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date: 08 May 2021

The Body of the Buddhafree

  • John PowersJohn PowersProfessor of Religious Studies, Deakin University


Buddhist discussions of the body, particularly in South Asia, encode a number of ambiguities and conceptual tensions. A pervasive trope in this literature characterizes bodies as foul, oozing fluids, prone to offensive smells, decaying and causing pain, and as containing a range of disgusting substances within a bag of skin, including urine, feces, mucus, and bile. People are warned of the dangers of emotional investment in their bodies because this leads to inevitable suffering and loss. On the other hand, beautiful bodies are proof of past or present moral cultivation and of success in religious practice. The most exalted bodies—surpassing those of all other beings, even gods—are those of buddhas, and their perfect physiques proclaim their supreme attainments.


Buddhism is a religion with thousands of years of history and doctrinal development, and there are few points of doctrine on which there is a clear consensus. Attitudes toward bodies are no exception. On the one hand, from the earliest strata of Buddhist literature there has been a recurring theme of denigration of physical bodies (kāya) and a sense that they are the proximate sites of the pervasive suffering (Pāli dukkha; Skt. duḥkha) that afflicts all beings caught up in cyclic existence (saṃsāra). In Pāli canonical sources, bodies are described as repulsive, as bags of filth containing various disgusting substances such as excrement, urine, saliva, mucus, and blood. Meditators are instructed to take bodies as focal points in their practice and to become fully aware of their foulness. On the other hand, only embodied beings are able to attain the highest levels of the Buddhist path, and the Buddha’s body is a topic of fascination in Indic sources, a proof of his past cultivation of merit and wisdom.

Unlike some other Indian religious traditions, Buddhism rejects the notion of an enduring essence or soul that inhabits a succession of bodies. The doctrine of no-self (Pāli anattā; Skt. anātman) is a fundamental aspect of most Buddhist philosophical schools and a cornerstone of meditation practice. Eliminating the false belief in an enduring soul is a prerequisite for liberation (Pāli mokkha; Skt. mokṣa) from cyclic existence. In addition, meditations designed to develop mindfulness of the body are regarded in many Buddhist philosophical traditions as important aspects of the path. These techniques, detailed in a number of sources, including the “Foundations of Mindfulness Discourse” (“Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta”; Majjhima-nikāya 10), involve visualizing the component parts of the body along with their functions and interactions with each other. Such practices serve to improve awareness of one’s own embodiment and of one’s environment and reduce attachment to the body and things associated with it. This article will examine some of the contrasting themes in Buddhist discussions of bodies, highlighting the often contradictory ways in which they are presented in (mainly Indian) sources, as well as some of the developments of understandings of bodies in Tibet and East Asia.

Bodies and Karma

Buddhist cosmology distinguishes between places where actions have moral consequences, referred to as “karma-sites” (karma-bhūmi), and existential situations in which beings lead long and blissful lives but are effectively trapped in heavens and subject to an inevitable trajectory of eventual return to lower realms in which suffering is endemic. The gods of the Formless Realm (Ārūpya-dhātu), for example, are born without bodies, and they enjoy sublime pleasures and long lives as a result of successfully engaging in meditative practices referred to as the four formless absorptions (ārūpya-samāpatti). But eventually their karmic bank accounts will be depleted, and they will be reborn as humans, animals, or other sorts of beings. Their lives as gods are a soteriological dead end because while they reside in the Formless Realm (or other spheres within the expansive cosmology of Indian Buddhism) gods think that their sublime existences will last forever, and so they are unaware of the passage of time or the fact that eventually their celestial sojourns will cease. At the other end of the spectrum are hell realms, whose denizens are born with bodies that are prone to experiencing excruciating torment without any respite. Their lives are unending misery, and because of the pervasiveness of their suffering they can only endure until the karmic debt that resulted in their situation is exhausted, after which they will be reborn in one of the higher realms. But as long as beings—wherever they are situated on the continuum from hells to heavens—continue to be unaware of the realities of cyclic existence, they will make the same misguided choices and will move up or down in accordance with their respective karmas. Their bodies will reflect the actions that led to their births, and they will experience pleasures and sufferings concordant with the karmic trajectories they set in motion in the past (of which most are currently unaware).

Six realms of existence (gati) are described in traditional Buddhist sources: (a) hell beings (naraka), (b) hungry spirits (Pāli peta; Skt. preta), (c) animals (tiryak), (d) humans (Pāli manussa; Skt. manuṣya), (e) demigods (asura), and (f) gods (deva). The human realm is the most desirable situation from the point of view of practice: hell beings and hungry spirits endure so much suffering that they are unable to see the faults that led to their unfortunate situations, and the minds of animals are too clouded to discern the causes and effects of actions. Gods and demigods are caught up in their pleasurable lives, but humans have sufficient intelligence to become aware of how the universe works and the operations of karma. Those who have the resources and time for religious practice can take control of the process of rebirth by engaging in merit-making activities and practicing the sorts of meditation that will lead to improved understanding and mental clarity. Rebirth in a human body, however, is extremely rare: a popular image (“Dutiyachiggaḷayuga-sutta,” Saṃyutta-nikāya 48.2) compares the chances of birth in the human realm to a blind tortoise that lives at the bottom of the ocean and only surfaces once every hundred years. On top of the ocean, a floating ring bobs on the water, and being born as a human is as likely as the tortoise putting its head through the middle of the ring. This story is used to illustrate the notion of a “precious human birth” and the opportunities it presents.

The Buddha’s Present and Past Bodies

Stories of exemplary practitioners who made good use of the brief period of a human (and occasionally nonhuman) life abound in Buddhist sources; some of the most popular of these relate to the Buddha and his path to awakening (bodhi). Tales of his past births (Jātaka) describe how he sacrificed parts of his bodies when he was born in animal or human forms, and how in several cases he gave his life for others, resulting in prodigious amounts of merit.1 A recurring theme in these stories is how the body can function as the site for extraordinary religious activity. Pain is often a core element: the greater the suffering and the more extensive the voluntary injuries the Bodhisattva (future Buddha) inflicted on himself or allowed others to cause, the greater the merit he received as a result. In one popular narrative in which he was Prince Sattva (Mahāsattva-jātaka), he comes upon a starving tigress who is about to eat her own children in desperation. His companions decide to search for food for her, but the prince reflects that they may not be able to find any and that if their foraging takes too long she could bring great demerit to herself by killing her progeny. So he decides to jump off a cliff, killing himself in the process. The tigress feasts on his body, and his act of generosity (dāna) helps him in his quest to perfect this and other ideal qualities.

In the story of Kṣāntivādin (Pāli Khantivādi; “He Who Professes Patience”; Jātaka 313), the Bodhisattva is a wandering ascetic devoted to the cultivation of patience (kṣānti). One day he is meditating at the edge of a king’s pleasure grove. The king gets drunk and passes out, and his courtesans leave him and wander around the grove in search of diversions. They come across Kṣāntivādin and ask him about his religious practice, in response to which he delivers a discourse on the benefits of patience. The king, meanwhile, wakes up and becomes angry that his entourage has left him alone, so he searches for them. When he finds his harem sitting around an ascetic and listening raptly to his teachings, he confronts Kṣāntivādin and accuses him of being a charlatan. The king asks his name, and he calmly replies: “Kṣāntivādin.” The king then strikes the sage, but fails to spark any anger. He then orders one of his soldiers to cut off Kṣāntivādin’s hand, but his victim is unperturbed. Every time the king demands that he speak his name, the Bodhisattva says: “I am He Who Professes Patience.” After lopping off Kṣāntivādin’s remaining limbs, the king orders the soldier to cut off his head, but at no point in the violent encounter does the Bodhisattva waver in the slightest in his calm demeanor. As a result, he perfects one of the matrix of exalted qualities that characterize the mental continuums of buddhas. The physical torment he endures, along with the control required to maintain his mental discipline, are core components of the religious import of the story: only beings with material bodies that are capable of experiencing pain are able to skillfully adapt such situations to their soteriological advantage.

The theme of suffering as a means of supercharging one’s practice also appears in Mahāyāna sources. One of the most famous of these is the tale of the self-harming bodhisattva Sadāprarudita, recounted in the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharma-puṇḍarīka-sūtra), who ingests flammable fluids and sets his body alight as an offering to buddhas. As a result of his actions, he is later born as the bodhisattva Bhaiṣajyarāja, a popular figure in East Asia associated with curing of illness. His actions would probably appear to most modern readers as suicidally insane: he is distraught because he has no money to offer to the buddha Dharmodgata and decides that if he burns himself alive he will gain great merit and be born in better bodies in the future. He also assumes that Dharmodgata will be impressed by his actions and not appalled: “Dharmodgata will explain the perfection of wisdom and skill in means to me. I will train in them, and as a result I will become a refuge to all beings; and after I have realized full awakening I will acquire a body of golden color, the thirty-two physical characteristics of a great man (mahāpuruṣa-lakṣaṇa), the eighty secondary physical characteristics (anuvyañjana), the splendor of a halo the rays of which extend to infinitude,” along with other exalted qualities.2 This story is invoked as a model to be emulated by monastics in East Asia, who often burn themselves with incense cones as evidence of their commitment when undertaking monastic vows. It has also been cited by contemporary Tibetans who have self-immolated in protest against Chinese government oppression. They are commonly referred to by other Tibetans admiringly as “bodhisattvas” (byang chub sems dpa’) or “heroes” (dpa’ bo, which is a component of the Tibetan translation of bodhisattva). Their corporal sacrifice is acclaimed as a religiously motivated act that brings great merit.

Bodies and the Buddhist Path

During countless past lives, the Buddha gradually perfected such qualities as generosity, patience, ethics, effort, concentration, and wisdom and he was rewarded with better resources, as well as progressively more sublime bodies. Every birth of every being is conditioned by what it did in past lives. Those who are wealthy and powerful are reaping the rewards of meritorious actions, and beauty is also the result of good karma. Those who are poor, crippled, ugly, or prone to illness reflect in their physiques the negative effects of harmful actions. Because the Buddha has attained the pinnacle of embodied existence, his anatomy must proclaim the perfection of his past cultivation of merit and wisdom. The Buddha’s body is described as the best of all physical forms, surpassing those of other humans and even gods. The Buddha is the “ultimate man” (purisottama; Skt. puruṣottama), a superhuman figure who has greater strength and agility than any of his contemporaries, and who early in his life was a sexual athlete who satisfied hundreds of courtesans. People (especially women) who see him remark on his physical beauty.

In the Pāli canon, several discourses (sutta; Skt. sūtra) are devoted to detailed descriptions of his body, his gait, how he sits and eats, and the impact of his perfect physiognomy on those who witness it. The “Discourse to Cankī,” for example, describes the Buddha as “handsome, good looking, graceful, possessing supreme beauty of complexion, with sublime beauty and sublime presence, remarkable to behold” (Majjhima-nikāya, II.166–167). The commentary on the Verses of the Elder Monks reports that the monk Vakkali, a brahman who was “wise and learned in the Vedas,” “witnessed the perfection of the Master’s physical form” and joined the monastic order as a result (Paramattha-dīpanī Theragāthā-aṭṭhakathā, II.147). Vakkali was so obsessed with observing the Buddha’s body, however, that he constantly followed him around and stared at him, which eventually led the Master to request that he stop this behavior. Vakkali complied, but he became depressed: “What is life to me if I cannot see him?” The monk was about to commit suicide, but the Buddha read his mind and realized that this deed would lead to negative karma and undo the progress he had made since joining the order, and so the Buddha “revealed his radiant glory” (i.e., displayed his naked form), as a result of which Vakkali attained an advanced level of insight.

The Buddha’s body has three primary narrative purposes in Pāli literature: (a) it serves as an advertisement for the path he teaches, (b) it is a catalyst for conversion, and (c) it convinces skeptics that he really is a buddha, as he and his followers claim. According to Indian Buddhist tradition, shortly after his attainment of awakening, the Buddha decided to begin teaching others what he had discovered. His first sermon was the “Discourse Turning the Wheel of Doctrine” (“Dhamma-cakka-pavattana-sutta”), delivered to five ascetics who had formerly been his companions in an order that emphasized practice of severe austerities as the key to attainment of liberation (mokkha; Skt. mokṣa). Because he had concluded that severe self-abnegation is a soteriological dead end and ineffective as a means of attaining significant religious goals, when they saw him walking toward Sarnath (near Varanasi in modern day Uttar Pradesh), the ascetics at first decided to ignore him. But as he approached, they were struck by a profound change in his demeanor: he radiated calm and wisdom, and his physique proclaimed that he had reached the supreme attainment. In spite of themselves, they were compelled to inquire about what he had discovered. After being informed that he had become a buddha, they begged him to teach his Doctrine (Dhamma; Skt. Dharma). In this and a number of other Pāli sources, his body plays the decisive role in convincing skeptics that he is a buddha. Sometimes words follow and further solidify the initial impression, but in other cases his physical form alone constitutes final proof of his bona fides.

The Buddha’s attainments are inscribed on his body: in addition to possessing the best possible human (male) form, his attainment of buddhahood is attested by the “physical characteristics of a great man” (mahāpurisa-lakkhaṇa; Skt. mahāpuruṣa-lakṣaṇa), which also adorn the bodies of universal monarchs but are uniquely perfect and pronounced on buddhas. These are described at length in various Pāli sources, and an entire sutta, the “Discourse on the Physical Characteristics” (“Lakkhaṇa-sutta”; Dīgha-nikāya 3), is devoted to this topic. They include a fist-sized lump (uṣṇīṣa) on the cranium, a tuft of silver-colored hair a meter in length between the brows (ūrṇā), a straight torso, webs between his fingers and toes, legs like an antelope’s, a torso and jaw like a cow’s, eyelashes like a cow’s, hands that reach down to his knees, a penis hidden by a sheath, and a tongue that when extruded can be inserted into each earhole and can cover his forehead. Later texts add a list of eighty “secondary characteristics” (anuvyañjana) that include golden-colored fingernails, concealed veins, the gait of a lion or a bull, a rounded body, a slender body, and a perfect male sexual organ. These serve to distinguish the Buddha from other men of lesser attainments, and they are only found on the bodies of “great men.” According to Vasubandhu’s (ca. late 4th century ce) Abhidharma-kośa, each characteristic is the result of past cultivation of one hundred meritorious actions, and Buddhaghosa (ca. 5th century) similarly states that each “is produced from its corresponding action” (Sumaṅgala-vilāsinī, II.448).

Unlike the archetypal male bodies of contemporary Western societies, the Buddha does not have a muscular, V-shaped torso: his form is slender and lithe, the ideal physique for an archer. He does not have the bulges or indentations associated with weight training; his limbs are rounded, and he has a slight midriff bulge. His skin is so smooth that no dust or dirt can settle on it, and his mouth is delicately shaped, like a bimba fruit. This is the sort of anatomy associated with paradigmatic masculinity in ancient India, as attested in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist sources. Features associated with attractive male bodies in Western societies are largely absent in descriptions of the Buddha: in artistic depictions, he has no apparent muscle tone, there are no protruding muscles, and he has flaring hips and rounded facial features, rather than a square jaw and prominent cheekbones. According to Buddhaghosa (Sumaṅgala-vilāsinī, II.447), the Buddha has “a fullness of muscles,” but they are rounded and not delineated, and no veins or outlines of bones appear on the surface: “in some human beings veins are seen on the surfaces of their hands and feet, bones jut out from the two shoulders and trunk, and they look hideous like human ghosts. Unlike such ill-shaped persons, the great man possesses seven convexities that give his body proper shape and beauty.” The Buddha’s back is also rounded; there is no indentation at the spine, and no lines of muscle on either side; it “appears like a single golden slab” (Sumaṅgala-vilāsinī, II.449). It is difficult to imagine how a man whose body exhibited these features could be regarded as attractive, but Indian Buddhist literature abounds with accounts of the impact of his physique on those fortunate to see him in the flesh, such as the Extensive Sport’s (Lalitavistara) description of his entry into the town of Rājagṛha to beg for alms. The residents think that he must be Brahmā, Śakra, or another god:

Crowds of men and women gaze at the man who is like pure gold. His self-mastery is complete; he is marked with the thirty-two physical characteristics. And no one tires of looking at him … [They ask,] “Who is this being? Never before have we seen one like him; he makes the city radiant with his splendor.” Thousands of women, wishing to see the most outstanding of men, leave their houses empty; they stand on the rooftops, in doorways, at windows, and in the streets to gaze at him. The merchants stop doing business; in the houses and in the streets, all drinking and revelry cease, so intent are the people on watching the most remarkable of men. (Lalita-vistara: 175–176)

The Cultural Logic Behind These Tropes

There is, of course, no way to know what the Buddha actually looked like, or if he really was a handsome, wealthy prince as depicted in Indic sources. The Buddha in this literature is a fictional character whose representation reflects the norms and values of the time. Because the doctrine of karma dictates that those who engage in meritorious activity will be rewarded with progressively more beautiful bodies and abundant resources, the Buddha—the ultimate man, who has reached the pinnacle of embodied existence—must be endowed with the sort of body regarded in ancient India as the supreme manifestation of the human form. The hierarchical caste system places brahmans and kṣatriyas (warriors and rulers) in the top positions, and so he must belong to one of them. Men are in the dominant position in this society, and so he must have a male body.

This Buddha is a literary figure whose hagiography probably began during his lifetime and continued after his passing. His unique physiognomy—which would probably appear freakish and ungainly to modern people—was apparently regarded at the time as sublimely beautiful and as a testament to his prodigious efforts during his quest for awakening. It is highly unlikely that any human has actually possessed a body with the “physical characteristics of a great man,” and the full elaboration of this odd concatenation of features probably developed well after his death, after living memory of what he actually looked like had faded. Moreover, artists were reluctant to attempt to represent his body in plastic art during and immediately after his lifetime, and so the earliest images are iconic: his presence is indicated by symbols such as a space under the Tree of Awakening (Bodhi-vṛkṣa) or his footprints, for example. The first images of his physique only began to appear centuries after his passing. Early Indian images from the Gupta Period (ca. mid-3rd century ce543 ce) and the Pāla Period (750–1174) depict a slender man with a few of the physical characteristics of a great man (presumably because any attempt to create a human form containing all of them would have appeared odd and ungainly, rather than sublimely beautiful).

The Buddha and his followers were operating in a highly competitive religious marketplace in ancient India, with the brahmanical tradition as the most strongly established faction. Many of the stories in which the Buddha’s body features involve brahmans who have heard that a buddha has appeared in northern India and seek to verify this claim. In one such narrative (“Brahmāyu-sutta,” Majjhima-nikāya II.136) the brahman Bramāyu, “a master of the three Vedas” and an expert in the lore of the “great man,” decides to travel to where the Buddha is staying and listen to one of his sermons. The Master’s words, however, are not regarded as proof of his buddhahood: only verifying that his body displays the thirty-two characteristics of a great man can convince Brahmāyu. Anyone can repeat wise-sounding teachings, but the physical characteristics cannot be faked. Brahmāyu observes the Buddha’s body as he speaks and moves and concludes that he possesses thirty of the characteristics, but the brahman is unable to discern whether or not the Buddha has an enormous tongue or a sheathed penis, and so remains unconvinced. He asks, “upon your body, Gotama, is what is normally concealed by a cloth hidden by a sheath, greatest of men? … is your tongue a manly (narassika) one? Is your tongue also large? … Please stick it out a bit and cure our doubts.” The Buddha assents to Brahmāyu’s request, first extruding his tongue and touching the tip into each earhole, and then he covers his forehead with it. Following this, the Buddha uses his magical powers to display his sheathed penis to the entire audience, which proves to everyone that he is in fact a great man.

The lore of the great man is claimed in Pāli texts to be an aspect of brahmanical learning, and this is presumably why brahmans are the interlocutors in stories in which it figures, but T. W. Rhys Davids has noted that “no such list has been found, so far as I know, in those portions of the pre-Buddhistic priestly literature that have survived. And the inference … is that the knowledge is scattered through the Brahmana texts.”3 Some of these features appear in some brahmanical texts, but in the 21st century it is possible to electronically search most of the ancient Indic scriptures in which it might appear, and neither I nor any researcher of whom I am aware has even located a partial list similar to what is presented in Buddhist sources. Buddhaghosa (Sumaṅgala-vilāsinī II.448), employing premodern search techniques, came to the same conclusion:

When the time comes for the birth of a buddha, the Suddhāvāsa Brahmā gods visit the earth in the guise of brahmans and teach humans about their bodily signs as constituting a part of the Vedic learning, so that by this means humans may recognize the Buddha. After his death, this knowledge generally vanishes. That is why it does not exist in the Vedas.

Buddhaghosa adds that the gods impart this knowledge to humans so that they will be able to identify a buddha when he is born and properly revere him, but following his passing there is no longer anyone whose body displays these characteristics and thus no need for the lore to be passed on. As a result, it gradually fades from human memory.

The Buddha’s Body as Proof of His Claims

Indian Buddhist texts describe Śākyamuni Buddha as one among countless buddhas. All sentient beings have the potential to attain awakening if they follow a path similar to his and perfect the same matrix of exalted qualities. Because his soteriological teleology follows an established pattern, beings such as gods and human sages who are aware of the relevant lore know in advance what he will look like and what he will do. All buddhas of the past have enacted the same sequence of great deeds, and all future buddhas will also do so.

This theme begins even before he is born. The Great Matter (Mahāvastu) reports that during the time his mother carried him in her womb, he resided in a crystal casket, untouched by polluting uterine fluids. His body was tiny but fully formed, and he sat with his legs crossed in a meditative posture. When the time for his birth arrived, he emerged from her left side and his mother experienced no pain, only pleasure. According to several narratives, prior to this event the brahman Asita was informed that a buddha was about to enter the world, someone who would be “a superlative being without comparison, a precious pearl of the health and goodness of the human world … of all beings this one is perfect, this man is the pinnacle, the ultimate, the hero of creatures.” Asita then went to see the newborn infant, who was “shining, glowing, and beautiful. It was like seeing molten gold in the hands of a master craftsman as he takes it out of the furnace.” The brahman performed a minute inspection of the prince’s body and ascertained that it exhibited the physical characteristics of a great man, which led him to declare: “This is the ultimate, this is the perfect man!” (Sutta-nipāta: 131–132).

A recurring trope in these texts is that the Buddha was aware of the expected narrative sequence of his life and that each major event was performed for an audience of gods, humans, and other beings who had gathered in anticipation of witnessing his enactment of the physical aspects of buddhahood. As Suzanne Mrozik notes, his corporal perfection was the culmination of countless past lives, during which he sacrificed all or parts of his bodies and cultivated progressively more sublime meditative attainments, accumulating prodigious stores of merit.4 As a result, he was born with a body on which the physical characteristics of a great man were inscribed, but several accounts make it clear that his body became even more radiant and impressive after his attainment of full awakening in Bodhgaya. People who had seen him previously (and had remarked on his surpassing beauty) noted that his body only attained its full excellence after this event.

The Buddha’s Sex Life

Despite the fact that Prince Siddhārtha Gautama would grow up to become a religious leader and found a monastic order that enjoined strict celibacy for its members, during his teens he is commonly depicted as residing in the women’s quarters of his father’s palace and enjoying sensual pleasures with a large harem of beautiful women. His father, King Śuddhodana, feared that his son might be inclined toward religious pursuits, and so he provided an environment rich in physical enjoyments: sporting activities, archery contests, and alluring women skilled in music and lovemaking. The Deeds of the Buddha (Buddha-carita) describes the setting: “the women delighted him with their soft voices, enticements, playful intoxications, sweet laughter, curvings of eyebrows and sidelong glances. Then a captive to the women, who were skilled in the arts of love and tireless in sexual pleasure, he did not descend from the palace to the ground, just as one who has won paradise by his merit does not descend to earth from the heavenly abodes.” (Buddha-carita: 16)

The Extensive Sport claims that this was necessary because all past buddhas also had large harems, and part of the narrative sequence of a future buddha’s life is a period in the women’s quarters during which he engages in prodigious amounts of sexual activity. Behind this is a common notion in ancient Indian sources that celibacy is a core component of the path to liberation, and a voluntary decision to abstain from sex results in great merit and psychic power. But only those who are fully capable of performing sexually can reap such benefits. Moreover, it is important for the story’s conceptual logic that the future Buddha fully experience the best of what cyclic existence has to offer, so that when he decides to renounce the world it is not because of misfortune or some inadequacy on his part, but rather a clear-eyed realization that even the best life situations are ultimately unsatisfactory and lead to continued rebirth and suffering. He must also prove that he is a sexual “stallion” who satisfies many women and who is the object of female desire.

Śuddhodana’s plan to entice his son to embrace his kingly heritage and the enjoyments it offered hit a snag when others began to question whether or not the boy fulfilled the ideal of a warrior kṣatriya. The prince’s apparent preference for the company of women led Daṇḍapāṇi, father of the beautiful Yaśodharā, to wonder if such a pampered boy was fit to rule a kingdom and subdue enemies in battle: “It is the custom of our family to give our daughters in marriage only to men skilled in the worldly arts, and your son has grown up in luxury in the palace. If he does not excel in the arts, does not know the rules of fencing or archery or boxing or wrestling, how could I give my daughter to him?” (Lalita-vistara: 100).

Siddhārtha rarely engaged in these activities, but training was unnecessary because his physical skills were so extraordinary that he could easily best all his contemporaries. Śuddhodana arranged a contest to which the most outstanding examples of kṣatriya manhood were invited, and Siddhārtha easily outshone all of them in “archery, fighting, boxing, cutting, stabbing, speed, and feats of strength, use of elephants, horses, chariots, bows, and spears, and argument” (Mahāvastu: II.73–74).

After witnessing this display, Daṇḍapāṇi happily assented to have his daughter marry Siddhārtha. The prince also had a harem of “beautiful, faultless, loving women, with eyes bright as jewels, with large breasts, resplendent white limbs, sparkling gems, firm and fine waists, soft, lovely, and black-colored hair, wearing bright red mantles and cloaks, bracelets of gems and necklaces of pearls, ornaments and rings on their toes, and anklets, and playing music” (Mahāvastu: II.147). Several narratives of this period also insert an interesting detail: he engaged in prodigious sexual activity, but he was not really interested. He knew that this was part of the narrative repertoire expected of an incipient buddha, and so he performed his part in the drama. After he had produced a son—which served to fully certify his masculine bona fides—he decided to leave his wife and harem, renounce his royal heritage, and pursue the life of a wandering ascetic seeking liberation. Although he wore coarse robes fashioned from cast-off rags, his body remained supremely attractive; the Deeds of the Buddha recounts that when women saw him in monastic garb, they were sexually attracted to him. They “looked up at him with restless eyes, like young deer, as their earrings, swinging back and forth, touched their faces, and their breasts heaved with uninterrupted sighs. [The Bodhisattva], bright as a golden mountain, captured the hearts of the best of women and captivated their ears, limbs, eyes and beings with his voice, touch, beauty and qualities respectively” (Buddha-carita: 69). Men were also struck by his physical perfection. When he visited the meditation master Ārāḍa Kālama, the sage exclaimed: “Look at the man who approaches! How beautiful he is!” His disciples responded: “We see him; he is indeed wonderful to behold!” (Lalitavistara: 174).

After several years of meditative training with various teachers, Siddhārtha succeeded in attaining advanced states of absorption, but they could not provide release from cyclic existence. He engaged in extreme ascetic practices, fasting for extended periods of time and reducing his sublime body to a state of emaciation, but this too proved incapable of providing the liberation he sought. So he set forth on his own to find the path to cessation, and after six years of meditative training he succeeded in attaining awakening in Bodhgaya. Following this experience, he began his ministry and taught others what he had realized. Many succeeded in becoming arhats, meaning they would attain nirvana after death.

In spite of his achievements, however, he could not overcome the limitations of physical existence. In his later years, he suffered from chronic back pain that was only relieved when he immersed himself in meditative trances. He told his cousin and attendant Ānanda that his body was like an old cart that is held together by cords, and he hinted that the time for his departure from physical existence was imminent. Even the body of a buddha is subject to change, as is true of all material things. His once perfect form had become aged and withered, but some of his transcendent beauty remained. According to an account of his last days, the Buddha called his followers together and displayed his body for them one last time:

Then the Blessed One took off his upper robe and baring his body said: “Monks, gaze now upon the body of the Thus Gone One! Examine the body of the Thus Gone One! For the sight of a completely awakened buddha is as rare an event as the blossoming of the uduṃbara tree.” The Buddha then provided instructions regarding disposition of his remains: his corpse should be handled like that of a universal monarch and wrapped in linen, placed in an iron vat filled with oil, and then cremated. The relics left over should be placed in a reliquary mound (stūpa) at a crossroads so that in the future people might venerate them and gain merit. (“Mahāparinibbāna-sutta,” Dīgha-nikāya V.217)

Mahāyāna: Better Bodies and Better Buddhas

Following the cremation of the Buddha’s body and the distribution of relics that remained, Pāli sources report that he passed into final nirvana and thus beyond any possibility of future embodiment. Mahāyāna sūtras, however, rewrote the denouement to his story. The Buddha, they declared, did not really die: what people saw was an “emanation body” (nirmāṇa-kāya), created as a vehicle for display of the actions expected of a buddha for the benefit of audiences on earth. The Buddha had really become awakened in the distant past and waited until the optimal time to enact the standard narrative sequence of buddhahood for humans and others who might benefit from such a presentation. The events that people took at face value were “skillful means” (upāya-kauśalya), didactic sleight of hand (and other parts of his body). Mahāyāna buddhology developed a complex set of explanations for how and why the Buddha engaged in such an elaborate lifelong deception. Had he decided to remain on earth in the body with which he was born for centuries or even millennia (which Mahāyāna texts assured their readers he could easily have done), people would have become complacent and taken him for granted. His death graphically demonstrated the universality of impermanence: even buddhas die (or at least appear to die), and this knowledge prompted his followers to apply themselves to their practice with greater urgency than they would have done had he remained.

In early sources discussing the trope of an immortal Buddha who only appeared to die but who in fact merely terminated a simulacrum created as a way of delivering the Dharma to audiences incapable of perceiving him as he really was, a distinction is made between emanation bodies and the “dharma body” (dharma-kāya). The latter is nonmaterial, and so it is not subject to decay, aging, or death. This complex of ideas provides a doctrinal solution to the problem of having a religious leader born to a human mother with a body composed of matter, which must inevitably succumb to the realities of impermanence and death. This new and improved Buddha possesses a body that surpasses those of the gods, who may live for the duration of a world-age (kalpa) but who eventually die and take rebirth in other realms within cyclic existence. It also preserves the essential aspects of the Buddha’s standard hagiographies while providing a new twist that helped Buddhists better compete with rival religious orders whose main figures were deities. According to the Discourse Explaining the Thought (Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra), the dharma body is the true body of the Buddha (and of all buddhas). It creates various physical (but temporary) manifestations for a range of soteriological purposes. It is the culmination of eons of training by a bodhisattva, during which she or he accumulated vast stores of merit (puṇya) and perfected wisdom (prajñā) to the highest degree. After completing the final aspects of the tenth bodhisattva level (bhūmi), a bodhisattva becomes a buddha and, motivated by compassion guided by an unerring sense of what will be most beneficial to every trainee, embarks on a teaching career as a sage who appears to possess a human (or quasi-human) body for the duration of a human life span: “the great light of exalted wisdom and innumerable emanations appear to sentient beings from the dharma body because it has been established through training in cultivating method and wisdom that observe the immeasurable realm of reality (dharma-dhātu).”5

The dharma body itself, however, is unchanging. It is the apotheosis of a buddha’s training in wisdom and full comprehension of the Dharma, which is also eternal and always the same. In the Discourse Explaining the Thought, the Buddha provides instructions to Mañjuśrī on the relationship between the dharma body and its manifestations:

Mañjuśrī, the characteristics of the dharma body of the tathāgatas are the well-established transformation of the basis through renunciation, the complete cultivation of the [ten bodhisattva] levels and the [six] perfections (pāramitā). Moreover, know that this dharma body has an inconceivable characteristic for two reasons: because it is free from elaborations and free from manifest activity; and because sentient beings very strongly adhere to elaborations and manifest activity.6

In other words, the dharma body completely transcends the impermanence and suffering characteristic of cyclic existence, but it creates physical manifestations that accord with the norms of worldly convention. In the Discourse Explaining the Thought, the discussion of these two embodiments of buddhas serves to explain how Śākyamuni was able to survive his apparent demise and provides a new narrative in which his cultivation of merit and wisdom during countless past lives resulted in the appearance of a buddha whose teaching career really began in the distant past and will continue into the infinite future. Like all buddhas, he resides in a pure “buddha realm” (buddha-kṣetra) created by his stores of merit. This is only accessible to advanced practitioners, however, but for their benefit he continues to teach in his pure land while simultaneously creating innumerable bodies dispatched to countless realms throughout the universe. The Discourse Explaining the Thought only discusses two bodies, but in later Mahāyāna buddhology the doctrine of “three bodies” (trikāya) developed. Buddhas also have “enjoyment bodies” (saṃbhoga-kāya), composed of subtle energy and not subject to decay like emanation bodies or other phenomena within ordinary cyclic existence. Enjoyment bodies function as the controlling and decision-making nexus of buddhas: the dharma body is essentially inert because it is associated with the unchanging reality of the ultimate truth (paramārtha) and the sphere of reality. Emanation bodies are transient, and each only functions for a preordained length of time in a particular situation. Enjoyment bodies are effectively immortal and not subject to old age or death.

Meditation and Physical Pleasure

Buddhism is often presented as a tradition that denigrates the body and views sensual pleasure negatively, but arguably the opposite is the case. Buddhism recognizes the pervasiveness of suffering for embodied beings, but its techniques also promise rarified states of bliss that transcend any ordinary delights. In Pāli sources, instructions on how to attain advanced absorptions (jhāna; Skt. dhyāna) describe in rapturous terms the pleasures of successful meditation:

With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhāna, which has internal confidence and unification of mind … and has rapture and happiness born of concentration … Just as though there were a lake whose waters welled up from below and it had no inflow from east, west, north, or south, and would not be replenished from time to time by showers of rain, then the cool fount of water welling up in the lake would make the cool water drench, steep, fill, and pervade the lake, so that there would be no part of the whole lake that is not pervaded by cool water; so too, a monk makes the rapture and happiness born of concentration drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded by the rapture and happiness born of concentration.7

Indian and Tibetan tantric traditions also focus on the body as an essential foundation for meditation practice. The tantras contain descriptions of a “subtle body” (māyā-deha) roughly contiguous with the physical body in which energies referred to as “winds” (prāṇa) and “drops” (bindu) circulate through channels. Meditators learn to visualize these components and control the movements of energies, which leads to actualization of blissful mental states, as well as increasing wisdom and attainment of the qualities perfected by buddhas. Even sexual activity is a factor in this practice: during orgasm, coarse levels of mind drop away and more subtle ones manifest, including the most fundamental aspect of consciousness, the “mind of clear light” (prabhāsvara-citta). For nonmeditators, this opportunity is wasted, but tantric practitioners learn to harness the mind and the energies of the subtle body in order to directly experience subtle mental states. Through this process, bliss becomes a component of the path, rather than something to be suppressed. Tantric sources claim that such techniques lead to far more rapid progress than is possible through exoteric practices. The final apotheosis of this training is attainment of the “rainbow body” (Tib. ‘ja’ lus; Skt. indracāpa-kāya), a form composed of pure light and energy, which is often described as arising from the cremated corpse of an adept after death.


From its earliest strata, Buddhist literature focuses on the body in a variety of ways. The suffering endemic to embodied beings is a persistent theme, but bodies are also required for those wishing to pursue any of the Buddhist paths. In the “Discourse to Rohitassa” (Rohitassa-sutta; Aṅguttara-nikāya 4.45), for example, the Buddha dismisses the idea that there is any other possibility: “It is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception and intellect, that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice that leads to the cessation of the cosmos.”

As Michael Radich has argued, there is a conceptual trajectory in Buddhist literature that develops the idea that there is something special and unique about the Buddha’s embodiment.8 In Pāli sources, his body is described as the best of all physical forms, the result of his eons of religious practice, but it is still subject to aging and death. Mahāyāna treatises extend the logic of a being who accumulates vast stores of merit on the path to buddhahood motivated by compassion, and the impetus of this ensures that even though he appears to die, he continues to work for the benefit of others, residing in a “pure land” and teaching advanced trainees. Radich discusses sources in which the Buddha is credited with developing an indestructible body that never changes and is not subject to death, referred to as an “adamantine body” (vajra-kāya). The notion that the Buddha was able to control the length of his life is found in Pāli sources, which indicate that had he wished he could have remained in the world for an eon or more. Thus the Mahāyāna Buddha—with an infinite life span, who continues to teach under the impetus of the compassion that motivated his long path to awakening—is really a relatively minor conceptual leap. The Mahāyāna Buddha’s body is sometimes said to be fashioned from subtle energy, and Radich reports a number of texts that construe it as harder than diamond, and thus impervious to any harm or to the vicissitudes of ordinary existence. In all the sources examined in this article, bodies play a key role as the necessary prerequisites for the training of the Buddhist path, as focal points of meditative scrutiny, and as the reward for successful cultivation of merit and wisdom.

Primary Sources

  • Bhikkhu Bodhi. In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005.
  • Johnston, E. H. (ed.). Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita, or Acts of the Buddha. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984.
  • Powers, John (trans.). Wisdom of Buddha: The Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1995.
  • Rhys Davids, T. W. Dialogues of the Buddha, Part I. London: Pali Text Society, 1889.
  • Vaidya, P. L. (ed.). Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. Darbhanga: Mithila Institute, 1960.
  • Vaidya, P. L. (ed.). Lalitavistara. Darbhanga: Mithila Institute, 1958.

Further Reading

  • Balkwill, Stephanie. 2018. “Why Does a Woman Need to Become a Man in Order to Become a Buddha? Past Investigations, New Leads.” Religion Compass 12, no. 8 (2018): 1–9.
  • Cabezón, José I. Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2017.
  • Collins, Steven. “The Body in Theravāda Buddhist Monasticism.” In Religion and the Body. Edited by Sara Coakley, 185–204. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Dissanayake, Wimal. “Self and Body in Theravāda Buddhism.” In Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice. Edited by Thomas P. Kasulis, Roger T. Ames, and Wimal Dissanayake, 123–145. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
  • Faure, Bernard. 1998. The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Kieschnick, John. Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.
  • Langenberg, Amy Paris. “Buddhist Blood Taboo: Mary Douglas, Female Impurity, and Classical Indian Buddhism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84, no. 1 (2016): 157–191.
  • McClintock, Sara. “Gendered Bodies of Illusion: Finding a Somatic Method in the Ontic Madness of Emptiness.” In Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars. Edited by Roger Jackson and John Makransky, 261–274. Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000.
  • Mrozik, Suzanne. Virtuous Bodies: The Physical Dimensions of Morality in Buddhist Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Ohnuma, Reiko. Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Powers, John. A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Powers, John. “Buddhism and the Body.” Oxford Bibliographies, 2017.
  • Radich, Michael. “Immortal Buddhas and Their Indestructible Embodiments: The Advent of the Concept of Vajrakāya.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 34, nos. 1–2 (2012): 227–290.
  • Tiso, Francis V. Rainbow Body and Resurrection: Spiritual Attainment, the Dissolution of the Material Body, and the Case of Khenpo A Chö. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2016.
  • Williams, Paul. “Some Mahāyāna Buddhist Perspectives on the Body.” In Religion and the Body. Edited by Sara Coakley, 205–230. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Wilson, Liz. Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figurations of the Feminine in Indian Buddhist Hagiographic Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.