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Introduction to Korean Buddhism

06. Buddhist Sculptures and Mudras

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Writer Jogye Date23 Mar 2020 Read705 Comment0

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06. Buddhist Sculptures and Mudras


Buddhist Sculptures and Mudras

Buddhist sculptures take on the form of Buddha and 4Bodhisattva images and they are the objects of worship for many Buddhists. AfterMahaparinirvāṇaof Śākyamuni Buddha, people made the statues of Śākyamuni Buddha in order to express their poignant yearning for and immense unselfish faith in the Buddha. This led to the creation of Buddha images.

Buddhist sculptures include the images of the Tathāgata, bodhisattvas, dharma protectors, arahats, and spiritual patriarchs. The statues of the Tathāgata are often depicted with hair which is said to have curled like the shell of a snail—one of the thirty-two auspicious signs of excellence and the eighty distinctive marks of Buddhas. With the exception of Kṣtigarbha, Bodhisattvas wear a jeweled crown, heavenly garments, and various ornaments and jewels, such as necklaces and earrings. Dharma protectors are heavily armed and carry weapons, while spiritual patriarchs are portrayed in the image of monks.


Buddhist statues are subdivided into different groups depending upon the method of enshrinement. That is, there are single, double, and triple statues. Moreover, they are depicted in various postures, such as standing, sitting, lying down, and walking. The traditional sitting postures include full lotus posture, half lotus posture, and sitting upright in a chair.

Categories of Buddhist Sculpture


1. The Tathāgata Sculpture (Yeoraesang)

This is the sculpture of the Buddha Śākyamuni. Tathāgata sculptures are distinguished by their hand mudrās and by the Bodhisattvas situated on either side, who serve as the Buddha’s attendants. The name of the Hall in each temple can also indicate the main Buddha enshrined therein. The designation "Tathāgata" is used as another name for Śākyamuni Buddha. However, the images of the Buddha have changed over time, beginning with numerous Buddhist sculptures introduced in the Mahāyāna Buddhist era. The iconography of the Buddha image has remained almost constant except for changing names and a few different hand mudrās. However, the main thirty-two auspicious signs and eighty distinctive marks of a Buddha are always maintained. The perfect image of the Buddha has an uṣṇīṣa, or fleshy protuberance, on the crown of the head, and a thin white ūrṇā between the eyebrows. He is clothed simply in Dharma robes, without any grand ornamentation.


<1> Śākyamuni Buddha

The iconography of the Śākyamuni Buddha is most often associated with the“Mudrā of Calling the Earth to Witness,”the “Mudrā of Samadhi,” and the “Mudrā of the Wheel of the Great Dharma.” Usually, he wears monastic robes, his right shoulder is bare, and he is attended by the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, Buddha Samantabhadra, the Venerable Master Anānda, and Kaśyapa.


<2> Images of Amitābha Buddha

The Buddha’s mudrās are divided into nine classes (three classes of birth and three levels of capability) according to the merits of sentient beings. He is seen with the monastic robe covering both of his shoulders. The Bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta often sit as attendants on either side of the Buddha. However, some temples have the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Kṣtigarbha as the Buddha's attendants.


<3> Vairocana Buddha

Vairocana Buddha is usually depicted with hands in the “Mudrā of the Wisdom Fist.” For this Mudrā, the left hand is in the “diamond finger” mudrā, while the right is in that of the “diamond fist”. Vairocana Buddha is accompanied by the Sambhogakāya and, together with Śākyamuni Buddha, or in some cases together with Amitābha and the Medicine Buddha, a Triad of Buddhas are formed (or the group of Five Buddhas are formed). Sometimes the Bodhisattvas Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra are enshrined as Vairocana's attendants.


<4> Maitreya Buddha

Maitreya Buddha is the Future Buddha, and a different hall is normally designated for Maitreya Buddha away from the main Buddha hall. Maitreya is most often depicted in the "dispelling fear" or "compassion granting" mudrās.


<5> Medicine Buddha (Bhaiṣajyaguru)

The Medicine Buddha relieves the suffering of sentient beings by treating inner and outer sickness, granting longevity, destroying misfortune, and granting necessities such as clothes and food. The Buddha sometimes holds the medicine jar or bowl in his left hand, with the right hand in the " Abhayajdada" Mudrā, which symbolizes fearlessness . The Buddha is attended by divine guardians of the Buddha and Buddha-Dharma.On his left is the Sunlight Bodhisattva (Ilgwangbosal) and on his right is the Moonlight Bodhisattva (Wolgwangbosal).


2. Bodhisattva sculptures

Bodhisattva sculptures are often seen with gentle expressions, and are adorned with a jeweled crown, heavenly robes, and precious jewels or decorations. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings but, motivated by great compassion, decide to remain in the world to benefit all sentient beings. Some Bodhisattva sculptures stand alone, but most appear as attendants to a Buddha. Each individual Buddhist sculpture has various characteristics and attributes, there are sitting and standing Bodhisattvas, and among the seated depictions, some are in full lotus posture, half lotus posture, or seated in chairs. The Medicine Buddha is often seen as the attendant of the Tathāgatha, therefore he can be distinguished by which Tathāgatha he is attending, and the type of object or jewel he holds in hand.


<1>The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Kwanseum Bosal)

Avalokiteśvara is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Avalokiteśvara enshrines Amitābha on the center of the head as the manifestation of the Nirmanakāya, and holds a lotus flower or a bottle of holy nectar in his hand. Avalokiteśvara is also depicted with eleven faces and a thousand arms.


<2>Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva

The Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom is normally seen with a lotus flower in his left hand and riding a lion.


<3>Samantabhadra Bodhisattva

Samantabhadra or Visvabhadra Bodhisattva is well known for his great vow and action. This bodhisattva is either depicted riding an elephant or standing on a lotus blossom throne.


<4>Kṣtigarbha Bodhisattva

Kṣtigarbha Bodhisattva is well known for his great compassionate vows. He is depicted as a monk with a shaved head, wearing a bandanna, and holding a staff with six rings. At the top of the staff is the manifestation of Amitābha Buddha.


3. The Divine Guardian of the Buddha and Dharma

In India, Dharma protectors were originally the protectors of heavens who were bound under oath to protect the Buddhas and Buddha’s teachings. These guardians of Buddhism are called Cheonbusinjang ordivine guardians.Some of the most famous images of dharma protectors include the Diamond Deva, the Four Heavenly Kings, and the King of Śākra.


4. Arahats and the Great Masters

Sculptures of Arahats, including Ven. Anānda, Kaśyapa, and Śākyamuni Buddha’s other main disciples, are called Nahansang. Great Masters include the patriarchs of Buddhist lineages and are called Josasang. They are depicted as sunims or monastics. The sculptures of Arahants usually depicted the Ven. Kaśyapa, Anānda, the other eight major disciples of Śākyamuni Buddha, the five hundred Arahats, or the twelve hundred arahats. The Great Masters or Josa include Master Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga, Vasubandhu, Dharma, Xuanzang, Jajang, Wonhyo, Uisang, and Seon master Bojo,, as well as other great masters from India, China, and Korea.


5. Hand Mudrās

The hand seals of the Buddhas are called mudrās or Suin. In mudrās, the hands and fingers are held in specific gestures in order to demonstrate different merits of the Buddhas. Mudrās are also called Ingye, Inshang, Milin, or Gyein.

Hand gestures and mudrās hold a very important symbolic significance, thus the depiction of specific Mudrās should not be modified in Buddhist sculpture. Therefore, hand mudrās can be the basis for distinguishing different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There are a wide range of mudrās, and different types include the "five tolerances" established by Śākyamuni Buddha, the nine classes of mudrās demonstrated by Amitābha Buddha, and the mudrā of the wisdom fist by Vairocana Buddha.

There are nine mudrās associated with Amitābha Buddha. These include sitting in the lotus position with both hands in front of the abdomen, palms facing upward, and the ends of both thumbs touching each other. His mudrās depict the nine possible classes of rebirth in the Geuklak, or the Land of Utmost Bliss, into which beings are born according to the merit they have accumulated. These include higher, intermediate, and lower classes of rebirth, which are further subdivided into higher, intermediate, and lower capabilities.

Śākyamuni Buddha’s "Five Tolerances" are described below:

The Mudrā of Samādhi or Meditation: This is the mudrā where one can enter in to samādhi. Sit in the full lotus position, with the left palm facing upward in front of the abdomen, and the right hand placed on top of the left, with palm facing up. The ends of both thumbs should be lightly touching.

The Mudrā of Touching the Earth: This mudrā reflects when Śākyamuni Buddha subjugated all the māras, or evils, and testified for his right to be fully enlightened, with the goddess of the earth as his witness. The left hand is kept in the mudrā of samādhi, while the right is placed on the right knee with the palms and fingers pointing down to the earth.

Turning the Wheel of Dharma Mudrā: This was the mudrā first assumed by Śākyamuni Buddha when he first taught the five disciples after his great enlightenment. This seal is not commonly seen in Korea and its depiction changes slightly depending on when the statue in question was created.

The Mudrā of Granting Compassionand the Mudrā of Fearlessness (right hand–Simuoein; left hand-Yeowonin): These hand seals clear away fear and grant protection, and eliminate sickness and suffering from all sentient beings. The right hand is raised to the shoulder, with all fingers held together and facing the ground. This mudrā symbolizes the compassionate nature of the Buddha and the granting of all wishes to sentient beings. The left palm faces out with the fingers directed downwards so that the whole left hand is facing downward toward the ground. This mudrā is seen in the depictions of many Buddhas, therefore it is also called Tongin, or the mudrā displayed by all. Śākyamuni Buddha’s standing statues, for example, normally display Simuoein on his right hand and Yeowonin on his left.

The Vairocana Mudrā: In this mudrā the index finger of the left hand is held by the clenched fist of the right. The right hand symbolizes the realm of the Buddha and left symbolizes the realm of sentient beings. Together the mudrā symbolizes unity between the Buddha and all sentient beings. However, the mudrā is sometimes practiced with hands reversed.

The last hand seal to be introduced is the anjali-mudrā, or the Mudrā of placing the palms together: This is the most common Mudrā. Also called "taking refuge," it is assumed by monastics and lay Buddhist when attending services and ceremonies, when greeting each other, or to show gratitude. When you are making this gesture, you should raise yourhandsupward to your chest with your palms together.


6. Illuminating Adornment (Gwangbae) & Enthronement (Daejwa)

Gwangbae is the illuminating adornment or "halo" depicted emanating from the back of Buddha or Bodhisattva statues. This circular depiction differs depending on the era and geographic location where the statue was created, and also which Buddha or Bodhisattva it adorns. The round illumination behind the head is called "Dugwang," while the oval or elliptical illumination behind the body is called "Singwang."

The Daejwa is the throne or pedestal where the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are seated. Although a variety exists, the magnificent lion throne and the lotus blossom throne are the most common.




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