Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Buddha's True Face I

In the Dhammadayada Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha says, “Monks, be heirs of my Dhamma, not heirs of material things”. Obviously the Buddha wanted his disciples to give more attention to his liberating teaching than to things like his bodily remains or personal possessions. Nonetheless, after his parinirvana his disciples felt deeply his absence and longed for some form of closeness to their beloved teacher. In time, this led to the cult of relics. If also led to a great interest in what the Buddha looked like. There are many references in the Tipitaka to the Buddha’s personal appearance. In the Anguttara Nikaya it says, “It is wonderful, truly marvelous, how serene the good Gotama’s presence is, how clear and radiant his complexion”. In the Sonadanda Sutta, he is described as being “fair in color, fine in presence, stately to behold”. Although these and other passages from the suttas make it clear that the Buddha was extraordinarily handsome, they are only descriptions. Devotees wanted more than that, they wanted to actually see the Buddha’s face. Consequently legend gradually developed that several very ancient and exceptionally beautiful Buddha statues were not just artists impressions of the Buddha but actual portraits of him. The most famous of these statues was at Bodh Gaya.The earliest Buddha statue found at Bodh Gaya and now in the Indian Museum in Calcutta dates from the year 383 CE. Although much damaged it is still an impressive piece of sculpture, the facial features in particular showing serenity yet determination. In about the first half of the 5th century, a statue was installed in the then newly built Mahabodhi Temple and within a very short time the belief arose that this statue was a portrait of the Buddha. It came to be known as the Image of the True Face or more commonly, as the Mahabodhi Image. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang who visited Bodh Gaya in the 7th century has left us this detailed description of the Mahabodhi Image. “He (the statue) was facing the east and as dignified in appearances when alive. The throne on which he sits was 4 feet 2 inches high and 12 feet 5 inches broad. The figure was 11 feet 5 inches high, the two knees were 8 feet 8 inches apart and the two shoulders 6 feet 2 inches. The Buddha’s features are perfectly depicted and the loving expression of his face lifelike. The statue stands in a dark chamber in which lamps and torches are kept burning, but those who wish to see the sacred features cannot do so by coming into the chamber. In the morning they have to reflect the sunlight onto the statue by means of a great miror so that the details can be seen. Those who behold them find their religious emotions much increased”. The story concerning the statue’s origins as told to Hiuen Tsiang is as follows. The Brahmin who built the Mahabodhi Temple wished to enshrine a statue in it but for a long time no suitable sculpture could be found. Eventually, a man appeared who said he could do the job. He asked that a pile of scented clay and a lighted lamp be placed in the temple chamber and the door be locked for six months. This was done but being impatient the Brahmin opened the door four days before the required time. Inside was found a statue of surpassing beauty, perfect in every detail except for a small part of the breast which was unfinished. Some time later, a monk who spent the night in the chamber had a dream in which Maitreya appeared to him and said that it was he who had moulded the statue. Six hundred years later the Tibetan pilgrim Dharmasvamin was told a story about the image’s origins reminiscent to this one but differing from details, indicating that the legends were constantly evolving. According to Dharmasvamin, three brothers fell into an argument about which religion was the best. On being told that Buddhism was inferior to others the youngest brother went crying to his mother. She called the three boys and told them to go to the Himalayas and ask Mahesvara for his opinion. Mahesvara of course confirmed the younger brother’s belief in the supremacy of Buddhism and all three brothers decided to become monks. The eldest built a monastery at Veluvana, the second built one at Isipatana and not to be outdone, the youngest brother decided to make a Buddha statue for the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya. In a dream he was told to get material consisting of one part precious substances, one part fragrant substances and one part sandalwood paste, place it in the main shrine of the Temple and to keep the door closed for a particular period of time. This was done but he opened the door before the appointed time and inside found the statue complete except for the little toe on the right foot. The mother of the three boys who had known the Buddha when she was a young girl, declared that the statue was exactly like the Buddha except in four respects. Where as the Buddha’s usina was invisible, it could be seen on the statue, the Buddha moved but the statue did not, it could not teach the Dhamma and it did not radiate light.


Soe am i said...

Bhante, with the new year, may you have that blessed and fruitful moment!

By the way what is "usina"?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Soe Am I,
The usina is the lump on the top of the Buddha’s head and one of the 32 signs of a Great Man that supposedly manifest on a Buddha;s body.

Lonlysky said...

Dear Bhante, is there any picture of the original Mahabodhi's Buddha Image?

Happy new year to you!

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Lonlysky,
The statue disappeared long ago and thus we have no picture of it. However, the topmost, east facing shrine in the great Kumbum stupa in Gyantse in Tibet has a statue in it which is supposed to be a copy of the Mahabodhi Image. During my recent trip there I examined the statue very carefully and took pictures of it. If you give me your address I would be happy to send you a one of the photos.

Lonlysky said...

My email is

Thank you very much Bhante! And if I may say, I like your writings a lot :-)

හලහකෝන් said...

Hi Lonlysky

Is it possible for me to have a copy of the picture of the original Buddha's Image?

Vincent Halahakone

හලහකෝන් said...

Dear Lonlysky

Could you please send me a copy of the picture of the original Buddha image

with metta


Kharageous said...

Can i have a copy too?? My id is

Lonlysky said...

Dear Sirs

I've never got that photo, so unfortunately I cannot share it with you. You'll have to ask Bhante for it, and I will be glad to have one too :-)

හලහකෝන් said...

Dear Bhante

Is it possible to post me a copy of the pictures you have of the Buddha statue taken in Kumbum in Gayntse, Tibet.

Thanking you in advance