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How to identify a Buddhist image
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To identify a Buddhist image, the most reliable information is the inscription about it, if available. The words usually express the devotee’s (or devotees’) wishes. One might sculpt or paint an image according to the description in the sutras, one’s religious experience, or one’s own preference. Without an inscription, the next best source is the relative position of the statue in the altar or in the story in which the figure appears. Failing the above, one can try an identification by considering the objects held by the image or by the animal he mounts, mudra (hand gestures) or asana (sitting or standing pose). However, unless one is very knowledgeable in Buddhism, it would be very easy to reach the wrong conclusion.

• Buddha
• Bodhisattva
• mudra (hand gesture)
• asana (pose)
• Vajra (ritual object)
• Vajrayana image


According to the sutras, a Buddha has 32 auspicious marks on his body, some of which have become stereotypical for his images, such as urna (the white curl between his eyebrows), usnisa (the fleshy protuberance on his head), and elongated ear loops. His image appears in monk form: the robe is worn with the right shoulder exposed or both shoulders covered; his head is shaved; and sometimes he has a begging bowl and/or staff, which are the must-have accessoriesof a mendicant monk.

In Theravada, there is only one Buddha — Sakyamuni. In Mahayana, many Buddhas are worshiped but their images share certain characteristics. In Vajrayana, a Buddha might have another form, appearing as a nobleman.


The Bodhisattvas are usually dressed like nobles, with fancy hairdresses or crowns, and sumptuous clothes — usually a dhoti (loin-cloth for Indian men) with dense and detailed patterns, and adorned with jewelry. They are plump, graceful and lustrous. They are sitting or standing in a soft and relaxing pose resembling the curves of the letter “S”. An exception to this is Ksitigarbha, a popular Bodhisattva who appears in monk form.


In Buddhism, mudra is a symbolic hand gesture to show the universal meanings. Although there are variations among different lineages, the popular ones are described below:
1. Bhumisparsa (earth-touching) — When the Buddha attained enlightenment, he called on the earth to witness it. The arm (usually the right arm) is pendent (i.e., held from above) over the knee with the palm turning inward, and all the fingers extending downward and touching the seat.
2. Dhyana (meditation) — One or both hands are placed on the lap (while sitting) or below the bellybutton (while walking or standing), with fingers fully stretched.
3. Dharmacakra (means turning the wheel of Law, i.e., preaching) — The hand is at chest level with the palm facing outward. The index finger and thumb touch each other to form a circle. If doing in both hands, the left palm usually faces inward, covering the right palm which is facing outward.
4. Varada (charity) — The right arm extends straight down with palm facing outward and fingers extending downward.
5. Abhaya (protection and dispelling of fear of devotees) — The right hand is up at shoulder level with the palm facing outward and all the fingers extending upward.
6. Anjali — Palms are joined and close to the chest in devotional attitude to pray or to greet.

Right hand: Dharmacakra – Preaching 
Left hand:  Dhyana – Meditation 

Right hand: Abhaya - Dispelling of fear
Left hand: Varada - Charity  

Anjali – Palms joined to
pray or to greet 

Left hand: Bhumisparsa – Earth-touching
Sitting position: Dhyana - Meditation


Asana is the sitting or standing pose. The popular ones depicted in Dunhuang are:
1. Dhyana asana — A common pose for meditation, it is also called padmasana (lotus pose); the legs are crossed with the soles of both feet facing up.
2. Lalita asana — A pose of ease. One leg (usually the right one) is pendent (and often resting on a lotus) while the other is in the usual meditative position.
3. Paryanka asana — A pose with seated knees apart and both legs pendent.
4. A pose with legs pendent and ankles crossed.
5. Rajalila asana (the royal ease pose) — Seated with right knee raised and left leg in meditative position. The right arm is hanging loosely over the right knee. The left arm is at the side touching the seat.
6. Nrityamurtiasana asana — A pose of dancing Siva (one of the three main gods of Hinduism) and various other tantric deities, to show triumph and liberation. (See photo in the Vajrayana Deity section below.)

Lalita – A pose of ease 

Paryanka–Legs pendent

Legs Pendent & Cross-ankled 

Rajalila – the Royal Ease pose

Vajra (Literally diamond; Chinese: jingang 金剛; Tibetan: dorje)

Diamond is the symbol of hardness, indestructibility and power. Vajra is the diamond club or thunderbolt of the Hindu god Indra, and is also a weapon in ancient India. In Buddhism, it symbolizes wisdom and power over illusion and evil spirit.
As a daily ritual object in Vajrayana, it is scepter-like, and could be three, five or nine pronged.

Vajrayana Deities

In the Vajrayana period (the last phase of Indian Buddhism; see Religions in Dunhuang for more details), iconography had very strict rules about the colour, proportion and appearance of images (including numbers of heads and hands, mudra and objects held).
Below is an example of a female deity Vajravarahi (literally vajra sow; Tibetan: Dorje Phagmo) who is often associated with triumph over ignorance. She symbolizes a loving mother. As such, a sow head emerges from her right ear, representing a sow feeding her farrow (litter) and who will nurse them with blood should her milk go dry. She wears a five-skulled crown and a garland made of 50 human skulls. She brandishes a curved chopper (blade) with her right hand, holds a cup made from a skull in her left hand, and a magic staff against her shoulder by her left arm. She stands in a dance pose, with her left foot on a corpse lying on its back. The swaying sashes and streamers reinforce the movements of her body and conjure up the sound of rattling bones that accompany her dramatic dance.