Himalayan Art Resources

Buddhist Deity: Buddha & Buddha Appearance

Buddha & Buddha Appearance Main Page | Buddha Appearance Outline Page | Eleven Figurative Forms | Shakyamuni Buddha | Buddha Sculpture: Tsuglakang Temple | Buddhas, Who Are They? Outline Page | Buddhas: Tantric Outline Page | Buddha Number Sets | Buddha Names Glossary | Buddha Sculpture: Tsuglakang Temple | Buddha Realms & Purelands Outline |

Key Topics:
- Historical Buddha
- Common Buddhas
- Uncommon Buddhas
- Buddha Number Sets
- Confusions

In Himalayan and Tibetan art the word 'buddha' can have two general meanings. The first meaning belongs to the religious definition where 'buddha' describes a completely enlightened being having reached the top of the Ten Bodhisattva Grounds (levels, stages) and progressed further to a 13th level known as complete Buddhahood. The terms tathagata, jina, sarvajnana and buddha are all used interchangeably to refer to an 'enlightened one'.

In art 'buddha' also has the secondary meaning of 'Buddha Appearance' which refers to figures that have the form of a buddha as defined by the early Buddhist literature describing the physical characteristics of a buddha such as the Thirty-two Major and Eighty Minor Marks of a Buddha.

Two Definitions for the Word Buddha:

[1] Religious Definition
[2] Art & Iconography Definition

Typically, buddha figures face forward towards the viewer. Only in narrative depictions do they look to the right or left. They have an ushnisha, cranial bump, on the top of the head further marked with a gold ornament. There is a white dot between the eyebrows - not always white - representing a single coiled white hair. There are three slightly curved horizontal lines, one above the other, under the neck. A buddha has elongated pierced earlobes. A buddha also wears the patchwork robes of a fully ordained monk. He sits in the vajra posture with the right leg over the left, soles of the feet facing upward. Buddha figures are typically seated in either vajra posture or with the legs extended forward in a Western style. The latter pose can be found with both Shakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya. Figures with 'Buddha Appearance' can have a variety of different body colours. Shakyamuni Buddha is generally described as golden in colour. Amitabha Buddha is red. Medicine Buddha appears blue in colour.

Four Important Topics & Number Sets:

[1] Buddhas with Buddha Appearance
[2] Buddhas that Do Not have Buddha Appearance
[3] Human Figures & Deities with Buddha Characteristics
[4] Buddhas According to the Divisions of Buddhist Literature
- Number Sets

[1] In Buddhist religious belief there are Four Bodies of a Buddha: 1. nirmanakaya, 2. sambhogakaya, 3. dharmakaya and 4. svabhavikakaya. The four can also be understood as aspects or dimensions of a fully enlightened buddha. The last two of the four are abstract concepts and are not typically represented in art. The first two of the bodies are commonly represented in art. Nirmanakaya, the first of the buddha bodies is depicted by the usual form of a buddha such as Shakyamuni, Amitabha and Medicine Buddha and constitutes the first of the Eleven Figurative Forms in Himalayan and Tibetan art. In their standard appearance and in a religious context they are referred to as 'nirmanakaya' meaning they are depicted as monks with the ushnisha on the crown of the head, dot (urna) on the forehead and three lines marking the neck, etc. As sambhogakaya buddha representations they typically appear in Peaceful Deity (bodhisattva/god/deva) appearance with a youthful form, sixteen years of age, adorned with jewel ornaments crowns, and silk-like clothing - typical of Indian heavenly gods. Peaceful Deity appearance does not depict an ushnisha, urna, line under the next or monastic attire.

Buddha Figures with Buddha Appearance:
- Shakyamuni Buddha
- Medicine Buddha
- Amitabha/Amitayus Buddha
- Vairochana Buddha
- Nagaraja Buddha
- Meru Shikara Buddha
- Muni Trisamaya Vyuha
- Buddhas of the Three Times (Dipamkara, Shakyamuni, Maitreya)
- Maitreya: Buddha of the Future
- Buddha's of the Six Realms (Wheel of Life Paintings & the Guhyagarbha Tantra)
- Seven Supreme Buddhas of this Age
- Buddhas of the Ten Directions
- Twelve Dzogchen Buddhas (four of the twelve have Buddha Appearance and Eight do not)
- Thirty-five Confession Buddhas (Three Systems of Depiction)
- One Thousand Buddhas of this Age

[2] In Tantric Buddhist art there are many deities that are considered buddhas but do not appear in Buddha Appearance, such as Vajradhara, Vajrasattva and all of the major meditational deities (ishtadevata) such as Hevajra, Chakrasamvara and Kalachakra. In Tantra the well known deity subject such as Tara is regarded as a fully enlightened buddha that has chosen to a appear in a peaceful goddess-like form rather than in Buddha Appearance. Buddhas that function as meditational deities can have the appearance of any one of the five types of deities from the list of Eleven Figurative Forms: peaceful, semi-peaceful/semi-wrathful, wrathful, animal-headed, and warrior.

Buddhas that DO NOT have typical Buddha Appearance:
- Five Symbolic Buddhas of the Vajrayana Tantra System (when depicted with crowns, jewel ornaments, fine clothes & consort deities)
---- Vairochana
---- Amitayus
---- Akshobhya
---- Ratnasambhava
---- Amoghasiddi
- Vajradhara
- Vajradharma (including Vira Vajradharma)
- Vajrasattva
- Samantabhadra (Kuntu Zangpo)
- Twelve Dzogchen Buddhas (four of the twelve have Buddha Appearance and Eight do not)
- Others....

[3] Human Figures with Buddha Characteristics: all of the figures below have basic monastic appearance. (See comparison outline).
- Rahula (arhat): commonly depicted with an ushnisha on the crown of the head.
- Nagarjuna: commonly depicted with an ushnisha.
- Garab Dorje: commonly depicted in Buddha Appearance, or as a human with an ushnisha.
- Padmasambhava, Shakya Sengge: commonly depicted with an ushnisha.
- Sakya Pandita: commonly depicted with an ushnisha.
- Pratyekabuddhas: in Field of Accumulation paintings and in mandala depictions from the Charya and Yoga Tantras these figures are depicted with an ushnisha. Arhats are not depicted with an ushnisha.
- Others....

Buddha-Like Figures from Non-Buddhist Traditions:
- Tritsug Gyalwa, Tonpa Shenrab - Bon Religion
- Buddha (Vishnu Avatar) - Vaishnava Religion
- Jain Jina - Jain Religion
- Others....

Six Essential Buddha Topics:
1. Shakyamuni Buddha depictions & stories: Life-story, Jataka, Avadana
2. Shakyamuni & the students (arhats) & Four Guardian Kings that are depicted with him.
3. Other Buddhas: Amitabha, Medicine Buddha, etc.
4. Five Symbolic Buddhas (Tantric context)
5. Buddha-like figures: Tonpa Shenrab, Jain Jinas, Avatar Buddha (Vishnu), Nagarjuna, etc.
6. Buddhas that don't have Buddha appearance: Vajradhara, Vajrasattva, etc.

Jeff Watt 6-2011