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 physical characteristics.
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 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, helpfulness, and 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.
The following is a full list of the Thirty-Two Marks, and what they signify.
- Thousand-spoked wheels on soles and palms = greeting and escorting the Noble Friend and having a selfless attitude of service to others
- Smooth and level feet = living in accordance with the Dharma and observing the three sets of Vows and the three higher trainings in discipline, meditation, and wisdom
- Webbed fingers and toes = practicing the four ways that gather disciples: generosity, encouragement, instruction, and example
- Smooth skin and tender hands and feet = providing nourishing food and drink to others
- Seven rounded and slightly raised parts of the body (hands, feet, shoulders, and the back of the neck) = giving others outstanding objects for enjoyable use
- Long fingers and toes = saving the lives of animals about to be slaughtered
- Broad heels = compassionately helping others, saving their lives, and making them comfortable
- Great height = avoiding taking the life of any being
- Attractive elbows, knees, and ankles = perfecting the six perfections of giving, ethical conduct, patience, joyful perseverance, concentration, and wisdom
- Upward growing bodily hairs = engaging in constructive practices and inspiring others to do the same
- Well-rounded calves = mastery of healing, arts, and crafts, and using them to benefit others
- Long arms = never refusing to give alms to the needy
- Concealed sexual organs = strictly observing confidentiality
- Luminous and golden skin = offering soft and comfortable seats to others
- Fine and unblemished skin = accommodating those in need of lodging
- Clockwise curling bodily hair = completely avoiding mental wandering, business, and confusion
- Mid-brow white curl of hair = serving superiors with respect and helping others achieve a better rebirth
- Broad upper torso = never humiliating or looking down upon others, regardless of their status, power, wealth, and gender, and never belittling another’s faith
- Broad and evenly rounded shoulders = giving praise and encouragement to others and acknowledging any action or person worthy of praise
- Rounded, fleshy, and full collarbone and shoulder = giving others medicine and nourishing foods
- Constant delicious taste = nursing the sick, the old, and the infirm, and caring for those whom others find distasteful and repulsive
- Stately and well-proportioned body = building gardens and parks for the enjoyment of others, and encouraging others to do the same
- Crown-protrusion = holding the Noble Friend on the crown of the head, and visiting temples and monasteries to engage in spiritual practices
- Long and broad tongue = always speaking kindly to others with words of encouragement, and treating them gently
- Melodious voice = communicating the Dharma according to the needs of each being
- Round and full cheeks = completely abstaining from idle chatter and senseless speech
- Brilliantly white eye teeth = praising the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
- Even and stainless teeth = living honestly and avoiding obtaining wealth or possessions through flattery, pressure, extortion, bribery, and pretense
- Perfectly aligned and straight teeth = speaking the truth being honest, never devious or crooked
- Forty teeth = avoiding divisive language and promoting unity and harmony among all beings
- Clear and distinct pupils and whites = looking at others with compassionate eyes, working for their welfare, and generating equal concern for all, whether their suffering is great or small
- Beautiful and long eyelashes = regarding others without any attachment, aversion, or indifference, and striving to discern what is correct and what is incorrect