Buddha Images

Standing Buddha Standing Buddha
Golden Buddha Golden Buddha
Reclining Buddha Reclining Buddha

Buddha images are perhaps the most obvious symbol of Buddhism's extensive iconography. But one of the questions raised by many people unfamiliar with the religion is about the many shapes and forms of Buddhas, particularly among those westerners who have only ever encountered the 'fat happy' Buddhas displayed in Chinese restaurants. How can the representations of one many vary so widely? What did the Buddha really look like? To answer these questions, we need to go into a little history of the Buddha image.

While tradition tells us that the Buddha was venerated in his lifetime, no images of him were made, that we know of. It was not the practice at the time, and one could even surmise that it might be something he would have objected to. One of the things the Buddha taught was that our bodies were just vessels for our souls during this life, and it was our "attachment" to this body - and all the pleasures it can enjoy - that kept us bound to the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth into a new bodily vessel. This, by the way, is why men shave off their hair when they enter the monk-hood. They're trying to make themselves "ugly", thus helping them to "detach" from their bodies.

So, why are there Buddha images? Several factors came into play over the hundreds of years after the Buddha's death. First came the Greeks. Yes, the Greeks. Alexander the Great arrived in the northwestern Indian sub-continent around 334 BC, where the soldiers he left behind and others who came after founded several states on the Greek model, many of which maintained regular contact with the Mediterranean world. The Greeks as well as the Persians they bought with them had a huge influence on the development of the art, and perhaps the practice, of the still relatively new Buddhist religion.

Before the Greeks, Buddhism is thought to have been without any anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha himself. The Buddha was always represented through symbols, such as an empty throne or the Dharma wheel. But the Greek and Zoroastrian cultures were full of lifelike representations of the gods. The early Buddha figures were realistic, idealized representations of men with distinctly Greek features, right down to the toga. Over the following centuries, Buddha images gradually took on more Asian attributes, as well as becoming more symbolic in nature.

This is where another big factor in the development of Buddha images comes into play. It's hard for us to understand in our day and age, but almost nobody could read in the ancient world. Knowledge was communicated verbally, so as Buddhism grew and expanded, it became necessary to create a sort of "visual language" to remind the lay people of what the Buddha taught. From this developed the many postures and hand gestures found in Buddha images.

While Buddha images are not meant to depict the actual person of the Buddha, they often do depict features that are supposed to remind us of the real Buddha. For example, long pierced earlobes suggest the young Gautama's life as a prince (who wore heavy golden earrings).