Tuesday 10 May 2011

Was the Buddha Black?

Close your eyes.* Imagine Buddha seated in front of you. Spend a moment scanning the scene. What features does your Buddha have?

This is an interesting practice not only because it is a very common traditional practice of Buddhism, the recollection or visualization of the Buddha, but also for what it tells us about our conditioning, cultural or otherwise.

Odds are, you're not visualizing Keanu Reeves, from his role as the Buddha in "Little Buddha." But perhaps something close? With the tree, yellow robe, fair skin, and black, curled hair (flower petals optional).

Or perhaps something a bit more 'Vajrayana'? Perhaps a blue-skinned Medicine Buddha, sitting upon a lotus throne with red, yellow, and green aureolas. (painting courtesy my friends at Osel Shen Phen Ling, Missoula, MT.)
My own little office shrine, with an Indian-carved wooden Buddha in meditation posture and a Tibetan thanka with Buddha in earth-touching posture.

Or another computer-generated or enhanced, but slightly more traditional version... The above is from my time in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma). I call it my "Jesus-Buddha-Bieber" photo. 

Other possibilities abound.

There's the still quite traditional SE Asian form of Buddha found at Borobudur, Indonesia.

And the ever-cute but not correct "Buddha" from Chinese folk mythology, better known as Hotei or Butai. This guy didn't become a or the Buddha as far as I know until some unknowing Westerners started seeing him in Chinese food restaurants (I worked in one such restaurant in high school, and still remember the "Buddha fountain" in the entrance).

And then there's the also incorrect and surely-offensive-to-someone golden Hotei costume... I'm reminded of a post from a bit over a year ago by John over at Zendirtzendust, where he posted a picture of Gollum (From Lord of the Rings) and suggested that the famous "32 Marks" of the Buddha would have left him looking a bit gollumish if he in fact had them. The title, "Buddha, Sex Symbol for the Ages" was a bit irreverent (as was the post) and the discussion quickly went to the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of certain levels or kinds of humor. Nathan, over at Dangerous Harvests, picks up on that whole conversation.

Obviously from all of that, how we imagine the Buddha, given the plethora of scriptural descriptions, paintings, and statues, matters. So it was with some interest today when I came across a very intriguing article simply called, "The Buddha was Bald." The author, Eisel Mazard, cites numerous instances in the Pali Canon supporting the idea that the Buddha was bald and/or undifferentiated from his male companions (who are always depicted as bald).

Mazard makes some headway into exploring how and why later sūtras (mainly from the Mahāyāna) and statues, which began in Gandhara, depict the Buddha with hair. And while I don't agree with all of his conclusions -see the comments in the article- I appreciate the piece for opening new and perhaps more historically correct windows into our imaginations about the historical Buddha. Some suttas even depict the Buddha as being "black" - a culturally loaded term, then as now - usually referring to someone of lower caste and/or with heritage coming from southern India where people were, and are, mostly much darker in skin tone than in the north.

We might then even wonder if we should imagine the Buddha as both bald and black. The great DVD series, Story of India, begins with the story of early human inhabitants in India coming right across the Arabian peninsula and into western and south-western India. And, if I remember correctly, these people remained largely isolated over thousands of years while humanity spread out across the globe, slowly changing their morphology (appearance) as they did so - those going further north generally becoming paler. Then, as we learn in an India or Buddhism 101 course, a warrior/herder/horse-riding people calling themselves the Aryans ("Nobles") moved down from somewhere in the Caucases and into north India.

In Buddhism 201 we could talk about Indo-European languages, noting that the same people who went into India also spread out throughout Europe, as far flung as Ireland. The name "Ireland" itself derives from the word "Aryan." So does the name of another country. Any guesses which one? In any case, these people, along with laying the foundations of a broad variety of languages, were paler than either the people of Africa or those in southern India. Perhaps due to the dynamics of power as the Aryans made their way into India, or due to disease (a thesis powerfully defended by William McNeill in Plagues and Peoples), darker skin came to be seen as inferior or unclean there.

So here the use of the term "black" (kaṇhā), may fall into the category of a general insult, rather than a literal description. On the other hand, the Buddha may well have been much darker skinned than we are accustomed to seeing him depicted as. Shock. If he were, it might also make sense for later Buddhists to overlook this detail, depicting him in the most ideal form conceivable. We already know for instance that the name "Siddhārtha," meaning one who's goal is accomplished, was not 'given' to him in the earliest strata of textual evidence, but only appears later. Likewise, the story of his father as a powerful king has been shown to be greatly exaggerated, if holding any truth at all. So perhaps the myth of a fair and 'golden skinned' Buddha is just that, a myth.

As a scholar, I would appreciate more attention to this issue. And I'm sure those with anti/post-colonialist tendencies can find further directions to take this. As for practitioners - it seems that Buddhism, both in many doctrines and art, has taken on many different shapes as it has progressed through time and geography. So perhaps whatever way you imagine your Buddha is just fine as it is.

* This was also posted at americanbuddhist.blogspot.com a bit back, but I figured it has relevance amongst Progressive Buddhist folks, so here it is.


  1. I started reading Johannes Bronkhorst's latest book today. He begins by recapitulating his thinking on the two cultures of the late Vedic period - when the Buddha was born. A thesis supported by archaeological evidence as shown by Geoffrey Samuel (Origins of Yoga and Tantra). The eastern culture - what Bronkhorst calls Great Magadha) was not Brahmanical, but does seem to have spoken an Indo-Aryan language.

    There is still some doubt about what travelled across India - was it the language, or the people, or the culture, or some combination of all? There do seem to have been at least two waves of language migration (according to Deshpande).

    Some people have suggested that the Buddha may not have been Aryan but the evidence is quite sketchy and I've never been able to pin it down.

    Ireland's name, Éire, is unlikely to come from the same root as ārya - though the name Iran (i.e. Īrān) does. No doubt that was the one you were thinking of. There's a good discussion of the etymology of Éire on Wikipedia.

    Eisel is right to point out that the Buddha, like other śramaṇas would have been bald. I've also blogged on this passage - A Pali Pun. Some Brahmins refer to the Buddhists as muṇḍaka 'baldy'. A diminutive from muṇḍa 'bald'. In fact the Jains used to pull their hair out, rather than shave it! Some of my Indian friends tell me that there is a story in India about those curls on the Buddha's head being snails instead of hair!

    The term 'black' kaṇha seems to be a Brahmanical insult with a figurative meaning 'impure'. It dates from the Ṛgvedic times when the Āryans did seem to meet darker skinned people that they called dasa 'slaves'. But this was 1000 years pre-Buddha. By the time we're interested in it applied to anyone who did not conform to Brahmanical social norms - which would have been nearly everyone east of the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna in 500 BC. No doubt there were a range of races living in that area, as there are now. At least three major language families would have been present: Indo-Āryan, Dravidian and Munda. From the Brahmanical point of view the way the śramaṇa's lived made them equivalent to śudras - the lowest of the four varṇas and associated in the Vedic cosmology with the colour black. But actually we don't know what they looked like. They did live in the open, exposed to the sun...

    But in the end what does it matter? We don't now, and never will, know much about this person. As you rightly point out we don't actually know his given name, we only have the made up one. And since Gautama is a high status Brahmin name we must have doubts about that as well. (What was the Buddha's name?). The Buddha really only exists these days in our imaginations. As Buddhists we maintain an imaginative connection with the buddha. This is not a trivial matter. Buddhaghosa wrote in the Visuddhimagga that a person practising Buddhānusati is as worthy of worship as a cetiya or stupa. And since we cannot ever know what he did look like, it makes sense to just imagine him as best we can - naturally enough he tends to look like us. To the Tibetans he looks Tibetan, to the East Asians he looks Asian. You can see central Asian art where he looks like distinctly central Asian as well. Many of my artistic colleagues portray him as Caucasian. I have not yet seen an African Buddha, but it would make perfect sense to portray the Buddha as an African. In fact representations of the Buddha are not meant as portraits, but as symbols of our own potential - so for this reason too they should look like us!

    Thanks to the pointer to Eisel's article. I've commented as well. Can't wait to read his article on paṭiccasamuppāda!

  2. Jayarava - many thanks for all of your informative comments! I too have heard a story about snails accounting for the curls on the Buddha's head, but I haven't come across any citations that lead anywhere except that the Buddha's hair 'is curled like the snail shell (Kaparda)' (from the link below, but no real citation there either) so perhaps a story grew out of a misunderstanding of that representation.

    I heard the Ireland/Aryan connection from a lecture by Malcolm David Eckel, but it's a bit dated, so thanks for the clarification and link.

    I also appreciated your section suggesting that our Buddha images should look like us (at our best).


    Cheers - jw

  3. Let us pray for harmony & peace

    For all the humankind

    On this auspicious day

    Happy Buddha Jayanti!
    Buddha Purnima Text Messages

  4. I'm like it and very good idea / tips

  5. Good and unique information of Buddhist meditation , thank you

  6. Lotus 25 (Avalokitesvara chapter) mentions the upaya of the bodhisattva as according with all beings, and this is a theme that's prevalent in the soteriological scheme of various traditions.

    In Vajrayana, manifestations of transformation-bodies and nisyanda-kayas all accord with capabilities of beings; in my opinion, if we were to understand the adi-, the dharmakaya as all-pervasive then the question regarding the appearance, ethnicity, sex, etc. of (a) buddha per se is moot.

    As an aside, (and again in Vajrayana) the Karma Class Buddha (e.g., Amoghasiddhi) is sometimes depicted in black as black is the color of the cardinal north, the Karma Class, and other such ontological categories.


  7. Great story! Ultimately, visualizing the Buddha has many purposes, and certainly mindfulness is one of them. There is strength is visualizing with traditional symbolism, linking us to long lines of heritage, and also strength in creative visualization. Both can help us find our "Buddha." Focus and mindfulness anchor the practice either way.

    For the "black" Buddha, a great attention-getting headline (wish I'd thought of it), colors in Buddhist symbolism are normally related to both families—as Tantra Wave pointed out—or with elemental symbolism (i.e. black for water, green for air, etc). I personally don't think there's more to it than that, really, unless we are thinking of creative personal visualization. I also don't hold the personal view that black is in any way a negative—quite the reverse. It carries very powerful symbolism and meaning, in my opinion, but absolutely nothing negative. In Tibetan Buddhism there are many "black" Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
    This great story drew me to your wonderful blog. Namaste.

  8. how long have you been training?

  9. We can visualize the Buddha by the 32 two main features and 80 sub-features that distinguish a Buddha. According to the sutta, feature 11 and 12 mentioned that he has bright golden-coloured complexion and the skin is so fine that no dust can attach to it. Thus the Buddha is not black, white, yellow or brown but "Gold".


  10. The Buddha's clan, the Sakyas, were said to have been 'haughty', and to have practised endogamy (marriage within the clan) to preserve their racial/social 'purity'. The king of Kosala, to whom they owed fealty, asked them for a Sakyan maiden for his wife. They secretly sent him a slave-girl instead, and when the resultant child, Vidudhaba, was slighted by the Sakyas, he burnt Kapilavastu to the ground and slaughtered most of its inhabitants. All this surely tends to indicate that the Sakyas were fair-skinned (still highly prized in India)?

  11. I believe the Buddha, or Buddhas were of African descent. To mention this in modern day America leads to exclusion, derision and wild, virulent disclaimers. Most sangha are either clannishly Asian...or dominated by upper income whites who don't even want to discuss the issue, based on historical documented information.

    Still, I proceed with my practice.

    1. Buddha was from the Shakya clan who were Indo-Aryans and his caste was Kshatriya (a warrior caste). Thus, he was clearly South Asian. Second, your assertion is not supported by genetics. The only African genes present in India today are those of the 20,000 Siddis who were brought by Arab traders in the 12th or 13th century.

  12. The more you look these days you can find African Americans somewhere claiming everything from Vikings and Celts to the founders of China and Japan all being "black". It's gone far beyond the old myths of Egyptians and Jesus. For example: Did you know the REAL first president of the united states was black? Or, did you know the original kings of Russia and Genghis Kahn were "black"? So, obviously Buddha must be too!
    As the conspiracy unfolds we will hear about black Eskimos, black yetis, black mermaids, black Mozart...

    1. Given that the author of this blog article is not African American, surely your observations belong in the comment sections of one of the "African Americans somewhere claiming everything from Vikings and Celts to the founders of China and Japan all being '[B]lack.'" Since you argue that "[t]he more you look these days you can find" such claims in abundance, you should have no trouble at all finding and posting to African American websites that make such claims, yes? Going straight to the source, as it were, would surely be a much better use of your time. (It's been two years since your post; perhaps you've already addressed this issue in the intervening years.)

      For my own part, I'm not only an African American, but am also a 43 year-old who was raised by Black nationalist parents in the 1970s -- and even within that environment, I never heard Black folks trying to claim the Vikings or even the Celts. If you're referring to the widespread, scientific and social-scientific hypothesis that all folks in Europe and indeed throughout the globe originally hail from a common, early-human, African ancestor -- i.e. per the 'Lucy' hypothesis -- then, yeah, I've heard (and believe) such arguments.

      Other than that, though, please trust me when I tell you that, aside from one or two cranky Black bloggers who represent neither the African American mainstream nor African American academics, there is no African American movement afoot to lay direct claim to the Vikings, the Celts, the Goths, the Visigoths, the Mongols, or any of your other historical favorites. I offer you this reassurance with the compassionate hope that it comforts you. Snuggle up to your Erik the Red and Clovis plush toys and sleep soundly, my friend: your cultural heritage -- both real and imagined -- is secure.

  13. For more information on the Black Buddhas of Asia, please see the following documentary: "Let The Stone Tell The Tale - Africans Of Asia" by Dr. Eugene Adams - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqU2nG3keP0. You will see many authentic original images of the so called current Asiatic Buddhas. Also listen to Dr Runoko Rashidi's lectures on "Blacks in India - The African Presence In Asia" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVX1QPI9BxA. He has visited over 64 countries researching and documenting the African presence. I would suggest you hurry as many of his videos are being taken down.