Himalayan Art Resources

Buddhist Deity: Differences in Buddha Appearance

Buddha Iconography

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Differences Between Buddhas Description (Below)
- General Appearance
- Colour
- Gesture
- Attributes
- Posture
- Other Characteristics
- Accompanying figures/attendants
- Venue/Location
- Others...

General Appearance:
The characteristics of a figure that has Buddha Appearance are distinctive and identifiable (see example). A figure has one face, two arms and two legs. On the top of the head is a protuberance, ushnisha, crowned with a gold jewel. There is a dot, urna, between the eyes. The ears are long and the lobes pierced. There are three horizontal marks adorning the neck. The clothes are simple patchwork robes. There is typically no jewellery or shoes on the body.

The colour of Shakyamuni Buddha is said to be gold. Amitabha is red. Medicine Buddha is blue. The Five Symbolic Buddhas are white, red, blue, yellow and green. The colour gold can be generic for any buddhas represented in painting.

There are only a few readily identifiable gestures associated with Buddha figures. The most famous are the earth touching gesture, meditation, turning the wheel of Dharma (teaching), explication, blessing and generosity. Some Buddha figures are associated with only one iconic gesture while other Buddhas can be depicted with a number of different gestures.

Attributes, most commonly, are understood to be those objects held in the hands. A number of buddhas hold the black begging bowl in the left hand, or both hands. Medicine Buddha holds the arura plant in the right hand. Akshobhya typically has a vajra scepter standing upright in the left hand. Some of the buddhas from the three sets of Thirty-five Confession Buddhas hold various symbols, or ritual objects, in the hands.

Postures are either fixed or fluid depending on the iconography of the figure. Narrative based figures have a fluid posture only dependent on the traditional artistic context and the mood of the artists. Iconographic figures originating from the Buddhist Tantras have a fixed posture.

Other Characteristics:
Shakyamuni Buddha typically has a vajra sceptre in front placed horizontally atop the base of the flat moon disc or lotus base. Nageshvara Buddha has a hood of seven snakes rising above the ushnisha.

Accompanying figures/attendants:
Sometimes specific Buddhas are accompanied by unique attendant figures such as Shakyamuni with Shariputra and Maudgalyayana. Medicine Buddha is accompanied on the right and left sides by Suryaprabha and Chandraprabha.

Some Buddhas are commonly depicted within their pureland, or heaven. Amitabha is associated with Sukhavati and three different composition styles. Medicine Buddha and Akshobhya are often depicted in their own special venues.

Jeff Watt 7-2018