Iconography: Buddhist Iconography

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In Buddhism, the very nature of a sculptural image is complex. Not only have the conception and function of images varied over the course of Buddhist history, but also according to the particular ritual, devotional, and decorative context in which they are situated. Although there has been considerable scholarly debate about the matter, it seems clear that Buddhists began to depict the Buddha very early on, perhaps even before he died, although no such images survive. The Buddha himself is recorded in some commentaries on the Pali sutta s to have said that images of him would be permissible only if they were not worshiped; rather, such images should provide an opportunity for reflection and meditation. However, in other commentarial texts images also are discussed as viable substitutes for the absent Buddha. In any case, virtually all Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout the world contain sculptural imagesof the Buddha, bodhisattvas, minor divinities, yakas, and significant monks and saints. These images range from very simple early Indian stone sculptures of the Buddha, standing alone delivering a dharma talk, to incredibly intricate medieval Japanese depictions of a bodhisattva like Kannon with a thousand heads, elaborate hand gestures, and iconographic details.

Images of ŚĀkyamuni (The "Historical Buddha")

The earliest surviving Buddhist sculpture dates to roughly the third century bce, and the images that were produced contextually functioned as decorations and visual "texts" in monasteries. Significantly, however, the Buddha himself is absent from these very early images. Instead of his physical form, early Buddhist artisans employed a range of visual symbols to communicate aspects of the Buddha's teachings and life story:

  1. The wheel of dharma, denoting the preaching or "turning" of his first sermon, and also, with its eight spokes, the eight-fold Buddhist path.
  2. The bodhi tree, which represents the place of his enlightenment (under the tree) and comes to symbolize the enlightenment experience itself.
  3. The throne, symbolizing his status as "ruler" of the religious realm, and through its emptiness, his passage into final nirvāa.
  4. The deer, evoking both the place of his first sermon, the Deer Park at Sārnāth, and also the protective qualities of the dharma.
  5. The footprint, which denotes both his former physical presence on earth and his temporal absence.
  6. The lotus, symbolic of the individual's journey up through the "mud" of existence to bloom, with the aid of the dharma, into pure enlightenment.
  7. The stupa, the reliquary in which the Buddha's physical remains are containeda powerful symbol of both his physical death and continued presence in the world.

Later Buddhism added countless other symbols to this iconographic repertoire. In the Mahāyāna, for instance, the sword becomes a common symbol of the incisive nature of the Buddha's teachings. In the Vajrayāna, the vajra, or diamond (or thunderbolt), is a ubiquitous symbol of the pure and unchanging nature of the dharma.

Much of the very early art produced in India is narrative in both form and function, presenting episodes from the Buddha's life and, particularly, scenes from his prior lives. At sites such as Bhārhut and Sāñcī in modern Madhya Pradesh, Bodh Gayā in modern Bihar, and Amarāvatī in modern Andhra Pradesh, huge stupas were erected as part of the large monastic complexes that were built in these locations beginning in the third century bce. In addition, elaborate carvings were made on and around these stupas, particularly on the railings that encircled the monuments themselves. Many of these were scenes from the Buddha's prior lives, which also were verbally recorded in the Jātaka and Avadāna literature. These included representations of prior Buddhas, as well as depictions of key events in the Buddha's life such as miraculous conception, his birth, and his departure from the palace in search of enlightenment.

Typically, it has been assumed that because the earliest Buddhist artistic images did not depict the Buddha, there must have been a doctrinally-based prohibition against such depictions. First articulated by the French art historian Alfred Foucher in 1917, this ideagenerally referred to as the "aniconic thesis"has deeply influenced our understanding of early Buddhist art. The basic assumption has been that there must have been a prohibition against representing the Buddha in the early centuries after his death. Perhaps this was because the Buddha had, at the time of his parinirvāa, passed forever out of existence, and therefore could only be represented by his absence.

In the late twentieth century scholars began to rethink this basic assumption, arguing that perhaps these early sculptures are not reflective of a theological position, but instead frequently represent scenes after the Buddha's death, scenes of worship at prominent places of pilgrimage linked to key events in his lifesuch as Bodh Gayā, Lumbinī, and Rājagahaand are thus intended to serve as ritual records and blueprints, and visual prompters for correct veneration. In any case, what seems clear is that early Buddhists had a complex understanding of both the form and function of the Buddha's representations, and that any attempt to articulate a univocal theory of early Buddhist art is probably misguided, precisely because of the complex interactions of original intent, ritual and aesthetic context, and individual disposition. Fundamentally, then, Buddhist images project an open potential.

Actual images of the historical Buddha began to appear sometime around the turn of the first millennium, prominently in two regions: in Mathura, near modern Agra, and in Gandhara, in what is now modern Afghanistan. In Mathura, large standing images of the Buddha were made in red sandstone. The Buddha in these images is depicted as broad shouldered, wearing a robe, and marked by various lakana s, the thirty-two auspicious marks with which he was born. Described in several early texts, these included the uīa, or protuberance atop the head, elongated earlobes, webbed fingers, and dharmacakra on the palms. In the Gandhara region, the Buddha typically was depicted in what appears to be a Greek style of representation, wearing a robe that resembles a toga, and with distinctly Western facial features. These details may be evidence that an iconographic exchange took place with the Greeks who inhabited the region at the time of Alexander the Great. Many of the Gandharan Buddha images depict him seated, forming the dharmacakra mudrā literally the "turning of the wheel of dharma gesture"with his hands. In other images he is presented in a meditative posture, his body withered by the years of extreme asceticism that preceded his enlightenment. These different iconic forms were employed by Buddhist artisans (and their royal, monastic, and lay patrons) to emphasize different moments in the Buddha's life story, and to convey visually different aspects of the dharma.

By the fifth century ce, the Buddha was represented in a large array of forms and sizes. Some of these representations were truly colossal, cut from cliffs and reaching upward of 100 feeta practice that would continue throughout the Buddhist world for the next millennium. The sheer size of these images seems to have been intended to convey an understanding of the superhuman qualities of the Buddha, many of which were also expressed in contemporary biographical stories contained in various Nikāyas, the Lalitavistara, Buddhacarita, and several other well-known texts. Furthermore, such massive images would have served as a potent means of attracting new followers.

Stone and metal sculptures of the Buddha were produced in abundance throughout India. These were in addition to painted images, many of which were in caves, such as those that form the massive monastic complexes at Ajantā and Ellora. Many of these images presented the Buddha in a single pose, representing a particularly significant moment in his life. Among these, the giving of his first sermon was especially common. The Buddha typically is seated in such images, forming the dharmacakra mudrā. Oftentimes, he is flanked by several smaller figures: the five monks who first heard the sermon, the laywoman Sujatā who offered him the modest gift of food that gave him strength to attain enlightenment, two deer, and an image of the wheel.

Another common form is the Buddha at the moment of defeating the evil Mārathe embodiment of temptation, illusion, and death in Buddhism. In these images, the Buddha is seated in what is sometimes called the bhūmisparśa mudrā, or "earth-touching gesture," visually evoking the moment when the Buddha calls the earth goddess as witness to his enlightenment, and marking the final defeat of Māra. This iconographic form, sometimes presenting the Buddha as a crowned figure and including the seven jewels (saptaratna ) of the ideal king, became extremely popular in medieval north India, where it seems to have been complexly involved in royal support of Buddhism by the Pālas, the last line of Buddhist kings in India, evoking as it does the image of the Dharmarāja, the righteous ruler.

By the eighth century, a fairly common means of representing the Buddhaespecially in the monastic stronghold of northeastern Indiawas a standardized set of eight scenes known as the aamahapratiharya. This presented a kind of condensed version of the Buddha's lifebirth, enlightenment, first sermon, various miraculous events in his biography, and deaththat enabled the viewer of the image to participate ritually and imaginatively in the entire life of the Buddha by looking at and venerating a single image. In this sense, then, such images were more than visual texts or narratives; they served as means to embark upon visual pilgrimages. As such, they not only recorded past events in the Buddha's life and ongoing ritual activity, but also allowed the viewer to participate in the Buddha's life. In short, they evoke a sense of the Buddha's continued presence in the world despite his physical absence.


As the various Mahāyāna schools emerged and developed in India, Tibet, and later in East Asia, the Buddhist pantheon expanded tremendously and was reflected in both art and iconography. In India, particularly in the northeast, there was a virtual iconographic explosion after the eighth century. Although images of various bodhisattvas had been produced in the early art of Gandhara and Mathura, they became particularly prominent in the Mahāyāna. Images of Mañjuśrī were quite common in India after about the fifth century, and he is sculpturally depicted in dozens of forms. Typically, he is depicted as a handsome young man holding aloft a swordthe incisive sword of wisdom, with which he cuts through delusion and ignorancein one hand and a lotus in the other. A consistent element in his iconography is the representation of the booksometimes he holds the text aloft, sometimes it rises out of a lotus to one of his sides. In contemporary iconographic manuals, this is described as the Perfection of Wisdom text, of which he is the manifestation. In the Vajrayāna context, Mañjuśrī frequently is depicted in a wrathful form, as Yāmantaka, a buffalo-headed demon who does battle with Yāma, the god of death. Avalokiteśvara, the embodiment of compassion and the bodhisattva who sees all suffering and comes to the aid of his devotees, is perhaps the single most popular figure in the Buddhist world after the Buddha himself. He is depicted in a vast range of forms. Avalokiteśvara frequently is shown with several eyes, denoting his compassionate omniscience, and sometimes with multiple heads, as in the das'amukha (ten-faced) iconographic form prevalent particularly in Nepal.

In addition, Avalokiteśvara almost always has multiple hands, in which he holds various implements that aid him in his salvific endeavors. In the Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra and several other Mahāyāna texts, he is described as a great protector whom one invokes against a standardized set of perils (snakes, beasts, robbers, poisons, storms, and so forth), which are sometimes iconographically depicted with him. Avalokiteśvara becomes extremely popular in East Asia, where he is known as Kannon (in Japan) and Kuan-yin (in China); as Kannon, he sometimes is depicted with 1,000 heads, and as Kuan-yin he is manifested as a female figure. Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, is often depicted as a crowned, royal figure (often with a Buddha image or stupa in his forehead). He typically displays the dharmacakra mudrā, the gesture of religious discourse, since it is he who will deliver the final version of the dharma that will release all beings from sasāra. In medieval China, after the Tang period, Maitreya is sometimes iconographically transformed into Budai, a jovial, pot-bellied figure who spreads good cheer and is the special friend of children.

Transcendent Buddhas

The various Mahāyāna schools articulated complex understandings of the continued presence and power of the Buddha in the world, understood broadly as buddhatā, or "buddhaness." One particularly common manifestation of buddhatā was the five celestial Buddhas, sometimes called Jina or Dhyāni Buddhas. More properly deemed the pancatathāgāta s, this set represents the manifestation of different aspects of the Buddha's teaching and salvific power, and is depicted in both sculpture and painting (particularly maala paintings in the Vajrayāna). The five celestial Buddhas are Vairocana, Akobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitābha, and Amoghasiddhi.

Iconographically, each of five Buddhas bears specific symbols and a specific color (when painted in a maala, for example), as well as specific mudrās. For instance, Akobhya (the "unshakable one") occupies the eastern quadrant of the maala and displays the bhūmisparśa mudrā, since he is the manifestation of the Buddha's steadfastness and unshakable calm, even in the face of Māra, or the embodiment of death. Vairocana, the "radiant one," is the manifestation of the Buddha's supreme dharma, and thus his standard iconographic form displays the dharmacakra mudrā. In the Pure Land schools that developed in China and later took root in Korea and Japan, Amitābha, the Buddha of the West, became particularly important. In a wide variety of imagesstone and metal sculptures, bas-reliefs, cave temples, and paintingsAmitābha frequently is depicted at the center of a large entourage of bodhisattvas and buddhas, or more commonly is presented in a standard triad, flanked by Avalokiteśvara and Maitreya. As Amida, Amitābha continues to be very popular in contemporary Japan, and is depicted in a variety of modern images including metal and plastic sculptural forms, paintings, and even animated comic books.

Wrathful Figures

With the rise of the Vajrayāna in northeastern India around the ninth century, and its later development in Tibet, the divine pantheon expanded to a seemingly limitless degree, with a vast range of Buddha families, bodhisattvas, goddesses, yoginīs, and all manner of fierce divinities. There are numerous categories of wrathful beings in the Vajrayāna pantheon, including vajradhāra s, heruka s, lokapāla s, and dharmapāla s. These beings are projections of the base aspects of human nature: lust, anger, delusion, greed, and so on. However, when propitiated these figures are transformed into saviors who destroy the passions of the mind and protect the faithful. Their faces are depicted with strikingly wrathful expressions, their mouths contorted into angry smiles, from which protrude long fangs, sometimes dripping with blood.

Particularly in Tibet, maalas frequently depict vastly complex Buddha families and their associated divinities. Meditation and rituals focused on such divinities typically are intended to bring the divinity to life. For instance, in the practice of deity yoga the meditator can bring the divinity to life in him or herself by realizing the inseparability of the self and the divinity. In the esoteric schools that developed in Japan, the lokapāla s often flank a central bodhisattva and are depicted as sometimes fierce and menacing dark-skinned foreigners. Consistent with the early literature that lays out Buddhism's basic cosmological view, in a relative sense, such beings are very real and very active in the world. However, in an absolute sense they ultimately are creations of our minds, and therefore, like everything else, are empty. Therefore, the iconographic presentation of these divinities is intended to provide an opportunity for meditation on the very nature of reality.

Wisdom Goddesses

A range of divine and semidivine female figures also is depicted in Buddhist iconography, many of which are elaborately described in medieval texts such as the Sādhanamālā and Nipannayogāvalī. The female divinity Tārā emerges in the Mahāyāna as a divine savior who protects and nurtures her devotees. Her name literally means "star," and she was perhaps originally associated, in particular, with guiding sailors. Tārā is sometimes referred to as jagat tarinī, the "deliverer of the world." She is depicted in numerous formssometimes seated with a book, sometimes standing displaying variations of the abhāya mudrā (the gesture of no fear) or making a hand gesture of givingand is intimately associated with the lotus, denoting her characteristic purity. In addition to her very common benevolent forms, in the Vajrayāna Tārā is sometimes depicted as wrathful figure who transforms into the benign savior for her devotees when properly worshiped. Tārā was and continues to be extremely popular throughout the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna worlds, particularly in Nepal and Tibet, and she is frequently associated with Avalokiteśvara. Sometime around the seventh century, the Perfection of Wisdom texts (Prajñāpāramitā sūtras) became personified in the figure of prajñāpāramitā, wisdom incarnate, the divine "mother" of all enlightened beings. She typically is seated, legs crossed, and has either two or four arms. Prajñāpāramitā almost always forms the dharmacakra mudrā, holding both a lotus (emblematic of the purity of her teachings) and the text of which she is the embodiment.

Saints, Arhats, and Monks

As Buddhism spread beyond India, an elaborate iconographic lexicon related to arhats, monks, and saints emerged. In China, the veneration and representation of important patriarchs became prominent; arhats were frequently represented, occasionally individually but more commonly in groups. In the Chan schools in particular, where monastic lineage was central, portraits of important patriarchs were common. Most prominent was Bodhidharma, who typically is depicted as an aged monk deep in mediation. Sometimes, he is depicted floating in the ocean atop a reed, representing his voyage from India to China. Bodhidharma also is represented in a kind of aniconic form, as an abstract face painted on papier-mâché or wooden balls, and occasionally as a lascivious old man, often in the company of courtesans. This conveys Chan's understanding that enlightenment can be found in the most mundane, and even the most conventionally polluting, of activities. In Tibet, images of Padmasambhava, who is said to have introduced Buddhism and tamed the demons who inhabited the region, are common. He frequently is depicted as a robed monk with a crown, often holding an alms bowl and vajra. Prominent monks such as Atīśa and Xuanzang are common in both the sculpture and painting of China and Japan. Particularly in Japan, individual monks, often specific to a particular monastery, are presented in remarkably realistic images, sometimes life-size, three-dimensional sculptures. As with images of Śākyamuni, such sculptures function as meditational aids to be emulated, pedagogical prompters, and outright objects of devotion.

Images and Ritual

The Sādhanamālā and Ni pannayo-gāvalī are two medieval Indian iconographic manuals, written in Sanskrit and still used in the early twenty-first century. These textsand the countless other lesser-known manuals that deal with three-dimensional icons, paintings, and maalas describe in sometimes minute detail the proper way to construct an image. They cover the purifying rituals to be performed prior to the start of work, the materials to be used, the iconographic details, the specific proportion, as well as detailed instructions for the ritual practices that are associated with the image.

From the moment they appeared in the Buddhist world, visual images were intended to narrate aspects of the Buddha's life and teachings, and therefore function on the ground as visual texts to be read. In addition, they were very much intended to be objects of ritual worship. A wide range of texts are available for making and consecrating Buddhist images, from locally-produced manuals in the vernacular to pan-Buddhist iconographic manuals. Perhaps the most common form of worship in the Buddhist world is buddha pūjā, literally "honoring the Buddha." This is a ritual that typically involves making some sort of offering to a Buddha image (or to a relic or a stupa), such as a flower, a small lamp, food, or even money. Many images, particularly the stelae that were abundantly produced in the medieval Indian milieualthough this also is an iconographic theme on some of the very earliest Buddhist imagesactually depict such worship as part of the sculpture. These depictions usually are found along the base of the image, at what would in a ritual context be eye-level for the worshiper. The iconography in such cases, then, serves as a kind of visual guide to proper ritual action.

Across the Buddhist world, image construction and consecration are embedded in elaborate ritual structures. Images are made by specially trained and sanctified artisans, who follow extremely precise iconographic guidelines that dictate the proportions and specific details of a particular image. In northern Thailand, for instance, images are constructed using local ritual texts that include iconographic proportions, recitation of special protective chants (paritta ), and elaborate consecration rituals, which "enliven" the image. Of particular interest in this regard is a clearly articulated correlation between the various parts of the imagewhich in the ritual becomes the "form body" (rupakāya ) of the Buddhaand the dhammakāya, or "teaching body" of the Buddha. According to these Thai textsand there are similar manuals in other ritual contexts in Tibet, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countriesa properly constructed and consecrated Buddha image is one that makes the ritual participant feel as though he or she is in the presence of the Buddha himself.

For the laypeople and monks who participate in such rituals, the Buddha image has a special apotropaic power, often heightened by the accompanying recitation of paritta texts and various mantra s. In some instances, part of the consecration ritual involves the "instructing" of the image in the life story and teachings of the Buddha, which provides, also, the opportunity for the laity to receive this same instruction. Finally, the construction, consecration, and ritual veneration of images in virtually all Buddhist contexts provide an opportunity for laypersons to generate merit by way of donations made to the imagefood, money, material objectsand by sponsoring such rituals.

Frequently, Buddhist iconography is intended to focus the mind of the worshiper on the Buddha and his teachings, serving as a visual aid and helping the practitioner to engage in buddha anusmti, or "recollection of the Buddha." This important form of meditation involves contemplating the Buddha's magnificent qualities and internalizing them, very often with the use of a sculpture or painting. The iconography of such images, then, serves a mimetic function in that the meditator is to emulate the iconographically presented Buddha. In the process, the practitioner creates a mental image by internalizing the external iconographic form, thereby becoming like the image, and like the Buddha himself.

See Also

Bodhidharma; Buddha; Buddhism, overview article; Buddhist Meditation, articles on East Asian Buddhist Meditation, Theravāda Buddhist Meditation, and Tibetan Buddhist Meditation; Buddhist Philosophy; Lotus; Mudrā; Stupa Worship; Temple, articles on Buddhist Temple Compounds.


For a broad-ranging orientation to Buddhist iconography, see Fredrick W. Bunce's Encyclopedia of Buddhist Demigods, Godlings, Saints and Demons, two volumes (New Delhi, 1994). The Image of the Buddha (Paris, 1978), edited by David L. Snellgrove, focuses on the development and function of Buddha images across the tradition. A good initiation into the Tantric pantheon and its complex iconography is found in Marie-Thérèse Mallmann's Introduction à l'iconographie du tântrisme bouddhique (Paris, 1975). Two of the most comprehensive studies of Buddhist iconography are Lokesh Chandra's Buddhist Iconography (New Delhi, 1991), which focuses particularly on the Tibetan pantheon, and his Dictionary of Buddhist Iconography (New Delhi, 2004). For an excellent study of the particular iconography of Eastern India, and especially the later esoteric schools that were prevalent, Thomas Donaldson's Iconography of the Buddhist Sculpture of Oriss a, two volumes (New Delhi, 2001), is a treasure trove of information. In Imaging Wisdom: Seeing and Knowing in the Art of Indian Buddhism (London, 1999), Jacob Kinnard examines medieval Indian Buddhist sculpture specifically related to the important faculty of prajna. For a useful foray into the medieval iconographic manuals, see Benoytosh Bhattacharyya's Indian Buddhist Iconography: Mainly Based on the Sadhanamala and Other Cognate Tantric Texts of Rituals (Calcutta, 1958). Tucci's Theory and Practice of the Mandala (London, 1961) remains a useful study. For the recent debate about the aniconic thesis, see Susan Huntington's "Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism" (Art Journal, 1990); Vidya Dehejia's "Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems" (Ars Orientalis, 1992); and Susan Huntington's response, "Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems: Another Look," (Ars Orientalis, 1993). Donald Swearer's Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand (Princeton, 2004) presents a richly detailed examination of the ritual construction and use of buddha images in northern Thailand as well as a useful comparative survey of ritual praxis associated with images. For an important postmodern-oriented essay, see Bernard Faure's "The Buddhist Icon and the Modern Gaze" (Critical Inquiry, 1998). Finally, for a fascinating collection of essays, see Living Images Japanese Buddhist Icons in Context (Stanford, 2002), edited by Robert H. Sharf and Elizabeth Horton Sharf.

Jacob N. Kinnard (2005)