Images of the Buddha

Just curious, during the time of the Buddha where he was physically alive and teaching, didn’t anyone had that idea of painting his image or with sculpture one way or another because there’s this great teacher that is existing at that moment? Considering there were so many monk disciples, lay disciples and kings and royalties whom held him in great regards?

Or did the Buddha purposely didn’t gave the permission for his image to be preserved?

I don’t think there’s any definitive answer to this, as it doesn’t seem to come up in any of the early texts.

The earliest images date from a few hundred years later, and there the Buddha is depicted with a symbol—the wheel, the Bodhi tree, etc. So it seems reasonable to infer that there was some religiously based reluctance to represent the Buddha’s actual image, perhaps out of reverence, the idea that it is not possible to properly capture his image.

Obviously that didn’t last, and not long afterwards Buddha images became common. There are some curious myths around that, though, suggesting for example that the original model for the Buddha image was none other than Mara himself. This shows that there was a degree of equivocation about this whole process.

Another point to bear in mind is that there is no surviving iconography of any kind from the Buddha’s period, or several centuries around it. In fact there’s almost a complete gap from the end of the Indus valley civilization until the astonishing stonework of the Ashokan era appears. There’s just a few bits of pottery with simple designs, and some isolated remnants of rock painting in one or two places.

So from the Indus valley we have this:

Then nothing at all for a thousand years, except for a few scraps like this, some of which may predate the Buddha:


And the rock paintings at Deokothar, which are Buddhist, and perhaps pre-Ashokan:

And then this:

Out of nowhere these unparalleled and perfect expressions of artistic and creative accomplishment just appear.

In any case, clearly there were visual arts in the Buddha’s day, but it seems likely they were on perishable materials.


Is there an image of Asoka?
Or what is the earliest image in Indian history?

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Hi Bhante. There’s a mention of an ox-head sandalwood image of the Buddha in the EA.

Images of Ashoka as well early Buddhist symbols can be found at Sanchi Stupa, which is believed to have been built in 3rd century BCE.

Note however that most of the complex carvings and structures are much later, probably from the first centuries of the Christian Era. It seems that what Ashoka commissioned was more like a half spherical mound, as it seems that would be good enough to enshrine the relics of the Blessed One.

Of the art found there what I admire the most is the symbol of the empty seat by the foot of a tree:

To me this way of representing the Teacher is the most beautiful one. At the same time it allows one to feel the sadness of those who witnessed such a great being walk around and teach eventually pass away, it reminds us that for one who has done what is to be done, an arahant, in regards to the path a definitive end to suffering is found.



Thank you Ajaan Sujato for the information.

And the many information by other members. I’m just curious particularly about the look of the Buddha himself. If such a great teacher was quite well known among few big communities with kings involve, why didn’t anybody suggest or even have the idea of painting the Buddha. Not for the purpose of reverence as we know the Buddha would probably want people to focus on his Dharma instead of his look. But for a keepsake of this great man. But even if the Buddha did openly refused to have his physical image painted, i’m sure some layman who after visited the Buddha, could drew or painted down the Buddha’s image. Maybe like Ajaan mentioned, it was on perishable material that didn’t get to passed down to at least king Asoka’s time.

It seems the answer is that no one knew how to paint. The earliest Indian painting, as I understand it, did not develop until around the 2nd century BCE.

I remember reading this article, it gives a good overview of the research on the question:

In this blog post, the author mentions an article by John Huntington who highlights that an interdiction to make pictures of the Buddha is present in the Vinaya of the Sarvastivadins (article can be downloaded here).

But I suppose there might be more up-to-date research or reviews on the questions…

IMO, I don’t think this is likely. The suttas mention jewellery, fine clothes, palaces etc; they must have known how to paint and make statues. I have the feeling that our vision of people from ancient civilization has been deformed by the theory of evolution and the rapid advances of science and technology in the last couple of centuries… Now, I am not saying that there has not been evolution in arts and techniques! But I think we do sometimes have a tendency to underestimate people and civilizations from past centuries and millennia.


Well, it easier to ascertain the presence of sculpture than painting, because sculptures are more durable in the archaeological record. My understanding is that sculpture also doesn’t really emerge until the Ashokan era, so it wouldn’t be surprising if both painting and scupture were not much practiced in the Buddha’s time.

Although we take it for granted in our time that skill in figurative representation will be widespread, they don’t usually occur in a society at any polished level until the society has achieved the kinds of surpluses in basic wealth that allow for the patronage of those kinds of skills as a profession or way of life. The picture I have, which Bhante Sujato describes, is that Northern India experienced a kind of “dark age” in the fine arts following the collapse of Harrapan civilization, until, sometime around the time of the Buddha, it’s agricultural and clan-based villages and towns started to see consolidation into large kingdoms, fostering production of commodities and large scale trade with a rising, wealthy merchant class. This led to the existence of more rich patrons with a demand to have their images preserved and their homes ornamented. But it also allowed for wealthy and devout, or just civically concerned, individuals to support the religions of their choice with monumental artwork.

It seems to me not that surprising that in early periods the individual physical traits of the Buddha would not be thought to be very important. Since his body had broken up, and that body was thought to be just one of countless bodies he had possessed, it might not have struck people as very important to preserve a memory of its appearance. After all, he was the “thus-gone”, not the “here-staying.” :slight_smile:

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Maybe that’s a reason but in the Vinaya Vibhanga we have the case of monks getting lustful with drawings and dolls:

"At one time a lustful monk touched the genitals in a picture with his penis. He became remorseful … “There’s no offense entailing expulsion, but there’s an offense of wrong conduct.”

"At one time a lustful monk touched the genitals of a wooden doll with his penis. He became remorseful … “There’s no offense entailing expulsion, but there’s an offense of wrong conduct.”

Source: Vinaya’s analysis of Pj1

Of course, one could argue that this part of the Vinaya is late…


Interesting, can you give us more details?

They also mention paintings, even “art galleries” of some kind. I am sure there was plenty of art around, it just didn’t survive.

Sorry, that wasn’t my intent, I was merely pointing out the lack of evidence. This period saw the compilation of the Vedas, the composition of the Upanishads, the appearance of sophisticated spiritual movements like the Jains, and the development of, among other things, the science of linguistics; so it was surely no Dark Ages. It is however a historical curiosity as to why they did not express themselves in lasting materials.


Yes, I didn’t mean to suggest it was an equivalent of the European dark ages intellectually - just that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of fine art left from the period.

The relative lack of interest in representational art might have been part of the spirit of the times. People have not always and everywhere thought that making lasting images of human forms was an important thing to do, even when they might be intellectually and spiritually quite advanced.

Hi Bhante

It’s in EA 36.5. Jam packed with fantastical creatures (dragon kings etc) in Tavatimsa, it is a narrative of the Buddha’s visit to his mother Maya (如來母摩耶).

The part about the statue (actually it just says “carved image”(形像)) begins with good King Udayana moping in distress at the Buddha’s absence and decides to make a 5 ft sandalwood statue to fill the void. That makes King Prasenajit compete with a 5 ft statue of the Buddha in gold.

Strange, that one of the 3 sources of the Thai Buddhists’ account for the “Monday Buddha” should originate from this text, ie pang ham phra kaenchan (upon returning, the statue rises to pay respect to the Buddha, which the Buddha then forbids). I’ve not found any Pali material for this narrative.

Anyway, the reference to the Buddha’s appearance being the cause of the arising of bodhisattva aspiration (未 發菩薩心令發菩薩意) might suggest a later date for this narrative.


Wow, that’s really interesting, I haven’t seen this text before. If only someone could translate it from Chinese …

How admirably cautious of you!


I think, when he was alive he would have been available for people to come and see him. However when he passed away, and away from living memory, the vacant representations of him would have been created, maybe because he wasn’t there anymore. After that, he must have become more abstract and images start appearing to embellish his mythical appearance ie it starts off as a live teaching and becomes more of a religion later.

with metta

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SN 12.64 has a simile by the Buddha describing paintings.


Can anyone identify the original location of this file?

Sorry if this is the wrong thread.


I think it’s from here:

This has a detailed life of the Buddha from Theravadin sources in Vietnamese. The image files on this site are very large and detailed, and they seem to have been scaled down elsewhere. The detailed texture of the images shows clearly that they’re photographed from paintings on canvas.

Here’s one for the Buddha’s birth.

Incidentally, using Google translate on this site it’s almost shockingly effective. I don’t know if they’ve improved their process recently, but pretty much every sentence makes sense, and many even read reasonably well.


That’s certainly an interesting site alright but I’m still trying to find the location of the original image. I found something similar on Pinterest and had a pro photographer enhance the image.

Nice image!

Had a quick look on google images and found it here:

It’s usually a good search engine for tracking down images. First tried “earth touching buddha” (from the image file name) but didn’t show up. Then restricted the search to jpg files. Still, no luck, but, the on third attempt added “mara” to the search and showed up as one of the first hits. Maybe there were other hits (didn’t check) but the linked blog must have got it from somewhere anyway.