The Meanings Behind the Buddha’s Positions
By Amy Underdown, London, UK
Artistic interpretations of the Buddha have existed since the 2nd century A.D, with the artists in question always nurturing a spiritual state of self in order to truly replicate the spirit of the Buddha in their creations. Whilst the iconography of Siddhartha Gautama is not intended to reflect his actual characteristics (a naturally challenging task for sculptors centuries after his death), the appearances of Buddha statues are teeming with significance. The poses and mudra (hand positions) of the Buddha are spiritually charged, with each stance and style carefully curated in order to communicate a specific state of the teacher. Here we delve into the meanings behind these positions, so that you can carefully consider which type of statue specifically resonates with you.
The Teaching Buddha, sat cross-legged, is perfect for anybody who wishes to focus on their spirituality. The position of the Teaching Buddha is said to represent the instance of Buddha’s first sermon following his enlightenment. This sermon was delivered to a group of formerly disinterested disciples, a situation to which many modern teachers could probably relate if he hadn’t have literally flown across the Ganges to get there. It was here that the famous four noble truths were communicated.
The Teaching Buddha is seen to use the Dharmachakra mudra which symbolises the spinning wheel of dharma. The right hand is held with the palm facing outwards and the index finger touching the thumb, much the same as a modern diver informing his counterpart that he is a-okay. It is significant that the right hand is at chest-level, logically notifying us that this message comes straight from the heart. The left hand faces inward, similarly creating a circle with his index finger and thumb, with the two hands joining to create an infinite symbol of prayer.
Meditation Buddha is always found in a double or single lotus pose, a position that has come to represent a meditative state across the world. This kind of statue is ideal for those who are looking to infuse peace and calm into their lives, especially in our fast-paced world of never-ending blinking lights and communication. This is mirrored in both the triangular silhouette of the statue, reflecting balance and stability, as well as the usually half or fully closed eyes of the Buddha.
Whilst the meditative pose is instantly recognisable, the Dhyana mudra makes this position distinctly Buddhist. In this mudra, both hands are placed in the lap facing upwards, with the right hand resting on the palm of the left. The top of the thumbs touch in order to form another triangle shape. This geometry is not an unintentional nod to the world of mathematics, but rather a recognisable symbol in Buddhism, with the triangle representing the unity of the triple gem: the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha, as well as holding a mystic fire within (far more exciting than Pythagoras!)
As the name suggests, this position depicts the Buddha lying on his right side. Far from taking an afternoon nap, this kind of statue is said to represent the Buddha in his last few earthly hours prior to his entry into Nirvana. This state is called ‘paranirvana’, a condition reserved only for enlightened beings at the end of their life. Usually, the Buddha is seen to support his head on a pillow with his right hand, but this is not a specific Buddhist mudra. Unfortunately, Reclining Buddha is not intended to encourage sleep (for this we can only recommend whale noises and avoidance of caffeine), but its representation of the Buddha in his final earthly moments should encourage a strive for harmony within the self.
Perhaps particularly important in 2020, the Medicine Buddha is said to bring good health and medicinal knowledge. The right hand faces both outward and downward, with the outstretched fingers reaching for the ground, said to represent the Buddha giving a blessing to humankind, and sometimes holding the stem of a healing plant. The left hand rests in the lap whilst holding a bowl of herbs. Every so often the Medicine Buddha is depicted as having beaming blue skin, referencing the legend in which he transformed himself into a radiant blue light before a group of people in order to convey the wisdom of medicine. Whilst we do not recommend this statue be purchased in replacement of what the doctor ordered, it is ideal for those seeking good health and wellbeing.
Calling the Earth to Witness Buddha
This pose, also called the Earth Touching Buddha, portrays the Buddha on the cusp of Enlightenment. It relays the moment in which Siddhartha Gautama was meditating beneath the famous Bodhi tree, when a demon named Mara emerged and attempted to persuade him to give up his goal and instead indulge in incomprehensible wealth and material pleasures. Siddhartha Gautama used meditation to overcome these enticements. Upon reaching Buddhahood, the Buddha performed the Bhumiparsha mudra to summon the earth goddess so that she could witness his success in enlightenment. In order to wash away Mara, the earth goddess wrung out her hair to create a flood which the demon could not fight off (we dread to think of her annual shampoo costs!)
As well as being seated with his legs crossed, the Earth Touching Buddha is thus associated with the Bhumiparsha mudra, and considering the nature of this backstory, is unsurprisingly an extremely popular representation of the Buddha, especially in Thai temples. The left hand is placed in the lap, with the right hand pointing to the earth with an inward facing palm.
The Contemplation Buddha can be seen both sitting and standing. It is distinguishable by the position of the hands, with both arms crossed against the chest. The right arm should always be above the left and the palms faced into the chest. This creates a sense of contained confidence and is intended to symbolise determination, humility and tolerance, especially for those seeking to heighten their spiritual resolve.
The least common of the positions and almost exclusive to Thailand, the Walking Buddha is rare in that it shows the Buddha in physical motion. This movement is communicated through the shifting of his robe to one side, and his left food placed behind the right. The right hand is raised forward and facing outward. As we may expect, the Buddha is not destination-less, nor is his destination trivial or mundane. Indeed, it is often said that he is travelling to or from Heaven in order to deliver a sermon (classic Buddha), though he is occasionally depicted wearing shoes, which would mean that he has not yet reached Nirvana otherwise he would not be engaging with such earthly and materialistic desires. We all know at least one person who is far too engaged with their footwear. Maybe this statue would be ideal for them, as this statue encourages the recognition of internal beauty and grace.
There is one major difference between the Laughing Buddha and all the other statues that we discuss here (and, no, we’re not talking about his slight weight problem): it isn’t the Buddha! Laughing Buddha, also known as Prosperity Buddha, is actually based on a Chinese Monk from the 10th Century ACE known as ‘Budai.’ Sometimes he is seen holding a sack over his shoulder or with his arms towards the sky, but other times he is simply sat and doing what he does best… laughing. The Laughing Buddha is said to bring happiness and prosperity, which is brought about when you rub his abundant belly.
As we have seen, the sitting position of the Buddha is most common throughout these statues. There are two main sitting poses. The first, known as the half lotus, hero’s pose, or Virasana, features the legs crossed over each other, with the sole of one foot turned upward. The second, called the lotus, diamond, adamant posture, or Vajrasana, is the same but with both soles of the feet upturned.
However, there are also instances where the Buddha is granted the luxury of sitting upright in a chair, called the European Sitting Pose or Pralambanasana. One famous story, for example, of a monkey and elephant visiting Buddha to make offerings is always recreated with Buddha sat in a chair. This is a particularly interesting story as the monkey in question was so overjoyed at the Buddha’s acceptance of his honeycomb gift that he immediately suffered a fatal fall from his tree. Luckily, for Buddhists and animal-lovers alike, the monkey was immediately reborn thanks to the generosity of his honey-based gift.
Speaking of gifts, the most common standing Buddha poses are the gift-giving (Varada) and protection (Abhava) Buddhas. The standing Buddha is thus intended to encourage generosity and fearlessness. With both feet resolutely planted, this pose is not expected to invigorate movement and motion, but rather the intentions and ambience of the statue can be derived from the mudra. The downward-facing soles of the feet are important to note, as they contrast with the upturned soles during meditation.
One specific example of a standing statue is the Repelling the Ocean Buddha. With two outstretched and front-facing palms, this statue tells the story of how the Buddha prevented a flood by managing to hold back a wall of water through the power of meditation, caused by a trouble-making hermit in India.
The poses of the Buddha are therefore critical to what kind of influences and encouragements you wish to cultivate in your space. The positions and mudra capture a moment which in turn can be outwardly reflected into your chosen environment.