Have you ever wondered why sometimes statues of Buddha are thin and serious looking and other times he is quite round and jovial? Think of the statues in your local Chinese restaurant and then your local Thai restaurant, they represent the two main styles of Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism, predominate in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and Mongolia teaches that any one can achieve enlightenment and that several people have. This explains why Mahayana has several types of Buddha statues from the jolly round one that frequently gets his belly rubbed for luck, to heavily armed warriors clad in armor (the great Deva Wei-to, the Protector of Buddhist temples and the Buddhist Faith).
Theravada Buddhism is the other main form, primarily practiced in southeast Asia, Theravada displays the thin Buddha. Buddha is a title as opposed to a name and means the “enlightened” or “awakened” one. The historical Buddha was born in northern India (an area now in Nepal) and was a prince of great wealth, destined to be the ruler of a very powerful kingdom. He walked away from his power and wealth to find a way to break free from the suffering felt by all men and an existential concern for the human condition. The young prince named Siddhartha Gautama set out to find the path of enlightenment and studied under several teachers. After nearly starving to death in an attempt to become awakened he settled into the “middle path” which involved neither starving oneself nor gluttony. He was tempted by demons but avoided their trappings, Siddhartha sitting under the bodhi tree became enlightened and received the title Buddha.
The larger “Laughing Buddha” Ta-pao Mi-Lei-Fwo is the most popular Buddha icon from Mahayana Buddhism. The model for the Laughing Buddha was probably a cheerful, overweight Chinese zen monk or healer who wandered the countryside helping people around 950 AD. In Asia the belly is one’s spiritual center and source of power, so rubbing the Laughing Buddha’s belly brings good luck. In most Asian cultures touching the head, the highest point of the body, is a serious cultural faux pas and should be avoided. On the opposite end are the feet, you should never touch any one else’s feet as they are considered an impure region of the body and at no point should you show the bottom of your feet to any image of a Buddha.
Common symbols associated with Buddha include elongated ear lobes which represents the ability of the Buddha to hear his disciples and also represents Siddhartha walking away from his immense worldly possessions (his large gold ear rings stretched his now empty lobes). A shaved head is also common and represents separating ones self from vanity, a distraction to the path of enlightenment, this head shaving is practiced by buddhist monks today. Many statues depict Buddha with a cap of snails. Legend has it that a snail came upon the meditating Buddha and was fearful sunstroke would interrupt his thoughts so the snail and over 100 others, used themselves to shield the Buddha’s shaved head, dying in the process as they dehydrated from the sun. That is the legend of the 108 snail martyrs. Buddha’s head is typically shown elongated to imply wisdom.
Long thin fingers represent the Buddhas ability to capture people like fishing, think of Jesus fishing symbology. A stylized light radiating from the statue like a halo except encircling the entire body is also frequently seen in statues and artwork representing Buddha. Lotus flowers are often associated with Buddha the story goes that in his initial foot steps in the four cardinal directions lotus flowers sprang up. The lotus flower springs up from the mud and muck to blossom into a beautiful flower a metaphor for reaching enlightenment.
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