Buddha. A lot of people have a Buddha statue. When and where did he live? Who was he?
The depiction of Buddha is currently most often used as a statue. The statues come in all weights, shapes and forms. The largest statues can be found in Asia and are sometimes tens of metres high. They’re often made out of stone or bronze, but golden ones also exist. They often depict a meditating Buddha. A characteristic of Buddha is the knot-like bump on top of his head. This stands for wisdom and spirituality.
Some Buddhas have a dot on their forehead, representing the divinity. The position of the hands and arms show another characteristic of a Buddha. One arm and hand face downwards, pointing to the earth or touching the earth, to call upon it as a witness. Various alternatives to this arose over time. Buddha statues from a certain country will have a distinct characteristic.
Gautama Buddha or Siddhartha Gautama Buddha was a spiritual leader who, according to historical science, probably lived in Nepal from about 450 BC to 370 BC. He lived to be eighty years old.
He was born in the South of Nepal. His father was the king of that area. According to tradition, Siddhartha Gautama was a prince whose parents were told by several wise men that their child would either be an unsurpassable great ruler or would reject all earthly goods and achieve enlightenment. Since his father preferred the former prediction, he was surrounded by the best earthly goods, so he wouldn’t have to experience any dissatisfaction or bad things. He would then not have to reject all of his possessions. His father built three palaces and Siddhartha Gautama spent all his time within the high walls of the palace. That’s how he spent the first 29 years of his life.
After 29 years he however started thinking a lot about life and he wanted to see what the ‘real’ life outside the palace was like. He secretly went into the city at night, along with his servant. To his horror, he saw an old man, a sick man and a dead man. He never saw an old, sick or dead man before because of his protective upbringing, so he asked his servant for an explanation. He was told that all people get old, get sick and die. And that this is a normal thing. Siddhartha Gautama also saw a calm and composed monk walk by. He asked his servant what kind of man this was, and was told it was a monk who voluntarily rejected all of his possessions to live a life of simplicity, with a focus on spiritual development. Shortly after, Siddhartha left the palace and his family (including his young wife and child) and started to live like a monk in the woods of India.
He studied in Benares with two very famous and respected masters and soon became familiar with their teachings. He however felt that this did not offer a solution to the suffering he was still experiencing. He therefore went his own way and started a six year long period of self-flagellation (hurting oneself). He lived far removed from society, alone in the woods, ate very little and became so emaciated he almost died.
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After six years he realised that self-harm also didn’t lead to enlightenment (also called nirwana) and the end of suffering. He found a medium between achieving sensual pleasure and self-flagellation and decided to meditate under a bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, until he either achieved full enlightenment or death. After 49 days he achieved enlightenment. From that moment on, he was Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. He was 35 years of age at this time.
He started to teach his newfound insights (the Dharma) to others. He held his first lecture in Sarnath. During the following 45 years he travelled through the former states of northern India. He became a highly respected spiritual leader. The kings of the two largest states became his disciples, just like many others from all walks of life. Many people decided to become monks or nuns in the monastic order (Sangha) of the Buddha. He died in Kushinagar, age 80. His lectures and speeches were recited and remembered by his followers. That’s how Buddhism started and spread by his followers.
The smiling or laughing Buddha
In soapstone or gilded, between chopsticks and on markets you can find him, even in our western countries. The smiling man with the bald head and his big, bare belly. The laughing Buddha is a nickname of the Chinese Zen master Pu-Tai Ho-shang, who lived somewhere between the sixth and tenth century and found ‘the Buddha within himself’.
He wandered through China, carefree and perfectly happy, often surrounded by children. After his death he was revered as a folk hero and a god of happiness. His statues can still be found in many living rooms, as a luck symbol. Other than that, it has nothing in common with the traditional Buddha.
One of the characteristics of Buddha statues and of other Buddhist figures, is the position of the hands, the mudra. Each mudra has its own meaning. These are the most common ones:
Dharmachakramudra – Two hands in front of the chest, with the index fingers and tips of the thumbs pressed together. This position symbolises setting the Wheel of Teaching in motion.
Bhumisparshamudra – The right hand down, fingers facing down, and the palm towards the body. This position symbolises the connection with earth.
Varadamudra – The right hand down, fingers facing down and the palm facing outwards. This is the hand position of blessing and generosity.
Dhyanamudra – Both hands folded together in the lap – the historical Buddha during daily meditation.
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