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How to tell one Buddha from another

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Writer Jogye Date12 May 2023 Read494 Comment0


How to tell one Buddha from another

Wherever they are enshrined, the similar appearances of Buddha statues often make them difficult to distinguish from one another. The three Buddhas in the triad look similar enough, and in some cases, they are enshrined in buildings that do not traditionally correspond to them. We need a rudimentary understanding of Buddhist iconography to tell them apart, so let’s take a look at the characteristic features of each so we can identify them.

Suin or Mudras

One telltale sign is the hands of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva. Called suins or mudras, the gestures or positions made by Buddha statue’s hands have significant symbolic and ritualistic meanings. Mudras in general have a much broader usage. For instance, Indian dance traditions use mudras extensively, making them one of the most striking features of Indian classical dance. Just as ballet has a set of stylized forms and poses to convey external events or inner feelings, mudras are a prominent part of the Indian classical dancer’s expressive vocabulary. In Buddhism, mudras are also used to evoke in the mind ideas symbolizing the divine aspects of different Buddhas, but overtime they have evolved to indicate to the faithful in a simple but sure way the identity of the Buddha represented.

Sakyamuni Buddha’s mudra

The Bhumisparsa mudra depicts Sakyamuni Buddha touching the earth to defeat the evil maras. Sitting in meditation under the Bodhi tree near a grove in Bodh Gaya, Gautama Siddhartha was on the cusp of becoming a Buddha, a fully liberated being. Realizing this, the maras led by the demon lord Papiyas mobilized fearsome demon armies and rushed to disrupt him. They were desperately unhappy at the prospect of having an Awakened One at large, because the presence of such a being meant more and more people would be persuaded to live a life of virtue. Since maras thrive off people’s greed, obsession, jealousy, delusions, and other unwholesome emotions, their livelihood was at risk.

Vast armies of demons were sent to attack Gautama Siddhartha. Maras challenged him, insisting that the land the grove stood belonged to them. Siddhartha simply reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the god of earth himself bore witness to the falsehood of the maras’ allegations and the Siddhartha’s rightful claim of the site as the predestined seat of his enlightment. This act of invoking the earth to expel maras is captured in the Bhumisparsa mudra.

The Bhumisparsa mudra is probably the most celebrated mudra in all of East and Southeast Asia, and is featured on the Sakyamuni statue at Seokgul-am grotto, one of the most acclaimed examples of Korean Buddhist art. The defeat of the maras epitomizes the annihilation of all mental afflictions, and therefore, the attainment of the nirvana. The Bhumisparsa mudra has become the most common iconic image of Buddhism, symbolizing Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment.

Amita Buddha’s mudra

While the Bhumisparsa mudra is performed with the right hand held above the right knee reaching toward the ground, Amita Buddha is displayed with his right hand raised to his chest in the Vitarka mudra. This mudra denotes the discussion and transmission of Buddha’s teachings. His other hand is held with the palm open and facing outward, in what may look like a gesture telling us to stop. When this mudra is interpreted as sending the message “Do not fear,” it is called the Abhaya mudra. This gesture of fearlessness perhaps bespeaks the most crucial reason humanity takes refuge in religion. If you have come to the temple compelled by some nameless anxiety or indefinable fear about life, Amita Buddha’s hand leads us to the wisdom of just letting it be, trusting everything will find its own way like flowing water taking its natural course. Occasionally, a variant of the Abhaya mudra is made by curling the fingers to form an ‘OK’ sign, which is a vestige of the Dharmachakra mudra(the mudra of turning the wheel) or the Navaprakara mudra(the mudra of the nine levels), popularly ascribed to Amita Buddha until the Goryeo era. These mudras are primarily made by both hands raised to the heart with fingers bent, but during the Joseon Dynasty, it became simplified to the point of resembling the Abhaya mudra.

Vairocana’s mudra

Vairocana Buddha, the master of the Great Luminosity hall, is the embodiment of teachings from the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Garland Sutra). Vairocana Buddha is easy to recognize because he displays a unique hand sign called the Bodhyangi mudra, or the mudra of the fist of supreme wisdom. Made by raising the left index finger(representing supreme wisdom) and gripping it with the right fist, it expresses the essence of the idea \\'One is in all and all is in one;\\' which is principle of unimpeded perfect interpenetration presented in the Avatamsaka Sutra. What the index finger of the left hand and the five-fingered fist of the other create together is sometimes ‘one’ and other times ‘all,’ but supreme wisdom is mysteriously hidden inside the fist. This mudra encapsulates the nature of the enlightenment Sakyamuni Buddha has attained in Bodh Gaya, which defies any attempt to describe it with words.

Since the Avatamsaka Sutra is also based on the narrative of Sakyamuni Buddha’s awakening in Bodh Gaya, the Buddha’s appearance in the world of the Avatamsaka Sutra was first depicted forming the Bhumisparsa mudra. However, Tantric Buddhism began to portray Vairocana Buddha with the Bodhyangi mudra to differentiate him, and at some point, the mudra became exclusively attributed to Vairocana Buddha alone. Korea can be safely assumed as one of the first to adopt the Bodhayangi mudra as the distinctive mark of Vairocana Buddha since the oldest extant sculpted image of Vairocana Buddha in Korea displays the Bodhyangi mudra.

Holy objects and majestic ornamentation

The holy object of the Medicine Buddha, the gallipot

Medicine Buddha is generally easy to identify. If the statue holds a small jar, pot, or bead in his left hand, it is Medicine Buddha. The jar contains his medicine.

Buddha triads and majestification

Budddhas of the past(Dipamkara and Prabhutaratna) and the future(Maitreya) have no distint mudra or posture attributed to them. Most of the time they are depicted with their right hands raised to their chest, similar to Amita Buddha. But there are still ways to identify them. If the statue in the middle is Sakyamuni Buddha making the Bhumisparsa mudra, and if the Buddha at the right is holding a pill box, that means they are the Buddhas of three directions. If the Buddha has nothing in his hands, they are the Buddhas of past, present, and future, meaning the Buddha to the left is Dipamkara, and to the right is Maitreya. However, Medicine Buddha is occasionally depicted without a pill box too and can be mistaken for Maitreya, so one needs to take notice of other details.

If the Buddha in the center of a triad displays the Bodhyangi mudra, he is Vairocana Buddha, and the triad represents the trikaya Buddhas. From the supplicant’s point of view, Sakyamuni Buddha is on the left making the Bhumisparsa mudra and Vairocana(as the sambhogakaya) is on the right, adorned with a jeweled crown and ornaments like a bodhisattva.When a Buddha is depicted in this way, it is called majesticated buddha. As explained earlier, Vairocana as sambhogakaya manifests as the reward for the incalculable merits earned in the past, and his majestification is like a medal awarded for his ceaseless efforts.

Often, the Buddhas of three directions and the trikaya Buddhas are merged, such as whenVairocana as sambhogakaya is replaced with Amita Buddha in a trikaya triad, or when Amita Buddha and Medicin Buddha flank Vaircana Buddha. This combination is called the trikaya Buddha triad of three directions.

- This manuscript is from 'Stepping into the Buddha's Land', produced by Association of Korean Buddhist Orders, published by Bulkwang Publishing.

- Pictures are from National Museum of Korea.

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