Buddhist Statues 1:

The Historical Buddha


The Nyorai is the highest level of Buddhist deity, and the Nyorai statues are the classic statues of the Buddha. Shown here are Shaka Nyorai (Siddhartha Buddha) and Amida Nyorai (Amrita Buddha). First is Shaka Nyorai. He is typically depicted with the palms of both hands open and the right hand raised.




Wooden Shaka Nyorai statue, 16.5 cm (6.6 inches), 21.5 cm. (8.6 inches) including the base. Nearly all of the Buddhist statues one comes across here in Japan come from temples. Those which were made for private use become incorporated into the family butsudan (house shrine) and stay there. This is a fine example of an Edo period temple statue. Such statues frequently lack one or both hands, and I am very pleased to have this one, who retains both hands with all their fingers intact (see picture, left).

    The positioning of the fingers is an important matter. Note how the second and third fingers are curled slightly forwards, in front of the little and index fingers.


There was frequently a "kouhai" (mandorla, or body halo), behind the statue of the Buddha. In this case - as so often - the mandorla is missing, and there is a hole at the back of the base where the mandorla would have been fitted (see picture, above).



The figure above is a seated (early?) Edo-period Shaka. He is just 6 cm. (2.4 inches) tall, 15 cm. (6 inches) with the base. The pieces of figures like this are generally firmly joined together, but in this case they can be separated, showing how he was built up, with the separate layers held together by a central spike (above, right). This statue would originally have had a mandorla, or perhaps just a halo around the head. The picture to the right shows where this would have fitted into the back of the figure.

The second type of statue shown here is the Amida Nyorai. It differs from the Shaka Nyorai mainly in the positioning of the fingers.

Edo period wooden Amida Nyorai statue, 16.5 cm. (6.6 inches) high, 24 cm. (9.6 inches) with the base, which is made in five separate layers. Like many temple statues, the original gilt has been covered by the soot of burning incense.

Amida can be distinguished from Shaka mainly by the positioning of the fingers. The tips of the thumb and index finger (or, sometimes, the middle finger) of both hands are lightly pressed together. Sometimes there is an actual hole carved, showing the circle thus formed, but in this case there is just a depression in the wood.



This Nyorai statue is 7 inches (17.5 cm) high and is housed standing on a low base in a simple miniature shrine. The shrine was not his original home; he only fits because he has been unfortunate enough to have lost his hands, his feet and his original base (which would typically be a lotus flower). Despite these flaws, I have an especial liking for him because he is the first Japanese Buddhist statue I bought.




For comparison, here is a much larger (nearly one metre high), much older and much more valuable Shaka Nyorai, displayed at the Treasures of Eikando Zenrin-ji exhibition in Osaka in 1996: