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  • Writer's pictureJessica Lee McMillan

What we can learn from the world’s giant Buddha statues

by Jessica Lee McMillan

It became an accidental pilgrimage to visit four giant Buddha statues — among the largest in the world.

In retrospect, it was a fascination and a need to feel part of something bigger. The giants are teaching us all to be more receptive.

Religious statues are the closest we have to cosmic scale and many Buddha statues are deliberately situated with Earth’s giants — mountains and sea — to be in harmony with nature. It’s the stuff of dreamscapes where the towering Buddha is embraced by natural serenity.

The intricate symbolism on the world’s largest Buddhas is informed by the sect, incarnation, the pose, hand gesture, and the surrounding temple complexes. It could consume a lifetime of scholarly research. But the most emotionally moving aspect of the great Buddhas is their dimension. I take refuge in the dedication and magnitude of spiritual belief creating these introspective visages.

A Brief Tour

Japan: Kamakura Daibutsu, 1252 AD

大仏 Daibutsu, Giant Buddha, 1919," born1945, Flickr. Creative Commons

The Daibutsu (Great Buddha) of Kamakura is eternally serene in its soft, meditative gaze. For a few years, I lived where I could travel to Kamakura regularly and spent hours at his feet. Worries and overthinking washed away in his presence.

Entering the hollow, copper statue is somewhat disillusioning, but speaks to the history of disasters and the re-building the statue underwent since the 13th century. Commoners and devotees financed the statue and it has become one of the most iconic symbols of now-secular Japan. With its grand setting against the Pacific and mountains, the Daibutsu emanates divinity.

Hong Kong: Tian Tan, 1993

Lantau Island is on the peripheries of Hong Kong and a bus connection passes through patches of low, green hills outside of the city and the mouth of the Pearl River. Eventually, you catch a glimpse of Tian Tan, a burnished bronze giant against the backdrop of Lantau Peak.

When the head emerges above the tree line as the bus toddles up the hill, it will leave you breathless in awe of the mere scale.

Christian Alder, Unsplash

The statue’s harmony with nature is the deliberate wish in constructing Tian Tan. You feel spirituality through landscape and landscape through spirituality.

My visit was during a typhoon and I cannot forget the 250+ stair climb in powerful gusts of soaked air to a tremendous figure peering gently downward.

Walk up the path as an individual, come down as part of something grand.

Thailand: Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho, 1832

Taylor Simpson, Unsplash

Off the banks of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, the reclining Buddha (Phra Buddhasaiyas), is an opulent heavyweight crammed into the Wat Pho temple across from the Grand Palace. One cannot really stand back to observe the statue as a whole, emphasizing the magnitude of the structure.

Although it is at the moment of death, this Buddha embodies quiet joy as he will be liberated from his physical body to enter the state of Nirvana. His glimmering, gold-leafed figure emits a sense of respite to onlookers who are “at home” in his crowded temple.

Japan: Nara Daibutsu, 752 AD

Nara Daibutsu is situated in an ancient temple complex in Nara, South-Central Japan. The seated buddha is in what used to be the world’s largest wooden building. The airy atmosphere is incredibly elating — especially for someone from a “new” country like Canada.

The power of ancient history is formidable here and this Daibutsu was built by Imperial decree to protect Japan.

The Buddha’s raised hand communicates:

“reassurance and safety – to dispel fear and to offer divine protection to the devoted worshiper – a promise of peace. The palm-up left hand signifies the fulfillment of wishes.”

Why Do the Great Buddhas Have to Say?

They convey subtle messages in their gestures and positions of approachability and tranquil energy. They are looming, but paradoxically peaceful. Their large dimensions also highlight the interplay between the inner and outer dimensions.

They are immovable, despite withstanding violent weather and disasters. The figures do not beckon us to come or ward us away. They are in balance with their surroundings and offer us the same reassurance.

Buddhist iconography communicates their lessons more deeply, such as the elongated/enlarged ears representing ultimate receptivity and enlightenment, where the Buddha can symbolically hear the world with compassion.

The hand gestures (mudras) for all four Buddhas convey fearlessness and peace. Tian Tan and the Nara Daibutsu both gesture the Abhaya Mudra, which translate in Sanskrit to “fear not” whereas the Kamakura Daibutsu displays the Dyana Mudra, associated with meditation and contemplation.

The giant Buddha reminds us we are literally losing the big picture.

The Search for Receptivity

What is a pilgrimage but to search for meaning and reflect on our place in this world? When we seek something grand, our trivialities and mental business are subsumed. Even if we were not seeking it, the gentle giants stop us in our tracks. They invite us to contemplate and look inside our inner natures. We can get so lost in the minutia, the giant Buddha reminds us we are literally losing the big picture.

According to Alison Bonds Shapiro M.B.A., as adults, we curtail our child-like receptivity and curiosity:

“We learn to stop looking, or look only on a very selective basis. We learn to judge and to compete and to be in a hurry. We jump ahead in our minds and hearts to later, to tomorrow, to next week, to next year. We don’t remember how to be open to what we can discover beyond the surface. We forget how to welcome ourselves, in all our marvellous detail. We learn to push ourselves away. We learn to be unkind.”

The statues exist to physically represent the divine in nature and ourselves. They are visual reminders to be quietly receptive to the world outside of us. They personify the magnitude of personal possibility, which we sometimes shut out.

When we are receptive, we can be more balanced and in tune with what is outside of us, slowing down our inner noise to make space.

We do not have to have a huge paradigm shift to open a small door.

Steps to Receptivity

Whether it is a small instance of beauty in nature or a tremendous landscape, stopping ourselves to be a witness prevents us from contracting into ourselves. We already subconsciously seek outlets for inspiration in things that minimize the ego, whether it’s gazing at a frescoed church ceiling or a large canyon.

Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth outlines many ways we can become more conscious and balanced. I highlight three that can be used as a simple strategy for receptivity.

The breath

Tolle encourages simple awareness of the breath, such as the sensations and sounds of breathing, to create “gaps in the stream of thinking” to make more “inner space”. Breath awareness is a building block of mediation, a device to ground us in the present where receptivity and consciousness have room to unfold.

Lose yourself to find yourself

Habits of closing off the world and contracting inward feed the ego and shrink inner space. When we try to make an impression on others, cherish an injury or illness, demand recognition or validation, for example, we lose awareness of everything else and lose sight of our true selves. We are grasping at what he calls our “form-identity” (breath and inner space are formless). He suggests that when we notice our ego is reaching, to see what it feels like to drop it.

Anywhere our identities are less enforced by ego creates receptivity to “enormous power that flows through you into the world where you stop emphasizing your form-identity.”

Visiting the great Buddhas is an analogy where the receptive observer is overcome by something bigger but leaves feeling greater. And the statue itself, is lost then found in the great landscape.


The stillness of the great Buddhas creates space for contemplation and Tolle claims “stillness is really another word for space” where:

“You are who you are beyond your temporal existence: conscious — unconditioned, formless, eternal.”

How do we be still? Tolle explains in Stillness Speaks that:

“Wisdom comes with the ability to be still. Just look and just listen. No more is needed. Being still, looking, and listening activates the non-conceptual intelligence within you. Let stillness direct your words and actions.”

Special thanks to Christian Benavides at Voyager Illustration for allowing me to share his breathtaking image “Inner Dawn.”

6 comentários

11 de abr. de 2021

This essay is both amazingly informative and beautifully written. Did you come up with: "We do not have to have a huge paradigm shift to open a small door."? It is a very insightful statement.

Also, did you live in Japan for a while? By your profile image(s) you don't look a day over twenty, so when on earth would have have had the time? :)

Jessica Lee McMillan
Jessica Lee McMillan
13 de abr. de 2021
Respondendo a

That's the word on the street:) I look forward to reading more of your work, Ulf!

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