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  • Writer's pictureBarry Shirley

My latest painting (Blue Buddha Head) and Interesting points about Buddha heads/statues

Updated: Feb 17, 2020

The above painting is a mixed media/acrylic on canvas and depicts a blue Buddha head on which is written all-over with the Sanskrit words ‘Atma Prema’ (unconditional love) and the English word ‘Love’. It also depicts snails on top of the Buddha’s head (see explanation further below).

Siddhartha Gautama was born circa 623 BCE in Lumbini, Nepal or 480 BCE and died in 400 BCE (all these dates are disputed). In Sanskrit, Siddhartha means ‘He Who Achieves His Goal.’ Siddhartha was born into royalty and soon realised that living a conditioned life was not going to bring eternal happiness or protection from suffering.

After coming face to face with suffering, Siddhartha decided to leave his royal duties on the quest for enlightenment. He left secretly and over six years, practiced with meditation teachers and finally decided to remain in meditation underneath the Bodhi Tree until, after conquering much fear and temptation, he reached enlightenment/self-realisation after 49 days.

This was called nirvana representing liberation in Buddhism. This is a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self (i.e. the middle way), and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth. It represents the final goal of Buddhism.

He then became Buddha, the Awakened One/Enlightened One, and has been signified by Buddha statues for centuries. Buddha statues are more than a physical depiction of Buddha, they all have meaning. Each pose, posture, expression and hand gesture are significant to the life of Buddha. There are over 100 different poses that illustrate the life of Buddha, also called an asana or attitude, and hand gestures are referred to as a, Mudra.

A Buddha is anyone who has attained Bodhi; and by Bodhi is meant wisdom, an ideal state of intellectual and ethical perfection which can be achieved by man through purely human means. The term Buddha literally means enlightened one, a knower.

Early Buddhism did not portray the Buddha himself. Instead an empty throne and the Bodhi Tree were used to represent the Buddha. The first hint of a human representation in Buddhist symbolism appear with the Buddha footprint in the first century CE.  Buddha head

statues did not appear until the 2nd century CE.

The Blue Buddha head is associated with the Akshobhya Buddha and the healing aspect of Blue Buddha. The Akshobhya buddha originates from the blue mantra "Hum". And is one of the five dhyani buddhas (wisdom buddhas). Blue represents tranquillity, ascension, the infinite, purity, and healing. Overall, the colour represents wisdom. The light blue speaks of the limitless heights of ascension simultaneously; it embodies the duality of living and dying.

Generally, the Buddha head statues are depicted with a protruding head, which symbolizes the disconnection between the mind and body. Such state is also known as Bodhisattva. Similarly, Buddha heads are also known to have another protuberance, on the top of the Buddha's head, known as the ushnisha, which is a three-dimensional oval at the top. The ushnisha represents the attainment of the Buddhas enlightenment and his reliance in the spiritual guide, though the original function of the ushnisha may have been to represent a crown on the Buddha's head.

The facial structure of the Buddha heads usually has half-closed eyes which show a state of meditation: looking inward into the self as well as outward. The faint smile on the statue also depicts the serene nature and nobility of the Buddha after attaining enlightenment. A dot between the eyes, or the urna, is also another peculiar feature of the Buddha heads.

A round tuft of hair sometimes seen between the eyebrows symbolizes the supernatural vision of the Buddha. Elongated earlobes on the Buddha heads represent the Buddha's hearing power which is believed to indicate that he hears what is needed in the world. However, the exact reason behind his elongated earlobes may be due the vestiges of his life as a prince, when he wore extravagant and heavy jewellery and earrings on his ears.

The hair of Buddha is depicted in individual, tightly curled coils (and variously as snails).  According to legend, Buddha had to shave his head only once - when he cut off his hair to be an ascetic. After his initial tonsure, the Buddha's hair adhered tightly to his scalp in rows of snail like curls.

Hair is often metaphorically regarded as human being's illusion. Therefore, it is also called "weeds of ignorance" and having a shaved head, symbolically, represents getting rid of those illusions. It is believed that to achieve the level of true understanding and enlightenment, we should keep our body and mind clean. That's why we often see Buddhist monks having a shaved head. Even history suggests that Siddhartha Gautama Buddha had cut his hair when he left his palace to achieve enlightenment

But when we see Buddha statues and other forms of art, Buddha is portrayed with short and tight ringlet curls. There are around 108 ringlet curls on the Buddhas head. So, one might think why the artists have been portraying Buddha with short ringlets? There are numerous beliefs. One belief/legend suggests that those ringlets are not short hair; they are actually 108 dried snails.

One day, the Buddha was roaming around. He began to ponder so he sat down under the tree and start to meditate. He became so immersed in his thoughts that he didn't notice the time. As time passed by, the sun rays were directed to his bald head.

At that moment, a snail was making its way along the ground. The snail noticed that the Buddha was meditating on that hot day. Even though he sat under the tree, the sun rays were directed towards his head. The snail thought that the Buddha's head was soon going to become a distraction and it would be hard for him to concentrate. Without a second thought, the snail made its way up to the Buddha's head and sat there, with his mucous body cooling the Buddha's smooth and bare skin. Other snails also followed the first one, went up to the head and sat down there. Snails on the head looked like a neat cap of spiral shells.

Since snails had given their lives for the Buddha, they are now honoured as martyrs. Hence, they are displayed on Buddha statues to remind us of their sacrifice.

The significance of the number 108 is open to interpretation.  Over time, there has been much spiritual and scientific relevance given to the number (mainly through ancient Hindu texts at least 3,000 years old).

For many, the number 108 is a sacred number concerning mathematical meanings covering; the wholeness of existence, planetary connections, meditation, chakras, yoga, soul/consciousness and many other related subjects.

Baz Shirley – Ocean Grove – Victoria – Australia

*See also; & Instagram @bazabstractart

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