One of the things that surprised me in my travels throughout China was that there were quite a number of images for Buddha, many of which didn’t fit the stereotypical image of Buddha that most Westerners are familiar with. In Beijing, for instance, I saw statues of Buddha that were thin and unsmiling, alongside those that were jovial and weight-challenged. All in all I probably saw more than 100 different poses of Buddha in the museum that day, with each Buddha correspondingly having a different meaning.
Buddha is actually not the name of a person, although today we associate the name Buddha with a specific person, Siddhartha Gautama. Instead, Buddha is a title which means enlightened or awakened one. The historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was born in northern India, which is now in Nepal, around 500 B.C. He was born into wealth and was a prince. Concerned about the suffering of his fellow man and for the human condition, he walked away from his status and wealth. He traveled extensively and studied under a number of teachers. After nearly starving to death, he was said to become enlightened while sitting under a Bodhi tree. He subsequently assumed the title of Buddha.
There are predominately two styles of Buddhism. The first is Mahayana Buddhism, which is prevalent in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and Mongolia. This style of Buddhism teaches that anyone can achieve enlightenment. This is why we see so many different statues of Buddha, from those of the jovial weight-challenged Buddha, to that of the heavily armed warrior clad figure.
The other style of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, is primarily practiced in Southeast Asia. It emphasizes insight gained through critical analysis and personal experience rather than blind faith. This style of Buddhism always displays Buddha as being thin.
The Laughing Buddha that we frequently see is thought to be modeled after an overweight Chinese Zen monk who wondered the countryside around 950 A.D.
In Asia, the belly is considered a source of power. Therefore, rubbing Buddha’s belly is thought to bring one good luck. But don’t try rubbing his head, that’s a no-no in Asian cultures. A person’s feet is also a no-no area. The feet are considered an impure region of the body and it’s a sign of disrespect to show the bottom of your feet to an image of Buddha.
In addition, Buddhist monks are often seen with shaved heads. The reason for this is that shaving one’s head separates a person from vanity, which is a distraction on the road to enlightenment.
One of the questions most commonly asked is why are there so many different poses for Buddha? Why is that important? The answer quite simply is that the various poses have distinct meanings. For instance, hand gestures, or mudras, in and of themselves, convey different meanings to a Buddhist. For example:
Buddha has his right hand raised and his palm facing out, with his left hand down near his hips, but also facing out. This symbolizes peaceful intentions and peacemaking.
Buddha has all five fingers of his right hand reaching to touch the ground. This symbolizes enlightenment.
Buddha with one or both hands on his lap. This symbolizes wisdom, emotional balance, and clarity. This pose is most often associated with meditation.
Buddha with the thumb and index finger of both hands touching at their tips to form a circle. This symbolizes the Wheel of Darma, or the Wheel of Life. In other words, fate.
Buddha with both hands at waist level, with the palms outward and the left hand pointing down and the right hand pointing up. This symbolizes balance.
In addition, various poses of Buddha may have descriptive names associated with them. For example:
A Protection Buddha will be seated in a single or double lotus position, with a mudra of his right hand raised, facing outward, and his left hand resting in his lap. This is meant to signify courage and offer protection from fear, delusion, and anger.
A Teaching Buddha will be seated in a double lotus position, with a mudra of both hands at chest level, with thumb and index finger forming a circle, and his right palm in and left palm out. This is meant to signify wisdom, understanding, and fulfilling destiny.
A Medicine Buddha will be seated in a double lotus and have his right hand facing downward with fingers extended towards the ground, palm facing outward, and a bowl of herbs resting in his left hand which is upon his lap. This is meant to signify healing.
A Walking Buddha will be standing with his right foot forward and have his right hand raised, facing outward, and his left hand along the left side of his body. This is meant to signify grace and internal beauty.
In Thailand, each day of the week is associated with a different Buddha pose. In the Thai zodiac, what day of the week you’re born on is more important than the month.
There are actually 8 Buddha poses in Thailand, as Wednesday is broken up into two poses. One pose if you’re born prior to noon, and another for those born after noon. Here are the various poses for a Thai Buddha:
Sunday: A standing Buddha with his arms crossed over his stomach, right hand over left, and the back of his hands facing outward. His eyes are also open. This pose signifies mental insight.
Monday: The right hand is raised as a symbol of preventing calamities or preventing relatives from fighting.
Tuesday: A reclining Buddha lies on his right side with his right hand tucked under his head, and his left hand along the side of his body.
Wednesday before noon: Buddha is collecting alms where both hands carry an alms bowl in front of his chest.
Wednesday after noon: Buddha is sitting with an elephant or monkey giving him offerings.
Thursday: Buddha is in meditation and sits in a lotus position with his hands resting on his lap and both palms facing upward.
Friday: Buddha is in contemplation with both hands crossing his chest, his right hand over his left, and the backs of his hand facing outward.
Saturday: Buddha is seated under a Naga (a seven headed serpent) and is in meditation. In this pose Buddha is being protected while he’s meditating under the spread out hood of the Naga.
After I received these insights, I never thought of Buddha as a single person again. Instead, I think of the image of Buddha, portrayed by various poses, as symbology meant to represent specific attributes attained by someone who has reached enlightenment. A Buddhist will tell you that this leads to salvation, liberation, satisfaction, and happiness.
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