Adherence to a specific belief system is shown, intentionally or not, by how a person lives their lives. This page focuses on how Buddhism is shown in the symbols, clothing, art, and actions of Buddhists around the world.
Symbols are images that point to something larger than themselves. Specific symbols are used by Buddhists to point to certain ideas and teachings that are seen as central to the Dharma. There are eight symbols in particular that are often referred to in Buddhism, known collectively as the Ashtamangala. Of these the two that stand out as the most widely used and relevant for Buddhism in particular are the Lotus flower and the Dharmachakra.
The Lotus Flower is an important symbol, not just to Buddhists, but to many cultures across Asia. The Lotus flower grows from mud underwater and unfurls as it rises above the water. This is toed in Buddhism to the process of enlightenment itself. The flower starts in mud and must grow in order to escape. When it does escape it is liberated and unfurls without any dirt; this is tied to the purity and beauty of achieving nirvana. As we grow in understanding we liberate ourselves from the suffering and darkness that we are born into, finally blossoming in a pure unblemished radiance.
The Dharmachakra, or Wheel of Life, reflects the cyclical conception of reality that underpins Buddhist thought. This refers to both the cycle of Saṃsāra and the way out of the cycle along the Eightfold path. The Tibetan Wheel of Life, the Bhavachakra, is a much more fleshed out version of the wheel, that incorporates all of the key Beliefs and Teachings of Buddhism, from the Three Poisons that keep people spinning at the center of the circle, to the Outer Rim where the Buddha offers to potential for liberation from the cycle. Symbols like this are used to visualise Buddhist teachings; the Bhavachakra is a near perfect example of exactly this.
Buddhist art traces its history back to the early Buddhist community that recorded stories about the Buddha in carvings and friezes. Since this time Buddhist art has become diverse and complex as it has spread and interacted with different cultures and art forms form around the world.
The first major impact on Buddhist art came as the result of Alexander the Great’s conquests. After Alexander died, his empire splintered, in North-West India there were many small kingdoms that inherited both Indian and Greek artistic styles and cultures. These artistic styles continued when the Greco-Indian Kingdoms were conquered by the founder of the Mauryan Empire, and grandfather of the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka. This blending had a profound effect on Buddhist art.
Further variations and influences developed as Buddhism spread North and East both along the silk road, mainly Mahayana Buddhism, and the South Asian Coast, mainly Theravada Buddhism.
Depicting the Buddha
Since it was influenced by Greek art, Buddhist art focused a lot more on depicting the Buddha in statues and paintings. These are known as Buddharūpas; ‘rūpa’ means form or shape; so this translates as ‘form of the Buddha’. These did not merely focus on Siddhartha, but all who have been said to achieve enlightenment.
Ancient Greek art focused on showing the form of a body accurately, with all the different parts in proportion. In general this was maintained as Buddhist art spread, but different places added their own stylistic features and focuses.
Having said this, there are certain commonalities that are kept the same among Buddharūpas around the world:
- Elongated Fingers and Toes
- Long, strong Nose
- Elongated Earlobes
- Large Head
- Broad Shoulders
It is considered a sign of good fortune, in many societies that have been influenced of exposed to Buddhism, to have one or more of these physical traits.
Posture and Gesture
Another commonality among the statues is the posture. Most depictions of the Buddha usually show him in one of two common positions:
- Lotus Seated position – This is the position that Buddha was in when he achieved enlightenment. It is perhaps the most common position that he is depicted in as it also combines with the image of him as a teacher. In this way followers are able to sit before the Buddha as his original disciples did; learning the path to enlightenment.
- Reclining Position – This is the position the Buddha was in when he departed the world. It is perhaps the second most common posture that the Buddha is depicted in.
This feeds into the use of mudras (hand and body gestures) in iconography and their use in worship. Here is a list of the some of the most common mudras, what position they are, and what they mean.
- Dhyāna – Mudra of meditation: The fingers of the right hand rest on top of the fingers of the left with the finger tips facing the palms, and the thumbs lightly touch at their ends. The right hand being above the left is symbolic of the superiority of the enlightened mind over the world of illusions.
- Anjali – Mudra of Greeting – Palms placed together at the level of the heart. This is symbolic of a heartfelt and respectful greeting.
- Abhaya – Mudra of Blessing – The right hand hand at shoulder level with the palm facing either to the left or outwards. This is supposedly the posture the Buddha held as he achieved enlightenment. It is a gesture that conveys the reassurance that liberation form suffering is possible.
- Bhūmisparśa – The Earth Touching Mudra – The left hand rests on the lap with the palm facing upward. The right hand rests palm down on the right knee, with its fingers pointing toward the ground. This is supposed to be the posture that the Buddha held after he first achieved enlightenment, the gesture towards the earth signals the victory over the material illusions of existence.
- Vitarka – The right hand’s thumb and forefinger touch with the rest of the hand uncurled. The left hand is wide open either facing palm up or outwards. The circle formed by the thumb and forefinger represents the wheel of the Dharma. The openness of the left hand reflects the openness of the person to teaching the Dharma.
These mudras are used to communicate meaning through the position of the body. This ties in perfectly with the Buddhist emphasis on control. We communicate with our bodies all the time. The use of mudras, not just in art, allows for us to take control of this fact; and use our bodies to communicate positive ideas, stances and teachings.
Pilgrimage was encouraged by Siddhartha Buddha; he argued that by visiting specific places of significance followers could get a greater sense of urgency, compelling them to dedicate themselves to following the Eightfold path. The Buddha name four places that he encouraged his followers to visit:
- Bodh Gaya – The site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment.
- Deer Park at Sarnath – The site of the Buddha’s first teaching of the Dharma.
- Lumbini – The Buddha’s Birthplace.
- Kushinagar – The Buddha’s Death-place, where he attained final nirvana.
The fact that spiritual urgency was highlighted as the reason for pilgrimage is said to show the Buddha’s care for all sentient beings and the hope that all would free themselves from the cycle of suffering that is existence.
Buddhist communities can be found all over the world. The Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana communities represent the biggest and best organised groups. But, many people outside these groups are also engaged and attracted by Buddhism and its teachings. This is seen in the growth of interest in Western societies with concepts like Karma and Mindfulness in recent years. The ideas continue to be applied to fields as diverse as medicine, psychology, and ethics. Buddhists continue to engage with the wider world. Good examples of Buddhist Charitable and community work can be found by following and supporting the work of these groups:
- UK Buddhist development charity
- The Karuna Trust
- The Prison Chaplaincy
- Buddhist Healthcare Chaplaincy Group
Buddhism is a significant theological system, that offers profound insight and seeks to relieve the suffering that we see around us in the world. We hope you have come to a greater understanding about it through reading these pages. Please do not hesitate to ask us further questions, or make suggestions so that we can continue to improve and update our content. Please feel free to explore our other resources to learn more about other theological systems and issues.