How to recognize the Buddha

Standing Buddha, 15th century, Thailand, gilt bronze, 156.2 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); and Seated Buddha,15th century, Thailand, bronze, 68.6 x 48.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Additional resources

Standing Buddha at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Seated Buddha at The Metropolitan Museum of Art


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] What is a Buddha, and when you walk into a museum, how can you recognize sculptures that represent Buddha?

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:13] We thought we would identify some key iconographic attributes that help us to identify the Buddha quickly.

Dr. Zucker: [0:19] A Buddha is a being who has perfect control over their body and over their mind and who was able to achieve enlightenment and ultimately nirvana.

[0:30] We’re talking here about historical Buddha, known by several names. This is the Buddha that is most commonly represented and most commonly thought of when we say the word “Buddha,” but it’s important to know that there are countless numbers of Buddhas in different traditions.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:47] We’re looking at a standing Buddha from Thailand in the 15th century, and this sculpture includes many of the main features that we find on other sculptures of the Buddha.

[0:57] The Buddha is standing here and is wearing monk’s robes, which was a sign of his renunciation of worldly goods, but the artist or artists have given us the faintest indication of this robe. It’s framing his body and tapering outwards like a cape.

Dr. Zucker: [1:13] The artist has been careful to delineate three separate pieces of cloth, which is a tradition in the representation of Buddha.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:19] We can see one cinched about the waist that then hangs down vertically.

Dr. Zucker: [1:24] There’s the overgarment or outer mantle. And then, if you look carefully, you can see a third layer of cloth that’s delineated at the ankles.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:33] These monk’s robes are a key feature of the Buddha. Let’s talk about his hands. the Buddha is often shown holding his hands in different positions, what are called mudras, and we’re seeing a particular one here.

Dr. Zucker: [1:45] The right hand is held up.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:47] It’s a sign of protection and blessing. The other hand is held downwards. We notice that the hands have this sinuous feel to them, and there’s a reason for that.

Dr. Zucker: [1:58] The joints have vanished. They are expressions of imperfection, and this is a perfect being.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:04] We get an even better sense of this perfect being by looking at the head.

Dr. Zucker: [2:08] One of the most characteristic features of the representation of the Buddha can be found in the ears, where we see earlobes that hang down, which have come to be associated with wisdom and with the Buddha.

[2:20] Some traditions reference this as a reminder that Buddha had been born a prince, but had given up his worldly possessions. When he was a prince, he wore heavy earrings that pulled down his ears.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:33] I love how the artist here has given them this graceful curve that seems to parallel other parts of the body.

Dr. Zucker: [2:39] The face here — and in so many representations of the Buddha — expresses this wonderful sense of serenity and focus and concentration. The eyes are slightly downcast, the mouth curls in a smile, and there’s a perfect sense of stillness.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:55] In what looks like a bun on the top of his head is an ushnisha. It is to communicate that the Buddha has gained so much knowledge that his mind needed room to expand. We also see a flame on top of the protuberance; that is yet another indication that he’s achieved enlightenment.

Dr. Zucker: [3:12] There’s a reference to an earlier point in his life, when he cut his hair short as an ascetic, that is, when he was giving up his worldly possessions. We can see that represented in those little bumps that cover his cranium.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:23] This statue would have at one point been gilded, and that would have further suggested the divine nature of the Buddha.

Dr. Zucker: [3:31] There is one important symbol that is missing in this particular representation, but it may not have originally been missing.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:38] That is what’s called an “urna.” It’s what looks like a dot that is often in between the eyebrows, and it’s actually a whorl of hair. It’s a sign of auspiciousness, a sign of the Buddha’s wisdom and teaching.

Dr. Zucker: [3:50] It’s entirely possible that this sculpture once had one that had been painted.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:54] If we look at another Buddha, we see many of these same features — the ushnisha, the protrusion on the head, the short curly hair, the elongated earlobes, the attention to the body — but in this particular sculpture, we see the Buddha seated in a different position, with different hand gestures.

Dr. Zucker: [4:13] The position of the body, seated in something that is often referred to as the lotus posture, is a reference to the yogic control of the body that Buddha had attained.

[4:22] Here, the Buddha is shown with a different mudra, his hand reaching down just about to touch the earth. That simple gesture is a symbol that would encompass, for a Buddhist, a longer and more complex story of the Buddha achieving enlightenment.

[4:39] By reaching his finger down, he’s calling earth to witness his enlightenment. It is at that moment that he’s able to fully renounce his attachment to the world and to come to know the way that he can express this knowledge to other humans.

[4:53] Buddhists believe that life is suffering, and that people are reborn over and over again, which is known as “samsara,” but upon reaching enlightenment, Buddha was able to break this cycle.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:06] And so with these two sculptures that we’re seeing, despite the Buddha being shown at different moments in his life, shown in different postures with different hand gestures, we have enough of the same iconographic attributes that still allow us to identify this figure as the Buddha.

[5:21] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "How to recognize the Buddha," in Smarthistory, August 4, 2022, accessed June 25, 2024,