Himalayan Art Resources

Buddhist Deity: Buddha Characteristics & Identification (Painting)

Buddha Iconography

Characteristics & Identification:
- Buddha Appearance
- Common Buddhas
--- Colour
--- Attributes & Special Characteristics
--- Gestures
--- Animal Support
- Uncommon Buddhas
- Context
- Confusions

Video: Buddha Characteristics & Identification (Painting)

Common Buddhas in Art (as central figures):
- Akshobhya
- Amitabha
- Maitreya (in buddha form)
- Medicine Buddha
- Nageshvara Raja
- Shakyamuni
- Five Symbolic Buddhas (nirmanakaya)

There are six buddhas that are commonly represented in art based on the Mahayana sutra literature. They are Akshobhya, Amitabha, Maitreya (in buddha form), Medicine Buddha, Nageshvara Raja, and Shakyamuni Buddha. With regard to those which are most often reproduced in art, they are Shakyamuni, Amitabha and Maitreya.

Colour: All buddhas can be said to be golden in colour and have the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks of perfection which describe the appearance of a universal monarch, a Chakravartin. Several buddhas of the sutras are described as having a specific body colour such as Amitabha and Amitayus are red. Akshobhya, Medicine Buddha and Nageshvara Raja are blue. Shakyamuni and the future buddha Maitreya when depicted in buddha appearance are golden in colour.

The Five Symbolic Buddhas are a construct of Vajrayana Buddhism and the Tantra literature. They can be found depicted as a group in either buddha appearance (nirmanakaya) or in peaceful deity appearance (sambhogakaya). The Five Buddhas are Vairochana (white), Amitabha (red), Akshobhya (blue), Ratnasambhava (yellow) and Amoghasiddhi (green).

Attributes: Shakyamuni, Amitabha and Medicine Buddha each hold a begging bowl in the lap. Maitreya is associated with up to three different attributes, a wheel, vase and stupa. Medicine Buddha has the additional attribute of a medicinal plant held in the right hand. Akshobhya holds a vajra scepter. The Five Symbolic Buddhas in nirmanakaya form generally have no attributes in the hands as each performs a unique gesture one from the other.

Gestures: There are five common gestures (mudra) along with a variety of unique gestures. The five common are the [1] earth touching, [2] Dharma teaching, [3] meditation, [4] generosity, and [5] blessing gestures. The latter can also be explained as protection or explication gestures. The earth touching is associated with Shakyamuni and Akshobhya buddha. The mediation gesture is associated with Amitabha. The teaching gesture is performed by Maitreya. Medicine Buddha performs the gesture of generosity with the right hand. For the Five Symbolic buddhas the gestures are Vairochana (teaching), Amitabha (meditation), Akshobhya (earth touching), Ratnasambhava (generosity) and Amoghasiddhi (refuge).

Animal Support: A lion supported throne can be common for all buddhas and typical for Shakyamuni, Maitreya and Medicine Buddha. A peacock supported throne is specific for Amitabha. Nageshvara Raja generally sits atop a flower blossom above a lotus pond. The mounts of the Five Symbolic Buddhas are Vairochana (lion), Amitabha (peacock), Akshobhya (elephant), Ratnasambhava (horse) and Amoghasiddhi (kinnara).

Uncommon Buddhas (as central figures): The buddhas listed below are rarely depicted as central figures in painted compositions. They can be depicted as secondary figures in a single composition or arranged in sets of paintings of three, five, seven, or more compositions. Individually, each buddha is generally identified through context along with the identity of the central figure. However, all of the buddhas listed below can generally be found in carved wood block prints.
- Buddhas of the Three Times
- Six Buddhas of the Six Realms
- Seven Buddhas of this Age
- Eight Buddhas (Ashtabuddhaka)
- Eight Medicine Buddhas
- Ten Directions Buddhas
- Twelve Dzogchen Buddhas
- Thirty-five Confession Buddhas
- One Thousand Buddhas of the Aeon
- Samantabhadra Buddha
- Others...


Confusions: There will always be a confusion concerning the abstract conceptual designation of a 'buddha' and the visual description of what in art and iconography is a 'buddha.' While the Five Symbolic Buddhas are 'buddhas' by definition, in visual depictions they can either appear in buddha appearance or in peaceful deity appearance. A number of human figures are known to be portrayed with buddha characteristics. In the Bon religion, the founder Tonpa Shenrab has a form known as Tritsug Gyalwa which is identical to buddha appearance. The Hindu god Vishnu also has an avatar form in buddha appearance.
- Five Symbolic Buddhas (sambhogakaya)
- Human Figures with Buddha Appearance
- Tritsug Gyalwa (Tonpa Shenrab)
- Vishnu (Avatar)
- Others...

Jeff Watt 7-2021

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