Travelling through the countryside, you’ll see a lot of variants of buddha statues. They all have meaning.
To the east, you may be able to see a golden standing buddha with one hand raised as if pushing at a door. The abhāya mudrā symbolises protection, peace, and the dispelling of fear. Sometimes it is shown in frescoes depicting a story where the buddha was approached by an aggressive elephant and the posture was used to quel the beast.
If both the buddha’s arms are raised, it refers to a time either when he repelled a flood, or when he stopped his relatives from fighting.
If his hand in this raised position with the thumb and forefinger making an “okay” sign, the buddha is appealing to your reason, and asking you to listen to what he has to say.
If both his hands are making the “okay” sign in front of his chest, it means its a statue of his first sermon, and when he put his life in motion.
If the standing buddha has his arms pointed to the ground with the palms faced up, it means he is either granting a blessing, or accepting your charity… or both.
You will commonly see Buddha in a seated position with his hands on his lap with the palms facing up, sometimes holding an alms bowl. Rather than addressing you or in motion as he often is in the standing poses, his focus here is internal, in a state of meditation, and the statue makes a triangular shape symbolising stability.
In such a seated position, if one hand is on his leg, with his fingers touching, or close to touching, the earth, it is refering to the moment he achieved enlightenment. The story goes that after six years of meditating, the Buddha was finally was at the verge of enlightenment when Mara, the Demon of Illusion, tried to dissuade The Buddha from the final last steps. The Buddha then touched the ground to summon the Earth Goddess to witness what was going on. The Earth Goddess wrung her hair, releasing flood waters that swept away Mara, freeing the Buddha to attain enlightement.
You might also see the buddha laying down, always on his right side, with his hand propping up his head. This represents the final moments before the Buddha’s death, when he escaped the cycle of death and rebirth and reached his final nirvana.
If you’re from the rest and are new to buddhism, you might be wondering where the pot-bellied, smiling fellow sits in all this. That guy is actually Pu-Tai: a jovial Chinese monk famous in Chinese folklore for carrying a bag of gifts for children who come to learn about the Dharma. Although he is an important Buddhist figure, he is not considered a buddha.
Having said that, there is actually a fat fellow sometimes seen in Thai temples, but that is Phra Sangkajai – a man famous for explaining sophisticated dharma in easily understandable ways, but he was also so darn handsome that he was attracting unwanted attention. So he made himself obese so people would concentrate on his words.
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