32 marks, 32 marks, 32 marks

hi, i am going to copy and paste from the same topic i made on dhammawheel.
firstly, i would like to address this article: https://dhammawiki.com/index.php/32_signs_of_a_great_man
what hard evidence is there that the marks were a later addition? yes, i have read some persuasive arguments by bhikkhu sujāto that because the buddha was indistinguishable from other monks to one or some people in the canon the marks are thus false. however, it is known from DN 13 To Ambaṭṭha that the marks are only detectable to the trained eye. not only that but we have not only, of course, evidence of the supernormal but evidence of beings who change their appearance.
since i keep having this discussion with a facebook friend, and he insists that the issue of the marks isn’t important, while i insist they are, because i don’t have good reason to doubt their authenticity, and his insistence on rejecting them, despite ‘not being important’, i brought it here. i hope this won’t be chunked into another thread because the issue is further pertinent in the context of early buddhism. we accept that the body is old kamma? the tathāgata has most excellent kamma. his skin was able to exceed the gleam of polished gold robes in DN 16. the marks are grotesque? the human body was said to be a smelly, oozing boil (can go grab that reference if i have to). wheels appear on the buddha’s feet in Doṇa sutta. do we just throw out the parts of the canon we don’t immediately agree with?
it is precisely the people who speak on this issue as unimportant who reflect its importance
"Just as the ocean has a single taste — that of salt — in the same way, this Dhamma-Vinaya has a single taste: that of release."
— Ud 5.5


I don’t buy the argument that they were only distinguishable by a trained eye. The description of the marks would have the Buddha looking quite different from a normal man.

I fall in the camp of people who think the tathagata looked like all the other monks. This appears often enough in the suttas.


In this article, Piya Tan (former Piyasilo Bhikkhu) has analysed that the 32 marks of Great Man is neither Buddhist nor Brahmanical origin: http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/36.9-Lakkhana-S-d30-piya.pdf



In Arthapada we find this story

A’t that time, among the seated, there was a Brahman named Teu-U (Tuva^takaP). In that large gathering, he had this thought: ‘What was delivered in Nirvana was[only the [physical] body with limbs’. On account of this, he had a doubt’". The Buddha then knew that the Brahman Teu-le had entertained in his mind this doubt. The Buddha the created a double of himself, perfect in appearance and unequalled. There was none who seeing the form was not glad—the form which was surpassing the divine. The body had thirty-two signs of a great man and the colour of purple and polished gold. It had put on the great religious garment. The disciples also could produce a double. [But]when the double just spoke, the disciples also spoke. When the disciples just spoke, the double also spoke. As to the double created by the Buddha, when .the double spoke, the Buddha remained silent. When the Buddha spoke, the double remained silent. Why was it so Because all those that control their thoughts can penetrate through things. The double then folded his hands and with one shoulder bare.

Today I think that was the miracle they did because people had doubts. But not he had the 32 marks.

It is possible the 32 marks are connected with image worship developed in Hinduism. The marks could be relevant to Indian religious art culture presented in Buddhist texts. But this is just a speculation.

Here in the the new Diamond Sūtra version of latest Sanskrit

The Lord said, “What do you think, SubhËti? Can a Realized, Worthy, and Perfectly Awakened One be seen by virtue of the 32 Distinctive Features of a Great Man?”
SubhËti said, “No indeed, Lord.60 Why is that? Whatever 32 Distinctive Features of a Great Man have been preached by the Realized One, Lord, have been preached by the Realized One as featureless. Therefore they are called ‘the 32 Distinctive Features of a Great Man.’”

I found that nicely said. I am reading it. And it feels early Mahayana. Although the manuscript are late.

The problem is indeed that all sources which could give us context are later. And in the suttas the 32 marks are this weird element which suggest that the Buddha looked like an … alien of sorts.

Radich summmarized lots of the research and scholarly opinions to the matter here (chapter 3.1.1).

Bhante, it’s possible to look quite like the other monks and also have the thirty-two marks, most of which are not that freakish. Perhaps there are some clerical errors regarding a few of the less subtle marks. I briefly recall looking at a paper by Ven Anālayo about this. Or like we’ve seen in other suttas he can perform miracles and alter his appearance for different assemblies. The range of a Buddha is unknowable.

But the fact remains that in DN 13 the marks are only detectable to the trained eye.

this is honestly where i have lost confidence in a lot of speakers on the Dhamma because they embrace materialism in favor of teachings that contradict materialism but could still be partially or totally legit

Since this thread got resurrected, I’ll throw this out there too: how do we know the reason why people asked which of the ascetics was the Buddha? Is it possible that the reason was not that they all looked the same? There are cultures today, too, where behavioral customs lead people to ask questions they know the answer to.

Maybe, but I do recall reading that he looked like the other monks. This does not mean he didn’t have or exhibit the marks. Most of them are not totally far-fetched. Some could be better explained comparing to early parallels. Others could be concealed with psychic power. I’m not a buddhist scholar, just a faithful lay person with a great reluctance to dismiss content that could easily be authentic. I thought it was a very inspiring sutta and good for buddhānussati. He explains the various qualities that manifested in his appearance.

There are Mahayana texts that indicate that a person could have some of the marks but not all of them during the course of their bodhisattva career and would have the 32 marks when they are finally reborn for the last time.

Also, two of the marks are not apparent (the tongue mark and the genitalia mark), and there are Nikaya and Agama sutras with stories about the Buddha revealing them to people who were wondering if he had them all. So, there’s one reason why we might see this issue of only trained people (usually brahmins?) being able to confirm all 32 marks are present.

It also occurs to me that the 32 marks might not have been originally as outlandish as they perhaps became by the time their descriptions were recorded in sutras. But that’s a speculation. Just like with what exactly the dhyana passages really mean, we don’t get detailed discussions until later texts, so it’s hard to know how these things were understood originally, as @gabriel has pointed out.

I also think we should consider the practical purpose the 32 marks may have played: To automatically disqualify anyone who claimed they were a Buddha. “Do you have the 32 marks? No? You’re not a Buddha, then.” I’m sure there were charlatans claiming things like that all through history, not just in modern times, and a doctrine like this would end arguments about it cleanly.

1 Like