Buddha Statue Meaning 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 usually depicting gestures with his hands that are called mudras.
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 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 Buddha.
Common Buddha Hand Gestures and Postures
There are over 100 different Buddha hand gestures (mudras) that have various meanings which make each Buddha statue unique. Additionally, each of these Buddha postures illustrates some significant event in the past life (lives) of the original Buddha. Understanding the difference between the Buddha hand gestures is the first step to buying the right Buddha statue.
Some examples include:
(1) Abhaya Mudra (Protection Buddha)
(2) Dharmachakra Mudra (Teaching)
(3) Dhyana Mudra (Meditation)
(4) Bhumisparsha Mudra (Calling the Earth to Witness)
(5) Vitarka Mudra (Intellectual Discussion)
(6) Varada Mudra (Boon Granting or Gift Giving Mudra)
(7) Reclining Buddha Statue (Buddha Entering Paranirvana)
(8) Standing Buddha Statues (Sukothai)
(9) Laughing Buddha Statue (Fat Buddha or Budai)
Abhaya “Protection” Mudra
The classic Protection Buddha is always depicting the Abhaya mudra with the right hand. Although some Buddhist deities use Abhaya mudra with the left hand, Gautama Buddha statues (historical Buddha) always depict the mudra with the right hand. As such, 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.
Classic Protection Mudra
However, sometimes Abhaya mudra is used by other Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. If so, they sometimes are holding something in the same hand. For example, Green Tara statues hold the stem of a lotus flower between the index finger and thumb of the left hand while expressing the Abhaya mudra. Furthermore, her right hand expresses the Varada “gift giving” mudra. Green Tara sculptures are the most popular female Buddha statue.
Abhaya Mudra (Left Hand)
Moreover, the Protection Buddha statue using the Abhaya mudra can be seated, standing or walking. The mudra signifies the Buddha statue meaning of protection and overcoming. Thus, it represents both reassurance and fearlessness. Protection Buddha statues presenting the Abhaya mudra are very common in Buddhist art and they represent important fundamental concepts of Buddhism.
The origins of the Abhaya mudra are 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.
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.
The Dharmachakra mudra is depicted with the right hand at chest level and the palm facing outward with the index finger touching the thumb. This gesture forms a small circle which symbolizes that the “Wheel of Dharma” has been set in motion. Additionally, the left hand is turned inward and the index finger and thumb of the left hand join to touch the circle. The mudra is always displayed at chest level to indicate that it comes straight from the Buddha’s heart.
“Spinning the Wheel of Dharma” Mudra
Dhyana “Meditation” Mudra
This mudra was used by the historical Buddha while he was meditating under the bodhi tree. Additionally, this is the mudra that Buddhists use while they are practicing meditation. Please note, this Buddha statue Meaning is not to be confused with the meditation mudra used by yoga practitioners which has the hands resting on the knees.
Dhyana mudra is always performed in a seated position with the back of the right hand resting on the palm of the left hand. However, it can also be depicted with the left hand only. Please note this one handed gesture is used by Buddha statues that are depicting another mudra with the right hand. Additionally, when Buddhas depict Dhyana mudra they also commonly have the alms bowl of a Buddhist monk in the palm of the hand. However, for ordinary meditation practice this is not necessary.
The “Meditation” Mudra with Alms Bowl
As such, for lay practitioners the backs of both hands are resting in the practitioner’s 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, some believe the triangle holds a mystic fire that will consume all defilements (impurities).
The Buddha sculptures display this mudra in order to symbolize peacefulness and calm. Although Buddhist adherents cannot have a bodhi tree in their meditation rooms, if they buy a meditation Buddha statue it will make a useful focus point to find inner peace and calm after a long day.
Bhumisparsha “Earth Touching” Mudra
The Bhumisparsha “earth touching” mudra is associated with Gautama Buddha at the moment he obtained enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree. He performs the earth touching mudra while seated in full lotus position. Additionally, the right hand is draped over the right knee with the palm facing inwards and the fingers lightly touching the ground. The Buddha also has his left hand in Dhyana mudra with the alms bowl of a Buddhist monk resting in the palm.
Shakyamuni “Earth Touching” Buddha
This Buddha hand symbol meaning used by earth touching Buddha statues is best explained using a combination of reality and illusion.
“Calling the Earth to Witness”
As the Buddha was on the verge of enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree, a demon called Mara appeared and tried to dissuade the Buddha. The demon was very powerful and it tried to tempt the Buddha with worldly pleasures and vast wealth. However, the Buddha 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. 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 at the moment he obtained enlightenment.
As a result, it is believed that the earth goddess then rung her hair and created a flood which washed away the demon Mara. Although this earth touching mudra is mostly exclusive to Gautama Buddha statues, there are some notable exceptions.
Akshobhya Buddha – “Earth Touching” Mudra
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.
This Buddha hand symbol meaning emphasizes the importance of teaching, discussion and intellectual debate. Indeed, the triumph of darkness over light requires the complete subjugation of ignorance. It is an important accomplishment that is integral to Buddhist teachings.
Varada “Boon Granting” Mudra
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. Additionally, dedicated practitioners are reminded to develop wisdom in conjunction with generosity and patience.
The boon granting or gift giving mudra is one of the most common Buddha hand gestures expressed by Buddhist sculptures. It is commonly depicted by the female Buddha statue Green Tara, White Tara and also Medicine Buddha.
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.
For example, White Tara uses the Varada mudra to express unwavering compassion and the rewards of enlightenment. As such, she is also holding the stem of a lotus flower between the thumb and index finger of the same hand.
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. The classic example of the boon granting mudra is depicted by Medicine Buddha (Bhaisajyaguru). The Medicine Buddha uses the mudra to express granting the gift of medicine.
Varada “Gift Giving” Mudra
Reclining Buddha Statues
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. The reclining Buddha depicts the historical Buddha (Gautama Buddha a.k.a Shakyamuni Buddha) lying on his right side in the last few moments of his life in the earthly realm. The Buddha is depicted entering a condition called paranirvana.
The state of paranirvana is what happens to a sentient being at the end of their life. However, they have ended the cycle of rebirth because they obtained full enlightenment during their lifetime. As a result, they will never return to the cycle of samsara and they are on the verge of entering Nirvana.
Standing Buddha Statues
Buddha postures are usually depicted seated in full lotus pose. However, there are a few exceptions which include standing Buddha statues. The most popular of these standing Buddha statues are known as – Sukothai – and they originated in 13th century Thailand.
However, there are also many other variations 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.
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.
As such, the standing Buddha statue meaning is most commonly the “Gift Giving” or Protection Buddha. Additionally, standing Buddha postures are often associated with the historical Buddha after he achieved enlightenment.
Standing Buddha Statue
Laughing Buddha Statues – “Budai”
Laughing Buddha is a very popular Chinese deity who is also known as “Fat Buddha” or “Budai”. The character of Laughing Buddha is based on a real life Chinese monk who lived during the 10th century A.C.E. In fact, 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. As a symbol of prosperity, Laughing Buddha statues are often depicted with small children. Additionally, the Laughing Buddha statue meaning defines him as a person of good and loving character.
Buddhism with Chinese Characteristics
A more serious aspect of the Laughing Buddha statue meaning is his affiliation with Meitreya. Chinese Buddhists believe that the 10th century Chinese monk named Budai was an incarnation of the future Buddha – Meitreya. This is a perfect example of how a Buddha statue meaning can have different variations depending on the local culture.
Indeed, Meitreya is prophesied to be the Buddha of the future in Mahayana Buddhism. How did Laughing Buddha and Meitreya become associated with one another? The answer is that when Mahayana Buddhism reached East Asia, it was given some Chinese Characteristics. A perfect example of this would be Laughing Buddha. Another meaningful example would be the Chinese portrayal of Avalokitesvara (male) as Guanyin (female).
Paradoxically, Laughing Buddha statues are sometimes confused with Shakyamuni Buddha. However, their similarities are few and they are 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.
World Class Buddha Statues
Please enjoy the world class selection of Buddha and Bodhisattva statues in our gallery. All of our statues are depicting different Buddha postures which can be identified by using this guide. If you are unable to discern the true meaning of the statue please contact me before you buy a Buddha statue.
All of our Nepali Buddha statues were hand crafted using the lost wax sculpting method. This venerable tradition results in a statue of intricate design and detail. Additionally, most of our Nepali statues are gilded with 24 karat gold.