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[bud dah]

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Almost 2500 years ago, on the border between India and Nepal, a pampered young prince named Siddhartha Gautama left his family and the luxury of his palace home seeking answers to two questions: “why do human beings suffer?” and “is there an escape from suffering?”

First, he took up the life of India’s forest-dwelling ascetics — living apart from the world, denying himself shelter, food, and worldly possessions, and punishing his body in order to try and transcend the realities of illness, old age, and death. But he did not find the answers he sought. Instead, he became weak, with bones protruding.

One day, a young woman offered the starving Siddhartha a bowl of nourishing rice pudding. As he ate, he realized that neither indulgence nor deprivation, but a middle way, would lead to enlightenment.

After regaining his strength, he sat under the now famous Bodhi tree in the present day town of Bodh Gaya, India and said that he would not rise until he had attained enlightenment. This 13th-century statue depicts Siddhartha at the very moment of enlightenment, when he became “the awakened one,” the Buddha .

The Buddha’s answers to his questions may be understood through his teaching on The Four Noble Truths:

  1. There is suffering in life.
  2. Suffering is caused by desire and attachment.
  3. By learning to let go of desire and attachment, suffering can be overcome.
  4. The Eightfold Path is the way to overcome desire.


The Eightfold Path lays out an approach to living one's life that can lead to the end of suffering. The steps are not sequential, but must all be practiced at the same time. The path can be divided into concepts related to wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental discipline.


1. Right Understanding

Understanding things and events as they really are, not through the lens of one’s emotions, attachments, prejudices or pre-conceived ideas.

2. Right Thinking

The Buddha said in the Dhammapada, "All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him."

Ethical Conduct

3. Right Speech

More than just the avoidance of lies and deceptions, rude and abusive language, gossip, and slander of others, the concept of Right Speech encourages honest speech that promotes harmony and good will.

4. Right Action

Not killing, not lying, not elevating oneself or blaming others, not allowing oneself to be angry, these are examples of the precepts of Right Action.

5. Right Livelihood

Finding a way to make a living that does no harm to others.

Mental Discipline

6. Right Effort

The diligence and discipline required to cultivate compassion, kindness and other wholesome qualities, and to eliminate negative qualities such as greed, anger, and ignorance.

7. Right Mindfulness

Being fully present, attentive, and observant, so that we may experience each moment directly.

8. Right Concentration

Often associated with meditation, Right Concentration is the focusing of one’s thoughts, body, and breath, on one particular object in order to focus the mind.

The Buddha is not worshipped as a god, but his image is helpful to followers who hold it in their minds as they meditate on the qualities of compassion and wisdom exemplified by his life and spelled out in his teachings.

The image of the Buddha is distinguished by characteristic poses (asanas ) and gestures (mudras ), as well as the presence of auspicious markings (lakshanas ) that convey aspects of his enlightenment. These have governed artistic representations of the Buddha for centuries.

Click on highlighted areas to learn more about this 13th-century gilded bronze Buddha from Tibet.

A sculpture like this one would have been made for an altar in a Buddhist temple or monastery. In Atlanta, a statue similar to the one here can be found on the altar at the Drepung Loseling Monastery and Center for Tibetan Studies

Click here or on the sidebar to learn about a statue of the Buddha in the context of the altar.


Images of the Buddha show his hands in one of many symbolic gestures known as mudras. Here, in the Bhumisparsha mudra (earth-touching gesture), the Buddha’s right hand drapes over his leg and “touches the earth” lightly, calling it to witness his enlightenment. His left hand rests on his lap in a posture of meditation.


His earlobes are pierced and stretched, a reminder of the heavy earrings and other riches the prince Siddhartha left behind.


One of the lakshanas or markings is the Buddha’s blue-black hair, here represented in precious lapis lazuli.


The golden “bump” on the top of his head is part of his body and conveys the wisdom he has attained through enlightenment. Tradition holds that its height cannot be measured and that no one can look down upon it.


The small curl of hair between the Buddha’s eyebrows is called the urna , here inlaid with turquoise. It is the sign that he has honored all his teachers, and also that he has been generous toward beings.


Small knobs on the hands and feet of the Buddha statue represent the Dharma wheel or Dharma chakra in Sanskrit. Though already an ancient solar symbol in India at the time of the Buddha, his followers adopted the wheel to symbolize his teachings, which are known as the Dharma. Though here the wheels are simple knobs, the wheel is often depicted with eight spokes to represent the ideals of the Eightfold Path.


Other lakshanas that govern the appearance of images of the Buddha include a wide chest and gently curved shoulders, as well as his smiling face and golden skin, which suggest compassion for all beings. His eyes, half closed, look both inward in contemplation and outward, engaged with the world around him.


He is dressed in the robes of a monk, which would wrap around his waist and drape over the left shoulder, leaving the right shoulder bare as a sign of humility.


The Buddha sits in a meditation pose on a golden lotus throne. As in many traditions, the lotus symbolizes purity, but it also reminds Buddhists of the possibility of enlightenment. Just as the lotus begins its life in the mud and muck yet rises above the murky waters of the pond, human beings can transcend suffering and reach enlightenment through the teachings of the Buddha.

Buddha on the Altar of Drepung Loseling Monastery

A traditional Buddhist altar is a physical representation of the Buddhist concept of the “Three Refuges,” also known as the “Triple Jewel.” The Buddha established the “three refuges” on which followers of Buddhism can always rely — in which they can seek refuge.

The “three refuges” are:

  • The Buddha, who is the guide
  • The Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, which is the path
  • The Sangha, which is the community of enlightened beings and teachers along the way

In this short video, Geshe Dadul Namgyal , a Buddhist monk and scholar at Atlanta’s Drepung Loseling Monastery, introduces the function of a Buddhist altar.

Select any of the highlighted areas on the altar to learn more.

Site Credits

Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University
571 South Kilgo Circle