Seated on the ground with legs crossed, hands resting in the lap, torso upright, shoulders balanced, eyes half open in a relaxed gaze, and with a soft, gentle smile, the image of the Buddha in meditation is the most universal and easily recognized Buddhist symbol. For many Buddhists the image represents their deepest aspirations, values and potential. For others it signifies the profound hope and support they find in Buddhism. The image of the seated Buddha conveys calm and peace, which may be why Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike often have the image in their home or garden.
Statues of the Buddha are much more than lumps of clay, stone, or wood. Some of the core ideals of Buddhism are taught through the symbolism found in the meditating Buddha. The statues can be a work of art in which an artist conveys human emotions and states of mind that may awaken meaningful inner states for those who view it.
Because we have no idea what the Buddha actually looked like, the statues and paintings of him are all idealized portrayals that thereby express the ideals of the artist or, more often, the Buddhist tradition of the artist. Not all Buddhists view the Buddha image in the same way. By changing some of the details in the image, different Buddhist traditions have conveyed different symbolic teachings.
The Theravada Buddhist tradition’s view that the Buddha was a human being is symbolized by the Buddha meditating on the ground, in contact with the earth. Depictions of the meditating Buddha are meant to show him meditating as he was on the night of his Awakening, outdoors under a tree. For some people, this close connection to the earth and nature symbolizes how Awakening is a natural event arising from a deep insight into our human nature. The peace experienced by the Buddha did not belong to some divine world separate from this world. It was a peace found within this world.
The cross-legged posture symbolizes the stability that supports the calm exhibited by the rest of the image. The Buddha’s chest is neither puffed up nor collapsed; rather it conveys confidence and openness. The erect torso expresses strength without conceit. His shoulders are evenly balanced and relaxed which symbolizes the ability to maintain mental balance in the face of any challenge. The straight back represents uprightness and self-reliance — the Buddha did not depend on anything outside of himself for his awakening.
In the images of the Buddha meditating, his hands are held together with palms facing up, the right hand slightly rounded resting openly in the palm of the left hand. This open gesture conveys a sense of ease, free from clinging to anything, pushing anything away, or closing up. Perhaps the open hands point to a receptive attitude that can maintain calm and balance in any circumstance.
The classic image of the Buddha meditating shows him with a subtle half-smile, showing that happiness is an important aspect of the Buddhist path. His eyes are half open symbolizing he was equally aware of himself as he was of the world. The Buddha did not make a sharp distinction between attention to his inner personal life and to the outer world around him. It is also said that his eyes are open so as to see, with compassion, the suffering of the world.
All these qualities together represent the possibility of living with peace, uprightness, strength, and self-reliance. They depict our ability to have a calm happiness while having compassion for those who suffer. In this way, through physical expressions, the Buddha image represents qualities that are cultivated with Buddhist practice
The image of the Buddha meditating is not, however, of merely symbolic value. It is also an instruction in meditation practice. Assuming a posture like the Buddha’s helps bring forth the qualities expressed in the idealized Buddha image. When we create a stable physical base while meditating, it is easier to relax the body. When we hold our selves upright with spine straight, we are not leaning forward into the future nor leaning back in aversion. If the shoulders are kept balanced and aligned it is easier to find the middle way between giving in to what we are feeling or pulling away from it. When the chest is open and strong, confidence has a chance to support us.
A wonderful mutuality exists between our posture and our inner psychological life. A balanced, aligned posture for meditation helps bring forth the mental qualities that are strengthened along the Buddhist path. With the growth of these qualities, it becomes easier to sit upright. Whether we meditate in a chair or cross-legged on the floor, approximating the posture of the Buddha images invites the best of human qualities to arise.
The Zen Master Suzuki Roshi once said that when we bow to a Buddha image, we are bowing to ourselves. A Buddha image is not something to worship. Rather it is a mirror through which we can see something in ourselves. When we offer our respect to the Buddha we respect what is good in us. When we bow down to the Buddha, we are lowering our conceit so what is good in us can grow.