In Chinese restaurants I always see statues of Buddha with long earlobes. I sometimes ask the folks who work there what significance this has. So far, even the Buddhists (three now) have no idea. Do you? —Eric Bottos, via e-mail

What’s the difference between the fat Buddha and the regular Buddha? One report I’ve heard is that Buddha was so good-looking that he asked to be made less attractive so he could study more and fend off women less. —Cori, Boston

Long ears are part of Buddhist iconography, which is if anything more complex than Christian iconography. So pay attention. Given the swelling prominence of Asia in the world scheme, this is stuff you need to know.

Some basics. First, buddha is a title, not a name, similar to Christ, messiah, or saint; it means “awakened one” or “enlightened one.” The Buddha, also called the historical Buddha, was the prince Siddhartha Gautama, who achieved buddhahood somewhere around 500 BC, and he’s consistently portrayed as svelte and serene. Buddhism has two main sects: In Mahayana Buddhism (predominant in China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia), everyone has the potential to attain total enlightenment, and some besides the big-B Buddha actually have; Mahayana temples often contain statues of these small-B buddhas. Theravada Buddhist temples (mostly in southeast Asia), however, tend to display statues of the historical Buddha only.

Second, though Buddhism and its symbols originated in India, the iconography now varies widely by region and sect. The following elements are fairly universal:

– The earlobes are elongated, partly to indicate the Buddha is all-hearing and partly as a reminder of the heavy earrings that weighed them down before Siddhartha renounced material things to seek enlightenment.

– The Buddha’s head is usually enlarged (sometimes by a large bump on top) to symbolize wisdom; a jewel in the bump denotes brilliance.

– The hair is generally curly. According to legend, after shearing off his long princely locks, Siddhartha from then on had a head of short, fine curls—not a common look in Asia and thus a distinguishing sign.

– A dot or protrusion in the center of the forehead represents power or an all-seeing eye.

– The fingers are long, slender, and usually finely webbed to indicate that the Buddha can “catch” people, similar to the Christian idea of Jesus the fisherman. Webbing also has the practical advantage of making the statue’s delicate fingers less likely to break off.

– Often a stylized representation of light emanates from the Buddha, akin to a halo but usually encircling the entire body.

Different postures—standing, sitting lotus position (cross-legged), sitting half-lotus position (one leg hangs down to the ground), and lying down—represent different stages or aspects of the Buddha’s life. The two lotus positions symbolize that Buddha, like the lotus plant, emerged from the mud to achieve enlightenment. The reclining Buddha usually represents his death, passing into nirvana and escaping the tedious cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

You didn’t ask, but mystic hand gestures called mudra (Sanskrit for “seal” or “sign”) are also a big deal in Buddhism. The five most common:

– Teaching mudra. Also called “turning the wheel of law.” Used by the historical Buddha when preaching, the right hand is in front of the chest, palm outward, thumb and forefinger forming a circle. The left hand is beneath the right hand, also with thumb and forefinger touching, but palm inward. Variation: right hand at shoulder level pointing up and the left at hip level pointing down, both with palm outward and index finger and thumb forming circles; sometimes called the “reasoning” mudra.

– Fearlessness mudra. Upraised hand lifted above thigh, palm facing out, fingers pointing up, usually with middle finger slightly forward; means “fear not” and is a sign of protection.

– Welcoming mudra. Right hand pointing downward, palm facing out, often with middle finger slightly forward; means welcome, blessing, or charity.

– Meditation mudra. Found mostly on seated images. Both hands in lap, palms upward, usually right on top of left but sometimes fingers curled, thumbs touching to form a circle; indicates a state of, well, meditation.

– Earth-touching mudra. Statue in lotus position, with right hand hanging over right knee, palm inward, fingers (or just forefinger) touching the earth; left hand in lap, palm upward, sometimes holding a begging bowl. Symbolizes the Buddha “calling the earth to witness” his victory over temptation.

Finally, Cori’s question: The fat, laughing guy isn’t the capital-B Buddha but a lesser buddha called Hotei (or Miroku or Miluo or Budai or Putai, depending on language). The model for Hotei was (probably) a cheerful, overweight Chinese Zen monk or healer who wandered the countryside helping people circa 950 AD. In Asia the belly is one’s spiritual center and source of power, so rubbing the laughing buddha’s belly brings good luck, and is as close to achieving buddha nature as most of us will get.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

Update 9/11/2018: A new headline was added.

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