If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Four Buddhas at the American Museum of Natural History

The Buddha's smile represents his journey from luxury to enlightenment. He encountered a corpse, a sick man, a holy man, and an old man, leading to his realization of life's suffering. This suffering, he discovered, comes from desire, which can be overcome through right acts and thoughts. The Buddha's image, often depicted with elongated ears and sitting on a lotus flower, serves as a symbol of transcending pain and achieving goodness. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: For me, the special thing about a Buddha image is often the smile, that beautiful transcendent smile. And behind the smile is the story of how the Buddha got to the smile. SPEAKER 2: He was seeking transcendence from human suffering. And all part of this journey from growing up in a life of luxury and then leaving the walls of his palace. And encountering four things that changed the course of his life forever, a corpse, a sick man, the holy man, and an old man. And through that, he realized that life is full of suffering. SPEAKER 1: He realized that the beautiful body of a prince was really a receptacle for pus and urine and excrement. A body would be diseased, it would grow old. And these things were in permanent. Where was release? Where was happiness? Where was salvation? And what we see in this statue is the moment of realization. Suffering comes from desire. Desire can be transcended by right acts and right thought. We see the smile of liberation on his lips. We see the hand pointed to the earth, calling on the earth to witness his enlightenment. It's useful to remember that the worshipper would look up. The Buddha is sacred. The statue is placed high, in relation to us, and smiles down on us. And gives us a sense that we, too, can overcome pain and suffering of the world and get into a transcendent place. SPEAKER 2: We can see that he grew up in a life of luxury. The elongated ears, which reveals that he would have worn really heavy earrings. SPEAKER 1: But the ears being something else, besides. Yes, the lobes are distended. Yes, the lobes held jewelry. But he also has ears that mark his as a particularly special person. SPEAKER 2: We can see various Lakshanas, which represent Buddha's enlightenment. The urna, between his eyes, represent the moment of spiritual awareness. And the ushnisha, on the top of the head, the moment of enlightenment. And also, often we see the Buddha sitting on a lotus flower, a symbol of getting beyond pain and overcoming obstacles to achieve goodness. Because the lotus flower lives in the mud and eventually cleanses itself to become beautiful. SPEAKER 1: He is often portrayed in the robes of a monk, somebody who has left the world, gone to live-- in the Buddha's story-- in the forest, throughout Asia. Monks often live in mountain monasteries. They have withdrawn from the stress and strain of normal every day social life and the pain that it engenders among us. And this is a Thai statue. And if you look, you see the life body of a beautiful southeast Asian prince. You see the grace of the hands that might even make you think of the way dancers dance in Thailand. SPEAKER 2: So even though it's a classic Buddha, it's fairly recent and not from India. SPEAKER 1: Buddhism is a traveling religion. Buddhism went north and Buddhism went south. Northern Buddhism, sometimes known as Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhism of the Greater Vehicle. Theravada Buddhism-- well, Theravadans claim the original form. For Theravadans, enlightenment is an individual project. Buddhism also went north, and there enlightenment is a more collective project. Buddhism is a more collective project. One of my old professors used to say, Theravadan Buddhism, that is like getting to nirvana by private car. Mahayana is getting to nirvana by public bus. SPEAKER 2: [LAUGHING] I think I'd prefer public bus. SPEAKER 1: We'll see how different statues reflect the tastes and the characteristics of people living in all of the different places where Buddhism traveled. SPEAKER 2: Another Buddha, totally different, also recognizable as a Buddha. But look at those elaborate robes and the hair and the facial features. SPEAKER 1: Yes, there's a good reason why this statute looks the way it does. And it's a great example of how Buddhism traveled. This is a statue from Gandhara. Gandhara in Pakistan, on the AfPak border, that area that's so fraught today. And if you look at the statute, you see the facial hair, the features suggest something of people who live in that part of the world. But look at those flowing robes. Those might recall a Greek statue. The reason for that, people think, is because this was the eastern-most extent of Alexander's empire. This was a part of Asia that had very close ties to the Greco-Roman world, and a place where styles of sculpting probably were influenced by those traditions. SPEAKER 2: This Buddha is not calling on the earth to witness his enlightenment. It's a whole different mudra, a whole different posture. SPEAKER 1: And yet he's still in the lotus pose, he has the long ears, and he has that meditative expression on his face. SPEAKER 2: So now moving to Japan, this is an entirely different representation of the Buddha. To me, it's a bit austere, almost a bit intimidating. The black robes and the staff in his hand. Although recognizable because of the lotus flower that he's standing on. SPEAKER 1: And the long ears. This is a Japanese figure, a very elegant, very austere one as you've said. But this Jizo, the Bodhisattva. And he's actually a very benign figure. It's again, this idea of enlightenment via the big bus. Bodhisattvas help us. We're down here in the world of pain and there are beings who put off their own transcendence to be there for us. The most popular figure of this is Guanyin, a female Bodhisattva who, in many respects, resembles a mother. Now Jizo is sometimes identified with Guanyin. He again, swing back to the masculine side. But Jizo, Jizo is there in the world of the dead to help people get through. He's not an underworld judge. He's not a punishing figure. Jizo says, come huddle under my cloak and I'll help you. SPEAKER 2: But he is associated with death and the underworld. SPEAKER 1: In a positive sense. Because we've all got to go there, and we need somebody on our team. In Japan, he is often associated with children, a protector of children. You see shrines to Jizo in neighborhoods. And those are usually folksy figures. They're a little bit more approachable than this very austere statue. And he is a protector of dead children. There will be Jizo shrines in Japanese temples, and there'll be a lot of little Jizo figures that represent the children, themselves. And people will leave candy and toys for them. They're very, very poignant places. SPEAKER 2: My goodness, what a radical change. The fat, happy, laughing Buddha that we see all around New York City, all around the world in shops, in the back of taxicabs. SPEAKER 1: And there's a good reason for that, because this is a Buddha associated with good fortune, with fertility, and by extension, wealth. This is the Buddha that helps you when you're dealing with this quirky market, maybe makes things turn out in your favor. This is the Buddha of the future. There are many Buddhas, many enlightened beings. Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha we think of as the Buddha, was actually only one. This particular Buddha, Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, is a being who is an apocalyptic figure. He signifies changing times. And as a consequence, he seems very magical. SPEAKER 2: He's also inspired by a legend of a monk that lived 1,000 years ago, Hotei, who traveled around carrying a sack. This Buddha would have also carried a sack quite often, delivering goods to people. Candy to children, as the legend holds, rice to adults for their fields. Almost a Santa Claus-type of figure. SPEAKER 1: And in the historic existence of the monk, Budai, people probably thought, ah ha, the Buddha of the future is among us. And so the legend of the monk gets equated with the idea of the Buddha of the future. SPEAKER 2: You find people rubbing the Buddha's belly for prosperity, for wealth, for happiness. SPEAKER 1: And this is a wonderful example of how religion becomes responsive to people's needs. How people take ideas from different places and transform them and make them their own, cause them to speak to themselves, to their own needs, to their moment.