What Did Buddha Really Look Like?

The First Buddha Statues

Archeologists trace the origin of Buddha statues to the 2nd century ACE. Previously, statues representing Buddhist artwork focused on a design concept known as “aniconism”. Therefore, prior to this time Buddhist sculpture did not directly feature Shakyamuni Buddha. Instead, typical sculptures of the period featured the Buddha’s footprint, his empty chair or his riderless horse. We cannot be entirely certain why the Buddhist art of this period excluded accurate depictions of the Buddha. As a result, when sculptors created the first Buddha statues they had to rely on the descriptions in the Pali Canon.

The Pali Canon is a collection of scriptures which preserve the original teachings of the original Buddha. Fortunately, the Pali Canon includes the “32 Characteristics of a Great Man” and it is supplemented by a list of 80 secondary characteristics. These physical characteristics are widely attributed to the Buddha.

However, the Pali Canon was not immediately committed to writing. As a result, the original Buddhist scriptures continued to be passed on orally for nearly 500 years after the death of Gautama Buddha. Therefore, they were not formally committed to writing until 29 BCE! Nonetheless, from the list of physical characteristics provided we can conclude more or less what the Buddha may have looked like.

Physical Characteristics of Shakyamuni Buddha

Physical Characteristics of Shakyamuni Buddha

Eyes of the Buddha

The eyes of the Buddha were deep blue in color and he had the eyelashes of a “royal bull”. Additionally, the Buddha is described as having a “white uma curl that emits light from between the eyebrows”. This auspicious mark is usually depicted on Buddha statues as a spiral or circular dot between the eyebrows. The Buddha was believed to have a whorl of hair between the eyebrows. This is believed to be the sign of penetrating wisdom or a “3rd eye”. The 3rd eye is a sign of a great being or a Buddha. The secondary characteristics tell us he his eyebrows were arched like a bow and they reached the outside corners of his eyes. Additionally, his eyebrows had fine hair and the hair lied flat.

The Buddha’s Mouth

The Buddha is described as having the jaw of a lion with 40 white, close and even teeth. He also had 4 pure white canine teeth. His voice is described as “deep and resonant”. It is interesting that his “saliva improved the taste of all food” his tongue was “long and broad”. Furthermore, the secondary characteristics tell us he had fine breath and his mouth had the “scent of a lotus flower”. Additionally, he always wore a beautiful smile.

Hands, Thighs and Feet

The Buddha had a wheel sign on his feet with a thousand spokes. “His fingers and toes were finely webbed, he had level feet, his fingers were long and slender, his hands reached below his knees, he had pliant hands and feet, full sized heels, his instep was arched and he had thighs like a royal stag”.

The Buddha’s Body

The Buddha’s “height and stretch of arms were equal”. Additionally, his body had a “golden hue” and there was a 10 foot aura emanating around him. He had soft sooth skin and the “male organ was well retracted”. His soles, palms, crown of head and shoulders were well rounded. The body was erect and upright and he had “full round” shoulders. The area below his armpits was well filled. Last but not least the Buddha had a “lion shaped body”. 

The Buddha’s Hair

The primary characteristics describe his hair roots as dark colored and his bodily hair as graceful and curled. The secondary characteristics go on to describe the tips of his bodily hair as neither curved nor bent. Additionally, his hair is strongly scented like a white lotus, his hair has the color of a dark shadow, it is curled, fine, untangled and does not turn grey. Furthermore, his hair has long curls and the top is knotted as if crowned like a “royal flower garland”. 

The description of his hair comes with a bit of controversy. This is because in the Pali Canon there is a phrase attributed to the Buddha that is repeated many times. The phrase describes in the Buddha’s own words how he set out on his quest for enlightenment. The Buddha said that as his parents looked on in tears “I shaved off my hair and beard” and he went forth to begin a homeless life. Therefore, it is most likely that the Buddha would not have had hair on his head or face from that day onward.

The Buddha’s Ears

During the early years of the Buddha’s life he wore large plugs in his ear lobes. Therefore, after he completed his renunciation he stopped wearing the plugs and was left with elongated ear lobes. As a result, Buddha statues featuring Shakyamuni Buddha commonly depict him with elongated ear lobes. It is interesting that in the list of 32 primary characteristics there is no mention of his ears. However, in the list of secondary characteristics his ears are described as “long like lotus petals” with ear holes that are “perfectly rounded”.

The Buddha’s Size and Strength

The list of the Buddha’s physical characteristics indicates that the Buddha may have been physically strong and above average in height. For example the characteristics include:

  1. That he had the thighs like royal stag
  2. Hands reaching below his knees
  3. Lion shaped body
  4. Jaw like a lion
  5. Body erect and upright
  6. Beautiful gait like a king-elephant
  7. Demeanor of a great man
  8. Strength of 1,000 crore elephants and 100,000 crore men
  9. His face is long and beautiful 

It is not certain if the Buddha really had such incredible physical strength as it indicates in #8. However, one thing that we do know is that Siddhartha Buddha descended from royal lineage. An important leadership attribute in ancient times is to look stately, which includes a physically imposing body. Some circumstantial evidence includes historical records from this time period. For example, when Alexander the Great invaded NW India in the 4th century BCE he met fierce opposition from the local kingdoms. One of the Indian kings was described as being a fierce warrior who was 7 feet in height. Therefore it is very possible that the Buddha may have been over 6 feet tall and had an imperial physical demeanor.

Additional sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_characteristics_of_the_Buddha
http://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php/Physical_characteristics_of_the_Buddha
http://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php/P%C4%81li_Canon
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urna