Hinayana and Mahayana sutras list the 32 major and 80 minor marks of the Buddha, which include implausible characteristics such as an exceedingly long tongue, extending up to the hairline; webbed fingers and toes; long arms, reaching down to the knees; and 40 teeth (human children have 20, adults have 32).
Two mistakes are common when reading or hearing of these marks of the Buddha: literalism and denial. Literalists would have us believe that the Buddha was patently inhuman in appearance, while those who refuse to accept such descriptions question the veracity of the teachings, based on the absurdity of these marks.
However, the Lalitavistara Sutra provides insight into the original meaning of these marks, which are idiomatic expressions. All human languages utilize such expressions, as in the modern “wise as an owl”, “strong as an ox”, “busy as a beaver”, and many others. Within the cultural context of central India during the time of the Buddha, as well as in the period during which these texts were composed, the idiomatic expressions attached to the marks of the Buddha conveyed specific meanings.
The following four examples from the Lalitavistara Sutra should suffice to make clear the intended meaning of the marks of the Buddha:
- The Buddha is called the one who has an exceedingly long tongue, because he has abandoned erroneous speech, singing instead the praises of the disciples, the solitary realizers, and the teachers of the Dharma, requesting the sutras taught by the Tathagatas, reciting and reading and comprehending them, and skillfully conveying the meaning of the Dharma to all beings.
- The Buddha is called the one who has webbed fingers and toes, because he has skillfully gathered beings with the net of conversion, with giving, kind speech, and helpfulness, with deeds that match words.
- The Buddha is called the one who has exceptionally long arms, because he has acted in body, speech, and mind with love intent on never harming beings.
- The Buddha is called the one who has forty teeth, because he has given up harsh words, and words that foster divisiveness, and is eager to bring all into accord, speaking against slander and argument, reciting words of conciliation.
The marks of the Buddha, then, are intended as a description of the character, and not the physique, of the Buddha. They are elements of an iconography of mind, not form.