Images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Buddhist images resonate at many levels as every element and gesture is symbolic. An image's appearance reflects long-established models and prescribed patterns that were developed in India and retained over the centuries and across vast distances.

Representations of buddhas, for example, are easily identifiable (Fig. 1). As figures who have abandoned the material world, they are attired as monks in simple garments and usually do not wear jewelry. Shakyamuni Buddha cut off his long hair and removed his heavy earrings when he left the palace. As a result, buddhas are depicted with short hair that often forms snail-shell-shaped curls. Their earlobes have elongated holes where the earrings once hung. A buddha also has thirty-two marks (lakshanas) that indicate his transcendent and supranormal nature. These include an idealized physique, a bump on the top of his head (ushnisha), a round dot in the center of his forehead (urna), and webbed hands and feet. However, these special marks were not codified in texts until roughly the fourth century C.E., and even afterward do not appear on all buddha images. In addition, not every depiction of a buddha represents the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. As Buddhism evolved, many buddhas were postulated to exist in the past, present, and future, and it is often difficult to identify an image as a specific buddha since the characteristics just listed typify most artistic renderings.

Bodhisattvas are beings whose realization is advanced enough to enable them to escape the cycle of rebirth but who choose to remain active in the world in order to help others along the path to enlightenment. Unlike buddhas, who wear monastic garments, bodhisattvas are often arrayed as kings (Fig. 5). They wear crowns, tiaras, or other headdresses as well as armbands and necklaces, and their hair is usually dressed in a tall and elaborate coiffure. Bodhisattvas generally can be identified by the objects they hold or by a small image in their headdress, such as the seated Amitabha Buddha, which identifies Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Fig. 6).