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The Buddha's true face

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Buddha Statue: In the Dhammadayada Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddhasays, "Monks, be heirs of my Dhamma, not heirs of material things".Clearly the Buddha wanted his disciples to give more attention to hisliberating teaching than to things like his bodily remains or personalpossessions. Nonetheless, after his parinirvana his disciples felt deeply hisabsence and longed for some form of closeness to their beloved teacher.

In time this led to the cult of relics. It also led to a great interest inwhat the Buddha looked like. There are many references in the Tipitaka to theBuddha's personal appearance. In the Anguttara Nikaya it says, "It iswonderful, truly marvellous, how serene the good Gotama's presence is, howclear and radiant his complexion".

In the Sonadanda Sutta he is described as being "fair in colour, finein presence, stately to behold". Although these and other passages fromthe suttas make it clear that the Buddha was extraordinarily handsome, they areonly descriptions. Devotees wanted more than that, they wanted to actually seethe Buddha's face. Consequently legend gradually developed that several veryancient and exceptionally beautiful Buddha statues were not just artistsimpressions of the Buddha but actual portraits of him. The most famous of thesestatues was at Bodh Gaya.

An impressive piece

The earliest Buddha statue found at Bodh Gaya and now in the Indian Museumin Calcutta dates from the year 383 CE. Although much damaged it is still animpressive piece of sculpture, the facial features in particular showingserenity yet determination.


In about the first half of the 5th century a statue was installed in thethen newly built Mahabodhi Temple and within a very short time the belief arosethat this statue was an portrait of the Buddha. It came to be known as theImage of the True Face or more commonly, as the Mahabodhi Image.

The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang who visited Bodh Gaya in the 7th centuryhas left us this detailed description of the Mahabodhi Image. "He (thestatue) was facing the east and as dignified in appearance as when alive. Thethrone on which he sits was 4 feet 2 inches high and 12 feet 5 inches broad.The figure was 11 feet 5 inches high, the two knees were 8 feet 8 inches apartand the two shoulders 6 feet 2 inches.

The Buddha's features

The Buddha's features are perfectly depicted and the loving expression ofhis face lifelike... The statue stands in a dark chamber in which lamps andtorches are kept burning, but those who wish to see the sacred features cannotdo so by coming into the chamber. In the morning they have to reflect thesunlight onto the statue by means of a great mirror so that the details can beseen. Those who behold them find their religious emotions much increased".

The story concerning the statues origins as told to Hiuen Tsiang is asfollows. The brahmin who built the Mahabodhi Temple wished to enshrine a statuein it but for a long time no suitable sculpture could be found.

Eventually a man appeared who said he could do the job. He asked that a pileof scented clay and a lighted lamp be placed in the temple chamber and the doorbe locked for six months. This was done but being impatient the brahmin openedthe door four days before the required time.


Inside was found a statue of surpassing beauty, perfect in every detailexcept for a small part of the breast which was unfinished. Some time later, amonk who spent the night in the chamber had a dream in which Maitreya appearedto him and said that it was he who had moulded the statue.

Six hundred years later the Tibetan pilgrim Dharmasvamin was told a storyabout the Image's origins reminiscent to this one but differing from it indetails, indicating that the legends were constantly evolving.

According to Dharmasvamin three brothers fell into an argument about whichreligion was the best. On being told that Buddhism was inferior to others theyoungest brother went crying to his mother. She called the three boys and toldthem to go to the Himalayas and ask Mahesvara for his opinion.

Mahesvara of course confirmed the younger brother's belief in the supremacyof Buddhism and all three brothers decided to become monks.

A monastery at Veluvana

The eldest built a monastery at Veluvana, the second built one at Isipatanaand not to be outdone, the youngest brother decided to make a Buddha statue forthe Maha Bodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya. In a dream he was told to get materialconsisting of one part precious substances, one part fragrant substances andone part sandalwood paste, place it in the main shrine of the Temple and tokeep the door closed for a particular period of time.

This was done but he opened the door before the appointed time and insidefound a the statue complete except for the little toe on the right foot.

The mother of the three boys who had known the Buddha when she was a younggirl, declared that the statue was exactly like the Buddha except in fourrespects. Whereas the Buddha's usina was invisible, it could be seen on thestatue, the Buddha moved but the statue did not, it could not teach the Dhammaand it did not radiate light.


In Buddhism Buddha statues are expressions of devotion of the artists whomake them and aids to contemplation to those who worship them and therefore itis not correct to say that "Buddhists worship idols". That this isnot a new idea, a modern rationalisation, is amply proved by the writings ofRobert Knox who, in the 17th century, described the Kandians attitude to Buddhastatues thus.

"As for these Images, they say they do not own them to be Godsthemselves but only Figures representing their Gods to their memories, and assuch, they give them honour and worship".

Nonetheless the Mahabodhi Image was sometimes worshipped as if it were theBuddha himself, food was offered to it and devotees would drape robes over it.

The Chinese monk, I Tsing, who visited Bodh Gaya in the 7th century wrote,"Afterwards we came to the Maha Bodhi Temple and worshipped the Image ofthe True Face of the Buddha. I took bolts of thick and fine silk which had beengiven to me by the monks and laymen of Shantung, made a robe of it the size ofthe Tathagata and myself offered it to the Image. Many myriads of smallcanopies which were entrusted to me by the Vinaya master Huien of Pu', Ioffered on his behalf. The meditation master teacher An Tao of Ts'ao asked meto worship the Image and I did this in his name.

Then I prostrated myself completely on the ground with my mind undivided,sincere and respectful. Firstly I wished that China might experience the fourbenefits and that those benefits might prevail throughout the whole universe.

The great hero

Then I expressed the desire to be reborn under the Naa tree so that as tomeet Maitriya and practise the true Dhamma and realise the knowledge notsubject to rebirth". A Chinese inscription found to the north of theTemple written by the monk Ko Yun in 1022 says of the Image; "The greathero Maitreya out of compassion for all beings left them the real likeness...


The Image is respected by the heterodox, cherished by the discerning andalthough 2000 years old its face remains new". The inscription also tellsus that Ko Yun and his companions draped the Image with a robe made of silkthat they had bought with them all the way from China for the purpose. Thispractice of putting robes on the statue in the main shrine of the MahabodhiTemple continues even today.

As time went by the Image was even believed to be able to speak. Perhapssuch a belief should not surprise us too much. Many people in the theisticreligions believe that their god talks to them in dreams or in prayer.

In fact one of the last references we have to the Mahabodhi Image mentionsit speaking. In 1300 the Tibetan Tantric adept Man-luns-po travelled to BodhGaya and made a vow before the Mahabodhi Image to neither eat or drink until itspoke to him. After waiting eighteen days he got his wish when the statue said.

Oh! Son of noble family. Proceed to Mount Potala and there practise in themanner of bodhisatvas in the presence of Avalokitesvara". The details ofMan-luns-po's subsequent journey suggest that he did actually go to the sacredmountain in Kerala.

The most lifelike symbol

Being as it were the most lifelike symbol of the Buddha, the Mahabodhi Imageattracted the attention of devoted Buddhists but also those who hated andwanted to destroy Buddhism. The most notorious of these was the fanaticalSaivite Bengali King Sasanka.

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Early in the 7th century his minions attacked Bodh Gaya with the intentionof destroying the Maha bodhi Image. Hiuen Tsiang relates what happened."King Sasanka... wished to destroy this image but having seen its lovingexpression his mind had no rest or determination and he returned homeward withhis retinue.

On his way he said to one of his officers. 'We must remove the statue of theBuddha and replace it with one of Mahesvara'. The officer having received thisorder was moved with fear and sighing said.

'If I destroy the statue of the Buddha I will reap misfortune for manykalpas. If on the other hand I disobey the king he will kill me and my family.I am doomed whether I obey or not.

What then shall I do? On this he called to his presence a man who was aBuddhist to help him and sent him to build across the chamber and in front ofthe Buddha statue a wall of brick.

Out of a feeling of shame at the darkness placed burning lamp in with thestatue and then on the wall drew the figure of Mahesvara. The work beingfinished he reported it to the king who was suddenly seized with terror. Hisbody became covered with sores, his flesh rotted off and at after a while hedied. Dharmasvamin

The officer quickly ordered the wall to be pulled down and although severaldays had elapsed the lamp was found to be still burning". In the 13thcentury Bodh Gaya came under attack again, this time by Muslim invaders, andthe monks used a similar strategy to save the Mahabodhi Image.

Dharmasvamin tells us.

They blocked up the door in front of the Mahabodhi Image with bricks andplastered it. Near it they place another image as a substitute. On its surfacethey drew an image of Mahesvara to protect it from the non-Buddhists".Dharmasvamin was also told that formerly the Mahabodhi Image had two beautifulgems in its eyes that emitted a light so bright that it was possible to read byit. During a lightening raid a little before his visit a soldier had put alader against the Image and prised the eyes out.

As he was climbing down he slipped and fell, dropping the gems and smashingthem, after which their light grew dim. The Tibetan historian Taranatha tellsus a legend he heard about the origins of these gems.


He relates that when the man who had built the Mahabodhi temple had placedthe statue in it, he happened to find a wondrous self-illuminating gem. When heexpressed regret that he had nor not found the gem earlier two holes a suddenlyappeared in the statue's eyes.

As he prepared to cut the gem in two so he could put it in the statue'ssockets, a second gem miraculously appeared. The Mahabodhi Image had a considerable influence on art in India, otherparts of Asia through copies of it which were taken to various Buddhistcountries. Baladitya's huge temple at Nalanda had a life size copy of thestatue as did the main temple at Vikramasila.

When the Chinese pilgrim I Tsing returned home in 698 he brought with him apicture of the statue and presented it to the Fo Shou Chi Monastery. TheChinese envoy Wang Hiuen Ts'e made four separate trips to India, visiting BodhGaya during two of them.