He’s a ubiquitous figure—one who has graced paintings, sculptures and the carvings of temples across Asia for centuries. His representations are numerous, and his likeness is open to a multitude of interpretations.
The evolution of Buddhism, from its beginnings in India in about 580 BC with the birth of its spiritual teacher, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, to its importation and development across the world has influenced the markings and depictions of Buddhist iconography.
“Buddhist art is an elaborate assemblage of images of divinities and objects, ranging from a humble teacher and compassionate saviors to multi-headed, ferocious deities and extending to mysterious images of objects of bewildering complexity,” Robert Fisher wrote in his book, “Buddhist Art and Architecture.”
Personal depictions of the Buddha didn’t materialized until 500 to 600 years after his death (circa 483 BC), and his likenesses were never intended to be realistic images of what Gautama Buddha might have looked like. For many Buddhists, likenesses of the Buddha are spiritual emanations, which possess certain supernatural powers and exert an ideal reality of the Buddha. For many Buddhists across the world, these images are a way for them to connect to the celestial world.
Fisher wrote that Buddhist imagery was distinguished by certain attributes, such as a protuberance in the forehead, tufts of hair upon the forehead, webbed fingers or long earlobes. Likewise, the Digha Nikaya, a Pali text from the first century BC, provides a list of 32 physical attributes that the Buddha is said to have possessed, including flat feet, slender fingers and toes, a slim physique and a serene facial expression.
However, as Buddhism gradually shifted away from India, adaptations were made to these attributes that were uniquely specific to the beliefs of other countries, said Darryl Collins, an art historian and researcher based in Siem Reap town. He added that these variations also differ depending on which historical period is being referenced.
These interpretations again differ along the two Buddhist traditions.
Theravada Buddhism, or the southern school, is practiced primarily in Southeast Asia, including in Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka.
The Mahayana school, or the northern school, is practiced primarily in China, Tibet, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
Unlike Mahayana Buddhists, Theravada Buddhists follow the “older traditions,” honoring Gautama Buddha and his predecessors.
Mahayanists honor Gautama Buddha and subsequent buddhas, while also adhering to the idea that, unlike their Theravada counterparts, earthly existence and Nirvana can be one.
The iconography prominent in Southeast Asia tends to be representative of Theravada traditions and folklore. And the incorporation of these beliefs into its artistic history is rich in complexity and intrigue.
In Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand and Laos, Buddha is often depicted in four main postures: sitting, standing, walking and reclining. There are also six common mudras, or ritual gestures, that the Buddha makes with his hands. These are considered the most significant aspects of Buddhist iconography.
Before the inhabitation of the Thais, the Mons populated what is now considered central Thailand. By the eighth century, they were beginning to create human likenesses of the Buddha, Charles Chicarelli wrote in his book, “Buddhist Art.”
“One theme they preferred was to show him sitting in meditation…the Buddha’s hands and feet are large in proportion to his body; the eyebrows are long, emanating from a common point above the nose and sweeping over the eyes in a continuous line,” he wrote. “The lips are full and natural, the nose rather flat. His face is wide with a low forehead emphasizing the unusually large, closely bunched curls of hair.”
Chicarelli noted that from the 10th century to the 12th century, the Khmer Empire encompassed what is now central and northern Thailand. Lopburi, a city north of Bangkok, was a major Khmer center at the time, and much of the art that came from the region incorporated Khmer styles.
By the 10th century, he wrote, most Mon communities had been absorbed into the Khmer Empire entirely. A favorite theme of the Khmers at that time was to adorn Buddha in royal attire, perhaps emphasizing Gautama Buddha’s status as a prince in his early life or his status as universal monarch, he stated.
By the 13th century, the Thais experienced a cultural golden age. “This steady expansion of the Thai realm also pushed back the Khmers into their homeland in present-day Cambodia,” Chicarelli wrote.
During this time, a new type of Buddhist iconography emerged—that of the “Walking Buddha.” This type is said to have represented the Buddha’s return to Earth after visiting his mother in the Trayastrimsa Heaven (also known as the second heaven in Buddhist cosmology).
Many statues of this time were “soft and supple, almost feminine except for the broad, well-rounded shoulders. The face is oval, with sharply curved eyebrows springing from a common point above the long, idealized nose.” These artists combined traditional stylings of the Buddha with a “fresh vision of grace and elegance,” he wrote.
One transitional school of Thai art, called U-Thong, spanning the 12th to the 15th centuries, also incorporated Khmer stylings, Chicarelli noted.
Several Buddhist statues show the Buddha in a seated position with the right hand resting on the right thigh, with the fingers pointing downward and touching the earth, in the Bhumisparsa mudra.
The Khmer influence is seen in the statues’ masculine modeling; the torso is formed with straight, hard lines running parallel and perpendicular to each other. Another Khmer aspect is that of the thin band that run across the Buddha’s hairline. Likewise, the Khmer influence is seen in the Buddha’s defined facial features. The Thai U-Thong style is seen mostly in the thin body and delicate facial structure. In later centuries, as more decorative art forms took hold, the Buddha was seen wearing regal attire and elaborate jewelry.
While many Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Burma, adorn the entire body of the Buddha in gold and jewelry, it is a distinctly a Khmer style to leave the chest bare. In Burma, as well, it is favorable to adorn the Buddha in royal robes and embellishment.
One regional feature prominent in Southeast Asia is that of the Indian idea of the Meru, or the sacred mountain.
In many regional Buddhist temple complexes, the main shrine is situated in the center to represent the center of the universe, and the complex is oriented to the four cardinal directions.
In Cambodia, Fisher wrote, “builders placed serpent balustrades along the bridges that crossed the surrounding moats, for as water symbols, serpents linked heaven and earth…. Heaven’s blessings then flowed outward from the temple…across the serpent-railed bridge, to the benefit of humankind.”
In Buddhist tradition, the serpent, or naga, is often a symbol of immortality, and when shown with its tail in its mouth, it can represent unity or the Circle of Regeneration.
Buddhist lore tells of one naga who was so devoted to the Dharma, or the Buddha’s teachings, that he transformed himself into a human so he could devote himself to Buddha’s monastic order. He was eventually ordained as a Buddhist monk, but upon falling asleep and reawakening, he found he had metamorphosed back into a snake.
In the Theravada tradition, applicants to monasteries are considered “nagas” until receiving their robes. In a special ceremony, applicants are asked if they are human in order to verify that they are not actually serpents, according to Chicarelli.
And in some artistic renderings, such as those in Burma, Buddha is depicted with a serpent. He is seated upon the coils of the Muchalinda, or Serpent King.
Often the Buddha is seated in meditation, or in the dhyana mudra—his hands together with his palms facing upwards. The serpent is said to have offered him protection during his time of intense meditation under the Bodhi tree in India before he reached Enlightenment.
In fact, some Buddhist images are not depictions of Gautama Buddha at all, but rather images of subsequent bodhisattvas commonly mistaken for the original spiritual leader.
In the Mahayana tradition, the term “bodhisattva” refers to a person who has attained enlightenment to some extent and uses this wisdom to help others attain ultimate knowledge, or are other folkloric characters or royal figures. This practice is commonly seen in the Buddhist iconography of Northern Asia.
The expanse of Buddhist iconography, across both traditions, honors seemingly infinite deities and folkloric legends, which can also lend itself to confusion. Perhaps the icon most often mistaken for the Gautama Buddha, especially in mainstream Western society, is that of the Bodhisattva Maitreya.
Maitreya is known in different parts of Asia and worshipped in China, particularly by those aspiring to be reborn in their next life with him, according to Chicarelli. Even in South Asia, he is sometimes shown wearing regal robes and the headdress of a bodhisattva.
According to Chicarelli, Maitreya is also associated with a Chinese monk called Budai, known for his big belly and a hemp sack he carried on his back.
It is said that in the 10th century, the robust, jolly miracle worker is rumored to have spread joy and happiness wherever he went. Before his death, Budai claimed he was a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Maitreya.
Images of the “Laughing Buddha,” or the “Happy Buddha,” as he is known, abound in both Western and Eastern cultures.
In China, these representations are considered good luck charms. His belly represents prosperity, while his wide grin suggests happiness and contentment.