Buddhism  Symbolism and Sculpture – the Thread That Unites Asia

Ross Hunter, Founding Director, ESS School, Lefortovo

Recently, I have been privileged to talk to Moscow’s English Language Evenings (ELE) about Buddhism and its place in Asia and to re-visit some of the most imposing Buddhist sites. It is striking how many places now offer Russian language menus and help – proof that S and SE Asia are of increasing interest to Moscow residents. This short pictorial essay seeks to offer a beginner’s introduction to what the symbols and artifacts mean, the better for visitors to enjoy what they see.Buddhism is the thread that unites Asia, from the edges of the Mediterranean world to the shores of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Over 2,500 years, Buddhism has enriched and melded with all aspects of religion and culture across the region, and nowadays beyond, too. In each corner of Asia, the form of the Buddha has adapted to local customs. Further, south Asia’s sacred ‘stupa’ becomes east Asia’s pagoda: both convey the same cosmology.

The first time tourist, like me, is baffled by the sheer scale of pagodas, stupas and Buddha figures, with their different gestures and meanings. This is not the place to try and explain Buddhist thought or theology. There are plenty of excellent guides. The Buddha, Prince Gautama Siddhartha Shakimuni (~550-486 BC) is revered as both teacher and exemplar of the path to personal enlightenment/paradise, ‘Nirvana’, the end of earthly suffering. As such, his image conveys key reminders of his stature, and his posture reveals his earthly actions. Here follows a very simple guide, illustrated with statues from great museums and sacred places.The Buddha.  This is in northern Laos, near Luang Prabang. Features of all Buddha figures: rod-straight back, for purity and constancy; extended head ‘ushnisha’, showing exceptional wisdom; long ear lobes indicating nobility; tight hair curls – when Buddha withdrew from daily life, he shaved his head, as ascetic monks do, and it re-grew in this special form. Eyes and mouth – closed showing inner meditating; in the shape of Lotus petals, and this is the Lotus position.

The Lotus: the plant symbol of Buddhism – immaculate beauty and perfection, having lifted itself from murky, muddy roots. Lotus petal shapes often seen at the base of a statue, and around the head.

Gold Buddha with 7 snake heads. 

‘Naga Raja’, literally The Snake King (stylized seven headed cobra) – support and protector, hence the umbrella and vigilance. Snakes also vital in Hindu cosmology, as the stirrer of the ocean of milk that started life in the universe.

Dress: varies by region. Usually the best clue to geographical origin. Very simple, monastic renunciation of fashionable pretensions.





The Lotus position of meditation.

Eastern China, approx. C.9th

Each significant pose is called a ‘mudra’. The Buddha is deep in meditation: ‘Dyanamudra’.

Eyes closed, body straight, hands and legs in perfect relaxation, the better to focus on deeper thoughts. Note the tall ushnisha, extended ear lobes, and the east Asian facial features and dress.

Behind the Buddha is the ‘aura’, a halo showing the light of beyond-earthly wisdom, decorated with tiny images of Buddha in key spiritual acts. Stories from earthly life are below, and he is guarded by two ceremonial lions.


Abhayamudra: reassurance and support.

The Buddha is seated in meditative position, with the right hand raised to near shoulder height, palm towards the subject.

This is part of the glorious mad-made holy mountain pyramid of Borobudur, in SE Java. In his alcove, he is again guarded by a lion-like creature (in this case, possibly a mixture of local and Hindu mythical creatures). Other statues are in bell shaped ‘stupas’.

The whole edifice of Borobudur is a ‘mandala’, a physical model of the theological universe, with each heavily engraved layer showing another stage of higher enlightenment.The teaching position

This wondrous collection of stupas is close to the summit of Borobudur. While most of the monument has been exhaustively and reverentially restored, some things have been left as they were found. The missing stupa allows us to see the teaching position, with hands together, as if counting off key points of a lesson.

This is particularly associated with Buddha’s first sermon, following his enlightenment, at Sarnath, near the Ganges, in present day India.Seated Buddha, right hand touching the floor  The moment of enlightenment, Bhūmisparsa mudra, as Buddha calls the mother earth to witness his triumph over ignorance and the false gospel of the devil Mara. Note the right hand about to touch the earth, symbolically linking heaven and earth, through Buddha.

This status is in Vientiane, Laos.

 Huge gold reclining Buddha statue

Finally, ‘Paranirvana’, the moment of relinquishing earthly life and attaining infinite peace, nirvana. This is often mistakenly called the sleeping Buddha.

The most famous Paranirvana is probably that in the royal palace in Bangkok. This one is again in Vientiane. Note also the bell shaped stuipa behind, and the stylized lotus blossoms surrounding the base. On the soles of the feet are the Hindu/Buddhist ‘wheel of life’  marks, central to the cycle of life and suffering, only released by attaining nirvana, salvation.

These few photos and words cannot do justice to the subject. But I hope it has whetted your appetite enough to enjoy a book or a museum, and if the lucky chance occurs, to visit one of the great Buddhist sites. You will be well rewarded.