Meanings of different Buddha statues

Updated February 21, 2017

As a major world religion, Buddhism boasts a variety of regional, national and even local traditions and art styles. However, there are certain characteristics reflecting Buddhism's Indian origins that remain constant in the various versions of the religion, and one of these characteristics is the poses and gestures depicted in Buddhist statuary. The ritual forms of Buddhist statues each carry an important message or lesson, and most are universal to the religion.


Buddhism is the religion originated by Gautama Buddha in India during the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. From there it spread across Asia, becoming a major or even the dominant religion in places as disparate as Tibet, Thailand and Japan. In modern times, the teachings of the religion have gained widespread popularity in the West, making Buddhism one of the world's major religions.


Buddhism was a religion that was absorbed and synthesised into local cultures, rather than exporting the culture of its home. For example, while Buddhism brought with it a particular spirituality and philosophy, Buddhism in China became Chinese, rather than China becoming Buddhist and Indian. The result was that the artistic traditions of a given country have strongly influenced Buddhist art, which are sometimes starkly visible, as in the comparison of the severe Japanese depictions of the Buddha with the serene Buddha of Laos or Thailand. Despite these specific cultural artistic traditions, some fundamental standards for Buddha statues remain a constant, and among these are the various poses of the Buddha and what those poses mean. These poses are called mudras.


Mudras are ritualistic gestures and poses that are used in both Buddhism and Hinduism, reflecting their common Indian heritage. All statues of the Buddha represent him performing one of the mudras. Many of the mudras are depicted through simple hand gestures, but others are full-body poses.


The five most common mudras are the Abhaya Mudra (right hand raised and palm facing out, with the left hand down toward the hips and also facing out, symbolising peaceful intentions and peacemaking); the Bhumisparsha mudra (all five fingers of the right hand reaching to touch the ground, symbolising the enlightenment of the Buddha under the Bodhi tree); the Dhyana mudra (one or both hands in the lap, symbolising wisdom, possibly supplemented by ritual objects such as an alms bowl); the Dharmachakra mudra (the thumb and index finger of both hands touch at their tips to form a circle, symbolising the Wheel of Dharma); and the Varada mudra (both hands at waist level, palms out, right hand up and left hand down).


There are mudras beyond the basic five, and some of them are unique to regional or national forms of Buddhist art. The Reclining Buddha, the most famous example of which is at Wat Pho in Bangkok, is depicted with the left arm laying along the body, while the right arm serves as a pillow with the hand supporting the head.

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