Buddha Statue Meanings and Identity
Buddha statues come in many different shapes and forms. For example, the sculpture can be depicted standing, walking, sitting or in a reclining posture. Reclining statues notwithstanding, the Buddha is always depicting various gestures with his hands called mudras. As a result, the identity and Buddha statue meaning changes accordingly.
Fortunately, Buddha hand gestures are very effective in helping to identify the Buddha or Bodhisattva which is portrayed by the statue. Additionally, the Buddha hand gestures are the key to the Buddha statue meaning. By using mudras, the divinities reveal their inherent virtues and we can also begin to appreciate the physical appearance of the Buddhas.
Common Hand Gestures and Postures
There are over 100 different Buddhist mudras with various meanings that make each Buddha statue unique. Additionally, each of these mudras illustrates some significant event in the past life (lives) of the original Buddha. Understanding the differences between the Buddha hand gestures and poses is the first step to buying the right Buddha statue. Here is my simple guide to the best Buddhist mudras.
The 9 Most Important Buddhist Mudras:
- Abhaya Mudra (Protection Buddha)
- Dharmachakra Mudra (Teaching)
- Dhyana Mudra (Meditation)
- Bhumisparsha Mudra (Calling the Earth to Witness)
- Varada Mudra (Boon Granting or Gift Giving Mudra)
- Vitarka Mudra (Intellectual Discussion)
- Reclining Buddha Statue (Buddha Entering Paranirvana)
- Standing Buddha Statues (Sukothai)
- Laughing Buddha Statue (Fat Buddha or Budai)
The 5 Dhyani Buddha Mudras
The 5 Dhyani Buddhas are highly venerated in Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. Indeed, each of the five Buddhas depicts one of the 5 best Buddhist mudras. As a result, purchasing our complete set will allow you simultaneously display the Abhaya, Dharmachakra, Dhyana, Bhumisparsha and Varada mudras.
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“Abhaya Mudra” Buddha Statue Meaning
Although some statues show the Abhaya mudra with the left hand, Gautama Buddha statues (historical Buddha) always depicts the mudra with the flat right hand. It is displayed in front of the chest, the right palm is flat and faces forward away from the body. Additionally, his left hand is always in Dhyana “meditation” mudra usually with the alms bowl of a Buddhist monk resting in the palm.
Therefore, if your Buddha is using this mudra it is almost certainly the historical Buddha. Although there are some isolated exceptions with more complex deities such as the Dhyani Buddhas. For example, Amoghasiddhi also uses the Abhaya mudra in the same manner as historical Buddha.
Classic Protection Mudra
Common Variations of Abhaya Mudra
However, Abhaya mudra is often depicted with the left hand by other Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. Additionally, the deity is very often holding something in the same hand. For example, a Green Tara statue holds the stem of a lotus flower between the index finger and thumb while expressing the Abhaya mudra. Devotees of the Bodhisattva “Tara” often seek her protection from fear and the eight obscurations. As a result, a female Buddha statue using this mudra is very often Green Tara or White Tara.
Furthermore, a Buddha that is showing Abhaya mudra can be seated, standing or walking. Additionally, the mudra projects the Buddha statue meaning of protection, fearlessness and overcoming. Indeed, Protection Buddha statues presenting the Abhaya mudra are very common in Buddhist art. This is because they represent faith which is a fundamental element of Buddhism.
The Origin of the Abhaya Mudra
The origin of the Abhaya mudra is derived from Buddhist folklore. The anecdote behind this mudra is that Gautama Buddha once stopped a charging elephant by raising his hand in this manner. It has since been used to inspire fearlessness, faith and perseverance in devotees. As mentioned, it is not exclusive to Gautama Buddha and is also depicted by other deities, albeit with the left hand instead of the right.
“Dharmachakra Mudra” Buddha Statue Meaning
The Dharmachakra mudra is depicted with the right hand at chest level and the palm facing outward with the index finger touching the thumb. Additionally, the left hand is turned inward and the index finger and thumb of the left hand join to touch the circle. The formation of the circle symbolizes that the “Wheel of Dharma” has been set in motion. The mudra is always displayed at chest level to indicate that the Dharma teachings come straight from the Buddha’s heart.
“Spinning the Wheel of Dharma” Mudra
Significance of Dharmachakra Mudra
This is a very significant Buddhist mudra because it represents the inception of Buddhism. Therefore, it is only depicted by what is known as a “Sammasambuddha”. This type of Buddha discovered Buddhism on their own without following the teachings of another Buddha. Additionally, they chose to share the Dharma teachings with other sentient beings.
Although there are many of these Buddhas that have arisen during different kalpas and world systems, not many are known to us. Examples of the Sammasambuddha are the Buddha of our time “Shakyamuni”, the Buddha of the past “Dipankara”, the Buddha of the future “Maitreya” and Primordial Buddha “Vairocana”.
The Origin of the Dharmachakra Mudra
After the historical Buddha achieved enlightenment, it is believed that he first revealed the Dharma teachings in a sermon he gave to 5 companions at the Deer Park in Sarnath. In addition, it is believed that thousands of Devas and Brahmas had descended from the Buddhist heavens to attend. At the sermon, the Buddha set the “Wheel of Dharma” in motion by sharing the Dharma teachings. This Buddha statue meaning carries great significance because it symbolizes the inception of Buddhism in our time.
“Dhyana Mudra” Buddha Statue Meaning
Dhyana mudra is always performed in a seated position during meditation. The common practitioner would be sitting cross legged on the ground. However, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are usually depicted in double lotus position. Next, the back of the right hand is resting on the palm of the left hand and both hands are resting flat in the lap. Additionally, the top of the thumbs join together to form a small triangle.
Elite Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are commonly shown holding an alms bowl in the palm of the hand while performing Dhyana mudra. Indeed, the alms bowl of a Buddhist monk has very significant meaning in Buddhism. However, it is not necessary to use it during normal meditation practice. Additionally, the Buddhist Dhyana Mudra is distinct from yoga meditation posture which has the hands on the knees.
The Dhyana Mudra with Alms Bowl
The Meaning of the “Mystic Triangle”
Proper position for Buddhist meditation requires that practitioners have both hands resting in their lap with the thumbs of both hands touching to form a triangle. Buddhists believe that the triangle symbolizes the unity of the triple gem – the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha. Additionally, it is believed that the triangle holds a mystic fire inside that will consume all defilements (impurities).
Dhyana mudra can also be depicted with the left hand only. However, this version is only used when the sculpture is depicting another mudra with the right hand e.g. Shakyamuni Buddha.
The Origin of the Dhyana Mudra
This mudra was used by the historical Buddha while he was meditating under the bodhi tree. During the last days before he would obtain enlightenment, a rich woman saw him and mistook him for a tree deity. She wished to make an offering to the tree deity and she placed a rice bowl made of pure gold in the palm of his right hand. However, the Buddha took the rice out of the bowl and cast the golden bowl into the river. Additionally, he separated the rice into portions, each portion representing one day until he would reach supreme enlightenment.
Significance of the Alms Bowl
Indeed, the story of the alms bowl carries very significant meaning in Buddhism. The bowl represents renunciation of the material world and all of its comforts. Buddhists would gladly trade all the wealth, fame and pleasures in the world for the Dharma teachings. Additionally, devotees believe that the bowl holds the three nectars that eliminate the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion.
The Buddha statue meaning of Abhaya mudra is to induce peacefulness and calm. Although Buddhist adherents cannot have a bodhi tree in their meditation rooms, if they buy a meditation Buddha statue it will serve as a productive focus point during their meditation practice.
“Bhumisparsha Mudra” Buddha Statue Meaning
The Bhumisparsha “earth touching” mudra is performed while seated in full lotus position. Then the right hand is draped over the right knee with the palm facing inwards and the middle finger lightly touches the ground. Additionally, the second mudra used is the Dhyana mudra performed with the left hand. The Buddha has an alms bowl resting in the palm of the left hand, but not always.
Bhumisparsha “Earth Touching” Buddha
The Origin of the Bhumisparsha Mudra
As Siddhartha Gautama was on the verge of enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree, a demon called Mara appeared and tried to dissuade him from his goal. The demon was very powerful and it tried to tempt Siddhartha with worldly pleasures and vast wealth. However, he was not to be fooled and he used meditation to strengthen his resolve.
After meditating all night he was able to fight off the evil temptations of Mara and achieve Buddhahood. At the moment of Mara’s vanquishment, the Buddha called on the earth goddess to witness his triumph by performing the Bhumisparsha mudra. Thus, the Buddha is calling the earth to witness the truth as he became a fully awakened Buddha. The earth goddess responded to his call and she rung out her hair and created a flood which washed away the demon Mara.
Because of its strong affiliation with Shakyamuni Buddha, this mudra is mostly exclusive to him. Although there is at least one exception that I know of. The Bhumisparsha mudra is also used by one of the Dhyani Buddhas called Akshobhya Buddha.
“Varada Mudra” Buddha Statue Meaning
When depicting the Varada mudra the statue is usually seated and the right hand is draped over the right knee. Additionally, the right hand is flat and the palm is facing forwards away from the body. This mudra can be expressed by either hand, although the right hand is most common.
Furthermore, the statue can be seated, standing or walking. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas use the Varada mudra to express the granting of a boon such as knowledge, medicine or compassion.
Varada “Gift Giving” Mudra
A classic example of the Varada mudra is depicted by Medicine Buddha (Bhaisajyaguru). The Medicine Buddha uses the mudra to signify granting the gift of medicine to sentient life. Additionally, Medicine Buddha holds a sprig of the myrobalan plant in between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. In ancient India, this special plant was used for medicinal purposes. It was very effective, so much so that it is still widely used today.
The boon granting or gift giving mudra is one of the most common Buddha hand gestures expressed by Buddhist sculptures. It is also commonly depicted by female Buddha statues such as Green Tara and White Tara.
“Vitarka Mudra” Buddha Statue Meaning
This Buddha statue meaning is somewhat similar to the Dharmachakra mudra and it is displayed with the hand held close to the Buddha’s chest. Additionally, the right hand is held palm facing outwards with the index finger touching the thumb forming a circle. The circle symbolizes the constant flow of energy signifying that there is no beginning or end, only perfection.
Also, the back of the left hand is flat in the lap with palm facing upwards in Dhyana mudra. Usually the alms bowl of a Buddhist monk is in the flat of the palm.
“Debating” Buddha Statue
The Origin of the Vitarka Mudra
While the Buddha was still walking the earth and teaching the Dharma, he initially forbid his monks to engage in debates. However, as Buddhism developed a large following it began to draw a lot of attention from laymen and intellectuals alike. As a result, the Buddha changed his approach and he began to engage in public debates. Indeed, the Buddha was a very gifted speaker and he very effectively defended the Dharma against anyone who challenged him.
Significance of the Vitarka Mudra
Buddhism gained in acceptance and has become what it is today with over 500 million followers. The Vitarka Buddha statue meaning emphasizes the importance of teaching, discussion and intellectual debate. Certainly, the triumph of light over darkness requires the complete subjugation of ignorance. It is an important accomplishment that is integral to Buddhist teachings. Therefore, discussion and intellectual debate are important tools that will prevent individuals from turning inwards and possibly blocking out the light of the Buddha’s teachings.
Reclining Buddha Statue Meaning
Reclining Buddha statues are not actually depicting a Buddhist mudra. This is in contrast with standing, walking or seated Buddha statues that are always using a mudra. Instead, the reclining Buddha is seen lying on his right side with his head either resting on a pillow or on his hand which is propped up on his elbow.
Nonetheless, the reclining Buddha statue meaning is very significant in the teachings of Buddhism. This is because the reclining Buddha depicts the historical Buddha lying on his right side in the last few moments of his life in the earthly realm. As a result, the Buddha is depicted entering a condition called paranirvana.
The state of paranirvana is what happens to an enlightened being at the end of their earthly life. At this time, the Buddha has ended the cycle of rebirth because they obtained full enlightenment during their final lifetime. Therefore, they will never return to the cycle of samsara and they are entering Nirvana.
Standing Buddha Statue Meaning
The description of the posture is quite simple, because the Buddha is either standing or walking. The most popular of these standing Buddha statues is known as – Sukothai – and they originated in 13th century Thailand.
As with other Buddha statues, the standing Buddha statue meaning is revealed by the Buddha hand gestures that they are using. The most common hand mudras used by standing Buddhas are the Varada “gift giving” and Abhaya “protection” mudras.
Standing Buddha postures are often associated with the historical Buddha after he achieved enlightenment. Additionally, it is also common for them to display the Abhaya “protection” mudra with both hands instead of only one.
“Sukothai” Standing Buddha
However, there are some other notable variations of standing Buddha statues that were created in India and East Asia. The oldest depiction of a standing female Buddha statue dates back to the 7th century. This female Buddha statue is named “Tara” and it can still be viewed at the Ellora Caves in Maharashtra, India.
Laughing Buddha Statue Meaning – “Budai”
Since Laughing Buddha is so ubiquitous in East Asia (especially China) non Buddhists confuse him with the historical Buddha. However, their physical attributes and Buddha statue meaning is completely different in many ways – especially their physical attributes. Therefore, when you see a fat laughing Buddha statue, it is Budai and he is unique to Chinese Buddhism.
“Happy” Buddha Statue
The Origin of Laughing Buddha
Laughing Buddha is a very popular Chinese deity who is also known as “Fat Buddha” or “Budai”. However, the character of Laughing Buddha is actually based on a real life Chinese monk who lived during the 10th century A.C.E. Additionally, the name Budai translates as “cloth sack” in Chinese. This is because Laughing Buddha was always seen carrying a cloth sack filled with his few possessions.
The Laughing Buddha statue meaning includes bringing wealth and prosperity to devotees. Although it seems a bit silly, it is believed that rubbing his belly will bring you luck. Additionally, as a symbol of prosperity, Laughing Buddha statues are often depicted with small children. Last but not least, the Laughing Buddha statue meaning defines him as a person of good and loving character.