The Thirty-two Major Marks of a Buddha

Buddhist sources from all traditions list "The 32 Major Marks of a Buddha" or "The 32 Signs of a Great Man".

These very abbreviated lists of "marks/signs", preserved in various different languages by the different Buddhist traditions are very similar, however differ slightly in detail as well as in the order of these "marks/signs". Unfortunately, when interpreting these "marks/signs" purely on a physical basis one quickly comes to the conclusion that the Buddha must have been some sort of freak, which had caused confusion among even accomplished practitioners, often leading to some rather peculiar theories and interpretations. Here I would like to present an interpretation based upon the Lalitavistara Mahāyana Sūtra which is consistent with accounts from other traditions and provides an insight into what was, in my opinion, its original meaning.

First, one has to consider that the Theravāda Sūtras were memorized and transmitted orally for hundreds of years before being recorded on palm leaves around the beginning of the Christian era. To do this, it was necessary to condense these texts, omitting unnecessary words and passages, and often making them rhyme as a mnomic aid.
Secondly, one should remember that a large part of many (all?) languages is based upon the use of idioms which, when their origin is forgotten, are in themselves nonsensical.
Thirdly, anyone versed in the Sūtras knows the Buddhist tendency to express ideas as analogies. In English many idioms express traits by analogy. Many are negative, however some: "Wise as an owl", "eyes like a hawk", "busy as a beaver", "strong as a bear" are not uncommon.

Within the cultural context and language (Pāli) of central India around 500-0 BCE, where these texts were memorized, they probably retained their original meaning. However when these highly condensed/abbreviated texts were written down and later transported into areas with other languages and cultural traditions the actual meanings of the idiomatic analogies became obscured. To make matters worse after being translated numerous times and finally interpreted into the cultural context of the 21st century misunderstandings are inevitable.

In an English version of the Lalitavistara Mahāyana Sūtra - which was first translated from Sanskrit into French and then from French into English - we find something very interesting. Here among other descriptions of the Buddha we find the 32 signs expressed in the following form:
"He (The Buddha) is called the one who"_______________, because he has long: __________________
By expressing the idiom as "He IS CALLED the one who has/with a certain physical characteristic instead of saying he HAS a certain physical characteristic the 32 signs/marks of a Buddha take on completely different meaning. Instead of stressing the existence of a certain physical characteristic the underlying quality which is implied by this physical characteristic is highlighted. The 32 implied qualities (and not their idiomatic expression) are in fact worthy of a great man/a Buddha. Keeping this in mind, I list in the tables below the thirty-two signs as derived from several sources, and include the generally omitted causal qualities of a Buddha which are found in the Lalitavistara Mahāyana Sūtra.

I chose the Theravāda version for the enumeration order which often coincides with Mahāyana and Vajrayana sources. The Lalitavistara version I highlight with bold letters.

Unfortunately the signs/marks are not always the same. One reason for adding or dropping of traits is whether the various descriptions of teeth are to be taken as one or several marks. In spite of these discrepancies I hope the following list provides some insight into what "the 32 signs of a Buddha" actually symbolize. I would also like to thank Dharma Publications for publishing the Lalitavistara Sūtra and hold a great number of their books in high regard.

He is called the one who (has):

1. supati thapado (p) has feet with a level sole . *1

4. Sokugen Kōbyōsō (j) Heels are full sized, broad, round and smooth.*2

2. feet firm like those of a tortoise*3

with the wide foot *4

, because he has long:

renounced the taking of life.*4

He is called the one who (has):

2. he thapadatalesu cakkani jatani (p) has the mark of a thousand-spoked wheel on the soles of his feet*1

2. Sokuge Nirinsō (j) Thousand-spoked wheel symbol on soles of feet.*2

1. palms and soles marked with doctrinal wheels. *3

whose foot is marked with the thousand spoked wheel, the nandyāvarta, and the swastika.*4

, because he has long:

been refuge for living beings not deserting those who have gone to him for refuge, giving complete shelter to parents and teachers, śramaṇas and brāhmamins, to the deserving, and to the followers of the Dharma.*4

He is called the one who (has):

3. ayatapa ni (p) He has projecting heels.

9. inconspicuous ankles. *4

, because he has long:

no equivalent found in the Lalitavistara Sûtra

He is called the one who (has):

4. digha nguli (p) has long fingers and toes. *1

3. Chōshisō (j) Exceptionally long and slender fingers.*2

6. long toes and fingers*3

with long fingers*4

, because he has long:

sustained living beings. *4

He is called the one who (has):

5. mudutalahathapado (p) His hands and feet are soft-skinned . *1

6. Shusoku Nyūnansō (j) Pliant hands and feet; skin of hands/feet is soft and smooth.*2

4. soft and supple hands and feet*3

with soft hands and feet.*4

, because he has long:

long honored and served those deserving offerings, never wearying to act for parents śramaṇas, brāmins, and teachers, giving baths and massages, giving ointments, oils and liniments.*4

He is called the one who (has):

6. jalahathapado (p) has netlike lines on palms and soles . *1

5. Shusokushi Manmōsō (j) Webbed toes & fingers; web-like membrane between fingers and toes.*2

3. webbed fingers and toes. *3

with the membrane between the fingers and toes*4

, because he has long:

skillfully gathered beings with the net of conversion, with giving, kind speech, and helpfulness, with deeds that match words.*4

He is called the one who (has):

7. ussa nkhapado (p) has high raised ankles . *1

7. Sokufu Kōmansō (j) Arched insteps; unusually high insteps.*2

7. broad arches*3

who raises his foot.*4

, because he has long:

aimed at noble action, climbing even higher in virtue.*4

He is called the one who (has):

8. e nimigasadisaja ngho (p) has taut calf muscles like an antelope *1

8. Ideien Sensō (j) Rounded and firm calves (thighs), like those of a royal stag.*2

11. antelope-like calves *3

with limbs of the gazelle*4

, because he has long:

shown respect, listening to the Dharma, retaining it, reciting it, and skillfully making it known carefully penetrating it, realizing its letter and its meaning, never showing contempt for a teacher of Dharma, always giving refuge to beings faced with old age, disease and death.*4

He is called the one who (has):

9. thitako va anonamanto (p) He can touch his knees with the palms of his hands without bending. *1

9. Shōryū Shumashitsusō (Shōritsu Shumashitsusō) (j) Exceptionally long arms; hands reach knees when standing.*2

12. long and beautiful arms*3

long arms*4

, because he has long:

guarded his hands and feet, acting in body, speech, and mind with love intent on never harming beings. *4

He is called the one who (has):

10. kosohitavatguyho (p) His sexual organs are concealed in a sheath *1

10. Onzōsō (j) Genitals are retracted (well hidden inside the body).*2

13. a supremely contracted sexual organ*3

private parts enclosed in a sheath *4

, because he has long:

given all that he could to followers of bramacarya, to śramaṇas, brāhmins, and others, giving clothing to the naked, never approaching others' wives, praising the qualities of the bramacarya, guarding his modesty and chastity, and following observances.*4

He is called the one who (has):

11. suva n nava no (p) His skin is the color of gold*1

14. Konjikisō (j) Gold-hued body; body gleams with golden light.*2

14. a golden complexion and delicate skin*3

15. Body surrounded by radiant aura; body emits halo of light extending outward about three metres. -3

the Golden one *4

, because he has long:

made a practice of love setting aside harshness, taking up patience, encouraging all to endure, praising and encouraging those who are free from malice, adorning the caitayas of the Tathāgatas with golden objects of all kinds, golden flowers and vases, inlaid carvings, banners and golden vestments, sprinkling gold dust all around.*4

He is called the one who (has):

12. smooth skin no dust (find this source)-4

with fine smooth skin*4

, because he has long:

Given to parents, śramanas, brāhmins, teachers, and to others worthy of offering: baths and ointments and clarified butter, liniments of sesame oil, warm water in cold weather, cool water and shade in the heat, soothing amusements, good clothing smooth to the touch, soft beds and soft chairs, offerings to the caityas of the Tathāgathas silken banners and cords, and sprinklings of perfumed oil.*4

He is called the one who (has):

13. ekekalomo (p) His body hair are separate with one hair per pore . *1

13. Ichi Ichiku Ichimōsō (j) One hair grows from each pore of skin.*2

with each hair rising distinctly*4

, because he has long:

attended on paṇḍitas asking about virtue and non-virtue about failings in practice and what to depend on, examining what is bad or fair or fulfilling, weighing thr teaching with unconfused care, clearing away any debris from the caityas of the Tathāgatas, removing the spiders and worms, the dirt and faded flowers, the cobwebs and weeds.*4

He is called the one who (has):

14. uddhagalomo (p) His body hair are blue-black, the color of collyrium, and curls clockwise in rings*1

15. well grown body hairs which curl distinctly to the right*3

whose hair on the upper body curls to the right*4

, because he has long:

circumambulated to the right around parents and teachers, around śramaṇas and brāhmins, and those worthy of offerings, around caityas of the Tathāgatha, applying themselves to the Teaching of the Dharma, sharing with others his astonishment and delight, and trembling with joy when he hears the Dharma.*4

He is called the one who (has):

15. brahmujugatto (p) has an upright stance like that of Brāhma . *1

20. Daijikishinsō (j) Perfectly firm and erect posture.*2

8. a tall and straight body*3

with a tall, upright body*4

, because he has long:

raised the virtues of those who renounced taking life, and given many beings refuge*4

He is called the one who (has):

16. satusado (p) has the seven convexities of the flesh . (Lakkhana Sutta) *1

17. Shichisho Ryūmansō (j) Feet, shoulders, neck, palms, and crown are well-rounded; seven regions of body are full and rounded.*2

5. a body with seven well-proportioned parts*3

with the seven lofty parts*4

, because he has long:

shown respect to parents and teachers, to masters and superiors, to śramaṇas and brāhmins, to those worthy of respect, to unfortunate beggars, to those worthy of respect, to unfortunate beggars, and to all who approached, giving employment to all, offering whatever they desired: food and drink, bedding, clothes, lamps, shelter, utensils, and medicine, and ponds and wells of fresh water*4

He is called the one who (has):

17. sihapuba dhakayo (p) has an immense torso, like that of a lion*1

19. Jōshin Nyoshishisō (j) Upper body shaped like lion; majestic upper body.*2

17. a lion-like chest*3

whose upper body resembles the lion*4

, because he has long:

offered obedience, speaking words of welcome and security, and words of peace to parents and teachers, to śramanas and brāhmins, and all deserving offerings, upholding the weak, sheltering those seeking refuge, and never scorning or abandoning them.*4

He is called the one who (has):

18. pitantara mso (p) The furrow between his shoulders is filled in*1

21. Ken Enmansō (j) Full and well-rounded shoulders.*2

18. well-rounded shoulders*3

with the well-turned shoulder*4

, because he has long:

offered welcome and peace, rising in the presence of those deserving offerings, parents and teachers, śramanas and brāhmins. Assured in Śastras, he cuts short debate; completely trained, he sets ministers and kings on the path of virtue;through meditation, he has comprehended and upheld all the precepts of the Tathāgatas; he has total grasp of all virtuous action.*4

He is called the one who (has):

19. nigrodhaparima n dalo (p) The distance from hand-to-hand and head-to-toe is equal, like a banyan tree*1

11. Shinkō ōtōsō (j) Well proportioned body; body height is equal to armspread.*2

21. a symmetrical body like a banyan tree*3

like the nyagrodha tree. *4

, because he has long:

followed moderation, being restrained in his eating, distributing medicine to the sick, never harming the unprotected, never scorning ordinary people, giving security to those tormented, repairing ruined caityas of the Tathāgatas and building new caityas.*4

He is called the one who (has):

21. an evenly rounded bust *1

18. Ryōyakuge Ryūmansō (Ryōekige Ryūmansō) (j) Sides of body under arms are full; below armpits well filled; not hollow like ordinary people. *2

19. a broad back*3

broad shoulders *4

, because he has long:

weighed his own faults carefully, not seeing weakness in others as failings, giving up the source of divisiveness and argument, reciting mantras, and guarding well against extremes of speech and action.*4

He is called the one who (has):

22. rasagasagi (p) has sensitive taste-buds*1

26. Michūtoku Jōmisō (j) Saliva imparts delicious taste to anything that is eaten.*2

20. a supreme sense of taste *3

the posessor of the best elixir*4

, because he has long:

Harmed no sentient being, never scoffing at anyone, saring for the sick, caring for travelers, the deprived, and the weak, giving medicines and remedies, never sad to give, giving all he can.*4

He is called the one who (has):

23. sihahanu (p) His jaw is like that of lion's*1

25. Shishikyōsō (j) Lion-jawed; full and firm cheeks, like those of a lion.*2

25. lion-like jaws *3

with the lion's jaw *4

, because he has long:

given up everything, like a beggar, addressing sweet words to all who approach, despising none, decieving none, turning none away, fulfilling their desires with gifts and firm support.*4

He is called the one who (has):

his canine teeth are quite bright*1

24. Gebyakusō (j) Four canine teeth that are larger, whiter, and sharper than the others.*2

26b. fourty teeth*3

with fourty even teeth*4

, because he has long:

given up harsh words, and chants which foster divisiveness, eager to bring all into accord, speaking against slander and argument, reciting mantras of conciliation.*4

He is called the one who (has):

25. avira ladanto (p) His teeth are without gaps in-between *1

23. Shisaisō (Shiseisō) (j) Straight and even teeth, without gaps, equal in size*2

26a. teeth equal in size and close fitting*3

with firm and good teeth*4

, because he has long:

left off mocking and teasing, giving only joy, guarding his speech, using words which delight, not looking for the weakness and faults of others, greeting all with impartially and equanimity, teaching the Dharma to the sick, giving firm support for all beings, and never giving them up.*4

He is called the one who (has):

26. sukadanto (p) His teeth are quite white*1

22. Shijūshisō (j) 40 teeth as white as snow.*2

26. teeth which are pure white*3

with the white teeth *4

, because he has long:

abandoned the dark side and accumulated the white roots of virtue, giving up the growth of dark deeds while encouraging the white, painting the caityas of thr Tathāgatas with a mixture of chalk and milk, giving milk, cooked food, white garments, garments of sumana, vārsika, and dhanuṣkarī flowers, and beautiful boquets of white flowers.*4

He is called the one who (has):

27. pahutajivho (p) has a large, long tongue*1

27. Daizetsusō (j) Long and flexible tongue; when extended it can touch the hairline.*2

23. a long and beautiful tongue*3

very long tongue*4

, because he has long:

abandoned erroneous speech, singing instead the praises of the Śrāvakas, the Pratyekabuddhas, and the Teachers of the Dharma, requesting thr Sūtras taught by the Tathāgatas, reciting and reading and comprending them, skillfully conveying the meaning of the Dharma to all beings.*4

He is called the one who (has):

28. brahmasaro hiravikabha ni (p) has a voice like that of Brahmā *1

28. Bonjōsō (j) Voice is deep, resonant, pure and strong; can be heard from long distances*2

24. a Brahmā-like voice*3

with a voice like Brahmā's *4

, because he has long:

given up false speech: cruel sharp words that wound others, as well as biting and disparaging words. His words are loving and compassionate, joyous, pleasant , sweet and sympathetic, welcoming and encouraging; they go straight to the heart, delighting all the senses.*4

He is called the one who (has):

29. abhi nila netto (p) has very blue eyes*1

29. Shinshōgensō (Shinjōgensō) (j) Deep blue eyes, like a blue lotus flower.*2

27. sapphire blue eyes*3

with blue black eyes*4

, because he has long:

gazed upon beings benevolently, like a father, giving love to beggars as to an only son, regarding all with compassion, completely free of jealosy, having gazed at the caityas of the Tathāgatas without blinking, with the power of faith, having shown the Tathāgatas to others, welcoming them, upholding the firmly.*4

He is called the one who (has):

30. gopa mukho (p) has eyelashes like an ox *1

30. Gyūgonshōsō (Gogenshōsō) (j) Long and regular eyelashes, like those of a royal bull.*2

28. bovine eyelashes*3

with the eyelashes of a heifer *4

, because he has long:

abandoned base thoughts and feelings, his brow never wrinkled, his face ever smiling, concerned with accomplishing generous intentions, guiding all being with faith in the best Dharma, seeking continuously the presence of Teachers, never hesitating to accumulate virtue.*4

He is called the one who (has):

31. una loma bhamukantare jata (p) has a white soft wisp of hair in the center of the brow*1

32. Byakumōsō (j) (Byakugō (j) White-light emitting clockwise curl of hair on forehead*2

16. a hair ringlet (ūrṇakeśa) between the eyebrows*3

between his brows the circle of hair curling to the right and the one with the pure and brilliant complexion*4

, because he has long:

given offerings of all sorts, guiding geings in virtue, not obscuring the rules, and following the teachings of friends of virtue, encouraging the travelling of teachers of the Dharma, honoring the Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, and Pratyekabuddhas, noble Śrāvakas, Dharma Teachers, parents and all worthy of homage, honoring and giving gifts of sweet-smelling oils and butter, lamps and torches to dispel darkness, adorning the images of the Tathāgatas with all the most beautiful things.*4

He is called the one who (has):

32. u nahisiso (p) His head is like a royal turban*1

31. Chōkeisō (j) Nikkeisō (j). Bump (protuberance) on top of head, representing wisdom*2

22. the uṣṇīṣa protuberance on the head *3

with the unseen diadem*4

, because he has long:

Bowed his head to the feet of his parents, to the feet of śramanas, brāhmins, and spiritual teachers, to all worthy of offerings. To the wandering monks he has spoken with just words, giving beggars colored powders, garlands, and head ornaments. *4

*1 Theravāda
Lakkhana Sutta

*2 Dai Chido Ron (j.)
A commentary on the Sutra on the Perfection of Wisdom
Trans. Kumarajiva

*3 The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism
Its Fundamentals and History
Dudjom Rinpoche

*4 Lalitavistara Sūtra
The Voice of the Buddha
The Beauty of Compassion
Vol. II

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