Artistic Sinograph: Buddha

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On the wall of an apartment complex in Dali, Yunnan, southwestern China:

The character depicted is fó 佛 ("Buddha"), which consists of the semantophore 亻("man; person; people; human") + phonophore 弗 (OC *pɯd).

Ji (1998v7) considers it likely borrowed from Iranian, compare Sogdian ‎ (pwty)‎ (bwty /Pute, Bute, βute/)Middle Persian (bwt')‎ (bwt /But/)Parthian ‎ (bwṯ /But, Butt/), ultimately from Sanskrit बुद्ध (buddhaawakened, enlightenedpast passive participle), whence also 佛陀 (MC bɨut̚ dɑ), but the Chinese morpheme  is not a direct contraction or clipping of the latter.


Clever, n'est-ce pas?

The character at the top right is Chán 禪 ("Zen; meditation"), which is another story altogether.  If anyone is interested in learning more about it, I will write a separate post explaining its meaning, derivation, pronunciation, orthography, etc.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Jeff Demarco]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 12:21 pm

    From Roderick Whitfield:

    But the vase with willow branch indicates Guanyin (maybe the headdress too, not much like your average cranial protuberance) 一笑

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 12:33 pm

    Yes, it's strange to think of Guanyin as the Buddha.

  3. John Swindle said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 2:29 pm

    The couplet about the mirror, below the 禅 chán character, is an interesting choice. In the original context the illiterate but wise Huineng is supposed to have asked for a rebuttal to be appended. See Wikipedia on “Platform Sutra.”

  4. Keith said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 8:19 pm

    I saw this same graph on the wall of an outdoor museum in Heze, Shandong.

  5. stephen reeves said,

    November 12, 2021 @ 5:25 pm

    info on thé origines of 禅 would be interesting

  6. Calvin said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 1:39 pm

    Guanyin originated from Avalokiteśvara, a Buddha known for compassion. It was first depicted in male form but later transformed to female form as known today.

    Both vase and willow branch are part of the 18 common items used by practicing Buddhist monks (頭陀十八物), so they are not really exclusive to Guanyin.

    The phrases "身是菩提樹,心如明鏡臺" are from The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, recounting a poem contest laid down by the Fifth Patriarch of Chán school to choose his successor.

    Submission from Shenxiu, the leading disciple of the Fifth Patriarch:
    身是菩提樹,(The body is the bodhi tree.)
    心如明鏡臺,(The mind is like a bright mirror's stand.)
    時時勤拂拭,(At all times we must strive to polish it)
    勿使惹塵埃。(and must not let dust collect.)

    The eventual successor, Huineng's submission:
    菩提本無樹,(Bodhi originally has no tree.)
    明鏡亦非臺,(The bright mirror also has no stand.)
    本來無一物,(Fundamentally there is not a single thing.)
    何處惹塵埃。(Where could dust arise?)

    Shenxiu went on to found his own branch, promoting the "gradual" teaching that contrasted with the "sudden" teaching of Huineng.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 1:53 pm

    "a Buddha known for compassion" –> a Bodhisattva known for compassion.

  8. John Swindle said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 5:24 am

    Yes, definitely, the Bodhisattva of great compassion, although perhaps not infrequently taken for a Buddha, as in the present graphic. If it's not Avalokiteśvara, what "Buddha"(佛)could it be?

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