Buddha statues have meaning from head to toe

by Janet Eastman, Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2008

Los Angeles, USA -- SIDDHARTHA GAUTAMA was a prince in India around 500 BC who set out to discover meaning in the suffering he witnessed. Once he found enlightenment, he began to spread his philosophy. He became known as Buddha, a title, since given to others, that means "awakened one."

Buddha statues have long conveyed the religion's teachings, according to Surya Das, a Buddhist lama trained in Tibet. "Encoded symbols in the statues were used in a preliterate, oral culture to pass on the messages," he says.

The head is usually depicted with curly, short hair, Das says, to show Siddhartha after he had cut off his topknot to renounce his privileged past. A 12th century Japanese statue that recently sold for about $14.4 million, left, is an exception. More often, the hair is neither totally shaved nor long, representing life between the extremes of indulgence and mortification.

Half-closed eyes show a state of meditation: looking outward and inward. Elongated earlobes hear what's needed in the world. Hand gestures (called mudras) have different meanings, such as teaching or protection.

Some other symbols: A dot on the forehead brings wisdom and a third eye to see unity. A full mouth indicates eloquent speech. Long arms signify generosity. White, slender fingers symbolize mindfulness, precision and purity in every act. Round heels represent an even temperament, and fine webs between toes and fingers signal interconnectedness.