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There are no extant representations of the Buddha represented in artistic form until roughly the 2nd century CE, partly due to the prominence of aniconism in the earliest extant period of Buddhist devotional statuary and bas reliefs. A number of early discourses describe the appearance of the Buddha, and are believed to have served as a model for early depictions. In particular, the "32 signs of a Great Man" are described throughout the Pali Canon, and these are believed to have formed the basis for early representations of the Buddha. These 32 major characteristics are also supplemented by another 80 secondary characteristics (Pali:Anubyanjana).
In Mahāyāna Buddhism, including the traditions of Esoteric Buddhism, the 32 major characteristics and 80 minor characteristics are understood to be present in a buddha's sambhogakāya, or reward-body. In contrast, a buddha's physical form is understood to be a nirmāṇakāya, or transformation-body.
The earliest surviving phase of Buddhist art was generally aniconic, with the Buddha being represented as symbols such as a footprint, an empty chair, a riderless horse, or an umbrella. Later, iconic sculptural traditions were established, with two of the most important being in the regions of Gandhara and Mathura.
The first statues and busts of the Buddha were made in the Gandhara region of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan under Indo-Greek influence. Many statues and busts exist where the Buddha and other bodhisattvas have a mustache.
In the Pali Canon a paragraph appears many times recording the Buddha describing how he began his quest for enlightenment, saying:
So, at a later time, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life—and while my parents, unwilling, were crying with tears streaming down their faces—I shaved off my hair & beard, put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.— Ariyapariyesanā Sutta
After examining the cult of the Buddha image in India, Gregory Schopen concludes that followers of Mahāyāna at this time played little to no role in introducing statuary and other physical depictions of the Buddha. Mahāyāna sūtras from this period such as the Maitreyasiṃhanāda Sūtra, only address the image cult as an object of criticism, if it is mentioned at all. Schopen states that followers of Mahāyāna were generally uninterested in worshipping buddhas, but rather in becoming buddhas, and their outlook toward Buddhist practice was "profoundly conservative."
The Buddha is traditionally regarded as having the Thirty-two Characteristics of a Great Man (Skt. mahāpuruṣa lakṣaṇa). These thirty-two characteristics are also regarded as being present in cakravartin kings as well.
The Digha Nikaya, in the "Discourse of the Marks" (Pali: Lakkhaṇa Sutta) (DN 30) enumerates and explains the 32 characteristics. These are also enumerated in the Brahmāyu Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (MN 91).
It is generally held, including by Bhikkhu Analayo, that the 32 marks are a later addition. Texts such as the Dona sutta (AN4:36) mention seeing one of the marks in the footprint, but comparative studies do not include the wheel mark itself.
The suttas often state these are recognisable by Brahmins trained in such prognostication of a mahapurisa (a great man) who would be either a Buddha or a wheel turning monarch. There is no reference to non-Brahmins seeing them, in fact in several places in the Suttas, such as in the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN2), the protagonists could not recognise the Buddha when surrounded by other monks, showing a normality in physical appearance (which would certainly not be the case if the 32 marks were present).
Possessing these marks is therefore seen in these suttas as an expert qualification from Brahmins of the Buddha's authenticity and status, and therefore a converting tool to the Brahmin orthodoxy. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any clear connection to Vedic or Vedanta texts that would show this to be the case. More investigation is required to give evidence of the 32 marks as recorded as being sourced from Brahmanical or Vedic tradition.
Since early statues and icons of the Buddha do not seem to have these features, it has been proposed by Bhikkhu Analayo that some may have in fact formed from the stonemason or sculptor, particularly the webbed fingers which would protect the delicate fingers of the statues from damage. The fleshy protuberance of the head likewise originally being just a stylistic representation of a top-knot of hair, a common feature of Indian holy men.
It is presently speculative whether the statues were later built with the 32 marks in mind, so that should a qualified Brahmin seeing a statue displaying such characteristics, the Brahmin would want to know to whom the statue represents and be interested in Buddhism. It is likewise speculative later Buddhists produced such iconography to reflect the trend from the Lakkhana Sutta as being a genuine necessity, or that they in fact took symbolic representation of the marks as a means of recollection (Buddhanussati). There are no texts or commentaries to suggest these proposals, however future comparative studies may provide esoteric evidence.
The 32 major characteristics are:
The 80 minor characteristics of the Buddha are known to be enumerated a number of times in the extant Āgamas of the Chinese Buddhist canon. According to Guang Xing, the 80 minor marks are related to the 32 major marks, and are merely a more detailed description of the Buddha's bodily features. In the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra, the question is posed about the relationship between the major and minor marks, and it is said that the minor marks are among the major marks, but not mixed with them, just as flowers in the forest make the trees distinctive. These 80 minor characteristics became significant as well, as were adopted by Buddhist traditions including both Mahāyāna and Theravāda traditions. In Pali literature, the 80 minor characteristics are found in the Apadāna and the Milindapañha. Some scholars believe the 80 minor characteristics were an early development in the Buddhist tradition, but held as important mostly by the Sarvāstivāda school.
The eighty minor characteristics are:
The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra expounds the causal relations of the 32 signs of perfection of the Tathagata. These causal relations are cultivated by followers of Mahāyāna Buddhism on their path to buddhahood.
Lion’s Roar said: "O World-Honoured One! Why are there the retrogressing and the non-retrogressing Bodhisattvas?" [...] "O good man! When the Bodhisattva-mahasattva practises such 32 kinds of causal relations, he gains a mind that will not retrogress from the mind that seeks Bodhi."— The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra - Chapter Thirty-Four: On Bodhisattva Lion’s Roar (b)
The table below summarizes the causal relations from which each of the 32 signs come about:
|Sign of perfection||Causal Relation |
|Flat soles||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva is immovable in his upholding of the precepts, in his mind of giving, and is like Mount Sumeru in abiding in the true word.|
|Thousand spokes||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva fittingly offers things to his parents, the honoured ones, elders, and animals.|
A square and upright body
|The Bodhisattva-mahasattva takes joy in non-harming and non-stealing and is pleased regarding his parents, honoured ones and teachers.|
|Toe-membrane (like that of a great royal swan)||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva practices the four ways of guiding in [i.e. to guide beings in by: 1) giving, 2) friendliness, 3) good actions, 4) transforming himself and co-existing with them as the beings themselves], and takes in beings.|
|Soft hands and feet||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva, when his parents, teachers and elders are ill, himself washes and wipes, holds and rubs their limbs.|
|Joints and ankles fully fleshed
Skin flows in one direction
|The Bodhisattva-mahasattva upholds the precepts, listens to the sermons, and knows no end of giving.|
|Ankles of a deer-king||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva single-mindedly gives ear to Dharma and expounds the right teaching.|
|Body rounded and perfect (is like the nyagrodha tree)
Fingers reaching the knee (when hand is stretched down)
Usnisa (Buddhic protuberance on the crown of the head)
|The Bodhisattva-mahasattva acquires no harming mind, is satisfied with his food and drink, and with giving, and attends to illness, and dispenses medicine.|
|Genital organ lies hidden||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva, when he sees a person in fear, extends help [to that person], and when he sees a person without any footgear, gives him clothing.|
|Delicately soft skin
Bodily hair turns to the right-hand side
|The Bodhisattva-mahasattva readily befriends wise men, segregating himself from the ignorant; he takes pleasure in exchanging views and sweeps the path along which he walks.|
|Body shines brightly in a golden colour and light||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva always gives men clothing, food and drink, medicine, incense and flowers, and lights.|
|Full and right-set (firm) in the seven places of the body||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva gives, does not grudge at [hang on to] whatever is rare, and easily parts with such; he makes no distinction whatever between a field of weal or a nonfield-of-weal [i.e. the recipient of dana - charity - is likened to a field, by cultivating which one’s blessings and virtues increase].|
|Boneless parts of the body are full (upper part is like that of a lion)
Elbows well-balanced and delicate
|The Bodhisattva-mahasattva seeks wealth lawfully and gives this away [to others].|
|40 teeth are white and pure, well-balanced and delicate||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva segregates himself from double-tongue [two-facedness], from ill-speaking and an angry mind.|
|Two-fanged face||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva practises Great Loving-Kindness towards beings.|
|Lion’s cheeks||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva takes this vow: "Any may come and ask, and I shall give as they desire to have."|
|Taste that is the mid-upper||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva gives whatever kind of food beings desire to have.|
|Large and long tongue (i.e. a symbolic expression referring to his great prowess in oratory)||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva exerts himself in the 10 good deeds and thereby teaches others.|
|Buddha-Voice||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva does not speak ill of the shortcomings of others and does not slander Wonderful Dharma.|
|Blue(or Deep Black) tone of the eyes||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva sees all enmities and gains a pleasant [i.e. happy] mind.|
|White (tuft of) hair on the brow||The Bodhisattva-mahasattva does not conceal the virtues of others, but praises the good which they have.|
Some have noted that in at least two discourses in the Pali Canon, the Buddha may be interpreted as being bald as if his head were shaven.