Historical Figures

Shakyamuni Buddha (The historical Buddha)

The Buddha was probably born c. 553 BCE (though dates range from c. 624 to c. 486 BCE), with the given name Siddhartha. His clan name was Gautama, and he was a member of the Shakya tribe, and thus later in life known as Shakyamuni, the sage of the Shakyas. His father was the tribal chief of the Shakyas and ruled the modern border of India and Nepal.

There is little factual documentation on the life of the Buddha. However, the traditional story says that the birth of an exceptional child was prophesied by wise men when they heard Queen Maya tell of a dream in which a white elephant entered her side. At the age of sixteen he married his cousin Yasodhara. Together, they had a son, Rahula. As royalty, Siddhartha had led a privileged life, sheltered from human suffering; however, as a young man at the age of twenty-nine, he left the palace to visit his subjects and observed the fundamental human conditions of old age, sickness, and death. Because of this he renounced prosperity for several years of austerity. This is a common theme in art, referred to as the Great Renunciation or Great Going Forth. At the age of thirty-five, on the forty-ninth day of meditation, he achieved enlightenment through yogic meditation near the Ganges. Meditative discipline is based upon strict ethical behavior that avoids nonvirtuous actions of the body, speech, and mind. The transcendent position of a Buddha can only be attained when an individual comes to fully realize the meaning of the Dharma through a meditative state. After achieving enlightenment through meditation, the Buddha spent the next forty-five to fifty years as an itinerant monk preaching to people of all classes.

The Buddha died around the age of eighty. His parting words to his disciples are remembered in Buddhist texts. His body was cremated, and his relics were divided among various clans who built tumuli (burial mounds) over them. This began the tradition of building stupas (commemorative mounds) enshrining relics of Buddhist saints.

Visual Elements of the Buddha


The Buddha is said to have possessed a supernatural body, with thirty-two major and eighty minor characteristics. Many of these traits reveal biological metaphors, such as ankles like rounded shells, legs like an antelope, chest like a lion, and eyelashes like a cow.

The Buddha’s hair appears as short curls and creates an ushnisha (cranial bump) that protrudes from the top of the skull as top-knot. Some scholars consider the ushnisha to be merely the top-knot of the prince and others view it as an indication of an enlightened mind. The ushnisha is sometimes topped with a finial, a decorative “jewel” or flame.

The Buddha’s distended ear lobes reference his former life as a prince, when he would have worn heavy earrings and other impressive ornamentation. Sometimes the eyes of the Buddha are inlaid with stones, providing a life-like appearance. The urna, or “third eye,” appears in low relief between the eyes of the Buddha. This mark signifies wisdom.


The Buddha is sometimes shown in royal garments and adorned with a crown and jewelry. He wears a long robe or sanghati that reveals the curvature of his torso and legs along with a jeweled belt and collar. This ornate decoration communicates sacred kingship and the concept of Buddha as prince of Buddhism.

In other artworks, the Buddha appears in the form of a meditating monk. He is shown wearing monastic robes draped across one shoulder in addition to having the characteristic distended earlobes and the ushnisha.


  • Standing Buddha - The posture of the standing Buddha is called samapada, meaning “with feet even.”

  • Walking Buddha - Walking Buddhas, presented with the left foot forward and right slightly lifted, suggest the motion of walking. Images of the Buddha walking may emphasize his earthly aspects and represent him walking among followers of Buddhism.

  • Seated Buddha - The seated Buddha is typically shown in a state of meditation, which refers to Prince Siddhartha’s lengthy meditation under the Bodhi tree in his quest for enlightenment.

  • Reclining Buddha - This posture commonly refers to parinibbana or the Buddha’s final state of enlightenment before his death. It also references the activities of rest and sleep.

Excerpt from

A. Lesovsky, DMA unpublished material.