When I read this article on the tallest statues in the world, I was struct by how many of them were of important Buddhist figures: of the fifteen tallest statues six are of Guanyin (Kannon/Avalokiteśvara), five of the Buddha, and one of Kṣitigarbha, for a total of twelve out of the top fifteen!

Why are such tall statues built? What significance does the height of these statues have in the religious lives of Buddhist adherents?

Or are these statues not built for true religious purposes, but as an unofficial competition between nations, just like they compete over the tallest skyscraper? Nine out of the fifteen were built in the 21th century. Who commissions these statues? Statues of this size would be beyond the budgets of most temples.

See also: this question on why precious metals are used for Buddhist statues.

  • For what it's worth, on other SE sites (like Politics.SE and Skeptics.SE) questions about intent are off-topic because they're unknowable. "Why did politician X do action Y?", for example, requires you to read or guess their private intention. Those sites do allow you to ask questions about the public record, e.g. "What reason did politician X say, for doing action Y?". It's not clear whether you're asking here about people's private intentions or their public reasons. A question about "unofficial competition" for example might be difficult or impossible to answer truthfully, don't you agree? – ChrisW Nov 2 '18 at 12:33
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    @ChrisW The abundance of very tall statues makes this a distinguishing feature of Buddhism - no other religion has so many. That there are 12+, in many countries, from different branches of Buddhism, suggests there's a common thinking behind it. If there was one giant statue commissioned by a single rich king your point about unknowable intent would be spot on. But because there are so many, my assumption is it's not just coincidence, and I expect people have written about their reasons for building them. It would be like asking why Christian Cathedrals are usually aligned to the east. – curiousdannii Nov 2 '18 at 12:42
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    OK, so you're asking "What's the general, public reason?" with an especial emphasis on "Why big?". Like I think that Christian doctrine could explain why cathedrals are built and why they're aligned eastwards. The tallest Christian churches are comparable in size to the tallest Buddhist statues, fwiw. – ChrisW Nov 2 '18 at 12:52
  • @ChrisW Yep, that's right. It could be for devotional reasons, larger being more beautiful, like the answers to the precious metals question explained. It could be to attract believers to the location, either on pilgrimages, or permanently. The monetary donations required to build them could be signs of devotion, so bigger means a more devout community. These are just guesses of mine so they could all be way off. – curiousdannii Nov 2 '18 at 12:58

Statues last long beyond that of a life, and a picture says a thousand words. Statues also tend to be respected enough to not be 'touched up' therefore insight can be passed on in a way beyond that of words while the represented meaning is difficult to distort.

The greater the statue symbolises the importance of the lesson that is to be passed on.

  • What is the lesson from a very tall statue of Guanyin? Is it a different lesson from a shorter statue? – curiousdannii Jan 11 at 22:49
  • In essence of the Lady herself and what she represents, absolutely not. The size is a display for the sake of reverence. "The lessons of the Lady are a greater concern than our own." – Beau. D Jan 13 at 2:09
  • "The size is a display for the sake of reverence." If you can present proof of that, such as a quote from whoever made these statues, that would be great. That's what would actually answer this question, which so far none of the responses have done. – curiousdannii Jan 13 at 2:12
  • The proof would be in the records of the Committee responsible for the statues commission and possibly very difficult to get a hold of, or do not physically exist. In saying that this research paper is similar to the processes of visual perception of size with regards to conception of design: researchgate.net/publication/291798013_Visual_perception "The size itself is a display for the sake of reverence" is a reminder for people who have little or no interest Dharma of Compassion; so they can 'feel' how the symbol of her dwarfs their little worlds. – Beau. D Jan 13 at 2:53

OP: Why are such tall statues built?

Why do people have statues for the Buddha?

From DN16, the Buddha explained to Ananda, why it is beneficial to have a stupa for a Tathagata (a Buddha):

And why, Ananda, is a Tathagata, an Arahant, a Fully Enlightened One worthy of a stupa? Because, Ananda, at the thought: 'This is the stupa of that Blessed One, Arahant, Fully Enlightened One!' the hearts of many people will be calmed and made happy; and so calmed and with their minds established in faith therein, at the breaking up of the body, after death, they will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness. And so also at the thought: 'This is the stupa of that Paccekabuddha!' or 'This is the stupa of a disciple of that Tathagata, Arahant, Fully Enlightened One!' or 'This is the stupa of that righteous monarch who ruled according to Dhamma!' — the hearts of many people are calmed and made happy; and so calmed and with their minds established in faith therein, at the breaking up of the body, after death, they will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness. And it is because of this, Ananda, that these four persons are worthy of a stupa.

I would therefore extrapolate that the purpose of the statue of the Buddha is similar to the purpose of the stupa of a Buddha, which is, to be an inspiration for peace of mind and happiness.

Today, people in USA remember Martin Luther King, people in India remember Mahatma Gandhi and people in South Africa remember Nelson Mandela. They may have photos or statues of these revered persons put up in public places and treated in a respectable way. The statue of the Buddha is no different. They are there to serve as icons of inspiration.

The Buddha, at least from a Theravada perspective, is no more supernaturally reachable through prayers and rituals, than King, Gandhi or Mandela.

OP: What significance does the height of these statues have in the religious lives of Buddhist adherents?

Now, how was the stupa of a universal monarch or a Buddha built?

From the same sutta:

"But how, venerable Ananda, do they act respecting the body of a universal monarch?"

"The body of a universal monarch, Vasetthas, is first wrapped round with new linen, and then with teased cotton wool. And again it is wrapped round with new linen, and again with teased cotton wool, and so it is done up to five hundred layers of linen and five hundred of cotton wool. When that is done, the body of the universal monarch is placed in an iron oil-vessel, which is enclosed in another iron vessel and a funeral pyre is built of all kinds of perfumed woods, and so the body of the universal monarch is burned. And at a crossroads a stupa is raised for the universal monarch. So it is done, Vasetthas, with the body of a universal monarch.

"And even, Vasetthas, as with the body of a universal monarch, so should it be done with the body of the Tathagata; and at a crossroads also a stupa should be raised for the Tathagata. And whoever shall bring to that place garlands or incense or sandalwood paste, or pay reverence, and whose mind becomes calm there — it will be to his well being and happiness for a long time."

So, the Buddha stupa was not a simple tomb. Rather, it was a very grand memorial shrine.

Similarly, I extrapolate that the purpose of the great height of the statues of the Buddha is to function as a grand memorial.

It's no different to the giant 38m tall statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro or the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

Doesn't the giant 24m tall statue of the Buddha (the Great Buddha in Bodh Gaya, India) below make you think "this is the statue of that Blessed One, Arahant, Fully Enlightened One!" Doesn't it inspire you and fill you with awe?

Around 2.5km away from this statue, you can visit the Mahabodhi Temple and the Bodhi Tree, the exact location where the Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment. More places of inspiration.

The Great Buddha in meditation pose: Great Buddha (Bodh Gaya)

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    Okay, but you haven't in the slightest addressed my actual question, which is about the statues sizes. – curiousdannii Dec 2 '18 at 14:26
  • @curiousdannii Updated the answer on statue sizes. – ruben2020 Jan 13 at 15:29
  • It's still only your speculations. Is there truly no indication from any official source as to the purpose or meaning behind these giant statues? – curiousdannii Jan 14 at 13:13
  • @curiousdannii Different traditions or sects may have different opinions. This is my opinion based on the Theravada tradition and the Early Buddhist Texts (EBTs) which tries to stick as closely as possible to the teachings of the historical person of Gautama Buddha. In the Buddha's time, there were no statues of him. The texts only talk about stupas which are memorial shrines. The Buddha famously said, "When you see the Dhamma (teachings), you see me. When you see me, you see the Dhamma." He said his own physical form is transient and unimportant. The teachings are what is most important. – ruben2020 Jan 14 at 13:38
  • @curiousdannii Statues of the Buddha first appeared as a consequence of the hellenization of Buddhism in the region of Afghanistan. See the Greco-Buddhism wikipedia article. It was not part of original Buddhism. – ruben2020 Jan 14 at 13:41

See "Many motives, many fruits" and others in Generosity,dana, caga - Path to freedom, if wishing freedom rather than seek issues to protest.

Very useful practice to overcome envy and stinginess is the practice of mudita.

As for objects of veneration and the benefits see Respect: Physical Objects

[Note: this tiny building of Dhamma is not thought for any commercial use, trade, stakes or exchange for wordily gains]

  • Uh, what? I'm not protesting, envious, or stingy. I can't see in those links an answer to the question either. – curiousdannii Nov 2 '18 at 12:03
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    You are a fast reader... (2 min for about 20 pages at the surface... "also cheating?") and there was a "if" in the protested sentence... @curiousdannii schmunzel – Samana Johann Nov 2 '18 at 12:04
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    It's conventional on SE sites to quote a little of what you link to ... not so that SE can acquire the content, but so that the reader can see why the hyperlink is helpful and relevant to the question, and to make it clear which bit of the referenced text especially answers the questions. I guess that Suchness might have posted because of the OP's comment, "I can't see in those links an answer to the question" ... a quote might have clarified where the answer to the question is, in the links. – ChrisW Nov 4 '18 at 0:46
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    Also there are various topics on this site and different users are more and/or less interested and/or knowledgeable about different aspects. I don't know but people asking questions about statues might be more interested in culture or society than dhamma, or something like that. Anyway, the question is specific -- not "why do people give?" but "why are so many statues so big?" – ChrisW Nov 4 '18 at 0:49
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    The answer seems to have nothing to do with the question. – user14119 Nov 11 '18 at 12:49

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