-by Spencer Lloyd Peet
This article first appeared in the summer 2011 Kindred Spirit’s issue.
You probably have a Buddha statue in your home but do you know which Buddha it is and what it represents? Spencer Lloyd Peet explains the differences.
Owning a Buddha statue has become very common among non-Buddhists in the West. However, there are countless people who are unaware of what “type” of buddha they own, thinking all buddhas are one and the same, when in fact they’re not; only one of the Buddha statuettes featured here represents the actual Buddha himself, all the others are bodhisattvas, which means someone who achieves buddhahood in order to free all beings in the universe from suffering. Furthermore, there are many sects of Buddhism which has lead to hundreds, or possibly thousands, of different deities being worshipped. A number of people keep a Buddha statue in their home because it looks decorative or because it gives them a calming feeling, or it was bought for them. All of these are worthwhile reasons for owning such a piece but results in a few people being unsure as to what exactly the statue signifies and what each hand position of a statue means. So, if you would like to understand and appreciate your statue even more, and want to learn about its origin, then read on…
If you own a statue that depicts the Buddha with a flame protruding from his head (“The Flame of Enlightenment”), then it’s almost certain that you have what is recognized as a Sukhothai Buddha statue, also referred to as a Thai style Buddha. This image is typical in Southeast Asian Buddhist art, particularly Thai and Burmese. More often than not this type of sculpture found in many homes is shaped in the lotus position either with hands together resting in lap or in the “Calling The Earth to Witness” mudra, right hand hanging over right knee, palm inward, with fingers gesturing toward the earth, while left hand is positioned on lap with palm up. This posture relates to the Buddha’s moment of enlightenment. Other figurines in this style are cast with the Buddha standing with his right hand raised, palm facing outward to protect against evil and to ward off fear. The Buddha in a reclining position, which signifies his reaching Nirvana, is another familiar pose.
The various hand positions are also known as “attitudes” and it’s interesting to note that, according to the Thai zodiac, the day of the week you were born determines the hand pose your Buddha statue should be making.
The majority of these striking statues are cast in metal such as brass or silver, and it is suggested that these particular ornamentations of the actual Buddha should be placed above head height since many countries in Southeast Asia consider the head to be the most sacred part of the body.
During your meditation practice with your statuette of the Buddha aiding you as an object to fix your focus upon, you could try repeating the popular mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”, which literally means “O Jewel in the Lotus”. It is said that Om is a sacred sound from which the universe was created and some believe that it is the essence of true knowledge.
Amitabha – Buddha of the “Pure Land”
The image of Amitabha is prominent throughout Asia, from Japan to Tibet, and from India to China. In fact anywhere that practices the Mahayana form of Buddhism known as “Pure Land” (a place of paradise established by Amitabha where we will be reborn, especially if we remember his name at the moment of death). Huge statues of this inspiring icon have been erected throughout the continent, Daibutsu (meaning Large Buddha) in Kamakura, Japan and Tian Tan Buddha (meaning Big Buddha) in Hong Kong are two examples. His appearance is easily recognisable: Tight corkscrew curled hair, long earlobes and wearing a robe. Sculptures of this particular Buddha are more often than not depicted seated in a state of meditation similar to that of Daibutsu, and are usually shaped from stone or wood. Hand-carved pieces are very detailed and look absolutely beautiful, but they can be very expensive. Some people place petals in the hands of their statue to give colour to an often pallid-looking piece.
You may be surprised, even shocked, to see on some figures embossed onto his chest a swastika. Believe it or not, this motif dates back centuries and was originally used by Hindus and Buddhists as a symbol for good luck and associated with well-being. During meditation, it may be difficult for you to centre your thoughts on this symbol without thinking about the negative implications bestowed upon it since it was used by the Nazis. However, this would make for a very good mental test and an encouraging way for turning a pessimistic thought into an optimistic one whilst concentrating on the blissfulness of the “Pure Land”.
Guanyin – Buddha of Compassion
In China, Guanyin is held in high esteem as a bodhisattva (“Enlightenment Being”) and is a common feature in many homes throughout the Far East, especially in China. Known in the West as the Buddha of Compassion or the Buddha of Mercy, Guanyin signifies empathy and is said to hear and respond to the cries of the world.
The image of this celestial being is seen more and more in the Western homes, especially as a garden ornament portrayed in a feminine-looking male form seated in the pose of royal ease. But most of the indoor figurines depict the deity in long, white flowing attire taking on a female appearance.
Guanyin started out in India as a male bodhisattva called Avalokiteshvara (“Lord who looks down in compassion”) and later transformed into a goddess as part of Chinese mythology for the reason that compassion was seen as a feminine quality. She then soon found her way into the folklore of surrounding countries such as Japan and Korea where she is revered by various faiths, cultures and religions. Being non-sectarian, this idol of tenderness is the perfect icon for people of all faiths to seek comfort and guidance in. Meditating on her image can help us to look inward and become more caring towards ourselves – Having self-empathy leads to compassion and tolerance for others and gives us strength to cope with the struggles of day-to-day life. If you own such a piece, you may want to use it to reflect upon these qualities.
Hotei – The Laughing Buddha
Perhaps the most popular representation of Buddha to most Westerners is that of Hotei, also known as the Laughing Buddha or Fat Buddha. His look is instantly recognisable. He has a bald head and a large belly, and is commonly depicted holding a fan and carrying a big sack containing an endless supply of precious things. Hotei, whose name in Chinese is Up-Tai, is one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods and is said to be the incarnation of Maitreya. He is the god of contentment and is often seen in restaurants and bars and other business locations as he is thought to bring wealth and good fortune. It’s also believed that rubbing his belly brings prosperity and good luck.
Hotei is often mistaken in the West by non-Buddhists as being the historical Buddha who was previously known as Prince Siddhartha Gautama, leading to a misconception that Buddha was a hairless and very rotund man, whereas, in reality, he was quite tall and slender and is generally represented in a state of contemplation. Hotei statuettes come in all sizes in various positions. Small ones are ideal for placing on the dashboard of your car or to keep in your pocket as a lucky charm, whilst larger ones make decorative ornaments which are often produced from porcelain.
One of the attractions for owning a Hotei figurine is that his jolly appearance never fails to produce a smile on the face of anyone who looks at him; this alone results in joy and happiness, even if it is momentarily. He is sometimes portrayed as being surrounded by happy, playful children, which suggests that we, like Hotei and the children, should embrace the feeling of cheerfulness and live a joyous life. Try laughing for no reason. It sounds like such an absurd thing to do that you can’t help but laugh. You will find that this is good exercise if you are feeling sad; it’s physically impossible to remain depressed whilst you are “acting out” the suggestions of being happy. Give it a try!
Tara – Mother Goddess
Tara was originally worshipped by Hindus and was seen as the manifestation of the goddess Parvati who then became a deity in Buddhism around the sixth century CE. There are many legends of Tara; some Buddhist sects worship two goddesses, White Tara and Green Tara. It is believed that they were born out of compassion from the tears wept by bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara who became saddened by seeing the suffering of the people of the world. White Tara was born from the tears from the left eye of Avalokiteshvara, and Green Tara from the tears from his right eye.
White Tara is sometimes depicted with a fully-opened lotus and personifies compassion, beauty, longevity and the day. While Green Tara is at times represented with a half-opened lotus exemplifying youthful vitality, activity and the night.
Tara is very highly regarded in Tibetan Buddhism especially, perhaps more so than the Buddha himself, and is a tantric meditation deity who is known as Dolma, “She who saves”, or Mother Goddess.
Statues of Tara are extremely well crafted and are primarily finished in copper, brass or bronze and thus quite heavy. If you own a figure of the goddess of mercy then it is likely that you will have some knowledge of what her attributes are, since this particular Buddhist image is not so widely available in High Street retail outlets unless they specialise in Buddhist items and paraphernalia.
Whilst meditating upon the image of Mother Goddess, as with Guanyin, your thoughts should be of self-healing and acquiring inner strength as well as attaining kindness and understanding towards others.