ArtSmart Roundtable: Iconography of the Buddha

Monday, February 4th, 2013. Filed under: Art ArtSmart Roundtable Spirituality


This month’s ArtSmart Roundtable topic is Iconography. Inspired by a new Buddhist temple going up in my neighborhood, I chose to do some research on iconography of the Buddha.

When I told a friend, her face lit up and she exclaimed, “Oh, I love Buddha, he’s so cute!” Cute? Surely she wasn’t talking about the great teacher who said “I teach one thing and one thing only. Suffering and the end of suffering.”

As I researched, I became as lost as I’d been in Hong Kong when I spent a whole day riding around the countryside by train trying to find a temple of 1000 Buddhas. I never did find that temple but, with the help of passersby, came across many other buddhas.

Which is exactly what happened when I began researching this post. I quickly realized it would take several lifetimes to learn about the diverse Buddhist religions. While the comparative religion course I took at university and my recent research doesn’t qualify me as an authority, as a student I share my humble notes.

Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island, Hong Kong.

Who is Buddha?

First, buddha (small b) is a title, not a name. In Sanskrit, it means “awakened” or “enlightened one.” A buddha is someone who has achieved the enlightenment that ends suffering and the cycle of birth and death. In this regard, there can be many buddhas.

The Buddha, also called the historical Buddha, was Siddhartha Gautama, who lived about 2500 years ago. Stories of his life and teachings were passed down by oral tradition until the first Buddhist texts were written about 400 years after his death.

Images of the Buddha are drawn from stories of his life. Born a wealthy prince in Nepal around 500 BCE, Siddhartha lived in luxury but became increasingly troubled by the suffering he witnessed in the world. At the age of 29, he left his wife and palace for good and became a wandering monk.

Fasting Buddha, Lahore Museum.

When an ascetic regimen of near starvation did not lead to enlightenment, Siddhartha resolved to seek it by a moderate Middle Way. Sitting under a Bodhi tree, he meditated until he gained enlightenment and finally solved the mystery of human suffering. With this spiritual awakening, Siddhartha became Buddha.

The Buddha spent the next 45 years travelling throughout northeast India teaching The Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path. On his deathbed at age 80, he advised followers to work out their own salvation with diligence. Lying on his right side, he passed into successively higher states of awareness and then into the final state of Nirvana.

The giant reclining Buddha at Wat Pho Temple, Bangkok, Thailand.

The Buddha was a teacher, not a god. As a teacher he is emulated and his images venerated, not worshiped.

In artistic representations, the Buddha’s slim and perfectly proportioned body is an outer reflection of his inner spirituality. He has 32 lakshanas (special bodily features) that include golden skin, torso and cheeks like a lion, flat feet with long toes of same length,  a protuberance on top of his head, curling hair and sapphire-blue eyes. Elongated earlobes hint at his early years when he wore weighty jewels. The Buddha is often depicted sitting on a lotus flower, symbol of purity rising out of filth.

The Buddha is usually shown in a stylized asana (pose), with mudras (symbolic hand gestures) that represent acts and qualities such as meditation, teaching, charity and reassurance.

Bronze Buddha, 7th to 8th century, Sultanganj.

And my friend’s chubby,  ‘cute’ buddha? He is not a buddha–yet! Called Budai in China, and Hotei in Japan, the ‘laughing buddha’ is based on a 10th century monk destined to become the future buddha Maitreya. Like Saint Nicholas, Budai is often shown with a bottomless sack of treats and surrounded by children. Budai is a symbol of happiness and abundance. So go ahead and rub his belly for good luck!

A lucky pink ‘buddha’ keychain.

As for that Buddha on your tee or in your backpack?  My opinions on cultural appropriation and pop-trivializing of other people’s religious symbols have mellowed over time.  I’ve come to realize that the power of art is that – if the artist is good enough – the viewer gets the message even without knowing much about the subject. A souvenir Buddha casually picked up at a market somewhere has not been diminished if it inspires a moment of serenity or reminds one to consider the suffering of others.

A statue of the Buddha at a vegetarian restaurant in Toronto reminds us to have compassion for all living things.

The ArtSmart Roundtable is a group of travel bloggers with a lively interest in art. Once a month, each member of the Roundtable publishes a post on a specific topic. Look for us at and be sure to check out these links to other members’ fascinating blogs.

Christina – Mary Magdalene

Erin – Finding the Giant in Western Art