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Visitor Guide: Headliner

The Meanings of the Various Postures of Buddha Images

Each Buddhist country has developed particularities over time, which are to be seen more in a cultural than the fundamentally Buddhist context. The following is about the images of the Buddha.
Buddha statues have been made for over 2,000 years - the first probably in India. However, this is not a representation or even deification of a person, but the statues are intended as a reminder of the teachings or as inspiration for the faithful.
Although artistic styles and technical capabilities have changed over the centuries and vary from region to region, there are certain features found in most representations, such as the image of a wheel on the palms of the hands or feet, a small dot between the eyes, etc. All these are examples of supernatural features that were common to all extraordinary human beings in Indian iconography, be he a Universal World Ruler or a Buddha. The scriptures distinguish 32 major and 80 minor characteristics. According to legend, when little Siddharta, later Buddha, was born, the seer Asita appeared, discovered these 32 characteristics and prophesied a great future for Siddharta.
The following is a quotation from the "Lakkhana Sutta" (Doctrinal Discourse of Excellent Signs, in: Digha Nikaya 30):
"Thirty-two, monks, are the characteristics of a great man, with which gifted such a one can enter only two lanes, not a third. If he remains in the house, he will become king, emperor, a just and true ruler, a victor to the pith of the sea, creating security for his kingdom, [...]. And he will have over a thousand sons, brave, heroic, destroyers of the enemy armies. Then he will rule this earth to the ocean, righteously prevailing without stick or steel. But when he leaves the house for houselessness, he will become holy, fully awakened, taking away the veil of the world.
"But what are these thirty-two characteristics of a great man, monks, with which such a man can only enter two lanes, not a third?

1) "There, monks, the great man has well-fortified feet: but that, monks, the great man has well-fortified feet, that is precisely one of the characteristics of a great man."
2) "Then, monks, below, on the soles of the feet of the great man, wheels can be seen, with a thousand spokes, with rim and hub and all the insignia: this, monks, is also one of the characteristics of a great man."
3) "Next, monks: the heel is narrow, ..."
4) "... long are the fingers and toes, ..."
5) "... gentle and tender are the hands and feet."
6) "The conjunctiva between fingers and toes is broadly curved like a net."
7) "Conch-like is the instep."
8) "The legs are slender like those of the gazelle."
9) "Standing, without bending, he can feel and touch the knees with both palms."
10) "Hidden in the foreskin is the pubic limb."
11) "The body shines like gold, the skin shines like gold. ..."
12) "... It is supple, so supple that no dust or dirt adheres to it."
13) "The hair is single, the downy hair has grown in the pore one by one."
14) "The down is directed upwards, the downy hairs have grown upwards, black like eye make-up, curled like rings, they are turned to the right."
15) "The figure rises up in holy majesty, it is a cheerful sight.
16) "It has the seven convex surfaces. "
17) "Like a lion's front body, with a broad chest."
18) "He has no furrow between his shoulders."
19) "His proportions are those of the banyan tree: his length of body is equal to his breadth of arm, his breadth of arm is equal to his length of body."
20) "Equally shaped are the shoulders, ...."
21) "... mighty the auricles, ...."
22) "... the chin lion-like."
23) "The teeth are complete, ..."
24) "... evenly joined, ..."
25) "... not standing apart, ..."
26) "... the teeth are shining white.
27) "Powerful is the tongue, ..."
28) "... sacred is the sound of the voice, a tone like the song of a forest bird."
29) "Deep black are the eyes, ..."
30) "... the eyelashes like bark."
31) "A flake has grown between the brows, white and soft as cotton."
32) "And there is a crest on the tall man's head."


The elongated earlobes are not on this list, although the prince wore heavy earrings that permanently changed the shape of his earlobes.

Body positions and hand postures

In addition to these features, however, the Buddha is repeatedly seen in certain body positions (asana) or with certain hand postures and gestures (mudra). They symbolise certain events and life situations.
In Thai Buddha statues, you will only find certain hand postures and these only occur in certain postures. Other combinations are not permitted. There are six traditional mudras:

It is a standing or striding figure

  • He has either one or both hands raised like a traffic policeman. The upper arm is against the body, the forearm forms a right angle of 90 degrees to the front, the palms face forward with the fingers pointing upwards. This hand posture is called "Dispelling Fear" (Abhaya mudra). It is a calming, protective gesture symbolising promise of protection, peace and fearlessness.

  • He has either one hand (or more rarely both hands) raised. His index finger and thumb form a circle: this hand position is called "The Gesture of Instruction" (Vitarka mudra), it is the gesture of teaching and explaining.

  • His right arm hangs outstretched, palm facing forward, fingers pointing downwards in a straight line: This hand posture is called "The gesture of granting wishes" (Varada mudra). It symbolises mercy and liberality. There are also some seated figures (e.g. in Wat Pho, Bangkok) with this hand posture.

It is a seated figure

  • The Buddha is sitting with his legs crossed. He has both hands resting loosely in his lap, one hand resting on the other, palms facing upwards. This hand posture symbolises meditation (dhyana mudra).

  • His left hand lies in his lap with the palm facing upwards. His right hand rests on his right knee, fingers pointing downwards: This hand position symbolises the defeat of the demon Mara, where Buddha invoked the earth as a witness to his path. (Bhumisparsa mudra - literally: touching the earth, Thai: Sadung Mara) It symbolises the Buddha's steadfastness. This hand posture is also the symbol of forbearance and peacefulness.

  • Sometimes The Buddha sits in the meditation posture on the coiled body of a snake (in Thai: Naga Brok - Buddha under the Naga).

  • He holds both hands at chest level. The index finger and thumb of each hand form a circle, the fingertips of the left hand touch the right palm: this hand posture is called "Setting the Wheel of Teaching in Motion" (Dharmacakra mudra). Buddha turns the wheel of teaching, recalling his first sermon in the deer park at Isipatana.

In addition to the standing, walking and seated figures, there is also the reclining posture. The Buddha lies on his right side with his eyes closed and his head resting on his right hand. This position symbolises the Buddha at his physical death and entry into Parinibbana. The most famous Buddha in this position can be seen at Wat Pho in Bangkok.

Weekday Buddhas

In Thai tradition, each day of the week is assigned a Buddha statue with a particular hand posture (the exception is Wednesday, to which two figures correspond). Around 500-600 AD, this tradition is believed to have originated as believers assumed that various events in the Buddha's life took place on certain days of the week. Traditionally, Buddhists also have "their" weekday Buddha on their home altar, representing the day of the week on which one was born.
The weekday Buddhas are often seen in a row in Thai temples. Underneath are usually small alms bowls to throw coins in for one's weekday figure. It is supposed to bring luck and merit.
Furthermore, according to astrological rules, which are influenced by Hindu mythology, certain protective gods are assigned to each of the weekdays in Thailand. Each god has a mount and is also assigned a planet and a certain colour. These day colours are the traditional birthday colours in Thailand.

Buddha averts evil and disease

Buddha stands holding his right hand upwards at chest level with the palm facing outwards (in some images both hands may be raised or instead of the right hand the left hand is raised). Also called "making peace" (Abhaya mudra).

Once the Indian town of Vesali was plagued by famine, cholera and evil spirits after a drought. Buddha was called to help and he caused a heavy rain to end the drought and purify the town. Afterwards, alms bowls were filled with consecrated water, whereupon Buddha and his disciple Ananda wandered through the city praying to heal the sick and drive away the spirits with the holy water.
Another story used in this context is that the Buddha stopped his relatives from quarrelling and fighting among themselves. When the Buddha once returned from a journey, he found his relatives arguing about the proper use of river water to irrigate their rice fields. The Buddha encouraged them to find a compromise, saying that human life was much more valuable than water. As a result, the relatives buried their hostilities.
Thus, Monday is the day of peacemaking. The colour of the day is yellow. A Monday-born person is described as serious with a good memory as well as a preference for travelling.

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The Reclining Buddha

Buddha lies on his right side, his head resting on a cushion, his right palm supporting his head, his left arm resting along the side of his body.
Usually this position symbolises Mahaparinibbana, the physical death of the Buddha. It also represents complete peace and detachment from the world. However, this pose can also simply represent the resting Buddha. Usually, the soles of the feet of reclining statues are decorated.
Once there was a certain Asurindarahu, the greatest of all giants in the kingdom of giants. He was proud and arrogant because he thought he was the greatest. He asked for an audience with Buddha, but was too proud to bow before Buddha. Buddha was lying on a couch, his right hand supporting his head, his left hand lying still, his left leg resting parallel on his right. When Buddha received the giant, the latter saw the miracle of Buddha becoming taller than him. To teach the conceited giant a lesson, he showed him the realm of angels, where every angel was a hundred times greater than Asurindarahu. Thus the giant was put to shame for the way he had behaved. Before returning to his kingdom, he insightfully made his obeisances to the Buddha.
Tuesday is the day of rest, of sleep. The colour of the day is pink. A Tuesday-born person is described as serious, courageous and active, often working in service or helping professions.

Wednesday morning
Buddha with the alms bowl

Buddha stands here reverently holding the monks' alms bowl with his hands.
When Buddha once visited his family in his father's town Kapilavastu to preach to them, he was shown great respect by the family and the courtiers. After Buddha's sermon, everyone returned home. The next day, a sumptuous royal meal was prepared for the Buddha, but they had forgotten to invite the Buddha specifically and were under the mistaken impression that the Buddha would come without an invitation. Not having received the invitation, the Buddha went down the main street of Kapilavastu with his disciples, alms bowls in hand, so that the common people would provide for his sustenance. Thus, for the first time, the people of Kapilavastu had the privilege of seeing the Buddha and his disciples carrying an alms bowl and providing him and his disciples with food.
Buddha's father was not pleased that his son was begging for food with an alms bowl instead of dining at his parents' house. But Buddha explained to his father that almsgiving (Thai: pindabat) was the tradition of the Buddhas and his disciples and that they never dined at a householder's house without an invitation.
Wednesday morning stands for receiving. The colour of the day is green. People born on Wednesday mornings are described as friendly, artistic and emotional.

Wednesday afternoon
The Buddha sitting in the forest with monkey and elephant

Buddha sits comfortably and in a western manner, his left hand resting on his thigh, his right hand on his knee. He receives a honeycomb from a monkey and a water pot from an elephant as a gift.
Once, when Buddha's disciples in Kosambi got into discussions and disagreed, the Buddha retreated to a peaceful patch of forest. There he rested under a tree. Without his doing, a monkey and an elephant came to him. The monkey gave him a honeycomb filled with honey to eat and the elephant gave him a pot of water to drink. This legend shows that even the members of the animal kingdom took care of the Buddha.
Wednesday afternoon represents the Buddha. The position shows respect for all living beings. The colour of the day is light green. People born on Wednesday evenings are described as hard working and honest.

Buddha in meditation

Buddha sits in the classical meditation posture, his hands resting relaxed in his lap with the palms facing upwards. This position supports the optimal balance between rest and contemplation. It is believed that in this position energy can be received through the head and the open palms.
After submitting to various religious disciplines, but without ever finding an answer to his questions, Siddharta Gautama meditated under a Bodhi tree. Finally, enlightenment came to him. He had made it and he now had the realisation that desire, anger and ignorance are the cause of all suffering in the world. He realised that only he who can overcome desire, anger and ignorance can free his mind and realise Nibbana. Thus the former prince became the enlightened one, the Buddha.
Thursday is the day of meditation. The colour of the day is orange. Those born on Thursday are described as peaceful, calm and honest; the day of teachers, judges or lawyers.

Buddha in contemplation and tranquillity

Standing figure, Buddha standing here in thoughtfulness, his hands crossed on his chest with the left hand resting over the right hand. The Buddha is weighing whether or not to pass on his insights to others. This gesture also represents meditation and spiritual change based on personal experience.
After the Buddha attained enlightenment, he hesitated whether to teach others. Then the Brahma Sahampati appeared and implored the Buddha to present the Dhamma to other beings. In the "Brahmayācanakathā - Brahma Sahampati" (Vinaya Pitaka, Mahavagga I.05) it says:
(1) Then, after the Exalted One had spent seven days, he rose from his contemplation and went from the tree King's Place to the fig tree "Goat Keeper." There the exalted one stayed at the foot of the fig tree "Goat Keeper."

(2) Then the following thought arose in the mind of the exalted one who dwelt in solitude: The teaching I have realised is deep, difficult to understand, difficult to see through, peaceful, sublime, not accessible to logical thinking, subtle, accessible only to the wise. Yet the human world is given to desire, finds pleasure in desire, gets excited by desire. For the human world that is given to desire, that finds pleasure in desire, that is excited by desire, this teaching is difficult to understand, which is: the causal connection through the emergence in dependence. And these teachings are also difficult to understand, which are: the calming of all activities, the abandonment of things leading to rebirth, the extinction of thirst, passionlessness, complete extinction, Nibbāna. If I were to preach this teaching, others would not understand me, this would exhaust me, this would be effort for me.
(3) So these thoughtful verses, which had never been heard before, came to the attention of the Exalted One:

'With effort I realised,
          Now I give up preaching.
          This teaching is not understood by
          those ruled by greed and hatred.

The teaching goes against the current,
          It's wise, it's deep, it's hard to see through,
          Not seen by the passionate,
          not visible to the ignorant.

(4) Then the mind of the superior contemplating this inclined to inactivity, to non-expression of the teaching. Then Brahma Sahampati realised in his mind the train of thought of the exalted one and thought the following: The good world perishes, the good world perishes completely, namely, when the mind of the accomplished, holy, fully awakened one inclines to inactivity, to non-proclamation of the teaching.
(5) Then Brahma Sahampati disappeared from his Brahma world as quickly as a strong man stretches a bent arm or bends an outstretched arm and appeared before the Exalted One.
(6) Then Brahma Sahampati put the upper robe over one shoulder, bent the right knee to the earth, paid homage to the Exalted One with joined hands and said the following: "May the venerable Exalted One proclaim the teaching, may the Perfect One proclaim the teaching. There are living beings who by nature have little dust on their eyes, by not hearing the teaching they go downwards; there will be understanders of the teaching."
(7) This was spoken by Brahma Sahampati; and afterwards he said the following:
"In the past there appeared in Magadha an impure doctrine devised by defiled ones. Open this door to immortality, may the people hear the doctrine discerned by an unstained one. One who stands on the top of a rock, the people would see from all sides. To this you are like, Wise One, All-Seeing One, who has ascended to the palace of Truth. He who has destroyed sorrow looks down on the people afflicted by sorrow, overwhelmed by birth and age. Arise, hero, victor in battle, leader, blameless one, go everywhere in the world, may the exalted one proclaim the teaching, there will be understanding ones."
(8) When this was said, the Exalted One said the following to Brahma Sahampati: "With me, Brahma, this thought arose: The teaching I have discerned is deep, difficult to understand, difficult to penetrate, peaceful, sublime, not accessible to logical thought, subtle, accessible only to the wise ... If I were to proclaim this teaching, others would not understand me, this would exhaust me, this would be effort for me. So, O Brahma, these well-considered verses, which had never been heard before, came to me ... Then with me, O Brahma, the mind inclined to inactivity, to non-expression of the teaching.
(9) For the second time Brahma Sahampati said the following to the Exalted One: May the Exalted One expound the teaching, .... there will be those who understand. For the second time the Exalted One said to Brahma Sahampati: "This thought came to me, Brahma: The teaching I have discerned is deep, difficult to understand, difficult to see through, peaceful, sublime, not accessible to logical thought, subtle, accessible only to the wise.... If I were to proclaim this teaching, others would not understand me, this would be effort for me. So, O Brahma, these well-considered verses, which had never been heard before, came to me ... Then with me, O Brahma, the mind inclined to inactivity, to non-expression of the teaching.

(10) For the third time Brahma Sahampati said the following to the Exalted One: May the Exalted One proclaim the teaching, .... there will be those who understand. Then the Exalted One recognised Brahma's wish and, feeling compassion for the beings, the Exalted One contemplated the world with the Buddha-eye. Then, beholding the world with the Buddha-eye, the exalted one saw: there are beings with little limited mind, with much limited mind, with many faculties, with few faculties, with good dispositions, with bad dispositions, accessible to teachings, accessible to teachings badly; a few see the dangers and what is to be avoided for the other world.
(11) Just as in a pond of blue lotus or in a pond of red lotus or in a pond of white lotus the blue or red or white lotus plants, originated in water, grown in water, adapted to water, feed below the water level, a few blue or red or white lotus plants, originated in water, grown in water, stand level with the water level, a few blue or red or white lotus plants, originated in water, grown in water, grow above the water level, stand untouched by water.
(12) Just so, the Exalted One, beholding the world with his Buddha-eye, saw living beings with little limited mind, with much limited mind, with many faculties, with few faculties, with good dispositions, with bad dispositions, amenable to teachings, amenable to teachings bad; a few see the dangers and what is to be avoided for the other world; having seen this, the Exalted One addressed this verse to Brahma Sahampati: "Opened are the doors of deathlessness to those who hear, give credence. I realised the effort for me, therefore, Brahma, I did not (yet) proclaim the supreme teaching among men."
(13) Brahma Sahampati, having known: the Exalted One proclaims the teaching, worshipped the Exalted One, turned to the right and disappeared from there.
End of Brahma's narration.

Friday is the day of contemplation. The colour of the day is blue. Friday-born people are described as fun-loving, friendly and ambitious.

Buddha is protected by a Naga

Buddha sits in the meditation posture, his hands resting relaxed in his lap, with the palms facing upwards, outwards. Above him, the king of the Nagas spreads his five (sometimes seven) heads to protect him from a heavy downpour.
After his enlightenment, Buddha stayed under the Bodhi tree for another seven days, falling back into deep meditation so that he could no longer perceive anything from outside. Later, when a heavy monsoon rain began, it seemed that the Buddha would be awakened from his deep meditation, but suddenly Muchalinda, a Naga king, appeared and stretched his seven heads over the Buddha to protect him from the heavy rain so that he could continue his deep meditation undisturbed.
Saturday is the day of protection. The colour of the day is purple. Those born on Saturday are said to have a calm, logical character. They have something of a hermit's nature and often engage in manual work.

Buddha in mindfulness

Buddha stands mindful, his hands are at the level of his thighs, with his right hand over his left hand. His eyes are open.
It is said that after finding enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, Buddha stood up, took a step to the northeast and then contemplated the tree for seven days without blinking his eyes once, the expression on his face alert. He contemplated on the knowledge he had just acquired, on overcoming all suffering and resisting all temptations.
Sunday is the day of restraint, of pausing. The colour of the day is red. A Sunday-born person is described as decent, wise and popular with friends and family.

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