Buddha Statues: Meaning of Postures and Poses

seated Buddha

anuchit kamsongmueang / Getty Images

Buddha statues across Asia are representative of the teachings and travels of Gautama Buddha. Each statue features common physical attributes, poses, and postures that define its purpose and meaning. 

The hand gestures of the Buddha, called mudras, indicate teaching, meditation, enlightenment, and wisdom. Similarly, the postures of the Buddha each have a specific meaning. Buddha is most often represented in three positions: sitting, standing, or reclining. Though less common, there are a few representations walking Buddha, as well.

Key Takeaways:

  • The four postures of the Buddha are reclining, sitting, standing, and walking. The most common of these is the seated Buddha. 
  • The reclining Buddha is in the final stage of earthly life, before reaching nirvana-after-death. 
  • The sitting Buddha is often teaching or meditating, though more can be learned from the mudras, or hand positions. 
  • The standing Buddha is rising to teach after reaching nirvana. 
  • The walking Buddha is either beginning his journey toward enlightenment or returning from teaching a sermon.

History of Buddha Iconography

Artistic iconography of the Buddha first appeared between the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. in India, the geographic origin of Buddhism. As Buddhism spread into Southeast Asia, artistic representations of the Buddha began to appear in Thailand and Laos, as well.

These first icons of the Buddha were not created until centuries after the death of Siddhartha Gautama, and they were never intended to represent the physical attributes of the man. Instead, each image represents the spirit of the teachings of Buddha. In this way, these icons possess a soul or a spirit. The artists who create the statues must be in a state of spiritual connectedness in order to represent the spirit of the teachings of the Buddha. 

Reclining Buddha

reclining Buddha in Laos
Reclining Buddha with this head and right hand supported by a pillow at Wat That Luang Temple in Laos. Paul Biris / Getty Images

The reclining Buddha features the Buddha lying on his right side with his head supported by a pillow or his propped up hand and elbow. Though this representation of the Buddha can indicate sleeping or resting, it is most commonly a representation of the final moments at the end of the life of the Buddha.

Called parinirvana, this transitional state occurs only to those who have reached enlightenment, or nirvana, during their lifetime. Those who achieve nirvana are released from samsara, the cycle of rebirth, and karma. Instead, when they die, they reach nirvana-after-death or the eternal Self.

Sitting Buddha

varasana, or half lotus, sitting Buddha
A sitting Buddha in varasana, or half lotus pose at Tiger Cave Temple in Thailand. cinoby / Getty Images 

The sitting Buddha is the most common representation of the Buddha. These Buddha statues can represent teaching, meditation, or an attempt to reach enlightenment. Hand gestures, or mudras, are essential in determining what a sitting Buddha means. For example, the bhumisparsha mudra, or the position in which the Buddha rests his left hand palm up on his lap and his right hand palm down, fingers toward the earth indicates that the statue is calling the earth to witness.

There are three different positions of the sitting Buddha: virasana, vajrasana, and pralambanasana. Virasana, also known as hero’s pose or half lotus, depicts the legs crossed over each other and the sole of one foot is turned upward. Vajrasana, also called the adamant posture, lotus, or diamond, depicts the legs folded over each other with both soles of the feet turned upward. Pralambanasana, also called the European Sitting Pose, depicts the Buddha seated upright in a chair.

Standing Buddha

standing buddha
Standing Buddha with feet firmly pressed into the ground, wearing shoes. Located at Mount Phousi in Laos.  Tuomas Lehtinen / Getty Images

The standing Buddha is indicative of being stationary, with both feet planted firmly side-by-side. During this position, the Buddha has stopped, and the reason for this halt can be determined by the mudra of the hands.

Most often, the standing Buddha is repelling conflict or rising from meditation to teach the Four Noble Truths after reaching nirvana.

Notably, the feet of the Buddha are planted firmly on the ground, indicating the Buddha is ready to begin traveling and teaching. By contrast, when the soles of the feet are facing upward, as in vajrasana, the Buddha is in the receiving position, during meditation.

Walking Buddha

walking Buddha
Mountaintop walking Buddha. The right foot is posed behind the left and the robe sways to one side, as if in motion. Ratnakorn Piyasirisorost / Getty Images

The walking Buddha is the least common of the Buddha postures, seen almost exclusively in Thailand. It features the Buddha standing, with one foot placed in front of the other with the robe shifted to one side, as if in motion. This position indicates inner peace and grace. The Buddha is often considered to be either beginning his journey to teach or returning from heaven after delivering a sermon.

Though most often the walking Buddha is said to have already reached nirvana, there are some depictions of the walking Buddha wearing shoes. These shoes mean that, though the journey toward enlightenment has begun, the shoes are preventing him from connecting with the earth. He needs to remove his earthly desires before he is able to reach enlightenment.

Sources

  • Gethin, Rupert. Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Harvey, Peter. The Selfless Mind Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism. Taylor and Francis, 2013.
  • Matics, Kathleen I. Gestures of the Buddha. Chulalongkorn Univ. Press, 2008.