The Buddha's Footprints

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on January 18, 2016.)

The Buddha's footprints on a stele at Wolong Temple, Xi'an

When writing about the Wheel of Dharma, I mentioned that earlier Buddhists were reluctant to represent the Buddha in human form, considering it to be disrespectful. Thus the artists turned to aniconic ("without icon" or "image") representations of the Buddha--that is, images without human figures.

The wheel in that article was one such substitute; others include an umbrella, an empty throne, and a riderless horse.

Somewhere between aniconic and an actual representation of the Buddha's body are the Buddha's footprints, which can be found in many forms. At one temple in Japan, I saw them carved on a flat rock. It was said that walking on them would relieve sore feet!

More commonly, they are found on steles, as at Wolong Temple in Xi'an. Typically they are filled with symbols, usually including some or all of the "Eight Auspicious Signs." These are:
  • a conch shell, the blowing of which makes a beautiful sound, like the sound of the Buddha's teachings (it also wakes people up);
  • an endless knot, symbolizing eternity, long life, or the interconnection of all things;
  • a pair of fish, representing India's two great rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, as well as representing freedom;
  • a lotus, representing the arising of purity out of worldly debris;
  • an umbrella, sign of royalty and protection;
  • a vase of treasure, symbolizing spiritual riches;
  • a banner of victory over delusion; and
  • the wheel of dharma as in the other article), again representing the Buddha's teachings.
Naturally, the swastika, a common mark of Buddhism, is also found, sometimes even one for each toe!

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