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Artist unknown (Chinese, 4th - 6th century),
Bodhisattva , Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534)
stone, height: 22 ¾ in.; 57.79 cm
Gift of Arthur Wiesenberger, 1954.378

Around the turn of the millennium, a branch of Buddhism called Mahayana, the “Greater Vehicle,” developed a complex pantheon of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Although there are many different Buddha figures, they all share a set of traits that distinguish them from bodhisattvas and other deities. 

Like bodhisattvas, Buddhas possess an urna — a lucky sign usually consisting of a whorl of hair, a circle, or a protuberance located between the eyebrows. Buddhas alone, however, have an ushnisha — a knot of hair or a protuberance atop the head that symbolizes their surpassing wisdom. 

Because the historical Buddha grew up as an Indian prince who wore heavy earrings, his ears were permanently distended. Consequently, images of both Buddhas and bodhisattvas have earlobes that stretch dramatically downward. The historical Buddha, however, gave up his jewelry and fine clothing when he left his father’s palace, and, thus, Buddhas, unlike bodhisattvas, are usually portrayed wearing the simple robes of an ascetic.

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