Buddha statues come in dozens of different postures, many of which are unfamiliar to Westerners and rarely displayed on the main shrines of monasteries and temples. Each of these postures commemorates an incident in the life of the Buddha and constitutes a dedicated act of recollection. Thai tradition has evolved an association of these postures with the calendar, often corresponding to the times these incidents are understood to have occurred in the Buddha's life. If one knows these associations, the conventions of the calendar and the passing of time create a skilfull means for reflecting on a wide range of the Buddha's qualities.
Buddha Statues by Year
Years of the 12-year Cycle
There is a Sanskrit version of the 12-year Chinese cycle, with all the names corresponding to the same animals as in the Chinese. When this was adopted in India, and how pervasive and influential it is or was, is unknown to me. It is certainly very widely popular all over south-east Asia. The Chinese New Year begins on the new moon of Māgha-māsa, sometime in the last half of January or the first half of February.
Year of the Rat
(1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, etc.)
'Patience with Āḷavaka Yakkha' – a sitting Buddha statue with his right hand raised in an expression of patience.
In the city-state of Āḷavī there was a malevolent spirit named Āḷavaka who had spared the king's life in return for a human sacrifice every day. The Buddha went to stay in his cave and endured an entire night of the spirit's intimidation and terrorising. Finally by dawn he overcame the spirit's resistance and taught him Dhamma. Āḷavaka was converted and became a noble disciple on the spot.
Year of the Ox
(1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, etc.)
'Teaching his Mother' – a sitting Buddha statue with his right hand raised off to the side in an expression of teaching.
The Buddha dedicated one rainy season retreat, forsaking all other engagements, to teaching his mother in the Tusita heaven. She had passed away when he was only seven days old.
Also: 'Stopping his Relatives' – identical Buddha-image to 'Stopping the Floodwaters'.
Once, during a drought, the Buddha's own relatives were ready to go to war with each other over control of a river – one of the few precious water resources left. The Buddha intervened, asking which was more precious and valuable: water or blood?
Year of the Tiger
(1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, etc.)
'Bakā the Brahma' – a Buddha statue with the Buddha standing on the head of Bakā the Brahma, who is kneeling on an ox.
Some deities, like Bakā the Brahma, have a life-span of almost cosmic length. The view that arose in his mind was that he alone was permanent, and superior to all beings in the universe. The Buddha went to visit him and challenged his power as well as his view. Bakā was unable to disappear from the Buddha's sight – wherever he went, the Buddha could see him. Then the Buddha astonished him by disappearing from the Brahma's field of vision. He began to give him a Dhamma talk, which could still be heard. Finally, the Buddha revealed that he was walking back and forth on top of Bakā's head. The Brahma's conceit became subdued, as was his ignorance – he became a noble disciple then and there.
Year of the Rabbit
(1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, etc.)
'Contemplating Renunciation' – a sitting Bodhisatta statue with the right hand raised towards the left shoulder and chin.
While he was still Siddhattha Gotama, the crown prince of the Sakka clan and living in the palaces of Kapilavatthu, he saw four sights that shook his complacency forever – an old person, a sick person, a dead person and a renunciant contemplative. Reflecting in his mind that he was subject to aging, sickness and death, and that everything he looked towards for happiness and security was also subject to aging, sickness and death, he made a resolution to renounce everything in search of that state that does not age, get sick or die - Nibbāna.
Year of the Dragon
(1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, etc.)
'Stopping Aṅgulimāla' – a standing Buddha statue with the right hand raised towards the left shoulder and chin.
'Aṅgulimāla' was an earnest but naive student whose teacher had been duped into trying to destroy him. He had been given the task of collecting a 'garland' of 1000 human fingers and had become a famous outlaw murderer in the process. He was nearing his goal, crazed and desperate. The Buddha saw that his next victim by chance was Aṅgulimāla's own mother – and killing one's mother is a sure path to hell. The Buddha rushed to intervene. Aṅgulimāla saw the Buddha coming first and raced after him with his prodigious speed, but even though the Buddha appeared to be walking normally, he couldn't catch up. He pulled up, vexed and panting, and called out to the Buddha to stop. The Buddha, still walking, raised his hand and replied that he had stopped. Why didn't Aṅgulimāla stop? Of course, he quickly did – he stopped killing, and he eventually stopped all greed, hatred and delusion, becoming an enlightened disciple.
Year of the Snake
(1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, etc.)
'Receiving Water' – a sitting Buddha statue holding an alms bowl on the right knee.
In the last days of the Buddha's life, he was badly ill but yet still travelling by foot through the forests to Kusināra. At one point, he couldn't go on without a drink. He told Ānanda to fetch him some water from the nearby stream. Ānanda complained that a caravan of ox-carts had just crossed upstream and the water was too muddy to drink. Couldn't they go on to the next stream? The Buddha repeated his request two times. Finally Ānanda brought the Buddha his alms bowl full of water. When he received the bowl in his lap, the water became crystal clear.
Year of the Horse
(1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, etc.)
'Threading a Needle' – a sitting Buddha statue holding a needle in the right hand and threading it with the left.
At the end of each rainy season retreat, the Buddha allowed monks who had stayed together to participate in a special offering ceremony that would require at least five of them. The ceremony involved all of them working together to sew a robe in one day. To promote this act of working together after living together for several months, he allowed them special privileges if they completed the ceremony together. Everyone was expected to join in and help each other, and as an example of harmony and communal solidarity, the Buddha himself would join in by threading the needles.
Year of the Ram
(1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, etc.)
'Offering Blessings' – a standing Buddha statue with the left hand raised and the right hand down and out, both palms facing forward.
This posture could also be translated as 'Bestowing Favour'... The Lady Visākhā was a noble disciple and one of the Buddha's greatest supporters in the city-state of Sāvatthī. One rainy season she asked the Buddha for a 'vara' – a favour or blessing. The Buddha usually didn't 'do favours', but asked what was on her mind. Lady Visākhā requested 8 things: to offer rains' bathing cloths to the monks, to offer food to incoming monks, to offer food to monks leaving on travels, to offer food to sick monks, to offer food to their nurse-monks, to offer medicine to sick monks, to offer rice-gruel to monks in the early morning, and to offer rains' bathing cloths to the nuns. This Buddha statue represents the Buddha's ready bestowal of favour or blessing upon her request.
Year of the Monkey
(1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, etc.)
'Promulgating the First Vinaya Rule' – a sitting Buddha statue with finger-tips touching in front of the stomach.
In the early days of the Buddhist monastic order, there were no 'monastic rules' – most of the monks had achieved some level of awakening even before they were given ordination. As more people joined, however, things began to deteriorate. Venerable Sudinna's parents were displeased with his ordination and hassled him continually to at least give them a male heir to carry on their name and property. Ven. Sudinna finally complied, having sex with his ex-wife while still a monk. When word reached the Buddha, he called Sudinna in for questioning and concluded that this behaviour for a monk was completely unacceptable. He thus laid down the first rule in the monks' monastic code – the prohibition against sexual intercourse.
Year of the Cock
(1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, etc.)
'Receiving Milk-Rice' – a sitting Bodhisatta statue with both hands on lap, palms facing up.
After renouncing his royal life in Kapilavatthu, he went forth as a wandering contemplative to find the way to the 'Deathless state'. He eventually engaged in the most punishing regimen of asceticism and self-mortification imaginable for almost 6 years. He had finally concluded that it wasn't going to work – if he took it any further, the only thing he would achieve would be his death. As he sat, emaciated, reflecting on his new-found insight – that the path of sensual indulgence was useless, and the path of self-affliction was useless – the Lady Sujātā saw something in him that filled her with inspiration. She came to him and offered him a plate of milk-rice, something he would have rejected the day before, but he now gladly accepted for the strength it would give him to pursue a 'middle way' of practise.
Also: 'Eating Milk-Rice' – a sitting Bodhisatta statue holding a plate of milk-rice on the lap with the left hand, and eating it with the right.
This represents the Bodhisatta consequently eating the milk-rice he had received.
Also: 'The Bodhisatta's Five Great Dreams' – a lying down Bodhisatta statue with the right hand folded under the head, sometimes with a pillow.
Before he was enlightened, the Bodhisatta had five strange and portentous dreams whose meaning encouraged him to think that he would ultimately succeed in his aims in every way.
Year of the Dog
(1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, etc.)
'Royal Regalia' – a sitting Buddha statue with the right hand out and down, wearing royal regalia.
Once, Jambupati was jealous of the palace of King Bimbisāra of Rājagaha, since it was so exquisitely beautiful. He came and terrorised the King, who fled, and destroyed the palace. King Bimbisāra went to take refuge with the Buddha. The Buddha had Sakka, the lord of the Tavatiṃsa devas, call Jambupati to come and see him. Working several marvels of psychic power, the Buddha appeared as the most magnificent universal emporer, and his monastery, the most beautiful capital city on earth. He gave a Dhamma talk leading Jambupati's heart away from interest in ephemeral pleasures like palaces and wealth, and brought him to a state of dispassion. Jambupati asked to ordain as a monk, and the Buddha worked another psychic marvel to restore Rājagaha to its prior state. (I am not sure about this story – I think it is probably apocryphal, but enjoys popularity in Thailand and Burma.)
Year of the Pig
(1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, etc.)
'Declaring the Great Disciples' – a sitting Buddha statue with the right hand pointing out and down.
On one special night, the Buddha had his disciples come together, and he began what is probably the greatest litany of appreciation in the history of religion. He began pointing out his disciples – monks and nuns, laywomen and laymen – who were particularly well developed in some particular virtue, from courage to meditation, kindness to receiving gains, and declaring them to be supreme in that particular area. He went on and on that night – there are 80 declarations recorded – praising his disciples for all kinds of good qualities. This group of disciples is popularly known in southeast Asia as the '80 Great Disciples'.