Buddha Shakyamuni at the Moment of his Awakening

Buddha Figures

The Buddha is believed to have lived and taught in northern India in the 5th century BCE. But it wasn't until 600 years later that images of him began to be made. 

The first Buddha figures emerged in the northern Indian city of Mathura and in the Gandhara region, located on the border between modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

The many sculptures and pictures of the Buddha produced since then do not necessarily reflect his actual appearance. Rather, they reveal what, at the time, an extraordinary person was expected to look like. Across Asia, artists depicted the Buddha differently, yet with many common features.

In this story you get to know some of the most significant ways the Buddha is represented in art. 

In the process you will also learn something about the meaning of Buddha figures. 

Bodhi tree, Thailand, Ayutthaya, 15th c.

The First Representations

From very early on, his followers regarded the Buddha as the embodiment of wisdom. For a long time he was not even depicted in human form.

Until well into the first century CE, people used symbols instead, such as footprints, the Bodhi tree, an empty throne, or the Wheel of the Law to refer to him.

When we speak of Buddhist art today, these representations are regarded as its beginning.

Buddha Shakyamuni

Typical Attributes

When designing and creating Buddha figures, artists relied on a fixed set of instructions which were handed down in religious scripts.

According to these rules, the Buddha is always displayed with a number of distinct features such as a protuberance on the crown of his head, elongated earlobes, a swirl of hair between his eyebrows, and a monk’s robe made of simple cloth.

Signs of a Buddha

1 A protuberance on the crown of the head

2 Tightly curled hair

3 A mark on the forehead

4 Elongated earlobes

5 Three skin folds on the neck

6 A simple monk’s robe

7 The earth-witness gesture

8 The gesture of meditation

Buddha Shakyamuni

Standards of beauty vary, at times quite markedly, from region to region and from time period to time period. That is why the artists who made images of the Buddha followed different notions about what constitutes the ideal body.

A depiction of the Buddha may thus display a lean or a rotund body, a round or a long face, a long or a short nose, and so forth.

The representation of the robe also reflects local traditions.

Buddha Shakyamuni

In art, some of the Buddha’s bodily features as well as certain hand gestures recall events from his life story.

The elongated earlobes, for instance, are a reminder that the Buddha once used to be a prince and wore heavy earrings. Their presence in a Buddha image can be interpreted as a sign that the Buddha freed himself from worldly desires and attachment to transient things.

Buddha Shakyamuni and the Earth-Touching Gesture

Hand Gestures

Very often the Buddha is depicted in a seated position, with his left hand resting in his lap palm upwards and his right hand extended towards the ground.

The gesture of meditation (left hand) and the earth-witness gesture (right hand) are a reference to the practice of meditative immersion. At the same time, they recall the moment when the Buddha invoked the earth goddess to witness his victory over his adversary Mara.

That was the moment of his awakening.

Buddha Shakyamuni

Another common representation of the Buddha shows him seated in meditation with his hands resting on each other in his lap. His eyes are usually closed but sometimes half open

The lotus throne on which he is seated underscores his significance as a great teacher.

The Buddha Begins Teaching

The time when he started teaching is another significant moment in the life of the Buddha. It, too, is frequently depicted in Buddhist art.

This moment is referred to as the first turning of the Wheel of the Law.

In these images, the Buddha is seated with both hands raised to the level of his chest. The thumb and middle finger of each hand touch to form the shape of a wheel.

Shakyamuni Enters Nirvana

Images of the Buddha resting on his side call to mind a pivotal moment in his life story: his entry into parinirvana. This term refers to his physical death through which he attained complete extinction.

The Buddha had now reached his goal: he had broken the eternal cycle of death and rebirth and thus had overcome all suffering.

Buddhist altar, Jeju, South Korea

Why Have Buddha Figures?

For what kind of places were Buddha figures produced? And how do Buddhist men and women behave towards these objects?

Buddha figures may fill the wall of a temple or be the centrepiece of an altar. Produced in many different shapes and sizes, they can be several metres high or fit into the palm of your hand.

Buddha figures may stand as a symbol of Buddhist knowledge and teaching, but they also serve as a basis of veneration.

Buddha Shakyamuni

Buddhist Art

Outside Asia, finely crafted Buddha sculptures and paintings came to be considered “Buddhist art” in the early 20th century.

Of course, the artists who created these images gave serious thought to their aesthetic appearance. However, collecting religious objects for the sake of their beauty is a very Western notion.

One day, Chan Master Magu Baoche accompanied Mazu on a walk.

He asked: What is the great nirvana?

Mazu answered: Fast!

Baoche replied: Why should I hurry?

Mazu said: Look, the water!

Buddha Figures