The Ultimate Jadeite Jade Buddhas

The motivation behind Jade Buddha is to offer a comprehensive overview of the special quality of jadeite jade Buddha statues and pendants. This motivation is based on my extensive travels through Asia where I developed a keen interest in Buddhist art and Asian culture. Additionally, Asia is where the Buddhist religion was founded over 2500 years ago. Over thousands of years, Buddhism has evolved and Buddhist art has responded with amazing creativity.

Jadeite Jade is used in Buddhist sculpture because of the mutual qualities that are evident in the mineral and the religion. As a result, jadeite jade Buddhas are common in temples and jade markets throughout East Asia.

Jadeite Jade Buddha statues at Bogyoke Aung San Market
Jadeite Buddha statues seen on display in a shop at Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon, Myanmar.

In East Asia, green jade is a common base material that is used to carve real jade Buddha statues. Jadeite jade Buddha statues that depict the ubiquitous Buddhist icons such as Guanyin and Happy Buddha are most popular in China.

The popularity of the jade laughing Buddha statue is due to several reasons. In ancient China, they believed that jade was crystallized moonlight that had fallen down onto the mountaintops. Additionally, jade has calming properties that reduce stress, enhance contemplation and increase confidence levels. These qualities seem to mesh with the objectives of Buddhist meditation  – that being inner calm, self reflection and tranquility.

In ancient China, they believed that jade was crystallized moonlight that had fallen down onto the mountaintops.

Chinese Mythology

The Source of Jadeite Jade Buddha Statues

The two forms of jade are nephrite jade and jadeite. Jadeite is the denser and more translucent mineral. Additionally, jadeite has mineral qualities that are closer to a diamond and it is therefore more expensive. However, jadeite does not enjoy the long ancient history that nephrite jade has in China.

Since top grades of jadeite jade are much more expensive than nephrite jade, it is prohibitively expensive to make middle or large size jade Buddha statues. Therefore, the imperial jadeite and other grade A natural jadeite Buddhas are usually created as a small jade Buddha figurine or pendant.

Jadeite Happy Buddha Pendant
Grade A Jadeite Jade Happy Buddha pendant with white gold necklace and diamond studded bail.

Furthermore, the largest source in the world for jadeite is Myanmar and it is not sourced in China. The primary source for jadeite in Myanmar is in the northern state of Kachin. This rich jadeite source sits right on the southern border of China. The combination of the world’s largest source of jadeite with the world’s biggest market for a real jade Buddha is very good for business. As a result, there are many skilled sculptors and the best jadeite jade Buddha statue can be found in this area.

Nephrite jade is also a much sought after mineral source. Indeed, large sources of nephrite jade have been found in China. However, due to its immense popularity over many centuries, most of the original deposits are now mined out. Therefore, it is necessary to import the nephrite jade products from other sources such as Canada and Australia. However, the best sculptors of jade Buddha statues are still found in China and other East Asian countries.

History of Jade Buddha Statues

The use of jade in China goes back over 5000 years and its use predates Buddhism by a large margin. In China, jade symbolizes a connection between the living and the dead. As a result it is used as part of ancient burial rituals.

For example small squares of jade would be tied together with metal wire and draped over the deceased to cover the entire body. Once this burial suit was in place then other pieces of jade would be used to cover up the eyes, mouth and nose.  Due to the high cost, this ritual was only used for royal burial ceremonies.

Multicolored Standing Jadeite Buddha Statue
Multicolored standing jadeite jade Buddha statue located outside Mandalay, Myanmar at the Jade Pagoda.

As Buddhism spread into East Asia from Northern India it was only natural that the Chinese sculptors would begin to create real jade Buddha statues. Jade has calming qualities that entice inner reflection. These qualities are also imbued by the Buddhist deities that evolved in China. Therefore, the green jade Buddha statue meaning of Chinese deities such as Kwanyin and Happy Buddha is naturally introspective and complex.

The Origins of Buddhism

The origins of Buddhism date back to the 6th century BCE when Prince Siddhartha Gautama renounced his kingdom and left the trappings of power, wealth and comfort behind.  Siddhartha went to live as a recluse in the forest for 6 years.

During this time period he received instruction from samatha meditation masters. However, the next stage was to discover vipassana meditation which he did on his own. Using insight meditation, Siddhartha Gautama would discover the path to enlightenment and firmly establish the foundation of Buddhism in our kalpa. As a result, he would become known as Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha.

The geographical region where Buddhism originated was Northern India. Specifically, Buddhist believe that the location of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment is in a place called Bodh Gaya, India. Bodh Gaya is located in modern day Gaya District in the Indian state of Bihar. 

The Expansion of Buddhism

From Bodh Gaya Buddhism was born and spread throughout Asia and worldwide. Although the location of most Buddhist devotees is in Asia, there are currently over 500 million adherents worldwide.

Indeed, the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia did not follow a straight line. From its point of origination, Buddhism simultaneously spread north towards Central Asia and south to the island of Sri Lanka. From Sri Lanka, Buddhism traveled to South East Asian countries such as Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand where it retained its conservative Buddhist roots.

Beautiful jadeite jade Buddha statue seen at Uppatasanti Pagoda
Beautiful jadeite jade Buddha statue seen at Uppatasanti Pagoda in Naypyidaw, Myanmar.

However, from Central Asia and SE Asia Buddhism would move into China. From China it would spread to Tibet and also to countries in the Far East such as Japan and Korea. As a result of geographical divisions Buddhism would become theologically diverse.

The Divisions in Buddhism

The first divisions in Buddhism arose after the death of its founder, Shakyamuni Buddha. During the Buddha’s lifetime his teachings were passed on orally by his disciples. The first council was held and the Buddha was present. From this first council there was no disagreement.

However, after the death of the Buddha divisions in the sangha began to appear at the second meeting of the Buddhist council. The disagreement was over nominal issues and the core teachings of the Buddha were not questioned. However, the seeds of discontent were sown. As a result, in 250 BCE the third Buddhist council was held and this is when Theravada Buddhism originated.

Theravada Buddhism

This branch of Buddhism adheres to the original teachings of the Buddha and it the oldest and most orthodox of the 3 primary Buddhist divisions that exist today. Generally speaking, Theravada Buddhists agreed all mental and physical phenomenon that we encounter in the world is 1) impermanent 2) unsatisfactory and 3) has no substance to it (no self).

The focus of Theravada Buddhism is on self improvement of the individual. Therefore, through living a moral life, adhering to the eight fold noble path and practicing meditation one can begin to see the true nature of things and eventually realize the state of Nirvana (enlightenment). This is the ultimate goal of Theravada Buddhism – entering Nirvana.

Countries with large Theravada Buddhist populations include Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. In these countries any disagreements between the different Theravada schools remain nominal and there is nothing significance to dispute.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism is complex, but at the core it is focused around the bodhisattva (see below). Additionally, this segment of Buddhism originated and began to gain traction at about the start of the common era. Therefore, it is about 250 years younger than Theravada. Geographically, most of the Mahayana followers can be found throughout China, Japan and Korea.

The path to Buddhahood is not an easy one and it requires extreme levels of dedication and practice. All Buddhists believe that enlightenment is the ultimate goal. However, it is clear that becoming a Buddha during only a single lifetime or even after many lifetimes is not a realistic goal for most common people. Mahayana can be viewed as a more populist form of Buddhism that is sympathetic to miracles, while Theravada is focused on the individual through self improvement.

Focus on Bodhisattvas

In contrast to the Theravada school, Mahayana Buddhism is very diverse and complex. The primary focus of Mahayana is on the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is a being that has obtained enlightenment but has chosen to forgo accepting it. Instead, the bodhisattva will stay behind and assist others until all sentient life is able to reach enlightenment.

A primary bodhisattva is known as Avalokiteshvara – “the Bodhisattva of Compassion”. Long ago at the inception of Mahayana Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara made a great vow to forgo enlightenment until all suffering was eliminated. Indeed, it takes great compassion in order to delay one’s own enlightenment in order to assist others.

However, many of the sentient beings that Avalokiteshvara had saved returned to their evil ways. As a result, Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva exploded into thousands of pieces upon realizing the enormity of the commitment that had been undertaken. 

Special Powers of Bodhisattvas

Amitabha Buddha put Avalokiteshvara back together again and he gave the bodhisattva one thousand arms in order to work more efficiently to assist sentient life. Additionally, he gave Avalokiteshvara 11 heads in order to better observe the cries and suffering of humanity.

Bodhisattvas also have special power to grant forgiveness and give karmic merit to sentient beings in order to ease their suffering. This is in contrast to the focus of Theravada on self improvement. Additionally, the Buddhist canon states that bodhisattvas can be male or female or take any other form in order to assist sentient beings.

This explains why statues of Avalokiteshvara can be depicted as male and also female. Plus, there are many variations based on the multi arm and multi headed embodiment of this popular bodhisattva.

Guanyin vs Green Tara

There is a particular female bodhisattva named Green Tara who is very popular among devotees of Mahayana Buddhism. The color green is very significant because devotees believe that the green color signifies vigor and rebirth in nature. Green Tara was born from a teardrop that fell form the left eye of Avalokiteshvara.

It is not common to a find jadeite jade Buddha statue depicting Green Tara.  However, Guanyin is believed to be a female embodiment of Avalokiteshvara and she is immensely popular in China and geographical regions that have large Chinese populations. As a result, jadeite jade Buddha pendants and statues featuring Guanyin are very popular throughout East Asia.

Jadeite Jade Buddha Statues in Buddhist Art

Furthermore, in contrast to the core principles of Theravada Buddhism such as no-self, bodhisattvas and Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism have taken on the qualities of deities. As a result, devotees pray to them in hopes of gaining earthly favor such as wealth or fertility. Also, bodhisattvas and Buddhas can grant beings entry into special “pure lands.” The “pure land” of Amitabha Buddha is described as being a land of “sonorous and visual delights”.

As a result of Mahayana, the diversity of Buddhist art was greatly enhanced and this was seen in the creation of Buddhist paintings and real jade Buddha statues. It is pretty clear that Mahayana Buddhism is a source of great artistic inspiration that has had a profound effect on the perception of Buddhism.

Burma (now Myanmar) is the world’s largest source of Jadeite jade. The abundance of this precious mineral and the Buddhist dedication of the country make it one of the world’s best sources of jadeite jade Buddha statues outside China.

White Jadeite Jade Buddha statues Pindaya Cave Myanmar
White Jadeite Jade Buddha statues seen at Pindaya Cave in Shan State, Myanmar.

However, the focus is more on the Buddha statues and not so much the popular bodhisattvas such as Guanyin and Budai or “Happy Buddha”. As a result of quality materials, skilled workmanship and fair prices the jade markets in Yangon and Mandalay are a very good places to find a traditional jadeite jade Buddha statue.

Bodhisattvas

A bodhisattva is a venerated figure in both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.  The primary difference between these 2 main Buddhist schools is that attaining the level of full enlightenment (Buddha) is central to Theravada beliefs. However, the bodhisattva is central to Mahayana Buddhism and obtaining the realm of the Buddha will happen in the distant future under the guidance of the Future Buddha – Maitreya.

The Buddha of the Future

Maitreya is known as the Buddha of the future. However, in the present he is still a bodhisattva who is waiting Tusita Buddhist Heaven for his time to come. The Maitreya Prophecy explains that he will return to the human realm in the distant future and achieve Buddhahood in a single lifetime. In his time the sangha will have forgotten the Dharma teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and fallen into severe disarray. Maitreya bodhisattva will return and then lead all sentient life to enlightenment.

Therefore, Maitreya is a very important figure in Mahayana Buddhism and he has tremendous responsibility. Additionally, he is of great significance because he is similar to Siddhartha Gautama before he achieved Buddhahood. Siddhartha became the Buddha of the current era. However, he was lived thousands of bodhisattva lifetimes before he achieved the ultimate goal.

Leshan Buddha Statue
Leshan Buddha Statue

Maitreya is very popular in China. The largest stone Buddha statue in the world represents Maitreya and it was completed in Leshan, China in 803 ACE. However, the project was initiated in 713 ACE and took nearly 100 years to complete.

The mastermind of this majestic Leshan Buddha Statue was a monk named Hai Tong. Hai Tong had great compassion and he endured great self sacrifice to ensure that the project was completed.

Incarnations of Maitreya – Chinese Buddhists believe that a monk named Budai or “Happy Buddha” is an incarnation of the Maitreya bodhisattva. This incarnation of Maitreya was believed to have existed in China in the early 10th century ACE. His name means “cloth sack” in Chinese because he always carried a cloth sack over his shoulder filled with his few possessions.  Budai is also seen as bringing good fortune and always carried treats for children in his sack.

Furthermore, Happy Buddha was very fat and this is how he is reflected in Buddha statues. He also is sometimes depicted with children climbing on his large body. Furthermore, it is thought that if you rub his belly it can bring you luck.

White Jadeite Jade Happy Buddha
Grade A semi translucent white jadeite jade Happy Buddha pendant with 18K gold bail.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva

Buddhists believe that the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara embodies the compassion of all the Buddhas. This is a tremendous amount of compassion for any one being to hold. As a result, Avalokiteshvara pledged to remain a bodhisattva and continue working in the human realm until all sentient life was relieved from suffering. However, when the magnitude of this promise was fully realized Avalokiteshvara was said to have blown up into a thousand pieces.

The injury from the implosion was not fatal and Amitabha Buddha provided assistance by putting the pieces of Avalokiteshvara back together again. Although during the reconstruction Amitabha decided it would be prudent to make some practical improvements. As a result, he gave Avalokiteshvara 1000 arms and 11 heads. With many arms and heads Avalokiteshvara would be able to work much faster and also observe the suffering of sentient life much more efficiently.

The changing forms of the bodhisattva is considered normal. In fact, in the Buddhist canon it is explained that a bodhisattva can take the form of a male or female or any other form in order to relieve the suffering of sentient beings.

However, the way that the bodhisattva is depicted in Buddhist art seems to be contingent on the geographical region and the school of Buddhist thought that is adhered to there. As a result, different cultures have adopted different interpretations about whether the bodhisattva’s attributes are masculine or feminine. For example, it seems that conservative Theravada Buddhist countries have considered Avalokiteshvara to be male. However, in Mahayana Buddhist countries such as China, Japan and Korea the bodhisattva is usually female.

Chenrezig

In Tibet Avalokiteshvara is called Chenrezig and he is depicted as masculine. Additionally, he is always depicted with multiple arms although not always multiple heads.

Lokeshvara Bodhisattva

In Cambodia, Lokeshvara is a male bodhisattva that is believed to be an embodiment of Avalokiteshvara. As a result, Buddha statues and paintings of him are overwhelmingly masculine.

Lokesvara Bodhisattva
Lokesvara

Guanyin Bodhisattva

In China there is a very popular female bodhisattva called Guanyin. She is widely believed by Chinese Buddhists to be an embodiment of Avalokiteshvara. However, since the Chinese believe that compassion is a female attribute, the depictions of the bodhisattva are usually always female.

Additionally, Chinese Buddhists believe that an incarnation of Guanyin appeared in the 10th-11th century ACE as the Princess Miaoshan. It is interesting to note that some scholars believe the story has its origins in Taoism and not Buddhism.

Princess Miaoshan

Princess Miaoshan’s father was very demanding and when she came of age he ordered her to marry a wealthy man that he had chosen. However, the princess refused and would only agree to marry a man who could help to ease the suffering of sentient beings. When she suggested to her father that she be allowed to marry a doctor, he became enraged. As a result, (according to some versions of the story) the king ordered that the princess be executed.

On the day of her execution, the executioner was unable to end her life after many tries. Although she could have saved herself she knew the king would do something terrible to the executioner if she was still alive. Therefore, she allowed the executioner to take her life and she took all of his bad karma and replaced with it with her own good karma. As a result, upon her death she was condemned to a Hell realm because she had the bad karma of a murderer. However, she refused to be tormented and instead played music. The realm of torment was then transformed into a realm of heaven.

Guanyin Bodhisattva
Guanyin

Tara Bodhisattva

Tara is female bodhisattva that was born from a teardrop that fell from the eye of Avalokiteshvara. One day in ancient times, Avalokiteshvara was looking down from the Tibetan plateau to observe the suffering of all sentient life. As a result, a teardrop fell from the bodhisattva’s left eye and Tara came to be at that moment.

Tara can be perceived in many ways. There is Green Tara, White Tara, Black Tara plus many others. Green Tara is depicted in Tibetan sculpture as always being prepared to spring to the aid of humanity. Additionally, Tara is commonly depicted with lotus flowers growing over her shoulders. Also, the hand mudras she uses display generosity and protection to all sentient life.

Buddhas

Theoretically, there are many Buddhas that have existed over a time period of many eons. Typically, there is one Buddha for a life cycle. It seems that a “life cycle” is not defined by one human life span. Instead the life cycle lasts over billions of years. It begins and ends with the birth and destruction of the world system. As a result, the best way to cover the topic of Buddhas is to start at the very beginning with the Adi-Buddha or primordial Buddha.

Adi Buddha

Adi Buddha is believed to be the ultimate primordial Buddha. However, similar to the bodhisattvas, Adi-Buddha is know by many names depending on the geographical region. For example, in Tibet he is known as Samantabhadra or Vajradhara. In East Asia this Buddha is known as Vairocana.

In Sanskrit, Vajra translates as “diamond” or “lightening bolt”. As a result, in Tibetan Buddhism he is considered to be the supreme essence of all male Buddhas or the “Ruler of the Vajra Beings.

However, by referring to Adi Buddha as primordial, it implies that his human form depicted in sculpture is merely conceptual. Indeed, Adi Buddha represents the wisdom that always existed in the universe. Therefore, it is not actually a person but instead it represents the innate form of wisdom.

The concept of a primordial Buddha is the same as picturing our universe before it became an organized system of stars and solar systems held together and put in motion by gravity. Before this time all the elements for an organized universe existed but they had not worked in unison. The concept of primordial or innate wisdom is similar to gravity.

The Buddhas of our Time

Buddhists believe that there are three Buddhas of our time. There is the Buddha of the past (Dipankara), the Buddha of the present (Gautama Buddha) and the Buddha of the future (Maitreya).

Although Maitreya is not actually a Buddha at this time, instead it is foreseen that he will be the Buddha of the future. As a result, he is technically a bodhisattva until he reaches Buddhahood.  Each Buddha is responsible for teaching the Dharma to the sentient life that exists in their eon or “life cycle”.

Jadeite Jade Buddha statue
Jadeite Buddha statue featured at the Jade Pagoda outside Mandalay, Myanmar.

Dipankara Buddha

Dipankara Buddha is known as the first Buddha of our time. He is thought to have existed here on earth about 100,000 years ago. An enormous amount of time has passed since Dipankara Buddha walked the earth. As a result, trying to recreate the physical features of Dipankara is a bit obscure. In contrast,  Shakyamuni Buddha walked the earth over 2000 years ago but we have a general idea of what he may have looked like. This is because the “32 Physical Characteristics of the Buddha” are found in the Pali Canon.

Dipankara Buddha statues usually depict him as a sitting Buddha. Also common in Tibet, China and Nepal are standing Buddha statues that show him using the Abhaya mudra with one or both hands. Additionally, Dipankara Buddha was believed to have been one of the “Buddhas of Bamiyan” that existed in Afghanistan prior to their destruction in 2001.

Jataka Tales

Gautama Buddha was also a bodhisattva in many or his prior lifetimes and he recounts these past lives in the Jataka Tales. In one previous incarnation he existed as a hermit named Sumedha. The hermit Sumedha had previously lived the life of a rich Brahmin and had since become a renunciant. During his new life as a hermit he had an encounter with Dipankara Buddha. This encounter is depicted in wall frescoes that exist in many Buddhist stupas and temples.

The Prophecy

The Buddhist artwork shows the hermit Sumedha laying down his long dark hair in a mud puddle. This is so that Dipankara Buddha can walk through it without becoming dirty. Dipankara then approaches Sumedha and says to him

“In the ages of the future you will come to be a Buddha called Shakyamuni”.

Sumedha then replied to Dipankara:

“I am to become a Buddha, awakened to enlightenment, may you tread with your feet on my hair – on my birth, old age and death.”

Then Dipankara Buddha responds by saying that:

“Freed from human existence, you will become an effective teacher, for the sake of the world. Born among the Shakyas, as the epitome of the Triple World, the Lamp of all Beings, you will be known as Gautama. You will be the son of King Suddhodana and Queen Maya. Shariputta and Moggallana will be your chief disciples. Your caretaker will name as Ananda.”

In this life cycle sentient beings received the Dharma teachings from Shakyamuni Buddha. As a result, Dipankara Buddha is not at the forefront in contemporary Buddhism in the same way as Shakyamuni.

Nonetheless, Dipankara is widely known and venerated by devotees. Starting in the 1600s Nepalese communities believed Dipankara was associated with alms giving and that he protected merchants as they traveled abroad. Additionally, Dipankara is believed to provide protection to sailors and their ships. Therefore, statues of him can be found along the coastlines.

Shakyamuni Buddha

The exact birth date of Siddhartha Gautama is not known with certainty. However, it is estimated that his birthday is sometime between 563 BCE and 480 BCE. His birthplace was in northern India however in present times the location is Lumbini, Nepal. Lumbini is now located in south central Nepal near the border with India.

Additionally, it is believed that on the night he was conceived his mother had a dream that a white elephant with tusks entered her right side. Then 9 months later Siddhartha was born.  As was the tradition at the time, his mother attempted to travel to her father’s kingdom in order to give birth. However, she would not arrive in time and her new son was born in Lumbini on the side of the road under a sal tree.

As was his way in many of his past lives recounted in the Jataka Tales, Siddhartha would renounce his kingdom in exchange for a life of solitude and austerity. Indeed Siddhartha was born a prince and he renounced his kingdom when he was 29 years old. Throughout his life he had been overcome with compassion for sentient life and he wished to end the suffering of all sentient beings.

Siddhartha Gautama obtained enlightenment 6 years later. He spent the remaining 40 years of his life teaching the Dharma and died when he was 80 years old. In present times, it is estimated that Buddhism has 500 million followers worldwide.

The Future Buddha

The future Buddha is known as a bodhisattva named Maitreya. Maitreya is waiting in a special place until his time has come to reteach the Dharma to sentient life. It is foreseen that he will return at a time when the sangha has fallen into disarray and forgotten the Dharma. Maitreya will become a Buddha and lead all sentient life to their awakening.