When you see the variety of statuary available in a store like ours, it’s only natural to wonder: Why do they call him “The” Buddha, when it seems like there are dozens of different Buddhas? And not all are necessarily “him”; some representations of Buddha are female. Even within the two main types of male Buddhas–the chubby bald ones and the slender meditative ones–we see a variety of symbolic items, hand and body positions.
Buddhism is a highly abstract belief system. At the center of Buddhism we don’t find the worship of any person or deity, but rather teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The purpose of the symbolic representations of many Buddhas is not to create a pantheon, such as we know from Greek mythology, but rather to lend a physical representation to the abstract teachings. Statues give a memorable form to the qualities one must develop in order to achieve enlightenment.
Gautama Buddha himself discouraged his followers from depicting him in artwork, saying each person should be his or her own “lamp.” Nevertheless, about 150 years after his death people started making images of him anyway. Perhaps it’s simply easier for the human to soul fasten onto something physical, when abstractions feel distant and hard to follow. Besides, statues remind us of the humanity behind abstract teachings. Symbolism of the asanas (postures), mudras (hand gestures) and sacred items remind us to pay attention to the details along the path to enlightenment.
In Buddhism, statues are objects of reverence, not worship. One doesn’t pray to them or consider the statues themselves to be gods. Therefore, Buddhists don’t go to a statue in hoping some distant “god” will be nice to them, but rather to remind themselves to create the compassion and other good qualities they hope to find in the world.
Some characteristics are common among most images of the Buddha. Many have a bump in the middle of the forehead, indicating a large “third eye” gained through enlightenment. Most also have long earlobes, signifying wisdom. Except for Hotei, most Buddhas wear their hair in a topknot, an emblem of wisdom adopted by wandering ascetics. Seated Buddhas are often on a single or double lotus throne. The lotus has many meanings, the main one being purity.
Here’s a list of some common types of Buddha representations you may see. Some of the common Buddha statues are depictions of Gautama Buddha himself, while others are Bodhisattvas–others who have attained buddhahood.
|Name||Identity||Position & Symbols||Significance|
|Amitabha||Pure Land Buddha||A simple meditating figure, hands in dhyana mudra (folded in lap with fingertips outstretched)||Balance & meditation. He is the incarnation of intuitive consciousness.|
|Avalokiteshvara||Buddha of Compassion||Four arms, two hands held in prayer, one holding a lotus and one holding a mala. May be male or female.||Compassion. The name means “the Lord Who Looks Down.”|
|Bhaisajya/ Bhaisajyaguru||Master of Healing or Medicine Buddha||Seated with bowl in one hand, and the five-lobed healing plant myrobalan in either the other hand or the bowl.||Healing, both in the physical sense, and also healing from the damage of illusion|
|Dhyani||Transcendental Buddha||shown in sexual embrace with female partner in lap||Philosophical aspects of buddhahood; elimination of duality & merging of opposites|
|Dipankara, Vipasyin, Sikhin, Visvabhuja, Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kasyapa||Human Buddhas||All have the same external features as Gautama: topknot, mark on forehead, long earlobes. They hold their hands in various positions.||Buddhas who came before Gautama|
|Hotei/Hotai (or Budai) Buddha
(See * below for specific meaning of his many props.)
|Laughing Buddha, sometimes considered a form of Maitreya Buddha||Bald and cheerful guy in a robe, which is usually left open to expose a prodigious belly. Often shown with a sack, prayer beads, or a golden ingot. His long earlobes signify wisdom.||Represents luck in the face of external troubles. This buddha blesses us with longevity and prosperity. Rub Buddha’s belly for luck!|
|Kwan Yin||Female Buddha of Compassion||A serene female figure depicted in a variety of positions.||Helps with childbirth, travel, protection of women and children, and any sort of hard times. Reminds us to be selfless.|
|Maitreya||Future Buddha||Seated on throne with feet on lotus stool and hands in teaching position (usually with both hands in front of him, forefingers and thumbs forming circles.)||He will come 5000 years after the death of Gautama, to reveal teachings to the world.|
|Manjusri||Oldest of the Boddhisatvas, or enlightened ones.||Seated, with a flaming sword in one hand, and a book in the other. The book is often held in a lotus flower.||Lord of wisdom, banisher of darkness|
|Protection Buddha||Hand raised in abhaya mudra, the gesture of fearlessness, hand held up as if to say “stop.” Legend says that Gautama Buddha once halted a stampeding elephant with this gesture.||The upraised hand signifies more than protection. Its extended significance is the absence of any need for fear.|
|Shakyamuni||The Historical Buddha||Holds one hand in the “earth witness” gesture, fingers touching the ground. In the other hand he holds a begging bowl, a symbol of both emptiness and (within Buddhism) authority.||Touching the ground with his fingers invokes the Earth’s witness to the truth of his teachings. Reminds of the reality that an ordinary human being can achieve enlightenment.|
|Sukhothai||Walking Buddha||Standing, with right foot in front as if he is about to take a step. His right hand is raised.||Grace and beauty|
|Tara (Green)||Buddha of Enlightened Activity||Carries a half-open lotus, or sometimes two. These may appear to be growing from her arms.||Protection, and the banishment of fears|
|Tara (White)||Female Buddha of Compassion||Seven eyes in head, feet, and palms of hands. Holding a lotus.||The eyes help her see those in need of help. The lotus symbolizes purity. Health, strength, longevity & beauty.|
|Vajradhara||Primordial Buddha||Holds ghanta (bell) in one hand and vajra (ringer) in the other||Mystical unity of one being who represents the totality of creation.|
|Vajrapani||Gautama’s companion||A muscular man depicted standing||Protection|
* Hotei Buddha may carry various symbolic props, each of which carries a different significance:
|Happy home||Sits under a parasol on a pile of gold, holding out a smaller piece of gold as a blessing.|
|Safe Travel||Carries a bag of protection..|
|Long Life||Sitting on bag of blessings, holding wealth ball & Ru-Yi pot|
|Spiritual Journey||Gourd of enlightenment hanging from stick, fan in one hand, necklace of beads.|
|Abundance||Hands above head holding Ru-Yi pot (bowl of plenty) to collect wealth from the Universe.|
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