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Understanding Symbols of the Buddha Represented in Art

{3 representations of Buddha in Cambodia}
In anticipation of Cambodian New Year, please enjoy this post by my guest contributor Rosalyn Timbie, friend and mother-in-law, former teacher and always an art lover.
The kingdom of Cambodia was the most powerful kingdom in South East Asia during the third through the sixth century A.D. Their leaders were influenced by the achievements of the Indian civilization, valuing their knowledge and religion. They combined the Buddhist and Hindu beliefs, adapting them to their own distinct cultural patterns. Images of both religions are found today throughout Cambodia.

To discern the use of the symbols used to explain and enhance the Buddha, makes looking at an image, whether a sculpture or painting, more interesting and meaningful. Little is known of the Buddha's life beyond the fact that as a young prince he renounced that life; achieved enlightenment; and spent many years teaching and preaching the "middle way" between asceticism and a worldly life.

Images of him are represented in a variety of poses which relate to the "32 Signs of Greatness" he exhibited from an early age. He is usually depicted wearing monastic robes and with one or more of the "32 Signs of Greatness".

The head shows a large lump on the top called e "usnisa" which is an auxiliary brain giving him extra intelligence The rest of the head is often covered in snail like curls twisting clockwise or sun-wise which is an auspicious sign. It is said when he left home he cut his hair with his sword; it curled that way; and was never cut again.

The "urna" is represented either by a tuft of hair emitting luminous rays or a round dot between the eyebrows denoting excellence or super human insight or seeing power. It is the third eye of the Enlightened One. A halo behind the head further indicates the super human insight. Wheels with spokes on the palms of the hand and the soles of the feet are other marks of insight.

The extremely long earlobes recall the renunciation of his princely life and worldly possessions among which would have been elaborate and heavy earrings which would have stretched his ears.

A seated Buddha may be in the full lotus yoga position, the sign of a yoga ascetic, seated cross legged with soles upturned perhaps showing the spoked wheels. A second position might be the semi-yoga position with one foot tucked under. Hand positions, "mudras" recall some of his miraculous powers; "dhyana" has hands resting in the lap, palms upward indicating meditation; "abhaya" is the gesture of blessing or reassurance and has the right hand raised to the shoulder, palm outward; "varada" shows the right hand resting on the right knee, palm outward, a gesture of giving or charity; "bhumisparsa" or earth-touching relates specifically to the moment just before is Enlightenment and shows the right hand resting on the right knee with the fingers pointing downward.

Symbols have a great deal of power and help a culture explain and enhance images when accompanying the oral traditions. For all of us they give the images deeper meaning and become more than just something beautiful to view.

{CT Scans of Buddha heads for artwork appraisal. Click on images to read more.}

{Sleeping Buddha at top of a sacred mountain in Phnom Kulen, Cambodia}
Photo by Sophorn McRae: This is where my dad's dad came to medidate as a Buddhist monk. Buddhism is part of our history and culture and we respect anyone striving for peace.
Thanks Rosalyn!

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