Himalayan Art Resources

Buddhist Deity: Buddha Definition

Buddha Main Page

Three Definitions for the Word Buddha:
Religious Definition, Tantric Theory Definition, Art & Iconography Definition.

Video: Buddha Definition

1. Religious Definition

1. The first meaning belongs to the general Buddhist religious definition, an abstract meaning, where the term 'buddha' describes a completely enlightened being having reached the highest of the Ten Bodhisattva Grounds (levels, stages) and progressed further to a 13th level known as complete Buddhahood. The terms tathagata, bhagavan, jina, sarvajnana and buddha are all used interchangeably to refer to an 'enlightened one'.

2. Tantric Theory Definition

Tantric Theory divides deities into enlightened and unenlightened categories, also known as Beyond Worldly and Worldly. In Mahayana Buddhism the classical Indian gods (Brahma, Indra, Vishnu, Shiva, etc.) and the Four Guardian Kings all belong to the worldly gods category. In the Tantric Buddhism of India, the Himalayan regions and Tibet, the vast majority of deities are in the enlightened, beyond worldly category. The reason for this is because those deities are invented, created, as methods and techniques towards the goal of realization. They are believed to be created by the Buddha Vajradhara or they are emanations of the Five Transcendent Buddhas: Vairochana, Akshobhya, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi and Ratnasambhava.

Enlightened, or Beyond Worldly, Tantric deities can be referred to as Buddhas according to Tantric Buddhist theory. Meditational deities - ishtadevata - are all classified as buddhas. Examples of Meditational Deities are Hevajra, Chakrasamvara, Guhyasamaja and Kalachakra along with the lower Tantra deities such as Jambhala, Achala, Kurukulla and others. In the Tantric system as opposed to the Mahayana system, the principal bodhisattvas such as Lokeshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani are regarded as buddhas. The bhagavan/bhagavani, Arya Tara, is regarded as a female buddha. Enlightened, Beyond Worldly, protector deities such as Mahakala and Shri Devi are also enlightened emanations and therefore are also regarded as buddhas.

Along with the Indian classical gods, examples of worldly, unenlightened deities, are all of those Tibetan indigenous mountain gods and spirits enlisted as Tibetan Buddhist protectors such as Pehar, Machen Pomra, Tsi'u Marpo, Nechung and others. It is a very important distinction to understand the difference between enlightened and unenlightened protector deities.

3. Art & Iconography Definition

In Himalayan art, 'buddha' also has the 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 Perfection, the characteristics of a Universal Monarch. The most prominent characteristics are the crown protuberance (ushnisha), elongated earlobes, dot between the eyes (urna), three horizontal lines on the neck, and webbed fingers. The figures can have different colours in painting, be seated, standing or lying down. Posture is not a defining characteristic of Buddha Appearance.

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Jeff Watt 6-2011 [updated 4-2017, 12-2019, 7-2020]

(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).