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Representations of Buddha in South and Southeast Asia


Buddhism consists of a set of religious practices predominant in Asia. Siddhartha Gautama, also referred to as the Buddha, founded the religion in ancient India. The focus of Buddhism is to achieve a state of enlightenment without the involving priests or gods. The way Buddha is represented in different Asian societies varies depending on local traditions and religious teachings within a particular community.

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Buddhism in Asia

Buddhism has been dominant in Asia for centuries since Siddhartha Gautama began preaching the faith in the 4th century B.C in India. The religious teachings explain that Gautama was the 28th Buddha to live on earth (Sen, 2014). The previous Buddhas lived hundreds of thousands of years earlier. Buddhism spread to China during the Han dynasty after the Silk Road was opened, and the Chinese started building sculptures and temples associated with the deity (Stokstad & Cothren, 2018). The followers of the faith made statues that depicted Buddha in a seated position while meditating. However, the carvings differed in size in different geographical locations since individual artists conferred different tastes when creating the artwork. In China, Buddhists also incorporated features of the religion in architecture and paintings. Furthermore, Stokstad and Cothren (2018) claim that the Chinese made caves along the trade routes where travelers would rest and meditate. More so, monks and nuns built residence caves along the trade routes showing the significance of the religion in the country.

Representations of Buddha in Different Countries

The representation of Buddha in Asia differs based on the specific deity worshiped in a particular region. However, the dominant images of Buddha include sculptures of Gautama Buddha, Amitabha Buddha, and Vairocana Buddha (Sen, 2014). While most of the statues depict meditation, they vary in appearance, size, and location. In ancient China, many sculptures of the Amitabha Buddha, fourth most revered Buddha, were common (Sen, 2014). In addition, the Amitabha Buddha’s sculptures are prevalent in Japan and China today, characterized by large figures that are displayed in public areas (Stokstad & Cothren, 2018). Moreover, one of the famous Chinese Buddhist artwork is the bronze altar for Amitabha Buddha (Stokstad & Cothren, 2018). On the other hand, the Japanese represent Vairocana Buddha inside temples, using smaller gold-plated statues in comparison to Amitabha Buddha. As Buddhism spread to Korea from China, the Koreans made various representations of Buddha using carvings and paintings including the bronze image of bodhisattva Maitreya, Seokguram, and a painting of Gwanse’eum Bosal. Bosal is the revered bodhisattva of compassion (Stokstad & Cothren, 2018). Although the bodhisattvas are not Buddhas, they represent beings on the journey to the full enlightenment status of Buddha.

Buddhism is also dominant in Thailand where followers are strict adherents to the teachings of Gautama. The Buddha sculptures in the country are often gold-plated and adorable. In addition, Thai people incorporate Buddhist designs in their temples. However, Japan portrays a more significant variation in Buddha representation. The Japanese schools of Buddhism follow Amitabha Buddha, and Vairocana Buddha, which implies the presence of different Buddha statues. Similar to the other Asian nations, the Japanese have temples, festivals, and monasteries that represent Buddhism and its teachings. Other Southeast nations, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, practice Theravada Buddhism and have sculptures of Buddha Gautama.


The representation of Buddha in the south and Southeast Asia vary depending on local traditions and religious teachings. Despite different communities subscribing to the ideologies of a particular Buddha, the most dominant depictions feature the Gautama Buddha. In that way, his philosophy defines most of religious practices, lifestyles, and instructions observed in Asia.


Sen, T. (Ed.). (2014). Buddhism across Asia: Networks of material, intellectual and cultural exchange, volume 1. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Stokstad, M., & Cothren, M. (2018). Art history volume 1. Pearson.

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