Art History: The Image of Buddha
Buddha Statue

The laughing Buddha
Diana Blake (BellaOnline's Art History Editor),


Most of us are familiar with sculptural Buddhas -- jovial men dressed in robes with large bellies. Some even believe a few rubs to the Buddha's belly will bring luck. Although the Buddha is a familiar icon in Western culture today, the history of the image of Buddha in artwork stretches over 2000 years and represents the Eastern religion of Buddhism, one of the five major religions in the world today.


In the Buddhist religion, a Buddha is any individual who has become spiritually enlightened. However, most Buddha sculptures throughout history are modeled on Siddhartha Gautama, often referred to as "the Buddha," or simply, "Buddha." It was Siddhartha Gautama who founded the religion of Buddhism in the fifth century AD and is considered to be the most significant Buddha of our times. Accounts of Gautama Buddha's life have been passed down through oral tradition and provide a wealth of information that appears in connection with his artistic portrayal.


The earliest images of the Buddha that are known to us were executed during the first century. However, this doesn't mean that Buddha was not artistically depicted before this time. Some scholars believe that earlier images have not survived. Others believe that anthropomorphic images of Buddha were either not allowed or not desired since Buddhist art as early as the fourth century BC depicted Buddha through various symbols that include the parasol, the deer, the lotus flower, and the stupa -- a grave monument.


Anthropomorphic images of Gautama Buddha usually show him in one of several common positions: seated, reclining or standing. The positions are called asana. Asana are also yoga positions that refer not only to the physical position of the body but to the position of the spirit. The practice of yoga is physical and spiritual practice associated with the Buddhist tradition as a means of attaining spiritual enlightenment. Along with asana are murda, or hand gestures, that symbolize a specific quality or experience of the Buddha. For example, a raised right arm with an outward-facing open palm represents "protection." Various asana and mudra are preferred in various regions. For example, the mudra in which the extending index finger of the right fist is enclosed by the left fist signifying "knowledge" is prevalent in Japan but is rarely seen in India.


Two common signs of Buddha's enlightenment are the presence of a lump upon his head and long earlobes. Central Buddhist texts also define more than one hundred physical characteristics of Buddha; these include wide bluish eyes, golden skin, body hair that curls clockwise, 40 teeth (the average person has 32 teeth), and dark curly hair.


Another popular Buddha image is that of the emaciated Buddha which represents a time in Buddha's life when he engaged in asceticism in his quest for enlightenment. As an ascetic, Buddha denied himself of worldly possessions including food. Hence, the emaciated Buddha is a skeletal image with deep eye sockets and protruding ribs.


Interestingly, the laughing Buddha with which most people are familiar is a representation of Hotei, a Buddha who is expected to succeed Gautama Buddha in the future. He is modeled after a Chinese monk and represents contentment and abundance.

Editor: Wang Xinyu
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