Buddha Statue Meanings and Identity

Buddha statues come in many different shapes and forms. However, the Buddha’s hand mudras are the most revealing aspect of a Buddha statue. This is because the mudras reveal the Buddha statue meaning and identity. Indeed, the Buddha hand gestures tell a story about the Buddhist deity the statue is depicting and the mudras also portray their inspirational virtues.

Reclining statues notwithstanding, the Buddha is always depicting various gestures with his hands. As a result, the identity and Buddha statue meaning changes accordingly. However, learning the most common mudras will tell you everything you need to know. Here is my simple guide to the best Buddhist mudras.

Top Buddhist Mudras and Poses:

  1. Abhaya Mudra (Protection)
  2. Dharmachakra Mudra (Teaching)
  3. Dhyana Mudra (Meditation)
  4. Bhumisparsha Mudra (Enlightenment)
  5. Varada Mudra (Gift Giving)
  6. Vitarka Mudra (Debate)
  7. Reclining Buddha (Paranirvana)
  8. Standing Buddha (Sukothai)
  9. Laughing Buddha (Budai)

The 5 Dhyani Buddha Mudras

The 5 Dhyani Buddhas represent the most important aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, each of the five Buddhas depicts one of the 5 primary Buddhist mudras. As a result, purchasing our complete set will allow you simultaneously display the Abhaya, Dharmachakra, Dhyana, Bhumisparsha and Varada mudras.

5 Dhyani Buddha statue meanings
Set of 5 Dhyani Buddhas

Buy now and fortify your altar with this Dhyani Buddhas statue set. The Dhyani Buddhas are fully gilded in 24k gold and were hand crafted using the traditional lost wax method.

“Abhaya Mudra” Buddha Statue Meaning

Although some statues show the Abhaya mudra with the left hand, Gautama Buddha statues (historical Buddha) always depict the mudra with the flat right hand. As a result, the Buddha displays his right palm flat in front of the chest and it faces forward away from the body. Additionally, his left hand is always in Dhyana “meditation” mudra usually with the alms bowl of a Buddhist monk resting in the palm.

Therefore, if your Buddha is using this mudra it is almost certainly the historical Buddha. Although there are some isolated exceptions with more complex deities such as the Dhyani Buddhas. For example, Amoghasiddhi also uses the Abhaya mudra in the same manner as historical Buddha.

Classic Protection Mudra

Abhaya Mudra - Protection
The Buddha performs Abhaya “protection” mudra with his right hand.

Common Variations of Abhaya Mudra

Other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas sometimes portray variations of the Abhaya mudra with their left hand. Additionally, the deity is also very often holding something in the same hand. For example, a Green Tara statue holds the stem of a lotus flower between the index finger and thumb while expressing the Abhaya mudra. Devotees of the Bodhisattva “Tara” often seek her protection from fear and the eight obscurations. As a result, a female Buddha statue using this mudra is very often Green Tara or White Tara.

The Buddha statue can be seated, standing or walking while expressing the Abhaya mudra. Additionally, the mudra projects the Buddha statue meaning of protection, fearlessness and overcoming. Indeed, Protection Buddha statues presenting the Abhaya mudra are very common in Buddhist art. This is because they represent faith which is a fundamental element of Buddhism.

The Origin of the Abhaya Mudra

Buddhist folklore reveals the origin of the Abhaya mudra. This important event occurred during the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. One afternoon while walking in the elephant forest in front of a group of people, an elephant emerged from the forest and began charging towards them. However, Buddha raised his right hand and calmly displayed the Abhaya mudra. As a result, the elephant stopped charging and disappeared back into the forest.

The calmness and faith of the Buddha had saved many lives, including his own. Therefore, it has since become a symbol used to inspire fearlessness, faith and perseverance in devotees.

“Dharmachakra Mudra” Buddha Statue Meaning

Dharmachakra mudra symbolizes the spinning of the “Wheel of Dharma”. The wheel of Dharma is a metaphor for the Buddhist teachings. Therefore, the spinning wheel symbolizes that the Buddha has shared the Dharma with sentient life. As a result, the Buddha displays the mudra at chest level because the Buddhist teachings come straight from the Buddha’s heart.

The Dharmachakra mudra is displayed with both hands. 1) First, the right hand is at chest level and the palm facing outward with the index finger touching the thumb. 2) Next, the left hand is turned inward and the index finger and thumb of the left hand join to touch the circle.

“Spinning the Wheel of Dharma” Mudra

Dhamachakra Mudra Teaching Dharma
Vairocana Buddha performs the Dharmachakra mudra.

Significance of Dharmachakra Mudra

This is a very significant Buddhist mudra because it represents the inception of Buddhism. Therefore, it is only depicted by what is known as a “Sammasambuddha”. This type of Buddha discovered Buddhism on their own without following the teachings of another Buddha. Additionally, they chose to share the Dharma teachings with other sentient beings.

The appearance of a Sammasambuddha is few and far between. As a result not many of them are known to us. However, the ones we are aware of are very significant in Buddhist history (and future). Examples of the Sammasambuddha are the Buddha of our time “Shakyamuni”, the Buddha of the past “Dipankara”, the Buddha of the future “Maitreya” and Primordial Buddha “Vairocana”.

The Origin of the Dharmachakra Mudra

The Historical Buddha delivered his first sermon to 5 companions after he achieved enlightenment. Additionally, thousands of Devas and Brahmas descended from the Buddhist heavens to attend. This significant event in Buddhist history occurred at the Deer Park in Sarnath. It is during the Deer Park sermon that the Buddha first revealed the Dharma teachings.

At the sermon, the Buddha set the “Wheel of Dharma” in motion by revealing the Dharma to sentient life. This Buddha statue meaning carries great significance because it symbolizes the inception of Buddhism in our time.

“Dhyana Mudra” Buddha Statue Meaning

Buddha statues always display the Dhyana mudra in a seated position during meditation. The common practitioner would be sitting cross legged on the ground. However, Buddha statues use the seated position called double lotus. Next, the back of the right hand is resting on the palm of the left hand and both hands are resting flat in the lap. Additionally, the top of the thumbs join together to form a small triangle.

Elite Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are commonly shown holding an alms bowl in the palm of the hand while performing Dhyana mudra. Indeed, the alms bowl of a Buddhist monk has very significant meaning in Buddhism. However, it is not necessary to use it during normal meditation practice. Additionally, the Buddhist Dhyana Mudra is distinct from yoga meditation posture which has the hands on the knees.

The Dhyana Mudra with Alms Bowl

Dhyana Mudra - meditation
Amitabha Buddha displays the Dhyana “Meditation” mudra holding the alms bowl.

The Meaning of the “Mystic Triangle”

Proper position for Buddhist meditation requires that practitioners have both hands resting in their lap with the thumbs of both hands touching to form a triangle. Buddhists believe that the triangle symbolizes the unity of the triple gem – the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha. Additionally, the triangle holds a mystic fire inside that will consume all defilements (impurities).

Sometimes Buddha statues depict the Dhyana mudra with the left hand only. However, it is only necessary when the Buddha is performing a second mudra with the right hand. For example, when Shakyamuni Buddha performs the Abhaya mudra, he uses his left hand for Dhyana mudra.

The Origin of the Dhyana Mudra

This mudra was used by the historical Buddha while he was meditating under the bodhi tree. During the last days before he would obtain enlightenment, a rich woman saw him and mistook him for a tree deity. She wished to make an offering to the tree deity and she placed a rice bowl made of pure gold in the palm of his right hand. However, the Buddha took the rice out of the bowl and cast the golden bowl into the river. Additionally, he separated the rice into portions, each portion representing one day until he would reach supreme enlightenment.

Significance of the Alms Bowl

Indeed, the story of the alms bowl carries very significant meaning in Buddhism. The bowl represents renunciation of the material world and all of its comforts. Buddhists would gladly trade all the wealth, fame and pleasures in the world for the Dharma teachings. Additionally, devotees believe that the bowl holds the three nectars that eliminate the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion.

The Buddha statue meaning of Abhaya mudra is to induce peacefulness and calm. Although Buddhist adherents cannot have a bodhi tree in their meditation rooms, if they buy a meditation Buddha statue it will serve as a productive focus point during their meditation practice.

“Bhumisparsha Mudra” Buddha Statue Meaning

The historical Buddha displayed the Bhumisparsha “earth touching” mudra to summon the earth goddess. Additionally, the Buddha displayed the mudra while seated in full lotus position under the Bodhi tree. 1) The Buddha’s right hand is stretched over the right knee with the palm facing inwards. Additionally, the middle finger is lightly touching the ground. 2) The Dhyana “meditation” mudra is performed with the left hand. Also, the Buddha usually has an alms bowl resting in the palm of the left hand, but not always.

Bhumisparsha “Earth Touching” Buddha

Bhumisparsha murda - earth touching
Akshobhya Buddha performs the Bhumisparsha “earth touching” mudra.

The Origin of the Bhumisparsha Mudra

As Siddhartha Gautama was on the verge of enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree, a demon called Mara appeared and tried to dissuade him from his goal. The demon was very powerful and it tried to tempt Siddhartha with worldly pleasures and vast wealth. However, he was not to be fooled and he used meditation to strengthen his resolve.

After meditating all night he was able to fight off the evil temptations of Mara and achieve Buddhahood. At the moment of Mara’s vanquishment, the Buddha called on the earth goddess to witness his triumph by performing the Bhumisparsha mudra. Thus, the Buddha is calling the earth to witness the truth as he became a fully awakened Buddha. The earth goddess responded to his call and she rung out her hair and created a flood which washed away the demon Mara.

Because of its strong affiliation with Shakyamuni Buddha, this mudra is mostly exclusive to him. Although there is at least one exception that I know of. The Bhumisparsha mudra is also used by one of the Dhyani Buddhas called Akshobhya Buddha.

“Varada Mudra” Buddha Statue Meaning

Buddha statues present the Varada mudra when seated by stretching the right hand over the right knee. Additionally, the right hand is flat and the palm is facing forwards away from the body. However, Varada mudra can also displayed with the left hand.

Furthermore, Buddha statues displaying the Varada mudra can be seated, standing or walking. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas use the Varada mudra to express the granting of a boon such as knowledge, medicine or compassion.

Varada “Gift Giving” Mudra

Varada mudra- gift giving
Ratnasambhava Buddha statue in Varada Mudra.

A classic example of the Varada mudra is depicted by Medicine Buddha (Bhaisajyaguru). The Medicine Buddha uses the mudra to signify granting the gift of medicine to sentient life. Additionally, Medicine Buddha holds a sprig of the myrobalan plant in between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. The myrobalan plant was used as an herbal remedy in ancient India to treat disorders such as skin disease, infection, and eye disorders. It was very effective, so much so that it is still widely used today.

The Origin of the Varada Mudra

Buddhists practice generosity in order to accomplish enlightenment. As a result, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas must perform acts of generosity to complete the six perfections (paramis). However, Shakyamuni Buddha performed one of the greatest acts of generosity when he renounced his kingdom and inheritance.

When the Buddha was 29 years old he went to live in the forest as a renunciant. But before he left, he turned down all of the wealth of his father’s kingdom. Indeed, enormous acts of generosity such as renunciation are not uncommon in Buddhist history. Buddhas have lived thousands of Bodhisattva lifetimes in which they have accrued large amounts of merit from practicing the Buddhist perfections. As a result, this includes Shakyamuni Buddha but also other renown Buddhist deities such as Amitabha Buddha.

“Vitarka Mudra” Buddha Statue Meaning

This Buddha statue meaning portrays a mudra that expresses the teaching of the Dharma. The Vitarka mudra is the Buddhist symbol for intellectual debate. As a result, the Vitarka mudra is depicted close to the Buddha’s chest. Additionally, the palm of the right hand is facing outwards with the index finger touching the thumb forming a circle. Indeed, this is similar to the Dharmachakra mudra. The circle symbolizes the constant flow of energy signifying that there is no beginning or end, only perfection.

Also, the back of the left hand is flat in the lap with palm facing upwards in Dhyana mudra. Usually the alms bowl of a Buddhist monk is in the flat of the palm. 

“Debating” Buddha Statue

vitarka mudra meaning

The Origin of the Vitarka Mudra

While the Buddha was still walking the earth and teaching the Dharma, he initially forbid his monks to engage in debates. However, as Buddhism developed a large following it began to draw a lot of attention from laymen and intellectuals alike. As a result, the Buddha changed his approach and he began to engage in public debates. Indeed, the Buddha was a very gifted public speaker. As a result, he very effectively defended the Dharma against anyone who challenged him.

Significance of the Vitarka Mudra

Buddhism gained in acceptance and has become what it is today with over 500 million followers. The Vitarka Buddha statue meaning emphasizes the importance of teaching, discussion and intellectual debate. Certainly, the triumph of light over darkness requires the complete subjugation of ignorance. It is an important accomplishment that is integral to Buddhist teachings. Therefore, discussion and intellectual debate are important tools that will prevent individuals from turning inwards and possibly blocking out the light of the Buddha’s teachings.

Reclining Buddha Statue Meaning

Reclining Buddha statues are not actually depicting a Buddhist mudra. This is in contrast with standing, walking or seated Buddha statues that are always using a mudra. Instead, the reclining Buddha is seen lying on his right side. Additionally, the reclining Buddha statue uses its right hand to support his head. As a result, the flat right hand is placed under the head on a pillow or his hand is propped up on his elbow supporting the head.

Reclining Buddha Statue

Reclining Buddha Statue Meaning
Reclining Buddha Statue at Ta Cu Mountain in Vietnam.

The Origin of the Reclining Buddha Statue

Nonetheless, the reclining Buddha statue meaning is very significant in the teachings of Buddhism. This is because the reclining Buddha statue depicts the historical Buddha lying on his right side in the last few moments of his life in the earthly realm. As a result, the Buddha is entering a condition called paranirvana.

The state of paranirvana is what happens to an enlightened being at the end of their earthly life. Additionally, the Buddha had achieved supreme enlightenment during that lifetime. As a result, the Buddha has ended the cycle of rebirth and they are in the last few moments of their final life. Therefore, they will never return to the cycle of samsara and they are entering Nirvana.

Standing Buddha Statue Meaning

The description of the posture is quite simple, because the Buddha is either standing or walking. The most popular of these standing Buddha statues is known as – Sukothai –  and they originated in 13th century Thailand.

“Sukothai” Standing Buddha

Standing Buddha statue Sukothai
This Sukothai standing Buddha statue is seen inside the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas at the Kek Lok Si Temple in Malaysia.

The Buddha hand gestures that the standing Buddha statue is displaying reveal the Buddha statue meaning. The most common hand mudras used by standing Buddhas are the Varada “gift giving” and Abhaya “protection” mudras.

The historical Buddha often used the standing Buddha posture after he obtained enlightenment. Additionally, it is also common for standing Buddha statues to display the Abhaya “protection” mudra with both hands instead of only one.

Laughing Buddha Statue Meaning – “Budai”

Since Laughing Buddha is so ubiquitous in East Asia (especially China) non Buddhists confuse him with the historical Buddha. However, their physical attributes and Buddha statue meaning is completely different in many ways – especially their physical attributes. Therefore, when you see a fat laughing Buddha statue, it is Budai and he is unique to Chinese Buddhism.            

“Happy” Buddha Statue

Laughing Buddha statue meaning
Laughing Buddha statue – “Budai”

The Origin of Laughing Buddha

Laughing Buddha is a very popular Chinese deity who is also known as “Fat Buddha” or “Budai”. However, the character of Laughing Buddha is actually based on a real life Chinese monk who lived during the 10th century ACE. Additionally, the name Budai translates as “cloth sack” in Chinese. Indeed, Laughing Buddha was always holding a cloth sack over his shoulder filled with his few possessions.

The Laughing Buddha statue meaning includes bringing wealth and prosperity to devotees. Although it seems a bit silly, devotees believe that rubbing his belly will bring you luck. Additionally, Laughing Buddha statues are often depicted with small children as a symbol of prosperity. Last but not least, the Laughing Buddha statue meaning defines him as a person of good and loving character.