Buddhist Art: History, Symbolism and Notable Examples

gold buddha statue

Buddha—one of the many pseudonyms of an influential teacher from northern India who was active around the fifth century B.C.—is perhaps one of the most recognizable and widely known figures depicted in Eastern art. Often posed in a meditative state, Buddha reflects a path to enlightenment, honor, and separation from the frivolousness of the modern world. In addition to figurative representations of the icon himself, his teachings are also represented in Buddhist art through other symbols such as the Lotus, Eternal Knot, and Dharma Wheel.

The origins of Buddhism began in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C., at a time of great internal reflection and ethical exploration. While Buddha was often compared to notable philosophers of this time such as Socrates and Plato, Buddha took a new approach, exploring the intersection of religion and enlightenment with reflections on the human experience. This multifaceted approach is what draws so many to Buddhism and the cultural teachings of the religion. The Sage Business Researcher sites that four in ten American adults meditate on a weekly basis, demonstrating in part why Buddhist art and its teachings have become increasingly influential amidst a crowded modern landscape.

Additionally, as mindfulness gains traction in the Western world for its many health-related benefits, the teachings of Buddha are more relevant than ever. Here, we explore the fundamentals of Buddhism and Buddhist art, its defining principles, and notable examples from art history.

A Brief History of Buddhist Art

What separates Buddhist art from other religious symbolism is that physical representations of Buddha and his teachings did not begin until after his death. This is in part because of what is known as the “middle path of moderation,” or the balance between self-indulgence and self-mortification, to which Buddha devoted his life. With the understanding that those who had not achieved enlightenment would eventually be reincarnated, he rejected both asceticism as well as the physical desires of the current world.

Three Buddha statues in a row

Double-sided figure of Buddha and Maitreya. Sold for $193,000 via Christie’s (September 2007).

Siddhartha, later known as Buddha, was born into the royal family of Kapilavastu in Lumbini (present-day Nepal) and was thought to be the next great leader, either in battle or as a leader of higher thinking and understanding. In his youth, Siddhartha came to understand that the luxury he was accustomed to in his affluent upbringing would not help him find a higher purpose, and he left his family to seek out a new path. After experimenting with asceticism, or restraint from all physical needs and desires, he eventually found meditation and used the practice as a path toward enlightenment, what he believed was the only way to understand the true meaning of life and to end the cycle of reincarnation.

Throughout his life, Buddha spoke on the value of respect, peace, honesty, and wisdom to help others achieve a higher sense of consciousness. However, it wasn’t until after his death that artists depicted his teachings as an act of contemplation and a focal point for those looking to achieve nirvana. The very first Buddhist artworks were stupas, or caskets, filled with Buddha’s ashes after his death. These caskets drew visitors seeking a higher purpose and ultimately contributed to the proliferation of new forms of Buddhist art.

two stupas with black background

Left: Chinese Cloisonne Enameled Bronze Buddhist Stupa. Sold for $4250 via Madison Square Gallery (July 2018). Right: Chinese Famille Rose Buddhist Stupa. Sold for $360,000 via Altair Auctions (July 2018).

The perceived spiritual value of the stupas drove artists to create other statues and monuments that could serve as a place of worship and deep reflection for those looking to follow Buddha’s path. Aniconic symbolism, or symbolism that represents the idea of the religious figure, was the first to emerge, and artists often used negative space in their work to depict Buddha’s teachings.

Buddhist Symbolism in Art

The most ubiquitous Buddhist symbol is the statue of Buddha himself, which has been slightly altered with various mudras (symbolic hand gestures), halos, and facial expressions. Other common symbols and motifs in Buddhist art are outlined below. 

Aniconic Symbols

Carving of an empty throne in stone

An aniconic representation of Mara’s assault on Buddha in Amaravati, India.

In the earliest examples of Buddhist art, the likeness of Buddha himself was never depicted. Instead, virtuosos used aniconic symbolism to reflect nirvana. Nirvana, a state of being considered to be a release from the physical body and all the earthly desires that accompany it, is known as the first goal in Buddhism and is only achieved after many life cycles of one entity.

Footprints, a horse without a rider, and an empty chair are some of the best-known representations of Buddha in the first century B.C. This is in part due to the artistic style of the time, which rejected vanity and instead focused on depicting Buddha’s teachings, which scholars felt was the most important part of the process.

The Eight Auspicious Symbols

The Eight Auspicious Symbols are among the most common iconography depicted in Buddhist art, and are thought to represent offerings that the gods made to Buddha after his enlightenment. Each symbol represents a different lesson that must be understood in order to achieve enlightenment, and include the Parasol, Two Golden Fish, the Conch Shell, the Lotus, the Banner of Victory, the Vase, the Dharma Wheel (or Dharmachakra), and the Eternal Knot.

The symbols didn’t come from Buddha himself, but were adopted by his followers after his death, and were widely taught as representations of the god’s gifts to Buddha after his death and subsequent enlightenment. Often used in meditation practices, these objects are said to help anchor the mind and invoke a deeper understanding of Buddha’s teachings.

Buddha Statue

It wasn’t until first century A.D. that statues of Buddha himself became popularized. These relics helped to expand the teachings of the religion and inspired creators to adopt this symbol in a variety of ways. For example, in Gandhara (parts of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan), artists drew inspiration from Roman civilization to create sculptures unique to the area. In these forms, Buddha was displayed as a youthful man, with stylized curls cascading around his face and a shawl lightly draped over his body.

The sculptures in Mathura, a city in northern India, tended to focus more his teachings of the sacred breath of prana, depicting him with a expanded chest full of air. They also chose to leave the right shoulder bare. But the most wide-reaching version of this statue, often known as the “ideal image,” wasn’t created until 4th century A.D. Artwork from the Gupta period draws on previous depictions of Buddha to create an all-knowing statue that has become a beacon for Buddhists.


back and front view of a golden buddha statue with mudras

Figure of Avalokiteshvara. Sold for HKD4,640,000 via Sotheby’s (October 2015).

Even as the “ideal image” of Buddha became well known, some Buddhists were concerned that these works of art did not properly honor the deity. Buddha was opposed to the idea of using himself as a prop for his teachings, and artists of the time were apprehensive about doing anything that might disrespect his wishes.

In order to make changes without dishonoring his scared being, most of the differences seen in the early statues of Buddha are through mudras. Mudras are hand gestures depicted in Buddhist art, and each have their own distinct meaning. The most common mudra is the Chin or Gyan Mudra, where the thumb and index finger come together to form a circle. It is said to be a gesture of knowledge, wisdom, and the unity of human cognizance.

Notable Examples of Buddhist Art


Otherwise known as the “Great Buddha,” the Daibutsu is a reflection of the importance of Buddhism’s reach outside of its country of origin. Located in Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, this bronze statue was created inside the Kotoku-in Temple in 1252. Standing at approximately 43.8 feet tall, the statue is hollow to allow visitors to enter and worship. The original version of this statue was wooden, and funded by Lady Inada back in 1243. After sustaining damage, casters Ono Goroemon and Tanji Hisatomo were tasked with re-creating the piece in gold.

Although this outdoor statue has undergone much reconstruction due to tsunamis, earthquakes, and vandalism, it is one of the most famous landmarks in Japan. It is said that traces of gold leaf can still be found near Buddha’s ears, even after a complete reconstruction in 1498. This work of art has also been assigned a national treasure status and is being considered for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage Series.

Footprint of Buddha

Footprint of the buddha in stone

Reclining Buddha and Buddha’s Footprint at the Seema Malaka Temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Part of the age of aniconic symbolism, Buddha’s footprints were a traditional rendering of the divine and are thought to serve as a reminder to all about the fleeting nature of humanity’s time on earth, as well as a representation of the path of righteousness Buddha left for others to follow. This symbol in art is often accompanied by a mark such as a Dharmachakra, or The Dharma Wheel, at the sole of the foot and takes over 3,000 different forms across India, Japan, Sri Lanka, and other neighboring countries.

Historians believe that Buddha left his footprints in every land that his teachings were to make a lasting impression, with the largest impression left atop the Sri Padaya mountain in Sri Lanka. This mountain is considered a sacred space across several religions, and many Buddhists make the pilgrimage up the mountain each year to worship.

The Great Stupa

The Great Stupa, an ancient Buddhist monument in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India.

The Great Stupa, an ancient Buddhist monument in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India.

The Great Stupa was built in 3rd century B.C. by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka in Sanchi, India. The dome stands at 120 feet high and 54 feet wide and reflects heaven enclosing the earth, and is one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in the country.

Each addition to the Stupa was carefully considered and represents various Buddhist ideals. The central pillar, yashti, supports the three jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, the sharma, and the sangha. Those who wish to worship at this sacred space must walk clockwise around the medhi, or railing around the dome, before entering through the toranas. The toranas are ceremonial gateways and are focal points located at the four cardinal points of the Stupa. Inscribed on the toranas are stories and events of Buddha’s life as well as the names of those who contributed to restoration of the religious site.

Gedun Truppa, 1st Dalai Lama

The institution of the Dalai Lama is one that can be traced back to 1578 C.E., and serves as a spiritual leader to Buddhist culture in Tibet. There are four major schools of the Tibetan Buddhist religion, and while all honor the Dalai Lama and his teachings, he is most revered in the Gelug sector. Gedun Truppa, named after its subject, features the first Dalai Lama from Tibet in the 17th and 18th century.

Reflecting the teachings of Buddha, the Dalai Lama translates to “ocean of wisdom” and embodies compassion, peace and reason. Unlike the traditional Buddhist framework, a number of humanitarian leaders have taken on the role of the Dalai Lama and used this position of power to achieve peace and promote a greater sense of self across Tibet.

Ayuthaya Buddha Head

buddha head surrounded by tree roots

Statue of Buddha’s head enveloped in tree roots in Ayuthaya, Thailand.

One of the most iconic Buddhist statues in Thailand depicts Buddha’s head enveloped in the roots of a large tree. Originally, this work belonged to a full statue of Buddha in deep meditation state outside a temple, but it was destroyed in 1767 by the Burmese army. Remarkably, the head remained intact, which was rare for Buddhist sculptures in the surrounding areas. The statue was eventually overtaken by a neighboring tree.

Honoring Buddha’s teachings of the soul’s connection to nature, many historians call upon the symbolic value of the Ayuthaya Buddha Head. As the first Buddha achieved enlightenment under the shade of a Bodhi tree, this statue is often seen as a reminder to return to the basics of the Buddhist principles to reach the higher spiritual level.

Buddhist teachings have been widespread for many centuries, but continue to serve as a source of strength and inspiration. The philosophy of Buddha is simple and solitary; something that anyone can achieve if they focus inward, and the practice of inward reflection has gained traction in recent years.

Sources: Met Museum 1, 2 | Asia Society