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The first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha appeared centuries after his death (see this related question). Buddhist art then was "aniconic", insofar as the Buddha was only represented through symbols such as the Buddha's footprint or the Dharma wheel. In the Wikipedia article on Greco-Buddhism, there is a hint as to why this might be so:

[The] reluctance towards anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, and the sophisticated development of aniconic symbols to avoid it (even in narrative scenes where other human figures would appear), seem to be connected to one of the Buddha’s sayings, reported in the Digha Nikaya, that discouraged representations of himself after the extinction of his body.

This assertion isn't, however, accompanied by a reference to the relevant portion of the Digha Nikaya, and it is contradicted in Donald Lopez's latest book, From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha (University of Chicago Press, 2013):

[N]o proscriptions against making images of the Buddha have been located in what scholars would regard as an early Buddhist text, nor have any prescriptions for his representation been found.

Is there actual textual basis for the claim that the Buddha discouraged antropomorphic representations of himself (in the Digha Nikaya or other early Buddhist texts)?

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    There is a Theravada Monk building a monastery in Malaysia without any image or representation of the Buddha, as you said Buddha images appeared only 500 years after his death. As the Buddha said, the Dhamma is our teacher now, this is the most important thing, the images are just to remind ourselves of the good qualities of the Buddha – konrad01 Aug 7 '14 at 4:01
  • Is anthropomorphic a correct term to use given that the historical Buddha was always human? – Robin111 Aug 7 '14 at 11:37
  • @Robin111 I'm not sure I understand your question. An anthropomorphic representation simply is a representation having human characteristics, while an aniconic representation is one that doesn't. – user611 Aug 7 '14 at 17:28
  • @konrad01 That's very interesting, do you have any information on the monastery (name, location, etc.)? – user611 Aug 7 '14 at 17:29
  • I'm going by this definition. It seems to say assigning human characteristics to something not human; like a deity or an animal. Is there a different definition? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropomorphism – Robin111 Aug 7 '14 at 17:33
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A direct quote from the Digha Nikaya that explicitly expresses a prohibition or even a discouragement concerning his antropomorphic representations has not been found yet, as far as I know.

In Religions of the Silk Road (Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1996), Yuvraj Krishan maintains that the aniconic period is due to a Vedic heritage: Vedism was aniconic because it considered the highest gods as ultimately transcendent and formless. His contention is that when Buddhism was in its infancy, those who were faithful to the growing tradition were careful to act within to the Vedic tradition to avoid any normative displacement. So it should not surprise us that the earliest representational art appears at the geographical fringes of the Indian subcontinent (Sri Lanka and Gandhara). The earliest source for this thesis that I know is John C. Huntington's 1977 paper titled "The origin of the Buddha image".

Although there seems to be no known explicit doctrinal injunctions against the representation of the Buddha in anthropomorphic form, there is an oblique statement in the Vinaya of the Sarvastivadins (first called attention to by Arthur Waley) which may be interpreted as a prohibition and consists the only textual source I have found to this effect. In this passage, which deals with the decoration of monasteries, Anathapindika asks:

World-honoured one, if images of yours are not allowed to be made, pray may we not at least make images of Bodhisattvas in attendance upon you? (apud Waley, 1931/2)

Although this statement addresses the theme of iconic representation of Buddha, it is an isolated case and cannot really be construed as a prohibition. Therefore, Huntington's theory that the aniconic representation of the Buddha in early Buddhism was a result of Vedic traditions and not specific doctrinal prohibitions seems to be the best explanation.


Further reading:

  • I suspect that the avoidance of idols and images was not the result of tradition but motivated by the same reasons it is avoided in the Vedic tradition and warned against in the Bible. To paraphrase, ' because it considered Reality and Consciousness to be ultimately transcendent and formless'.. – PeterJ Jul 22 at 13:11
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You may want to refer to this sutta from Pali Canon

Buddha said to him, "The sight of my foul body is useless; he who sees the Dhamma, he it is that seeth me"

yo kho dhammam passati so mam passati; yo mam passati so dhammam passati

Vakkali Thera

Idols and Suptas are representing the teaching of Buddha, the Dhamma.

Supta Meanings

Supta and Buddha

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"The disciplines of austerity and contemplation Gautama had taught were now increasingly confined to a minority of orthodox .., the followers of Mahayana winning conversions among the masses. One sign of this was the proliferation in the first and second centuries AD of statues and representations of the Buddha, a practice hitherto restrained by the Buddha's prohibition of idol-worship." (Roberts 1995: 417)

ROBERTS; J.M. 1995. The Penguin History of the World. London: Penguin Group, 3rd edition.

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Householder, interested,

Did the Buddha discourage antropomorphic representations of himself?

Not so explicite, but tendency to encouragements on reminders... image of him?

Ven. Ananda Thera once desired to keep a reminder of the Buddha at the monastery, while the Lord Buddha went into the lands, for encouragement of all in his absence, and asked the Buddha in relation of this. While the Buddha remarked that certain memorials of a Buddha while alive are not proper, he allowed to plant a Bodhi-tree one that occation.

"Not proper when alive..." does easy allow the thought that an image (after death) as encouragement and to increase faith, is approved by the Buddha. Now what kinds are there?

Maybe quoting the passage later...oh here

Kalingabodhi-Jataka (Kāliṅgabodhijātakaṃ)

..."This monastery, Sir, is left unprovided while the Tathāgata goes on pilgrimage, and there is no place for the people to do reverence by offering fragrant wreaths and garlands. Will you be so kind, Sir, as to tell the Tathāgata of this matter, and learn from him whether or no it is possible to find a place for this purpose." The other, nothing loth, did so, asking, "How many shrines are there?" —"Three, Ānanda." —"Which are they?" —"Shrines for a relic of the body, a relic of use or wear, a relic of memorial [202]" —"Can a shrine be made, Sir, during your life?" —"No, Ānanda, not a body-shrine; that kind is made when a Buddha enters Nirvāna. A shrine of memorial is improper because the connection depends on the imagination only.(?) But the great bo-tree used by the Buddhas is fit for a shrine, be they alive or be they dead." —"Sir, while you are away on pilgrimage the great monastery of Jetavana °° is unprotected, and the people have no place where they can show their reverence. Shall I plant a seed of the great bo-tree before the gateway of Jetavana?" —"By all means so do, Ānanda, and that shall be as it were an abiding place for me."...

202: See Hardy, Eastern Monachism, 216 f. The last class is said to be images of the Buddha. (similar in German translations)

My person also remembers, that in regard of not allowed to carry and draw pictures, images of humans, for monks, the commentary, at least, report that aside of samvega increasing, images of the Buddha are allowed.

The often ignored commentary, "historical" reports at least, of serious source, whould surely give much detail. There are even guidlines how and where to put (direction...).

Shrine should be understood as memorial image.

More on general reason why such "forms" is found in the Maha Parinibbana Sutta (DN16)

Vandāmi bhante cetiyaṃ, sabbaṃ sabbattha ṭhāne, supatiṭṭhitaṃ sārīraṅka-dhātuṃ, mahā-bodhiṃ buddha-rūpaṃ, sakkāratthaṃ.

I revere every stupa established in every place, every Relic of the Buddha's body, every Great Bodhi tree, every Buddha image that is an object of veneration.

The tendencies in Vinaya are generally strong against subha, but allow asuhba images. See also general comments on Buddhist Art here. The strong attachment to form, by humans, would also explain the Dhammic reason behind the rules.

Further additions, edits and discussion on it can be found here: [Q&A] Buddha-images are allowed by the Buddha (at least by monks)?, in the Open-Vihara.

(Note that this is not given for trade, exchange, stacks, entertainment and akusala deeds, but as a share of merits and continue such for release)

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Early artists did not make statues of Buddha so as not to make mistakes in representing the features and characteristics of the Buddha.

The statues came later as a tool of worship to develop faith in the Buddha.

There is not encouragement or discouragement of this from the Buddha or in the ancient texts.

  • Can you cite any sources backing up your first claim? – user611 Aug 7 '14 at 17:16
  • John C. Huntington, a significant art historian of Buddhism, published an article in 1977 which argues that the only explicit ban on images of the Buddha comes from the Sarvastivadin Vinaya. In the passage, Anathapindika asks "World honoured one, if images of yours are not allowed to be made, pray, may we not at least make images of Bodhisattvas in attendance upon you?", to which the Buddha assents. Even that is rather oblique, of course. – user611 Aug 7 '14 at 17:42
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    Above is a common opinion held by many people in Sri Lanka regarding the matter. I am no sure it it is there in any texts. May be perhaps books by Sri Lankan historians. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Aug 8 '14 at 2:00
  • To get the 32 marks of a Great man 80 sub marks is not easy. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Aug 8 '14 at 2:12

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