The major and minor marks of the Buddha

From: Then and Now 36
Full transcript
After I came back from India the first time--this would be in the early seventies--a teacher that I knew of in India and hadn’t actually met--by the name of Lama Karma Thinley--I knew had come to Canada and lived outside Toronto. So, I called him up and asked if I could go and see him. And my younger brother and my wife and I went to see him. We ended up camping in the fields somewhere in the middle of southern Ontario, near the house where he was staying. And went to see him. And Lama Karma Thinley is quite a character, and he’s still in Toronto. And you can never tell what he's going to do or what he's going to say.

So, we came into his room, and we chatted for a while, and he noticed that my younger brother was looking very intently at a thangka, which Lama Karma Thinley was in the process of painting, and it was only half-finished. And it was a depiction of Buddha. And he looked at my younger brother and said, “You interested in that?” His English was very minimal; I did most of the translating at this stage. And my younger brother said, “I’ve never seen anything like that.” And it was an iconic, graphic depiction of Buddha with a gold body and the long earlobes and the topknot--you know, what we see in Buddha images and depictions. And my younger brother said, “Yeah, I’ve never seen anything like that.” And Lama Karma Thinley said, “You want to know what it means?” And my younger brother said, “Yes.” He said, “Come back tomorrow.”

So he came back. And for the next four hours, Lama Karma Thinley went through all of the 32 major and 80 minor marks of physical perfection which comprises the nirmanakaya of the Buddha, which is the spiral of hair at this point, the growth at the top of his head, the long earlobes, and the shape of the lips, and the length of his arms, light web between the fingers, all of these things. There's a list of them in the back here, explaining what they all were. And these are on page 454. You see the 32 major and 80 minor marks there, and what particular karma they developed from, and what their significance was. And just hours and hours of this stuff.

So, this is--and I'm just relating this, because you have this description here of what it means to be a perfect human being, which is what Buddha was regarded--this is the perfection of our human potential. This is not where Buddhism started at all, fifteen hundred years previous to this, where Buddha would just say of himself, what makes you different from other people? “I’m awake.” And that was it. But all of these myths and these symbols grew up around Buddha, and became ways of people expressing their appreciation.