The Marks of the Buddha

buddha2Hinayana 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.

About Tashi Nyima

I am a Dharma student, and aspire to be a companion on the path. I trust that these texts can offer a general approach and basic tools for practicing the Buddha's way to enlightenment. ||| Soy un estudiante del Dharma, y aspiro a ser un compañero en el sendero. Espero que estos textos ofrezcan a algunos un mapa general y herramientas básicas para la práctica del sendero a la iluminación que nos ofrece el Buda.
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5 Responses to The Marks of the Buddha

  1. talesfromthelou says:

    Reblogged this on Zen Flash and commented:
    Thanks again Tashi

  2. Eva says:

    I need to find out more about this. As many descriptors as possible and their interpretations both as symbolic and “real” from the actaul person to how his icongraphy developed in artwork. If i could have some leads. I am sure i could just start with google searches but maybe you would be so kind to share any specifics. I often wonder whe re do the rules so to say come from or are established for tangka imagery since it i s very concrete. that maiyetra

  3. Eva says:

    I was going to continue like that maiyetra sits on a chair. I know that this is a whole science yet i would love to know about specifics such as siddartha and amideva and green tara and maiyetra( plz excuse misspellings) how do they know a tulku there must be predescribed physical signs.or is that knowledge not open to lay folks. I can understand that but i guess i am just curious.thank you.

  4. Pingback: Going Clear | Hardcore Zen

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