Theravada Buddhism maintains that the historical Buddha was not a god, but a human being—and not a deity manifested as a human being, like Christ or Krishna, but really a human being.
However…he is portrayed as being superior to any mere deity, and the gods from the heaven realms often descend to earth humbly to pay him homage. There is no omniscient, omnipotent Creator in the Buddhist cosmology, so the founder of Buddhism did not have to compete with Him, Her, or It.
Nevertheless, as Buddha-worship developed in ancient India, the Buddha was glorified into more than just an ordinary-looking human being, into more even than a tall, strong, handsome human being. Many strange physical peculiarities came to be attributed to him, one of the most obvious of which being that he was considered to be 4½ times the height of an average man, or about 26 feet (almost 8 meters) tall.
Many Burmese Buddhists accept without question this alleged great height of the Buddha, but we Westerners are much less likely to follow along. First of all, we're less likely to believe in mysterious metaphysical forces that would cause an exceptionally great person to diverge from the normality imposed upon us by our own DNA. And there are other biological complications to consider—for example, as height is doubled, area is squared and volume and mass are cubed, so a 26-foot-tall human would have insufficient lung capacity and bone thickness to support his great mass. Also, of course, the testimony of the ancient texts is compatible with the Buddha being tall, but not with his being taller than a giraffe. People who would meet him often mistook him for an ordinary monk, and on one famous occasion he exchanged robes with the monk Mahā Kassapa. His half-brother Nanda was only a few finger-widths shorter than him. Plus he lived in ordinary buildings, had a wife, and somehow managed to father a baby with her.
But his height is only the beginning. The Pali texts themselves, for example the Lakkhana Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, also maintain that the Buddha had 32 marks of a Great Man (mahāpurisa)—in fact any fully enlightened Buddha must have all 32 of them. The same is true for anyone who becomes a righteous king of the entire world. If any boy is born with all 32 of these marks, he is destined to become one or the other.
Without any further ado, the marks of a great man are as follows.
1. He has "well planted feet" (suppatiṭṭhitapādo hoti)—This has been interpreted by some to mean that he has perfectly flat feet, which would be borne out by the earliest representations of the Buddha's footprints; but it seems more likely that it means he steps with the entire foot coming down evenly, not coming down heel first or toes first.
2. On the soles of his feet he has the marks of wheels with a thousand spokes, complete with rims and hubs (heṭṭhāpādatalesu cakkāni jātāni honti sahassārāni sanemikāni sanābhikāni sabbākāraparipūrāni)—This also would support the flat feet hypothesis, considering that representations of the Buddha's footprints show these wheels quite clearly.
3. He has elongate heels (āyatapaṇhi hoti)—Some have interpreted this such that his heels stick out behind as far as the rest of his feet stick out in front, causing his feet to look like an inverted T.
4. He has long fingers and toes (dīghaṅguli hoti).
5. He has soft, tender hands and feet (mudutalunahatthapādo hoti).
6. He has webbed hands and feet (jālahatthapādo hoti)—The most obvious explanation of this one is that his fingers and toes have webbing between them; but possibly because this is considered more a birth defect than a sign of excellence the mark has also been interpreted as a kind of reticulated pattern of fine lines like netting on the hands and feet.
7. He has arched (or raised) feet (ussaṅkhapādo hoti)—This mark also has been interpreted to mean that his ankles are located at the middle of the length of his feet, making them T-shaped, which would be redundant if number 3 meant the same. Some have interpreted this to mean, alternatively, that his ankles are midway up his shins. The literal translation of the Pali, however, seems to support the arched instep interpretation, which would thus be in conflict with the flat feet interpretation of number 1.
8. He has legs like a goat-antelope (eṇijaṅgho hoti)—They are long, slender, and graceful.
9. Standing, without bending over at all, he touches and rubs his knees with the palms of both hands (thitakova anonamanto ubhohi pāṇitalehi jaṇṇukāni parimasati parimajjati).
10. He has his pudendum enclosed in a sheath (kosohitavatthaguyho hoti)—Some Mahayana Buddhists have this interpreted to mean that his entire genitalia are internal when not in use.
11. He has a golden complexion, his skin shining like gold (suvaṇṇavaṇṇo hoti kañcanasannibhattaco).
12. He has very smooth skin, and from the smoothness of his skin dust and dirt do not adhere to his body (sukhumacchavi hoti, sukhumattā chaviyā rajojallaṁ kāye na upalimpati).
13. He has single body hairs, his hairs growing one to each follicle (ekekalomo hoti, ekekāni lomāni lomakūpesu jātāni).
14. He has body hairs with upward-pointing tips, his upwards-tipped hairs being blue-black in color like collyrium and curling in rings spiraling to the right (uddhaggalomo hoti, uddhaggāni lomāni jātāni nīlāni añjanavaṇṇāni kuṇḍalāvaṭṭāni dakkhiṇāvaṭṭakajātāni).
15. He has a straight, upright body like a Brahma deity (brahmujugatto hoti).
16. He has seven eminences (sattussado hoti)—These seven eminences are traditionally considered to be the inner sides of his knees and elbows, his shoulders, and his chest; they are well rounded, without hollows.
17. The front part of his body is like a lion's (sīhapubbaddhakāyo hoti).
18. He is well filled in between his shoulders (citandaraṁso hoti).
19. He has the balanced dimensions of a banyan tree; the span of his outstretched arms is as long as his body, and his body is as long as the span of his outstretched arms (nigrodhaparimaṇḍalo hoti, yāvatakvassa kāyo tāvatakvassa byāmo, yāvatakvassa byāmo tāvatakvassa kāyo).
20. He has an evenly rounded torso (samavaṭṭakkhandho hoti)—This would seem to mean that his body is cylindrical in cross section.
21. He has an extremely refined sense of taste (rasaggasaggī hoti)—He allegedly tastes food with the entire lining of his mouth and throat, not just with his tongue. As ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi points out in note 856 of his translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, it is difficult to understand how others could note this trait in the Buddha or in anyone else through mere observation.
22. He has jaws like a lion's (sīhahana hoti).
23. He has forty teeth (cattālīsadanto hoti).
24. He has even teeth (samadanto hoti).
25. He has teeth without gaps between them (aviraḷadanto hoti).
26. He has very white canine teeth (susukkadāṭho hoti).
27. He has an extensive tongue (pahūtajivho hoti)—The Buddha reportedly could lick his own eyebrows as well as his own ears, and could cover his face with his tongue.
28. He has a voice like a Brahma deity, sounding like an Indian cuckoo bird (brahmassaro hoti, karavīkabhāṇī)—Traditionally, the karavika bird has a call so strikingly beautiful that if a lion is chasing a deer through the forest and this bird begins to sing, it is said that both the lion and the deer will stop to listen, as if spellbound.
29. He has eyes that are deep blue, or blue-black (abhinīlanetto hoti).
30. He has eyelashes like an ox (gopakhumo hoti).
31. He has hair growing between his eyebrows that is white like a soft tuft of cotton (uṇṇā bhamukantare jātā hoti odātā mudutūlasannibhā)—This trait is presumably the origin of the "third eye" marking most Buddha images have between their eyebrows.
32. He has a head like a turban (uṇhīsasīso hoti)—This trait is often considered to be the reason why Buddha images tend to have a strange lump on top of their head, if not an even stranger knob or point, but it may simply mean that his head is well rounded. Apparently in ancient India to be circular in cross section was considered to be a sign of superior form. Many scholars consider the lump on top of the Buddha's head to be a vestigial topknot of hair, despite the probability that the Buddha, being a monk, had his head shaved.
Most of these marks are self-explanatory, and those that are not…well, they don't seem very important anyway. One thing about this assemblage of qualities that I find interesting is that whoever came up with them apparently was not very good at geometry or engineering, as some of them seem like they are mutually exclusive and could not be found on the same individual. Consider marks 4, 9, and 19. Now, many people have the dimensions of a banyan tree, with their height being nearly equivalent to the width of their outstretched arms. This is not so uncommon. But very few people have their palms resting on their knees when standing upright. This, combined with the Buddha's alleged long fingers (reaching down well below his kneecaps), would indicate that the distance from his shins to his neck would constitute much less than half his height. The entire length of one arm, plus the width of his shoulders, would be equal to his lower shins and feet plus his neck and head. So if we grant that his neck and head extend upwards as far as his shoulders extend from side to side, his shins would be about as long as his arms. The only way this would be possible is if his knees were located very high up his legs, about where the average human being's palms would rest. Thus he would have extremely short thighs and extremely long shins, and when sitting cross-legged his feet would be sticking way, way out to the sides, unlike the more normal-looking representations on Buddha statues.
Anyhow, if anyone did actually have all 32 of these marks, he would not be a handsome man, as the Buddha was said to be, but would be rather a grotesque monstrosity, even if he weren't 26 feet tall. As a further mild embarrassment, this list is found in the so-called core texts, the nucleus of the most ancient Buddhist scriptures common to most or even all of the most ancient schools of Indian Buddhism, which even many conservative Western Buddhists consider to represent the Canon as determined by the First Great Council, held shortly after the great blowing out of the Buddha's existence in this world.
Another list of physical marks, although heard of from time to time, is seldom seen; and that is the list of 80 minor marks (anubyañjana) of a great man, which the Buddha also allegedly had, in their entirety. There are at least two versions of the list which are not completely in agreement; the following is from a sub-commentarial text called the Jinalankara Tika.
1. "Closely knitted fingers and toes with no intervening gaps" (cit'aṅgulitā)
2. Fingers and toes tapering gradually (anupubb'aṅgulitā)
3. Rounded (in cross section) fingers and toes (vaṭṭ'aṅgulitā)
4. Copper-colored fingernails and toenails (tamba nakhatā)
5. Pointed and prominent fingernails and toenails (tuṅga nakhatā)
6. Smooth, glossy fingernails and toenails (siniddha nakhatā)
7. Ankles without bulges (niguḷa gopphakatā)
8. Evenness of the tips of all ten toes (sama padatā)
9. Manner of walking majestically like an elephant (gajasamān'akkamatā)
10. Manner of walking majestically like a lion (sīhasamān'akkamatā)
11. Manner of walking majestically like a wild gander or sheldrake (haṁsasamān'akkamatā)
12. Manner of walking majestically like a bull (usabhasamān'akkamatā)
13. Manner of turning to the right when walking (dakkhiṇāvaṭṭa gatitā)
14. Knees that are beautifully rounded on all sides (samantato cārujaṇṇu maṇḍalatā)
15. Well developed male organ (paripuṇṇa purisavyañjanatā)
16. Navel with unbroken lines (acchidda nābhitā)
17. Deep navel (gambhīra nābhitā)
18. Navel with rightward-spiraling whorl (dakkhiṇāvaṭṭa nābhitā)
19. Thighs and arms like the trunk of an elephant (dviradakara sadisa-uru-bhujatā)
20. Well proportioned body/limbs (suvibhatta gattatā)
21. Gradually tapering body/limbs (anupubba gattatā)
22. Fine body/limbs (maṭṭha gattatā)
23. Neither lean nor plump body/limbs (anussann'ānanussanna sabbagattatā)
24. Wrinkle-free body/limbs (alīna gattatā)
25. Body/limbs devoid of moles, freckles, etc. (tilakādivirahita gattatā)
26. "Regularly lustrous" body/limbs (anupubba rucira gattatā)
27. Particularly clean body (suvisuddha gattatā)
28. Physical strength of ten billion (10,000,000,000) powerful elephants (koṭisahassa hatthībala dhāraṇatā)
29. Prominent nose like a goad (tuṅga nāsatā)
30. Very red gums (suratta dvijamaṁsatā)
31. Clean teeth (suddha dantatā)
32. Neat, smooth, glossy teeth (siniddha dantatā)
33. Very pure sense faculties (visuddh'indriyatā)
34. Cylindrical (rounded in cross section) canine teeth (vaṭṭa dāṭhatā)
35. Red lips (ratt'oṭṭhatā)
36. Elongate oral cavity (āyata vadanatā)
37. Deep lines on the palms of the hands (gambhīra pāṇilekhatā)
38. Long lines (āyata lekhatā)
39. Straight lines (uju lekhatā)
40. Beautifully formed lines (surucira saṇṭhāna lekhatā)
41. Circular nimbus around the body (parimaṇḍala kāyappabhāvantatā)
42. Full cheeks (paripuṇṇa kapolatā)
43. Long and broad eyes (āyatavisāla nettatā)
44. Very clear eyes endowed with five hues (pañca pasādavanta nettatā)
45. Eyelashes with upward-curling tips (kuñjitagga bhamukatā)
46. Soft, slender, red tongue (mudu tanuka ratta jīvhatā)
47. Long, beautiful ears (āyata rucira kaṇṇatā)
48. Veins free of varicosity (niggaṇṭhi siratā)
49. Veins without bulges (niggūḷa siratā)
50. Rounded, elegant head like a parasol (vaṭṭa chatta nibha cāru sīsatā)
51. Long, broad, graceful forehead (āyata-puthu nalāṭa sobhatā)
52. Naturally well-groomed eyebrows (susaṇṭhāna bhamukatā)
53. Soft eyebrows (saṇha bhamukatā)
54. "Regular" eyebrows (anuloma bhamukatā)
55. Large eyebrows (mahanta bhamukatā)
56. Long eyebrows (āyata bhamukatā)
57. Supple body (sukumāla gattatā)
58. Very relaxed body (ativiya somma gattatā)
59. Very shiny body (ativiya ujjalita gattatā)
60. Secretion-free body (vimala gattatā)
61. "Fresh-looking" body (komala gattatā)
62. Glossy, smooth body (siniddha gattatā)
63. Fragrant body (sugandha tanutā)
64. Body hairs of equal length (sama lomatā)
65. Soft body hairs (komala lomatā)
66. Body hairs spiraling to the right (dakkhīṇavaṭṭa lomatā)
67. Blue-black body hairs of the color of broken collyrium (bhinn'añjana sadisa nīla lomatā)
68. Cylindrical body hairs (vaṭṭa lomatā)
69. Glossy, smooth body hairs (siniddha lomatā)
70. Very subtle inhalation and exhalation (atisukhuma assāsapassāsa dharaṇatā)
71. Fragrant mouth (sugandha mukhatā)
72. Fragrant top of the head (sugandha muddhanatā)
73. Jet black hair (sunīla kesatā)
74. Head hair curling to the right (dakkhīṇavaṭṭa kesatā)
75. Naturally well-groomed hair (susaṇṭhāna kesatā)
76. Glossy hair and soft hair (siniddha kesatā saṇha kesatā)
77. Untangled hair (aluḷita kesatā)
78. Head hairs of equal length (sama kesatā)
79. Soft head hair (komala kesatā)
80. A luminous halo like a garland of beams of light emanating from the top of the head (ketumālāratana vicittatā)
There is not much to comment upon with regard to this list; although it is interesting how roundness and turning to the right (dexter) instead of to the left (sinister) have been considered signs of "rightness" or perfection throughout the world. I am reminded of Aristotle's belief that celestial motions had to be circular in order to be divine.
There is one of these "lesser marks" that I dearly love, though, and can't resist the urge to comment upon it. Nestled between mark 27, "particularly clean body," and mark 29, "prominent nose like a goad," is "physical strength of ten billion powerful elephants." And they're not just ordinary elephants, mind you, but particularly powerful ones; the subcommentary states that the elephants in question are of the Kalavaka breed, which are presumably the strongest kind. Can you imagine how strong someone as strong as 10,000,000,000 powerful elephants would be? Of course not. He could mop the floor with Superman. He could wave his hand through solid rock or steel like it was air. Standing on (very) solid ground, he could throw a Volkswagen to Pluto, assuming that his aim were good enough and that the Volkswagen could withstand the prodigious forces unleashed upon it. It boggles the mind. And intelligent men, serious scholar monks dedicated to the cultivation of wisdom, came up with this stuff—assuming, of course, that they did not simply record empirical facts. We are all conditioned by our culture.
The main reason I've taken the time to write about all this is just for the sake of playing with ideas. I am a little reluctant to publish this, though, as it might reinforce a tendency in Western Buddhism, and in Western attempts at spirituality in general, of people casually dismissing any parts they don't like, or have much use for, when they adopt a spiritual system as a hobby—parts like the metaphysical workings of karma, the fundamental importance of renunciation in Dhamma, or the real possibility of full enlightenment in this very life for those willing to make the commitment, for example. This really is a dilemma in spirituality: how to balance faith with reason. Skepticism is a good thing, especially skepticism in the classical sense of suspending judgement, either for or against. This applies not only to ancient mythology, but to modern materialistic common sense also. Not only should we be skeptical with regard to legendary accounts of the Buddha, we should be skeptical with regard to whether this world is even real or not, maybe even with regard to whether one plus one equals two. For myself, I seriously doubt that one plus one really does equal two.
As Ajahn Chah used to say, even right view becomes wrong view if we cling to it. That applies to "Matter exists" and "1+1=2" just as much as it does to "The Buddha was 26 feet tall with long heels and the strength of ten billion elephants," or even "Desire is the cause of all suffering." I feel that it is best to regard ALL information as hypothetical.
Many Burmese consider this to be an actual photograph
of Gotama Buddha, and it is found on altars throughout the country