Kāliṅga bodhi jātaka - The (non?) role of Buddha statues in Buddhist practice

Dear all,

I am trying to understand the meaning of a line in a jataka tale. The jataka is Jataka 479:


With the pali at:


There’s a particular line that I’m curious for a literal translation:

Ānanda, sārīrikaṃ na sakkā kātuṃ. Tañhi buddhānaṃ parinibbānakāle hoti,
uddissakaṃ avatthukaṃ mamāyanamattameva hoti,
buddhehi paribhutto mahābodhirukkho buddhesu dharantesupi cetiyamevā’’ti. ‘

I think this corresponds to the translation lines:

“No, Ānanda, not a body-shrine; that kind is made when a Buddha enters Nirvāna. A shrine of memorial is improper because the connection depends on the imagination only. But the great bo-tree used by the Buddhas is fit for a shrine, be they alive or be they dead.”

My pali is non-existent, and I’m curious about the translation of “depends on the imagination” - I’m wondering whether this should be something like “depends on imagery” instead. I’d be grateful is anyone of the Pali experts here could help me! As much of a literal translation as possible would be appreciated.

Thank you,


It seems this word would have a more literal meaning of ‘only attachment’. (i. e. selfish desire). Not sure how ‘imagination’ comes in here.

(This relic shrine) is designated groundless (without justification), only (because of) attachment.

In other words, my understanding of what is being said here is that a physical stupa is inappropriate for a living Buddha, making one would be based on longing. Better to take the Bodhi Tree as a place of remembrance.

Thank you @stephen - this is appreciated.

The full context of this sutta is intriguing:

So ‘‘sādhū’’ti sampaṭicchitvā tathāgataṃ pucchi ‘‘kati nu kho, bhante, cetiyānī’’ti? ‘‘Tīṇi ānandā’’ti. ‘‘Katamāni, bhante, tīṇī’’ti? ‘‘Sārīrikaṃ pāribhogikaṃ uddissaka’’nti. ‘‘Sakkā pana, bhante, tumhesu dharantesuyeva cetiyaṃ kātu’’nti. ‘‘Ānanda, sārīrikaṃ na sakkā kātuṃ. Tañhi buddhānaṃ parinibbānakāle hoti, uddissakaṃ avatthukaṃ mamāyanamattameva hoti, buddhehi paribhutto mahābodhirukkho buddhesu dharantesupi cetiyamevā’’ti.

I understand from the translations I’ve seen that it refers to three types of shrines, (bodily relics, relics of clothes / objects the buddha has used, and ‘uddissaka’.

I’m curious about the meaning of this latter word - from your translation, it seems that the buddha is saying that such shrines are groundless because of selfish desire. From my understandin, uddissaka refers to likenesses of the Buddha, or something signifying the buddha (as distinct from his actual relics or things he used, or the Bo tree).

If that is the case, then the implication is that according to the buddha, the ubiquitous statues of him in the modern age, have been declared as inappropriate ways of remembering him.

To me, this makes sense - it’s entirely consistent with the Buddha’s attitude towards his own body (" *Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body"), and his teaching that we should not get attached to forms but see them as an affliction, a cancer, etc. Clearly the statues we have look nothing like the Buddha (I mean, they’re all different to each other, and culturally specific, so how could they be the historical Buddha), but, I’m hoping for clarification of the buddha’s words on this.

I’d be curious if any of the monastics have any observations on this question - surely this isn’t the first time this question has been raised?

Thank you.

The story is about creating a shrine for Gotama Buddha while he was still alive and the inappropriateness of that, no?

From what I can see, the buddha is saying that it is inappropriate for a shrine of bodily relics to be created while he is still alive.

However, he seems to also say that ‘uddissaka’ or representations of the Buddha are (following your translation) without justification and only attachment.

Bhante @sujato, apologies for calling on you, but if you have any thoughts on the passage, they would be appreciated.

I understood the story to say that shrines are appropriate for Buddhas after final nibbana, not while they are still alive. I don’t take the story to be about the appropriateness of shrines in general.

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i don’t believe the buddha is saying shrines in general are inappropriate.

he seems to be saying there are three types: 1) bodily relics, 2) object he’s used / worn, and 3) likenesses / representations of him. he says shrines of his bodily remains are made after he enters parinibbana, but then seems to go on to say that shrines of his likenesses / representations are without justification and only attachment.

as i mentioned above, the implication of this is that buddha statues may be an inappropriate way to venerate the buddha.

this is all based on past translations so it would be good to get a comprehensive / definitive translation, as it touches on a important aspect of what some consider to be standard buddhist practice. i appreciate the sensibilities it can touch on, but my question comes from the place of respect for, and understanding of what the buddha taught as proper practice.

Looking up ‘uddissaka’ in Cone, ‘a symbolic monument’, she makes reference to a passage in Paramatthajotikā I, section 7.Nidhikandasuttavannana (The Treasure-Store Discourse)
Here is Ven Nanamoli’s translation:

“That is of three kinds as a shrine by use, [paribhogacetiya] a shrine by dedication [uddissakacetiyam], and a relic shrine. [dhatukacetiya ]. Herein, the Tree of Enlightenment is a shrine by use , an image of rhe Enlightened One is a shrine by dedication, and a monument with a relic-chamber containing a relic is a relic shrine. “

Hope this is helpful.

Thank you @stephen. I’m not familiar with the Paramatthajotikā, but Google tells me it’s a commentary (attributed to Buddhaghosa?)?

The three types of memorials / shrines you mention here seem to roughly match up with the three types of shrines / memorials the Buddha is speaking of in the jataka above:

But from the translation above, uddissaka (symbolic / representative monuments) seem to be without justification, and only attachment (apologies, using your translation as it appears better than what’s available)? If I’m reading the jataka correctly there, the Buddha is endorsing his bodily relics (after parinibbana) and objects of his use (bowl, robe, tree) as appropriate objects of veneration, but is stating that things that are symbolic of him (e.g., buddha statues then) are not appropriate objects of veneration.

That is interesting, and holds huge implication for what we commonly hold to be traditional Buddhism.

Yes, it is the classic commentary to the Khuddakapāṭha, the first book of the Khuddaka Nikaya.

These words seem quite rare.
Since the Buddha is now deceased, it seems we now do not find ourselves in the conundrum the Jataka tale characters found themselves, ie how to properly venerate the Buddha while away on a tour.

From personal experience, when I was taught the 4 Protective Meditations, specifically the first one, recollection of the Buddha, any Buddha image could be used but if one did not have access to one a mental image could also be used. It is a personal practice.

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thank you @stephen -

yes, these words do seem somewhat rare.

the jataka itself is quite interesting - the first part that this comes from isn’t the story but is just the buddha and ananda conversing, just as any ordinary sutta.

my own thought is that it’s somewhat at odds for the buddha to tell us that form is impermanent, without intrinsic essence, a cancer, and affliction, and to refer to his own body as “vile”, and then endorse us to become attached to an image that bears little resemblance to him.

no two buddha statues are alike - the ancient greek ones look european, that chinese ones look asian. if you google hard enough you’ll even find sites suggesting the buddha was african because of his hair. it’s much more to do with racial-cultural anthromorphism (atta) than any genuine representation of the buddha.

i find it interesting that for centuries after the buddha’s death, no one made statues of him - someone commented that it seems like there was an strong cultural aversion to that in the centuries after his death. that would be consistent with the idea that people had accepted that statues were not appropriate.

apparently it’s only after buddhism migrated to the greeks, and they started producing statues, that that cultural practice was exported back to asian countries.

someones must be doing a phd on this somewhere at the moment … :slight_smile:

Interesting passage, I am not 100% familiar with the relevant commentarial idioms. But yes, it seems to be saying that of the three kinds of shrines, only the “usage” shrine applies during the lifetime of the Buddha. By implication, the relic shrine applies after, and it seems to be dismissing entirely the “dedication” shrine.

uddissakaṃ avatthukaṃ mamāyanamattameva hoti
a dedication [shrine] is baseless (i.e. has no material basis?) and is merely selfish attachment

It does seem to rule out shrines that have no physical connection with the Buddha himself. Perhaps this is why most major stupas and images have 'relics" inside.


thank you Bhante @sujato - i am grateful for you taking time to reply.

it seems like a significant point given so much of our focus of practice revolves around statues.

your translation suggest to me that the Buddha’s language on this was quite strong (“is merely selfish attachment”).

i’m reminded of where the Buddha says that it’s better to consider the body as mine than the mind, since the mind changes far more rapidly than the body - by focusing us onto material remnants of his existence, rather than statues and images that our minds can conceive and indulge in, it feels like we’re limited a bit in what we can fabricate and proliferate mentally.

this seems like a coherent message consistent with the buddha’s attitude towards the body, and the history of statue use in buddhism.

thank you (and thank you for taking time out from your own work to reply)

Indeed. I am surprised at that myself.


Well, it seems to tie in with the sentiment of, one who sees the dhamma sees me.

Majjhima 28?



Thank you for your responses @stephen - I would have shared the solution with your response as well if I could.

Well, it’s a Jataka, not an early text, right? It seems this ruling out of a “dedicated” shrine came up some time after the Parinibbana, for whatever reasons.

I mean, as long as the Buddha was alive, having shrines wasn’t that much of a question. They had the Buddha, which was certainly better!

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yes, this is an interesting question - and it got me thinking. if jataka’s are tales of the buddha’s previous births, then isn’t for example the story he tells of ghatikara and jotipala in MN81 a jataka story? I’m not clear on the distinction - is it that some stories were gathered into the jataka collection, and others were not, and if so why?

the thing that got me thinking about this was that a post i saw that noted that the buddha was consistently noted as bald throughout the suttas. that being the case, the statues of him with hair are a bit of an artistic license. that post also mentioned that buddha statues originated in greece, and looking at those early statues, he clearly looks more the ancient greek philosopher than a bald-headed ascetic. it’s funny how that representation has taken over - have you ever seen a bald buddha statue? the only one that springs to mind is the fat laughing buddha of chinese representation (who I believe isn’t the buddha at all).

also, across statues today, we can clearly see that different statues represent the cultural group that produced them. it’s a lesson in how we impose atta onto things (exactly as the buddha says here in this excerpt: “a symbolic representation shrine is without justification being merely self-like attachment”) - things (e.g., representations of the buddha) that are ultimately, inevitably, anatta.

there’s something beautiful about using the bo-tree as a shrine for the buddha - a living tree, natural, connected with nature and outdoor ascetic life. the thought of the buddha’s actual bodily relics fill me with awe, bring tears to my eyes - they are real true objects of reverence. i recall ajahn lee’s experiences and i’ve heard that relics come and go of their own accord (or perhaps at the hands of the devas who look after them?). there’s a magic (in the aesthetic, and not necessarily supernatural sense) to the relics the buddha endorsed.