" . . . he teaches the Dhamma [which is] good in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end, is full of meaning and rich in words, quite complete; he teaches a religious life, and good is the sight of such saints." ~ Sutta Nipata: III. Mahavagga, 7.Selasutta.
Not an Idol
Serenely elegant images of the Buddha adorn many homes. However, for Buddhists they are not purely decorative but serve as symbolic reminders of the Teachings or as a feature of practitioners' shrines. They can be sculptural forms (Skt. rupa; Tib. ku) made of cast metal, pottery, or carved wood, or painted scrolls called thangkas [pron. tahnkas] in Tibetan, and also nowadays, posters and photographs.
Although they function as a remembrance, and are "adored" or bowed-to, they are not usually the object of worship. As Bhikkshuni K'un Li says, "The symbols enshrined in a Buddhist temple are meant to inspire the idea of the holy (Skt. saddha) but not the numinous feeling evoked by awesome symbols of unearthly power." They are not idols in the strict sense, and they are not supposed to be appeased or supplicated. In fact, were one to have to choose between an image or a copy of the Teachings, it is the scripture of the Doctrine (Buddha-dharma) that is the better choice.
The Buddha had asked that his remains not be made an object of veneration. Indeed, for generations he was depicted only in a symbolic or aniconic way -- as footprints or as a vacant throne.
:: See Karmapa in a footprint: activity of Buddha.
Ashoka, the once murderous warrior-king of the Maurya dynasty (ca. 250 CE) converted to the peaceful way of Buddhism, and having received great personal benefit, announced the precepts on monuments throughout his extensive kingdom. Since Buddha was known as the Shakya Lion, that animal was selected to crown the edict-pillars erected throughout Ashoka's Indian kingdom.
:: Hellenistic India, inscription on the first Ashokan pillar at Girna.
Notice that the lion is centred on a lotus, the sign of enlightened compassionate beings that manifest in the world. This is the edict pillar at Vaishali, birthplace of the Jain saint, Mahavira (Skt. Great Hero,) and also an important Buddhist site.
Buddha is also seen as The Great Victor, Hero or Conqueror -- in this case, he is victorious not over any worldly foe but over life and death. It is for this reason he has earned the title, Lord. Therefore, once the custom to represent him in human form took hold, he was shown seated upon the throne of a king.
How did the custom of making Buddha statues arise?
After his Enlightenment, it is said that Shakyamuni spent time in the heavens of the thirty-three gods where his mother had been reborn. King Udyana of Vatsa or Kausambi, who was very devoted, was worried that He would not return. Buddha's disciple Maudgalyayana used magic to send an artist (some say 32 of them) up to heaven to capture the likeness of the Buddha in a 5-foot figure carved out of sandalwood.
This image was so accurate and imbued with devotion, that when Shakyamuni returned, it rose up to greet him. The Buddha acknowledged then, the power of the rupa to inspire and to teach the dharma to future generations.
Wrongful Use of Buddha-images
Decorative use: It can be disrespectful to ignore the meaning of
a statue or image and display it solely for its artistic or esthetic properties,
or for its antiquity. It should not be displayed as a mere element in a
A guideline might be to consider how you would feel if the image were one associated with another contemporary religious system.
It is not considered proper to traffic in these images for profit. Some consider that a person who makes undue profit from dealing in Buddhist images is like a kidnapper asking for ransom. On the other hand, to think in that way is to take the image as more than a mere representation.
Traditional Proportions for Buddha Images
Despite the advent of photography, images of people are always influenced by the norms of the medium as well as the cultural and artistic notions of the artist. For instance, fashion designers of today work with a figure in which the head represents only 1/9 of the body's length despite the fact that most people are 1:7 or less.
In the case of representations of religious and other heroes, there are also symbolic conventions. For example, in Buddhist iconography, the arms are abnormally long in order to represent the generosity of the bodhisattva.
< Chart from J. Landaw Images of Enlightenment by Weber.
The circular curls that appear on statues from Cambodia, China and Japan, represent the hair that has newly grown in after Shakyamuni cut off his topknot as a gesture of self-initiation. Surprisingly, some people have been told incorrectly that the knobby features represent bird-droppings acquired as a consequence of the long period of immobile meditation under the tree!
This Cambodian head appears courtesy ArtToday.com.
The protuberance [usnisha] at the crown is a symbol of Enlightenment. The iconography of Thailand has converted it into a long lotus-bud flame.
Form is Emptiness
March 2001: Remarkably, when Afghan extremists destroyed ancient giant standing buddhas above Bamian, it took them 20 days. Artefacts including those in the Kabul Museum had already been attacked. UNESCO and all cultured nations including other Muslim ones were appalled. There had been several offers to buy the buddhas.
The senseless destruction was tragically ironic as some of the finest sculpture ever produced comes from and is named for the Afghan city of Kandahar. Some of the finest Hellenistic stone carving is in the style that is known as Gandharan.
More About Buddhist Images
The finest metal images are made of a special mixture or a "bronze" that is called in Sanskrit, panchadhatu (five metals: gold, zinc, copper, silver, and iron.) There is also a formula for ashtadhatu (eight.)
Aniconic: "Not-Self" Consciousness and the Aniconic in Early Buddhism.
Buddhist Images: The word art does not strictly apply to these kinds of objects, though that is the way they are referred to by the general public. Philosophers of art (aestheticists) such as Suzanne Langer, generally agree that art is by definition something that is not produced for any other purpose than to stimulate the sensibilities of the viewer or audience. Buddhist objects have a kind of utility; their purpose is not an aesthetic one.