Signs and Symbols

What are some helpful clues for understanding Buddhist iconography?

Most important of all are images of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Buddhist sculpture and painting have evolved in many different styles. Each lineage or denomination has a number of symbols and signs to which it attaches distinctive meanings. But it is possible to suggest some general features to look for when you visit a museum’s Asian galleries. As with Hindu iconography, start by noting posture, gesture, garb and other implements. Buddha images are usually seated in the lotus posture, legs crossed so that the soles of the feet face upward. Some images depict the Buddha standing or walking, but these are less numerous. Principal gestures include those that indicate blessing, teaching, or meditation. One of the most important has the left hand resting palm up in the lap and the right touching the ground just in front of the right knee, symbolizing the Buddha’s conquest of Mara’s temptation. Buddha images are typically clad in simple monk’s garb and do not hold any specific tools or implements. Bod-hisattvas sometimes appear seated in a relaxed posture called “royal ease,” but standing images are more common. They ordinarily wear crowns and royal finery as symbols of the life of the Buddha-to-be prior to his renunciation. Seated Bodhisattvas often recline graciously forward and offer a gesture of kindly welcome or attentiveness. Some Bodhisattvas have multiple arms and heads to symbolize their infinite power and ability to respond to every human need. In their many hands these potent images can carry as many as several dozen separate items, including weapons, musical instruments, and symbols of healing. Guardian figures are the most numerous subordinate images. Distant cousins of beings with similar functions in Hindu tradition, these characters glower menacingly on beings of evil intent and brandish weaponry sufficient to dispatch all undesirable elements daring to approach the holy place.


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