This serene figure sits in dhyanasana – with the right foot resting on the left knee. Both of the figure’s feet are concealed under the folds of his robe. This particular seated position is often associated with meditation. The right hand is raised in abhaya mudra, while the left rests gently, facing upwards, on the left knee. A mudra is a hand gesture associated with the Buddha. The abhaya mudra is often described as a ‘gesture of fearlessness’, and symbolises protection, benevolence, peace and the driving out of fear. The gentle features of the face also suggest quiet benevolence. The eyes appear down-cast, but in situ the believer would have been looking up at the figure and so it would have seemed that the figure’s gaze rested upon him or her.
This figure represents the Buddha Sakyamuni. The term Buddha means ‘Enlightened One’ and refers to someone who has attained enlightenment and has entered into nirvana. In China such beings are usually depicted in the robes of a monk and without jewellery, but with extended ear-lobes and an ushnisha (protuberance on the top of the head), as in the case of the current figure. The extended ear-lobes and the ushnisha are two of the 32 marks of the Buddha. In Mahayanist Buddhism, there are believed to be an infinite number of Buddhas, and Sakyamuni is regarded as the most recent to have appeared and lived in this world, and is thus known as the Historical Buddha. The name Sakyamuni comes from Sakya, which is the name of the tribe to which the Buddha originally belonged and muni, meaning ‘sage’.
Sakyamuni is believed to have been born into the warrior caste, the son of the Sakya king Suddhodana, and was given the name Siddhartha, while his family name was Gautama. It was prophesied at his birth that he would either become a great ruler or a great teacher. For the first 29 years of his life he led a sheltered and luxurious existence in the palace. However at 29 he felt the need to see more of the world outside. Leaving the palace, he encountered the suffering of humanity for the first time and determined to become a wandering ascetic. He attempted several paths to enlightenment, including meditation and fasting, but eventually seated himself under a pipal tree at Bodh Gaya and pledged not to move until he had attained supreme enlightenment. Eventually, at the age of 35, he achieved his goal, and spent the remainder of his long life teaching all who sought enlightenment, irrespective of their religion or their position in society. As in the case of the current figure, Sakyamuni is almost inevitably depicted with gentle, benevolent, mien reflecting his compassion for humanity.