Buddha and his teachings, such models held religious authority. The most prominent differences of period or culture of origin are usually seen in the images' details of costume, hairstyle, jewelry, body type, and facial characteristics. However, as is evidenced by the array of styles, artists working outside India did not simply copy Indian models-they created their own distinctive works. The artistic result of a religion that spread thousands of miles across a multiethnic landscape is a corpus of images based on a similar set of beliefs but marked by regional personalities. [Source:Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org ]

Types of Buddha Images

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Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha
Traditionally, Buddhist artists have sought to depict one of 12 episodes of Buddha’s life: 1) his prior existence in Tusita Heaven; 2) his conception; 3) his birth 4) his education; 5) his marriage; 6) his renunciation; 7) his period of asceticism; 8) meditating under the Bodhi tree; 9) the defeat of Mara; 10) his enlightenment; 11) his first sermon; and 12) his death. Some of these episodes are depicted more often in paintings than in sculpture.

Statues Buddha is nearly always depict Buddha in one of half dozen or so position. The most common position shows a sitting Buddha with one hand raised (the sermon position). The second most common one shows The Buddha sitting with one hand on top of the other (the meditation position). The reclining Buddha symbolizes the sage in "an attitude of entering nirvana" and depicts The Buddha at the moment he leaves his earthly body and achieves the state of nirvana, or enlightenment. The standing Buddha is rare. He is thought to represents The Buddha as a teacher or perhaps giving a blessing.

Common Buddha images found in Japanese Buddhist temples include 1) Sakyamuni (the Historical Buddha), recognizable by one hand raised in a praying gesture; 2)Yakushi (the Healing Buddha), with one hand raised in the praying gesture and the other holding a vial of medicine; 3) Amitabha (The Buddha of Infinite Light and Buddha of the Western Paradise), sitting down with the knuckles together in a meditative position; 4) Dainichi (the Cosmic Buddha), usually portrayed in princely clothes, with one hand clasped around a raised a finger on the other hand (a sexual gesture indicating the unity of being); and Maitreya (Buddha of the Future).

Buddhist art often contains a central image of Buddha surrounded by numerous other images, which can include scenes from Buddha life, different manifestations of Buddha, different Bodhisattvas and deities. Bodhisattvas often appear on either side of The Buddha. They are often distinguishable by their more human-like appearance; serene smiles which represent joy and compassion.; and a top knot of hair or a headpiece, sometimes with smaller figures in the crown. Some images of Buddha are accompanied by images of Buddha's first two disciples, young Ananda and old Kasyapa.

Present, Past and Future Buddha Images

Sakya Thukpa (Sakaymuni) is the historical Buddha, who lived in Nepal in the 5th century B.C. He has blue hair and a halo of enlightenment around his head. He is always depicted in a sitting position, with his legs crossed in the lotus position and has 32 marks on his body, including a dot between his eyes, the Wheel of Law on the soles of his feet, and bump on the top of his head. Manifesting the “witness” mudra, he holds a begging bowl in his left hand and touches the earth with his right hand. He is often flanked by two bodhisattvas. [The name before the parenthesis is Tibetan, the name in parenthesis is Sanskrit]

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Amitabha, The Buddha of Infinite Light
Marmedze (Dipamkara) is the Past Buddha. He preceded the historical Buddha and spent 100,000 years on earth. His hands are pictured in the “protection” mudra and he is often pictured with the Present and Future Buddha.

Jampa (Maitreya) is the Future Buddha. He is currently in the form of a bodhisattva and is waiting for his chance to return to earth, 4000 years after the death of Sakaymuni. He is usually seated, with a scarf around his waist, his legs hanging down and his hands by his chest in the turning of the Wheel of Law

Other Tibetan Buddha Images

Amitabha Opagme (Amitabha) is the Buddha of Infinite Light. He resides in the “pure land of the west,” where he looks after people on their journey to nirvana, and is regarded as the original being from which the Panchen Lama was reincarnated. He is red. His hands are held together on his lap with a begging bowl in the “meditation” mudra.

Dhyani Buddhas, or the five Contemplation Buddhas, are: Amitabha (red), Vairocana, Akshobhya (white), Ratnasambhava (yellow) and Amoghasiddhi (green) “are major focuses of meditation. Also known as the five Jinas (eminent ones), or dhyani-Buddha, they control the different regions of paradise where Buddhists may be reborn. Each is a different color and has different symbols and mudras associated with it.

Tsepame (Amitayus) is the Buddha of Longevity. Like Opagme, he is red and his hands are pictured in the “meditation” mudra, but he holds a vase containing the nectar of immortality. The Medicine Buddha (Menlha) holds a medicine bowl in his left hand and herbs in his right hand. He is often depicted in a group of eight Buddhas.

These Buddhas have different manifestations. The many-headed Hevajra is a wrathful manifestation of Akshobhya (the Imperturbable Buddha). Symbolizing the transformation of the poisons such as anger, he is often depicted in an embrace with his consort Nairatmya. Their passionate embrace represents the enlightened state that come from the union of wisdom and compassion. Hevajra is often shown stomping his own image, showing the defeat of egoism.

Buddha Footprints and Teeth

There are acknowledged to be only two genuine Buddha's teeth in existence, one in China and the other in Sri Lanka. Buddhists believe the teeth, reportedly found after Buddha was cremated 2,400 years ago, bring peace and good fortune.

Carved footprints called buddhapada are among the oldest-known works of Buddhist art and faith, with the oldest examples from the A.D. 1st century Gandhara in Pakistan. One such piece carved in grey stone has a pair of truth wheels on each meter-long foot. Smaller ones have been carved on lapis lazuli seals less then two centimeters in length.

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Footprints of The Buddha are important objects of veneration, both in terms of purported footprints left behind by the historical Buddha and representations of his footprints. Because they seem to convey his presence without him actually being there footprints have came to represent transcendental power.

Footprints are both representations of the Buddha’s presence and absence, and loss and recovery. They are images that are easy to identify with. In ancient times, footprints and hand prints were regarded as the physical touch of Buddha and other major religious figures. The Buddha himself said, “Creatures without feet have love, / And likewise those that have two feet / And those that have four feet I love, / And those, too, that have many feet.”

A footprint was chosen as representative of The Buddha because it expressed humility and addressed the fear that his image might be worshiped. On footprints, The Buddha is reported to have said: “In the future, intelligent being will see the scriptures and understand. Those of less intelligence will wonder whether The Buddha appeared in the world. In order to remove the doubts. I have set my footprints in stone.”

Carved footprints was supposed to be imprinted with 108 auspicious symbols. The hand or palm of The Buddha is an important symbol. In Tibet, footprints and to a lesser degree handprints of revered lamas appear on thangkas. They are often placed next to the subject’s patron deity or an image of the lama himself. The handprints often look like handprints in prehistoric caves or the ones at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Symbols and Features on Buddha Statues and Image

There are many symbolic gestures and objects found on images of The Buddha that have important meanings. A raised hand means no fear. Curly hair, elongated ears and hands with eyes are symbols of wisdom. Bare feet and monks cloak represents asceticism. Often The Buddha has a nimbus or halo around his head, expressing enlightenment. When The Buddha touches the ground it is a sign of compassion.

Important features and symbols on a Buddha statue: 1) The Bump of Knowledge at the top of the head, symbolizing spiritual wisdom or accumulated wisdom reached at a higher spiritual level (The bump is often covered by curls of hair symbolizing enlightenment); 2) The Jewel, radiating the light of wisdom; 3) curly hair, representing enlightenment, is said to represent the stubble left on Gautama Siddhartha’s head after he cut off his hair, according to one legend, by pulling his hair together into a top knot and lopping it off, leaving fine curls (spiraling to the right) that never needed cutting again; 4) The all-seeing spiritual third eye, in middle of forehead; which appears on all Buddha statues, from which rays of light are emitted to enlighten the world (the eye is often represented with a crystal or gemstone; 6) The Robe stitched from rags in manner used by early monks; 7) mudras, hand positions, (see below); 8) halo, representing the magnificent light radiating from the Buddha; 8) leg position, here we see the cross-legged Lotus Position, one of three basic poses, which shows The Buddha "grew" out of the "mud" of the material world like a beautiful lotus, which grows out of the mud at the bottom of a pond

Among the 32 signs of a “superman” ( mahopurusha ) are: 1) a wisdom bump ( ushnisha ), a cranial bump covered by top knot of hair representing omniscience, also associated with ancient Indian wandering ascetics; 2) a small tuft of hair ( urna ), or dot between the eyebrows, symbolizing renunciation. Other superman signs include elongated ears, antelope-like legs, skin so smooth that dust doesn’t collect on it, intensely black eyes, cow-like eyelashes, 40 teeth, sheath-cloaked genitals, raised palm (the boon-granting gesture), and long and straight toes. [Diagram and information in the picture on the right is from sotozen-net.or.jp and onmarkproductions.com For a more detailed look at a Japanese Buddha statue see onmarkproductions.co ]

Each of the episodes of Buddha’s life have their own distinctive symbols. After The Buddha achieved enlightenment, for example, he was surrounded by a six-Lord aura that was 20 feet in diameter. After he meditated for another several weeks his aura was invaded by the serpent king Mucalinda, who. opened its hood and wound its coils seven times around The Buddha to protect him from a rain storm.


The hands are in stylized poses called mudras . They include the 1) the meditative pose, with cupped hands resting on the lap; 2) the protection pose, with the right hand raised; 3) the teaching pose, with one hand raised and the index finger touching the thumb of the same hand. 4) If a Buddha holds a wheel of dharma in his left hand and a scripture in the right hand its signifies he is a good teacher. 5) Touching the ground symbolizes a call to Mother Earth to witness his defeat of Mara as well as compassion.

Buddha of Medicine holds a medicine box in his left hand and makes a devil-expelling gesture with his right hand. Symbolic objects found on Bodhisattvas and deities include swords used to cut down disruptive passions and desires; cords used to pull wayward people back to the correct path.

According to Lotussculpture.com: Mudras are a non-verbal mode of communication and self-expression, consisting of hand gestures and finger-postures. They are symbolic sign based finger patterns taking the place, but retaining the efficacy of the spoken word, and are used to evoke in the mind ideas symbolizing divine powers or the deities themselves. The composition of a mudra is based on certain movements of the fingers; in other words, they constitute a highly stylized form of body or hand language. It is an external expression of 'inner resolve', suggesting that such non-verbal communications are more powerful than the spoken word. [Source:Lotussculpture.com]

Many such hand positions were used in the Buddhist sculpture and painting of India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. They indicate to the faithful in a simple way the nature and the function of the deities represented. Mudras are thus gestures which symbolize divine manifestation. They are also used by monks in their spiritual exercises of ritual meditation and concentration, and are believed to generate forces that invoke the deity.

But a mudra is used not only to illustrate and emphasize the meaning of an esoteric ritual. It also gives significance to a sculptural image, a dance movement, or a meditative pose, intensifying their potency. In its highest form, it is a magical art of symbolical gestures through which the invisible forces may operate on the earthly sphere. It is believed that the sequence itself of such ritual hand postures may have eventually contributed to the development of the mudras of Indian Classical dance.

Another interesting meaning is given to the idea of the mudra. It reveals the secret imbibed in the five fingers. In such an interpretation, each of the fingers, starting with the thumb, is identified with one of the five elements, namely the sky, wind, fire, water, and the earth. Their contact with each other symbolizes the synthesis of these elements, significant because every form in this universe is said to be composed of a unique combination of these elements. This contact between the various elements creates conditions favorable for the presence of the deity at rites performed for securing some desired object or benefit. That is, mudras induce the deity to be near the worshipper.

But it is not just the divine Buddha who is credited with making mudras. Every position assumed and every gesture performed by our mortal body may be said to imprint its seal on the Ether, and sent forth a continuous stream of vibrations that impress the atmosphere. But to be really effective there must be a deliberate and intended arrangement of the body or parts of the body. Such an arrangement is nothing but the yoga of mudra. It is interpreted as being able to bring the physiological system in harmony with the cosmic forces and so form a magical microcosm through which the macrocosm can be represented, channeled, and utilized. The mudra in all its variations is, therefore, a traditional body pattern; an archetypal posture of performed occult significance.

We perform mudras in every action, every moment of the day. Each action is a symbol of our underlying mental and physical condition and results because of the various energy patterns forming within our being. These patterns determine our personality character and mannerism and expressions. Thus our every moment is an expression of our inner-nature. Consciously performing mudras allow us to become more aware of inner energy and to control it so that we make the most of each moment. The effect is total, at once subtle but powerful. In this way, we learn to integrate our dissipated thoughts and actions, so that life becomes a graceful flow of energy and understanding. Our whole being can then become a mudra, a gesture of life within, reflecting into our external life.

Different Mudras

Vitarka Mudra: Intellectual Argument, Debate, Appeasement: The gesture of discussion and debate indicates communication and an explanation of the Dharma. The tips of the thumb and index finger touch, forming a circle. All other fingers are extended upwards. Sometimes the middle finger and thumb touch, which is gesture of great compassion. If the thumb and ring finger touch, they express the mudra of good fortune. [Source: Lotussculpture.com]

Dharmachakra Mudra: Teaching Preaching, Turning the Wheel of Dharma: Dharmachakra in Sanskrit means the 'Wheel of Dharma'. This mudra symbolizes one of the most important moments in the life of Buddha, the occasion when he preached to his companions the first sermon after his Enlightenment in the Deer Park at Sarnath. It thus denotes the setting into motion of the Wheel of the teaching of the Dharma. In this mudra the thumb and index finger of both hands touch at their tips to form a circle. This circle represents the Wheel of Dharma, or in metaphysical terms, the union of method and wisdom. The three remaining fingers of the two hands remain extended. These fingers are themselves rich in symbolic significance:The three extended fingers of the right hand represent the three vehicles of the Buddha's teachings, namely: 1) The middle finger represents the 'hearers' of the teachings. 2) The index finger represents the 'realizers' of the teachings. 3) The little finger represents the Mahayana or 'Great Vehicle'. The three extended fingers of the left hand symbolize the Three Jewels of Buddhism, namely, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Significantly, in this mudra, the hands are held in front of the heart, symbolizing that these teachings are straight from the Buddha's heart.

Bhumisparsha Mudra: Earth Touching, Calling the Earth to Witness, or The Victory Over (Subduing) Mara Literally Bhumisparsha translates into 'touching the earth'. It is more commonly known as the 'earth witness' mudra. This mudra, formed with all five fingers of the right hand extended to touch the ground, symbolizes the Buddha's enlightenment under the bodhi tree, when he summoned the earth goddess, Sthavara, to bear witness to his attainment of enlightenment. The right hand, placed upon the right knee in earth-pressing mudra, and complemented by the left hand-which is held flat in the lap in the dhyana mudra of meditation, symbolizes the union of method and wisdom, samasara and nirvana, and also the realizations of the conventional and ultimate truths. It is in this posture that Shakyamuni overcame the obstructions of Mara while meditating on Truth. The second Dhyani Buddha Akshobhya is depicted in this mudra. He is believed to transform the delusion of anger into mirror-like wisdom. It is this metamorphosis that the Bhumisparsha mudra helps in bringing about.

Varada mudra: Charity, Compassion: This mudra symbolizes charity, compassion and boon-granting. It is the mudra of the accomplishment of the wish to devote oneself to human salvation. It is nearly always made with the left hand, and can be made with the arm hanging naturally at the side of the body, the palm of the open hand facing forward, and the fingers extended. The five extended fingers in this mudra symbolize the following five perfections: 1) Generosity, 2) Morality, 3) Patience, 4) Effort and 5) Meditative Concentration. This mudra is rarely used alone, but usually in combination with another made with the right hand, often the Abhaya mudra (described below). This combination of Abhaya and Varada mudras is called Segan Semui-in or Yogan Semui-in in Japan.

Dhyana Mudra: Meditation: The Dhyana mudra may be made with one or both hands. When made with a single hand the left one is placed in the lap, while the right may be engaged elsewhere. The left hand making the Dhyana mudra in such cases symbolizes the female left-hand principle of wisdom. Ritual objects such as a text, or more commonly an alms bowl symbolizing renunciation, may be placed in the open palm of this left hand. When made with both hands, the hands are generally held at the level of the stomach or on the thighs. The right hand is placed above the left, with the palms facing upwards, and the fingers extended. In some cases the thumbs of the two hands may touch at the tips, thus forming a mystic triangle. The esoteric sects obviously attribute to this triangle a multitude of meanings, the most important being the identification with the mystic fire that consumes all impurities. This triangle is also said to represent the Three Jewels of Buddhism, mentioned above, namely the Buddha himself, the Good Law and the Sangha.

The Dhyana mudra is the mudra of meditation, of concentration on the Good law, and of the attainment of spiritual perfection. According to tradition, this mudra derives from the one assumed by the Buddha when meditating under the pipal tree before his Enlightenment. This gesture was also adopted since time immemorial, by yogis during their meditation and concentration exercises. It indicates the perfect balance of thought, rest of the senses, and tranquility. This mudra is displayed by the fourth Dhyani Buddha Amitabha, also known as Amitayus. By meditating on him, the delusion of attachment becomes the wisdom of discernment. The Dhyana mudra helps mortals achieve this transformation.

Abhaya Mudra: Protection, Reassurance, Blessing: Abhaya in Sanskrit means fearlessness. Thus this mudra symbolizes protection, peace, and the dispelling of fear. It is made with the right hand raised to shoulder height, the arm crooked, the palm of the hand facing outward, and the fingers upright and joined. The left hand hangs down at the side of the body. In Thailand, and especially in Laos, this mudra is associated with the movement of the walking Buddha (also called 'the Buddha placing his footprint'). It is nearly always used in images showing the Buddha upright, either immobile with the feet joined, or walking.

This mudra, which initially appears to be a natural gesture, was probably used from prehistoric times as a sign of good intentions - the hand raised and unarmed proposes friendship, or at least peace; since antiquity, it was a plain way of showing that you meant no harm since you did not carry any weapon. Buddhist tradition has an interesting legend behind this mudra: Devadatta, a cousin of the Buddha, through jealousy caused a schism to be caused among the disciples of Buddha. As Devadatta's pride increased, he attempted to murder the Buddha. One of his schemes involved loosing a rampaging elephant into the Buddha's path. But as the elephant approached him, Buddha displayed the Abhaya mudra, which immediately calmed the animal. Accordingly, it indicates not only the appeasement of the senses, but also the absence of fear. The Abhaya mudra is displayed by the fifth Dhyani Buddha, Amoghasiddhi. He is also the Lord of Karma in the Buddhist pantheon. Amoghasiddhi helps in overcoming the delusion of jealousy. By meditating on him, the delusion of jealousy is transformed into the wisdom of accomplishment. This transformation is hence the primary function of the Abhaya mudra.

Mogao Cave 148, removing Buddha's teeth, from the AD 7th century

Buddhist Painting

Beginning in the third century caves in China, India and Southeast Asia were decorated with British frescoes a long with statues. Large monasteries sometimes contain hundreds and even thousands of frescoes and paintings of Buddha, Bodhisattvas and Buddhist gods such as Avalokitesvara. Many of the frescoes depict episode from Buddha's life and they are used to educate the illiterate masses the same way many Christian churches educate followers with scenes from the lives of Christ, Mary and the saints.

Paintings are often regarded as religious objects and sometimes used as meditation aids. Smithsonian Japanese art curator James Ulak wrote, "In every instance the artist attempted to create, through a single painting or an ensemble of paintings, an environment or moment of visual impact that complemented the faith of the viewer, enhanced a belief, and infused everyday life with a sense of transcendence."

Buddhist Sculpture

There are more statues of Buddha in the world than of any one else. Some scholars claim that the idea of making Buddha statues was introduced to Asia from Europe. The earliest images of Buddha had Greco-Roman influences. In many of the early depictions, Buddha resembled Apollo.

Most of the really old art works found in Asia are Buddhist sculptures. More sculptures remain than paintings because more sculptures were probably made and paintings tend to deteriorate with time. Buddhist sculptures are generally made from wood or bronze. Some are gilt. Buddha images, whatever conditions they are in, are considered sacred. Climbing on them, and in some cultures, photographing them is considered disrespectful.

There are several Maha Muni Buddha statues in Myanmar. According to legend: " During thelifetime of the Gotama Buddha there lived a heretic king named "Pyar Zoombu" (Zabupadi in Myanmar) who was so filled with arrogance, vanity and pride that he even refused to pay obeisance to the Lord Buddha. The Lord Buddha in his omniscience realized that this handsome king, though blinded by his own pride and power, had the seed of wisdom lying dormant in him which could flower and bear fruit to set him free from lust anger and ignorance. So the Lord Buddha one day appeared before him in kingly attire with a richly jewelled crown and intricately ornamented gold sash, seated majestically on a magnificent throne. The Buddha in this form epitomised a grandeur and power immeasurably beyond that of "Pya Zoombu". The king was thus jolted out of his egocentricism and eventually repented and became a devoted disciple of the Buddha. To commemorate this incident, the king of Dinnyawaddy (Rakhine) and the local people immediately cast a replica image in bronze. The Buddha image later came to be known as the Maha Muni.

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cave Buddha in China

Iconography and Meaning of Pagan Sculpture: The Enlightened Buddha

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “One of the peculiarities of Buddhist sculpture is that the most important event in the Buddha’s life from the point of view of mankind is not the event most frequently represented in sculpture. Depiction of the Buddha's personal enlightenment vastly outnumber representations of all other events in his life including that of his first sermon in which he shared his recently discovered knowledge with all humankind. The multiple images of the Buddha in Burmese art are excellent examples of this peculiarity in which the Buddha is most frequently shown seated with legs folded; left hand in his lap, palm upward; right hand on his shin, palm inward with fingers pointing toward the earth (bhumisparsa mudra). This hand gesture is symbolic of his overcoming the last obstacle to enlightenment, self-doubt. After years of asceticism and many days’ meditation under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha began to doubt that his past lives had been sufficiently perfect to warrant attaining enlightenment. This was because he believed in rebirth - a belief that the soul, like energy, cannot be created or destroyed, but instead experiences changes only from one form to another. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“Therefore, the Buddha, like all mankind, had innumerable past lives, all of which would have had to have been lived to perfection if the Buddha was to achieve Nirvana. His difficulty lay in the fact that, like other mortals, he could not remember all his actions in all his former lives. Therefore, he could not be absolutely sure that enlightenment was eminent. By placing his hand on his shin and pointing towards the earth, he summoned the Earth Goddess to come to his assistance. Since in his former lives, the Buddha had participated in the common practice of pouring water on the ground to witness each of his meritorious acts, the Earth Goddess was able to wring a "tidal wave" of water from her hair that had accumulated over the Buddha's many previous lifetimes which was proof of his steadfastness and perfection. The Earth Goddess (Vasundari - Pali or Wathundaye - Burmese) is presented as a woman wringing water from the tresses of her hair, which constitutes one of the rare instances where women played an important role in the Buddha's life. This role, however, was not trivial. It was of pivotal importance because without her witness and assistance the Buddha would not have gained enlightenment. =

Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, Pagan

Since the Buddha's complete enlightenment occurred immediately after "Calling the Earth Goddess to Witness" and since enlightenment takes place within the body without necessarily any outward indication, the iconographic position of "Calling the Earth to Witness" has come to be accepted as representing the enlightenment of the Buddha. To enhance this association, the cranial protuberance (usnisha = cosmic consciousness or supramundane wisdom) and the enigmatic "smile of enlightenment" were also employed. “

“Images of The Buddha seated in bhumisparsa mudra have been endlessly replicated in the art of Southeast Asia because it is a reminder to all mankind that there is a way to end human suffering. Therefore, as such, the creation of every additional image of the Buddha is a meritorious act that improves the donor's karma. The multiple images of this event stamped on clay votive plaques evidence the zeal of ancient donors who at times created forty or even one hundred images of the Buddha with a single impression of a metal mould. Because of the large number of Buddha images, these plaques were thought to be especially efficacious in assuring the ritual purity and power of a specific site and, therefore, were often placed in underground chambers below the center-most point of the sanctum in a Buddhist building.” =

Standing Buddha

A stone standing Buddha from Burma from the second half of 7th century is a traditional frontal and static one with identifying marks and mudras derive from Indian models, yet his facial type and proportions have been altered to satisfy local tastes. The face is almost heart-shaped, with a broad forehead, wide eyes, long nose, upturned mouth, square jaw, and small chin. The unusually large head, the wide shoulders and hips, and the tapering legs have lost a close correspondence with the human form. Attention is drawn to the Buddha’s expression by the crisp patterns of his hair, which contrast with the otherwise smooth and simplified shapes.[Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The ovals of his head and rounded cheeks are repeated in the volumes of the shoulders, chest, and thighs. The Buddha’s monastic robes cling to his body as if they were transparent, revealing the belt of the under-robe and his robust upper body. The outer robe, devoid of folds, flares outward beneath his arms in a flat plane from which the upper body projects as if in high relief.

Reclining Buddhas

David Wilson wrote in The Star, a Malaysian newspaper: “Traditional reclining Buddhas have the left arm aligned along the body while the right serves as a pillow with the hand propping the head. Sometimes no longer than a grain of rice, the reclining Buddha is more often on the scale of a large boat. The icon appears mirage-like everywhere, from Penang and Bangkok to Yangon in Burma... The reclining Buddha’s “home” may be a temple, grotto or fresco — anywhere with a touch of width and mystique. [Source: David Wilson. The Star, August 15, 2009]

The statue represents Shakyamuni Buddha — the historical Buddha — at his death at 80. It is said that when the Buddha knew the end was near, he asked his disciples to prepare a couch for him in a grove, then reclined on his right side, facing west, with his head propped on his hand. On the last day of his life, instead of just turning ashen, he kept teaching. So, despite their decadent aura, the statues embody — as it turns out — the devotion to duty that the Buddha displayed at the last gasp.

reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka

But two puzzles remain. The first is the smile that plays on the lips, which may seem odd especially to anyone familiar with the reality of death or Christian images of wretched saints and angels. The smile, it transpires, is simply meant to express “the supreme joy” that comes with enlightenment, Gach explains. The reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka measures 14m in length while the upright one is 7m high. The Buddha knew that he was not destined for everyday death but “parinirvana” — a state defined as “the extinction of the endless round of illusion and needless suffering”.

The second puzzle is the typically extravagant size, which may seem outrageous to anyone familiar with Christian statues or the Buddhist emphasis on moderation. This time, the explanation is less simple, with roots in a legend that has a Freudian fairytale feel. The legend centres on a giant called Asurindarahu, who had more pride than a NBA megastar. When confronted with an opportunity to meet the Buddha, the giant was torn. On one hand, he yearned to see the Buddha. On the other, because he was equipped with an ego on par with his epic proportions, he was loath to bow before him, the story goes.

So, while lying down, the Buddha engaged in magic, projecting an image of himself that dwarfed the giant. The Buddha then showed him the realm of heaven populated by a multitude of celestial figures that were smaller than the Buddha but, again, dwarfed the giant. Just to rub it in, the Buddha commented that the giant was only a big fish in a small pond. Humiliated by the lecture and the awesome display of soft power, Asurindarahu duly kowtowed, even cringing “like a spider clinging to the hem of his robes”.

The size and splendour of reclining Buddha statues may make the traveller feel humbled, too. In particular, the reclining Buddha that graces Bangkok’s Wat Pho is tremendously imposing, all the more so because its feet and eyes are engraved with mother-of-pearl. Equally impressive is the reclining Buddha at Shanghai’s Jade Buddha Temple, which is carved from a single chunk of jade almost two meters in length.

five most common mudra positions of seated Buddhas

Another bewitching but spectacular reclining Buddha occupies Chaukhtatgyi Temple in Burma’s capital, Yangon. It boasts what resembles heavy makeup, a shimmering golden robe and huge feet. It is squeezed into an open-sided, steel-and-corrugated iron structure. A 200 meter statue is believed to be hidden under the earth in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, near the ruins of the two large standing Buddhas destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban.

There are several very large reclining Buddha’s in Myanmar. The Burmese like their reclining Buddhas to be sensational. The hollow reclining one in Monywa, central Burma, which you can walk through, stretches 90m and is acclaimed as the world’s largest. A stone reclining Buddha being carved in east China’s Jiangxi Province will reportedly stretch 416m — the length of an oil tanker. However dazzled you may be by the grandeur and glamour, just remember one thing: do not to fall into the trap of referring to any reclining Buddha as “sleeping”. True, the Buddha, being human, took nightly downtime like anyone else. But his name means “The Awakened”.


Avalokitesvara (meaning “Lord Who Looks Down”) is arguably the most common and popular Buddhist celestial being. Regarded as a god, a goddess and a Bodhisattva and featured prominently in the Lotus Sutra, he is closely associated with Amitabha and lives between births in Amitabha’s Western paradise.

Avalokitesvara has a number of body parts and objects with symbolic meaning. Of his 11 heads, the central head one at the top belongs to Amitabha. He often has multiple arms, sometimes more than a thousand of them. The central pair of hands is in the cupped position representing respect. In one hand he hold a lotus, symbolizing enlightenment, In another he holds a bow and arrow, symbolizing a Bodhisattva’s ability to get at the heart of the matter.

Avalokitesvara appears in 33 different manifestations and 108 forms, including the goddess of mercy, popular with pregnant mothers and invoked by people in trouble. Simply repeating her name several times is considered enough to drive away evil.

A nearly life-sized bronze image of a four-armed Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara from the 9th century is the largest figure in a hoard of sculptures found buried at a site in Buriram Province, Prakhon Chai in what is now northern Thailand. The find contained both Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist deities. Who made the images and why they were buried is still a mystery. The form of the torso, the rather square face, the eyes, lips, and mustache of this figure resemble late seventh- and eighth-century Cambodian sculpture. Avalokiteshvara’s identifying feature is a small figure of a seated Buddha in his elaborate hair arrangement and headdress. Originally some of his hands may have held separately cast attributes. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The figure’s meditative gaze and serene expression contrast with the sense of energy generated by the active gestures of the fingers and by the subtle weight shift of his wiry body onto the right leg, suggesting potential movement. The smooth surfaces are almost devoid of decoration except for the fine patterns of the hair and headdress and the delicate details of the sampot folds and sashes. The bronze contains a large amount of tin, giving the surface a silvery sheen. The pupils of the eyes probably originally were inlaid with glass paste.

Tibetan Buddhist Bodhisattva Images

Jampelyang (Manjushri) is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. He is regarded as the first divine teacher of Buddhist thought and is sort of a patron saint for school children. In his right hand is a flaming sword that cuts ignorance. His left, in the “teaching” mudra, cradles a half-opened lotus blossom. He is often yellow and has blue hair or a crown.

Drolma (Tara) is a female bodhisattva with 21 different manifestations. Known as the saviouress, she was born from a tear of compassion shed by Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara)and considered a female version of Chenresig and a protectress of the Tibetan people. She symbolizes purity and fertility and is believed to be able to fulfill wishes.

Drolma is often picturesdin a longevity triad with the red Tsepame (Amitayus) and the three-faced, eight-armed female Namgyelma (Vijaya). In her green manifestation Drolma sits in a half lotus position on a lotus flower. In her white manifestation she sits in a the full lotus position and has seven eyes, including ones on her forehead, both palms, and both soles of her feet.

Tibetan Protector Deities

Guardian King Dhritarastra Chokyoing (Lokpalas) are the Four Guardian Kings. Often found at the entrance hallway of monasteries and believed to be Mongolian in origin, they protect the four cardinal directions. The eastern king is white and carries a lute. The southern king is blue and carries a sword. The western king is red and carries a thunderbolt. The northern king is yellow and carries a banner of victory and a jewel-spitting mongoose. He is regarded as the god of wealth and is depicted riding a snow lion.

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Yamantaka, conqueror of death
Dorje Jigje (Yamantaka) is the most well-known protector of the Yellow Hat sect. Known as the destroyer of Yama, the Lord of Death, he is a blue, beastly-looking creature with eight heads, one of which is the head of a bull, and strings of skulls around his waist and neck. He holds a flaying knife and a skull cup in his eight to 36 arms. With his 16 feet he stomps on eight Hindu gods, eight mammals and eight birds. Dorje Jigje punishes evil people to a life in hell, helps guide good people to a better rebirth and crushes earthly passions that block enlightenment. Yamanataka is so horrible that no one should look at his image, especially women. Statues of him are often covered.

Yamantaka Nagpo Chenpo (Mahakala) is wrathful Tantric god and a manifestation of Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara). Associated with the Hindu god Shiva, he is blue and has fanged teeth, a crown fo skulls, and carries a trident and skull cup. He comes in various forms, with two to six arms and is regarded as the protector of tents by nomads. Nangpo Chenpo means the Great Black One .

Tamdrin (Hahagriva) is another wrathful manifestation of Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara). Associated with the Hindu god Vishnu, he is red with a white face on the right and green gace on the left and has a horse’s head in his hair, a crown of skulls, a tiger skin around his waist and a garland of 52 chopped off heads. On his back are the wings of Garuda. In his six hands are a lotus, club sword, skull cup, snare and ax. Under his four legs a sun disc and corpses. Tandrin in red and Dorje in blue often serve as guardian gods at the entrance of temples.

More Tibetan Buddhist Protector Deities

Mahakala Chan Dorje (Vajrapani) is the wrathful Bodhisattva of Energy. He is blue with a tiger skin around his waist and snake around his neck. In his right hand is a thunderbolt, the symbol of the Tantric faith. Chan Dorje means “thunderbolt in hand.”

Demchok (Chakrasamvara) is a meditational deity with a blue body, 12 arms, four faces, and a crescent moon in his topnot. In his hands are a thunderbolt, a bell, a elephant skin, an axe, a hooked knife, a trident, a skull, a hand drum, a skull cup, a lasso and head of Brahma. He wears a tiger skin and has a garland with 52 severed heads around his neck.

Palden Lhamo (Shri devi) is the guardian of Lhasa, the Dalai Lama an the Yellow Hat sect. An angry manifestation of Tara The female counterpart of Nagpo Chenpo (Mahakala), she is blue, wears tiger skin and human skin clothes and has earrings made of a snake and a lion and carries a skull cup full of blood in her left hand and a club in her right hand. A moon is in her hair; the sun is her stomach; and a corpse is in her mouth.

Buddhist Wheel of Life

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The walls or entrances of Buddhist monasteries and pagodas are often decorated with "Wheels of Life," paintings representing principals of Buddhism. They are complex, image-filled paintings that aim to show viewers how desire imprisons us in a world of suffering and rebirth and that the mind is only a delusion.

The three cardinal sins---passion and delusion (represented by a cock), hatred (a snake), and greed and stupidity (a pig)---are often situated at the center of the wheel. The wheel is turned by Yama, the Lord of Death, who represents the limitations of existence. At the bottom of the wheel are hot and cold hells and a scale used to measure good and bad karma one has accumulated in one’s lifetime.

In the ring outside the center are the 8 or 12 karma formations, which contain the victims of bad karma (black background) on the left and the beneficiaries of good karma (white background) on the right. In the next ring are the six spheres of existence; then the twelve links in the chain of causation, culminating in the search for truth; and finally in the outer most ring are symbols depicting impermanence or death.

The six spheres of existence are; 1) the realm of the gods, a transitory place where happiness rises above suffering; 2) the realm of the asuras (jealous gods), where creatures of all sorts fight over fruit on the wishing tree and have to be reminded by Buddha to stay on the path; 3) the realm of the pretas (the hungry ghosts), the home of grotesque figures who have given into greed and can’t eat because their throats are too narrow; 4) the hells, where creatures with cold hearts and anger live in misery; 5) the realm of the animals, a place of ignorance, lethargy and apathy; and 6) the realm of the humans, characterized by birth, old age, disease, sickness and death.

The twelve links in the chain of causation features: 1) a blind woman (symbolizing ignorance); 2) a potter (unconscious of will); 3) a monkey (consciousness); 4) men in a boat (self-consciousness); 5) house (the five senses); 6) lovers (attachment); 7) a man with an arrow in his eye (feeling); 9) people drinking (desire); 10) a figure grasping fruit from a tree (greed); 11) pregnancy (birth); and 12) a man with a corpse (death).

The wheel of law or the wheel of Dharma represents Dharma, the cosmos and the concept of karma. The central wheel is symbolic of Buddha’s teachings which set the wheel of dharma in motion.

Buddhist Artists

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mandala maker
Most works of Buddhist art have no signature or other identifying mark.

Robert Beer, an artist and expert on Tibetan painting, told a Thai newspaper, “If you lose the need for individual expression, you’ll become more open to a tradition itself. So it’s more a process of evolving, and it’s very humbling in a sense because you lose your self importance of being a famous artist...so that everyone is essentially becoming part of the tradition itself, losing that need to become an artist, to understand, to be a personality.”

Beer also said, “As you work on a drawing, you would think, “Why is she wearing this? Then through that you begin to understand Buddhist concepts because they are encapsulated in the images---why the deities have six arms, four arms, eight arms.”

Tibetan Art Mandalas, See Separate Article under Art in Tibet Under China

Buddhist Art in China, See Separate Article under Art in China

Buddhist Art in Japan, See Separate Article under Art in Japan

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Kalachakranet.org and Simha.com. Harvard gazette. Buddha diagram and information is from sotozen-net.or.jp and onmarkproductions.com For a more detailed look at a Japanese Buddha statue see onmarkproductions.co

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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