A row of golden Buddha statues inside of a temple.
A row of golden Buddha statues inside of a temple.

The Buddha statue is a symbol of devotion. Although Buddha statues may differ artistically between cultures, some features and meanings remain the same. Common characteristics among Buddha statues include the Buddha standing, sitting or lying down; a bump of knowledge on top of the head; a dot in the middle of the forehead, which represents the all-seeing third eye; hands held in various gestures, representing the historical Buddha’s teachings; and the all-hearing elongated earlobes.

The Historical Buddha

A close-up of a Buddha statue's hand gesture.
A close-up of a Buddha statue's hand gesture.

During the 5th century B.C., Siddhartha Gautama, the leader and founder of Buddhism, set out to find a solution for world suffering in northern India, or present-day Nepal. After attaining enlightenment through meditation and analysis, he was elevated to the Buddha. The original teaching of Gautama is the core of Buddhism, known as Theravada Buddhism, which was limited to a small sect of monastic monks. Statues, created in his image throughout Asia, depict the lean and graceful Buddha, posing with different hand gestures or madras. Each madra reflects a particular teaching.

Hand Gestures and Positions

A large Buddha statue sitting on a pedestal in Hong Kong.
A large Buddha statue sitting on a pedestal in Hong Kong.

The Big Buddha statue in Hong Kong depicts the Buddha sitting. His right hand is raised, palm out, and the left hand is extended outward with the palm facing up and the two middle fingers slightly bent, which represents protection and overcoming fear. Large Buddha statues in Japan and Korea depict a serene and calm Buddha seated with either legs crossed or one resting on the other. Both hands rest in the lap and face outward, which represent meditation. Common to Thai temples is a Buddha statue that depicts a posture known as "calling the earth to witness," which represents the moment of enlightenment for Gautama. The reclining Buddha or Nirvana statue of South Korea depicts the Buddha lying on the right-hand side on top of a table, representing Gautama Buddha’s last moment before death.

The Laughing Buddha

A statue of a colorful, happy Buddha.
A statue of a colorful, happy Buddha.

Buddha, which means "enlightened one," is a title rather than an actual name. Mahayana Buddhism, which followed Theravada Buddhism, spread throughout East Asia, bringing enlightenment to all people rather than to a select group. As well as the historical Buddha statue or "Shaku Buddha," as it's translated in central Asia, you might find Buddha statues that reflect a number of enlightened beings such as the laughing Buddha,, which depicts a laughing bald monk in robes. This statue takes root from an eccentric Chinese monk who lived over 1,000 years ago. Statues may show the laughing Buddha holding a fan, said to grant wishes, and, according to legend, will bring forth wealth, good luck and prosperity to whomever rubs his belly.

Common Symbolism

A Buddha statue in the garden with elongated ear lobes.
A Buddha statue in the garden with elongated ear lobes.

Statues from mainland Asian may depict the historical Buddha or Shaka Nyora seated on a lotus with four petals. The lotus symbolizes purity, which grows from mud, and the four petals represent India, China, Central Asia and Iran. Similar to the lotus, the Buddha grew from the mud or material world and remained pure. Both ancient and modern Buddha statues show the Buddha with elongated earlobes. The elongated earlobes have two meanings. It’s suggested that Siddhartha Gautama's ears were pierced as a child, and the holes were stretched with cylinders to accommodate plugs. However, once he renounced materialism, he removed the plugs, which left his earlobes elongated.