The ushnisha, often depicted in Buddhist art in the form of a rounded or conical shape on the crown of his head, is one of the Buddha’s best known physical features. What exactly is it, and what is its function? The canonical texts give different answers to these questions, and do not always correspond to artistic depictions. Most traditions agree it is a major sign of full awakening, with an important role in the Buddha’s predictive and protective activity. 

In Buddhist iconography, what makes the Buddha instantly recognizable—even when his whole body is not depicted—is the rounded or pointed extension on the crown of his head. This is the ushnisha (Sanskrit uṣṇīṣa, Pali uṇhīsa, Tibetan gtsug tor).

Most of the English words we could use to describe it, at least in such iconographic depictions, seem disrespectful or pathological—a bump, hump, lump, excrescence, or protuberance on his crown. I prefer “crown extension,” even if it is rather less graphic as a description. But ushnisha remains one of those words that defy translation. There is no term or phrase in English that accommodates the range of ways in which it is understood. According to different sources, the ushnisha might be seen as a nobly shaped forehead, a headcloth, a topknot or way of arranging his hair, a crest made of skin and flesh, a bony extension of his skull, a mysterious spiritual organ that is invisible to ordinary people, or even a vertical extension of a buddha’s head that reaches an infinite height.

Notions of what the Buddha looks like have been transmitted over the generations in different communities by oral and textual description as well as by Buddhist art and iconography. To imagine and in some cases visualize the physical appearance of the Buddha has always been part of the many important practices that can be termed “recollection of the Buddha.”

For two or three centuries after the Buddha’s lifetime, there seems to have been little direct artistic representation of his physical appearance, which was evoked only in images of footprints, and of symbolic objects like the tree of awakening or the doctrinal wheel. The earliest known depictions of the Buddha’s body are second century BCE sculptures from Gandhara, produced perhaps with cultural influence coming from, or shared with, the Greeks. Oral and textual descriptions, by contrast, are probably much older.

The Thirty-Two Major Marks

Early artists like those of Gandhara must therefore have turned to the scriptures to get an idea of what the Buddha was said to have looked like physically. The scriptural texts, of which some were beginning to be written down at around the same time, are full of general mentions of the Buddha being tall, graceful, upright in bearing, beautiful to look at, and so forth, but the richest source of detail is to be found in accounts of the thirty major marks and eighty minor signs of a “great person” or mahapurusha, beginning perhaps with the account of how the seer Asita recognized these features when he examined the infant Siddhartha soon after his birth (as described in the Sanghabhedavastu of the Mulasarvastivada-vinaya; for a later Mahayana account, see The Play in Full, Toh 95). The ushnisha is one of those thirty-two marks.

The marks of a great person are not exclusive to Buddhist art and thought, but come from an older Brahmanic cultural layer, as the story of the seer Asita suggests. That is also why Jain sculptured figures, too, may show the ushnisha and other marks. Indeed, in Indian traditions these physical features are shared not only by awakened beings but also by those destined for more worldly greatness, including universal emperors. The thirty-two signs are listed in a number of canonical texts and treatises—including the Lakkhaṇa-sutta (DN 30) in the Pali Canon, and in the Tibetan Kangyur in the four long Perfection of Wisdom sutras (e.g. the Ten Thousand Line version, Toh 11), in Distinctly Ascertaining the Meanings (Toh 317), and as already mentioned in The Play in Full (Toh 95).

According to some interpretations, the thirty-two marks of a great person are concealed features visible on careful examination only to highly trained brahmin priests and seers like Asita. But in many of the texts they are understood to be apparent to everyone. Some of the features by their nature might not be very obvious at a glance, like having forty teeth, soft hands, or upward-curling body hairs. Others, though, would be striking in appearance; for example, jaws like a lion’s, or arms so long that the hands reach the knees even when the person is standing upright. While it is easy to see many of them as metaphorical expressions of exalted status and spiritual beauty, it would be a mistake to reduce them to metaphor alone, and ignore the physical reality that Buddhist tradition accords them. Nevertheless, Buddhist art seems to have been selective in the way it depicts such physical signs. Features that are incompatible with classical beauty and proportions are generally not shown—for example, in sculptures or paintings buddhas’ arms are not particularly long, and their faces tend to be gently rounded rather than angular and leonine. The ushnisha, though, is almost always clearly depicted as an extra feature on their heads, unnatural though it is in terms of normal human appearances.

buddha head ushnisha
An ushnisha from a 12th-century Tibetan sculpture | Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

What the Texts Say About the Ushnisha

Exactly what the ushnisha is, or at least looks like, is understood differently in different texts. The original sense of the Sanskrit (and Pali) is a turban, headcloth, or something wound round the head, and in pre-Buddhist descriptions of the marks of a great person, “wearing a turban” may possibly have been meant. But there is no record of the Buddha wearing any head covering at all.

In the Pali tradition, the statement describing this mark in the Lakkhaṇa-sutta, “mahāpuriso uṇhīsasīso hoti,” is taken to mean “The great being has a head shaped like a turban” (Bhikkhu Sujato’s translation) or “His head is like a royal turban” (Rhys Davids). In other words, it seems to describe a majestic, raised cranial vault, perhaps of increased convexity or with an apical point.

In the Mahayana tradition, the long Prajnaparamita sutras all contain lists of the thirty-two marks that include the ushnisha. Like the Pali texts, they start with a simple interpretation of the ushnisha as a description of the shape of the head, but then suggest that it may also be seen as a feature involving the hair. The Prajnaparamita in Twenty-Five Thousand Lines says (in a forthcoming translation):

“They are endowed with the ushnisha on the crown of the head since the head is proportionate, well formed, and elegant, and the ushnisha is round and excellent, coiled to the right.”

Some of the Prajnaparamita commentaries also go further in describing it as being a distinct crest-like fullness of the flesh extending over the head from one ear to the other. Thus in the Long Explanation attributed to Damstrasena or Vasubandhu (Toh 3808):

“ ‘… an ushnisha on the top of their head.’ – take this as a head like a bound turban. It is explained that the heads of others are not fully developed, are elongated or squashed and are not symmetrical. The heads of great persons are arranged evenly like a turban, spherical, completed, well shaped, and well developed.

Others say this major sign is to teach that the forehead is fully developed in size. The flesh in between and above the right ear and the left ear of the foreheads of great persons is well shaped; the size of the forehead is fully completed and beautiful like a royal golden turban that has been bound on.”

Likewise, a mention of the ushnisha in The Questions of Dirghanakha the Wandering Mendicant (Toh 342) uses the phrase “raised ushnisha.” In some communities such statements were taken as implying an unusual structure of the cranium, too, for among the various kinds of relics to which pilgrims in Gandhāra could pay their respects in the middle of the first millennium, as witnessed by the great Chinese travelers Faxian and Xuanzang, were the Buddha’s “ushnisha bone.”

There are other more elaborate interpretations. In chapter 43 of the Gandavyuha (itself chapter 45 of the Avatamsaka-sutra, Toh 44) there is a description of the ushnisha seen by Gopa on Prince Tejodhipati:

“There was an ushnisha formed on the crown of his head: it was well formed, perfectly round, central, an adornment of the hair, resembling a precious lotus with a trillion petals, perfectly symmetrical, and cherished as a priceless crest adornment.”

And in Teaching the Practice of a Bodhisattva (Toh 184) is the verse:

“His ushnisha circles to the right,
Its hair is coiled, and it is perfectly placed.
It resembles the peak of Mount Meru—
So beautiful is its shape.”

How Artists Saw the Buddha

Artists’ depictions follow these latter descriptions most faithfully in the late first century CE sculptures of Mathura, the “Kapardin” bodhisattva, with its snail-like coil, and the Buddha’s head from Chaubra Mound.

From the very earliest period of Gandharan art (a century or two earlier than the Mathura sculptures) there are no surviving images of the Buddha. But Gandharan art of about the same period as Mathura tends to depict the ushnisha as something resembling a mounded portion of the Buddha’s luxuriant hair, or as a bound topknot of hair. These depictions suggesting long hair would be misleading if, as some accounts suggest, the Buddha’s head was shaven. In fact, no texts suggest that he ever again grew the long hair that, as Prince Siddhartha, he had cut off after renouncing the kingdom. It seems more likely from some accounts that instead he had short, tightly curled ringlets of bluish-black dark hair. Details of its color, thickness, smoothness and so forth are given in no less than six items in the list of eighty minor signs often found together with the thirty-two major marks.

Artists in subsequent centuries, all over Asia, adopted a slightly different convention regarding how the Buddha’s ushnisha and hair should be depicted. They show the ushnisha as a round-edged, flattened oval shape on his crown, much like that in the Gandharan statues, but like the rest of his scalp covered in small ringlets of hair rather than long bound tresses. Coiled hair is indeed mentioned as one of the ushnisha’s important components in most of the canonical descriptions, but what sort of structure might lie beneath the hair we cannot, of course, see in these artistic representations.

Note that in some depictions the ushnisha is surmounted either by a jewel (in Tibetan paintings, particularly), or by a finial, sometimes complex and ornate, representing the flame of spiritual energy and power (common in Southeast Asian images). But even in Buddhist countries that take the Pali scriptures as their reference, the ushnisha is clearly depicted as a distinct additional shape above the crown—and is not taken simply as a description of the turban-like shape of the head as translations of the texts might suggest.

The Invisible Summit

But there is one aspect of the ushnisha that artists would find very hard to depict. In some sutras it is said that its top or summit “cannot be seen,” a phrase that is further explained as meaning that the ushnisha, far from being a moderate extension or fullness of the top of the head, actually extends upwards to a very great height. It is often translated “the invisible crown” or “invisible cranial summit.” In some texts, it appears in lists of the qualities of buddhas as an additional, separate feature (for example, in The Transcendent Perfection of Wisdom in Ten Thousand Lines), while in others it is an integral part of the description of the ushnisha (for example, in The Play in Full). According to Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhūmi, “the two [ushnisha and invisibility of the crown] make up a single mark of the great being; there is no difference between them.”

The invisibility of the top of the ushnisha may sometimes be understood as partly metaphorical in nature—that no other living being may look down upon him from above because of a buddha’s uniquely superior qualities. It may also be seen as a prohibition, with sanctions for breaking it. A quite different interpretation, found in some Chinese Mahāyāna sources, is that the usnisha emits light so bright that it cannot be looked at.

More commonly, however, it is presented as a literal description of how the usnisha extends upwards, physically, to a height so vast that most kinds of beings either cannot see its top, or cannot see it at all. In The Questions of the Nāga King Sāgara (Toh 153) the Nāga King says to the Buddha, “Even the gods from the abodes of Brahmā cannot see your uṣṇīṣa.” In The Seal of Engagement in Awakening the Power of Faith (Toh 201), Samantabhadra’s explanation to Mañjuśrī makes it clear that the mention of the term refers to the physical height of a tathāgata, even if the imagery of the passage may also convey a metaphorical message regarding stature. The impossibility of the top of the ushnisha being seen is so much a law of nature—rather than some sort of prohibition—that it is used as an example of something “untenable” (gnas med) in The Teaching on the Great Compassion of the Tathāgata (Toh 147).

Perhaps the most complete example is found in the seventh chapter of The Teaching of the Inconceivable Mysteries of the Thus-Gone Ones (Tathāgatācintyaguhyanirdeśa, Toh 47, not yet published by 84000), on the mysteries of a buddha’s body, where the story is told of a bodhisattva from another buddhafield who comes to venerate the Buddha soon after his enlightenment, and using his supernatural powers tries to see the top of the Buddha’s crown first by making his own height immense and then—when that fails—by travelling upwards through countless other buddhafields. He still never manages to see the top of the Buddha’s ushnisha.

Etienne Lamotte’s masterful work in French on Kumarajiva’s Chinese version of the commentary on the long Prajnaparamita sūtras, commonly known for short as the Traité (“treatise”), notes several stories that imply the physical impossibility of the top of the ushnisha being seen, some from the Pali—significant, as the “invisibility” feature is sometimes said to be a purely Mahayana notion. Here is a passage from the English translation (ch. 36, note 339):

“When the Traité says here that nobody can see the top of the Buddha’s cranium and that nobody among gods and men can surpass him, it should be taken literally: the uṣṇīṣa of the Buddha is invisible and nobody can go above it. This explains several mysterious episodes in the Buddha’s life:

When the recluse Asita wanted to examine the new-born Buddha, the baby’s feet turned upside-down and placed themselves on the chignon of the recluse… (Nidānakathā l.25-26).

‘When Gautama travels, heavenly gifts, precious parasols and flowers rain down like snow. The devas, nāgas and flying birds do not dare to fly above him for, among beings of the threefold world, none can see the summit of his cranium’ (Brahmāyuḥsūtra, T 76, p. 884a 16–18.)

Satagira and Hemavata who were flying to an assembly of yakṣas were stopped in full flight and forced to land because, if they had continued on their route, they would have passed above the Buddha. (Comm. on the Suttanipāta, I, p. 221–223; Comm. on the Hemava, p. 64).”

The Result of Merit

The ushnisha, like the other marks of a great being, is clearly described as the fruition of positive actions in the past. A number of sutras and treatises give explanations of the specific karmic causes of each of the thirty-two marks. In many of these, the ushnisha is said to be the result of having, over many lifetimes, expressed respect for teachers and leaders by bowing down to them, and by extension is an outward sign of great qualities of leadership. The same pattern is followed in mentions that are not about the thirty-two marks, such as the Buddha’s statement in The Questions of Dīrghanakha the Wandering Mendicant (Toh 342).

A more detailed description is found in the Sutra of the Good Eon (Toh 94), which lists six features of a buddha’s ushnisha as the fruits of the six perfections that he practiced as a bodhisattva:

“What are the bodhisattvas’ six perfections that bring about his possessing the uṣṇīṣa on his head? As the ripening of the perfection of generosity it is a deep blue coil. As the ripening of discipline, it coils to the right. As the ripening of patience it is untouched by dust. As the ripening of diligence its summit cannot be seen. As the ripening of concentration it is an object of constant gaze. As the ripening of the perfection of insight it is unaffected by rain or wind. It is in these ways that the six perfections of the bodhisattvas bring about his possessing the uṣṇīṣa on his head.”

The ushnisha seems to be among the highest valued of the thirty-two marks. Regarding the proportional amounts of merit the different marks represent, the Jewel Cloud lists an increasing order of magnitude for one of the Buddha’s hair follicles, then the first twenty-nine marks in general, then the urṇa hair between his eyebrows, and then the ushnisha, each requiring immense multiplications of the preceding amount of merit to appear—topped only by the Buddha’s voice. This gradation of merit is reiterated by Asanga in his Bodhisattvabhumi III.5.5. The “invisible summit,” when taken as a feature by itself, is mentioned in The Teaching of Akshayamati as a mark of the buddhas requiring even more merit than the thirty-two marks.

That the Buddha’s voice is accorded great importance in these gradations is no great surprise, given what he can accomplish with it. But if this ranking of the marks of buddhahood in terms of merit match their importance in terms of a buddha’s activity, the fact that the ushnisha comes in second place only to his voice would suggest that its functions go far beyond being simply an exalted distinguishing mark, or a symbol of elevated stature.

What is the ushnisha for? 

Much of the Buddha’s activity in the world—focused primarily on showing sentient beings the path to liberation from the cycle of suffering and rebirth—is accomplished by teaching, i.e. with his voice. But another channel of skillful means, described in a large number of sutras, is the emanation of rays of light, and this is often done from the ushnisha, from the urna hair between his eyebrows, or from his mouth or tongue. For example, as a prelude to his teachings in The Jewel Cloud (Toh 231), light rays from the Buddha’s ushnisha illuminate other buddhafields and invite other buddhas and bodhisattvas to attend.

A recurring event in the sutras is when the Buddha is about to make a prediction and smiles. From his smile, rays of light go out to permeate all the realms and world-systems before returning to him. The part of his body they vanish into is an important signal of the import of his prediction, and if they vanish into the ushnisha it is a sign that he is about to prophesy the unsurpassed perfect awakening of a future buddha. See, for example, Upholding the Roots of Virtue (Toh 101).

The ushnisha, like the other marks of a great being, is clearly described as the fruition of positive actions in the past.

The Buddha also uses the ushnisha to grant protection from dangers and obstacles. In this case, the light rays tend to emanate from the ushnisha, permeating all realms before returning to his mouth, at which point he gives an instruction that protects from certain harms. This usually involves a dharani. The subject of dharani would merit an entire article to itself, but in brief a dharani is a mantra-like verbal formula that grants protection to those who remember and recite it, and the texts in which such events are described are therefore known as the dharani-sutras. In the Tibetan Kangyur, they are classified as tantras of the “action” (kriya) class, but most of them are not particularly tantric in either origin or content, and indeed they are found and practiced in many Buddhist traditions all over Asia. By the time of the Pala dynasty in India, many dharanis had also been personified as goddesses, to be invoked and visualized along with the recitation of their dharani. The titles of many of the dharani sutras make it clear that these protective dharanis are to be understood as a common property of the ushnishas of all buddhas, and not solely the Buddha Shakyamuni.

The two best known dharani goddesses emanated from the Buddha’s ushnisha are Ushnisha-Vijaya and Ushnisha-Sitatapatra. The origin narrative of Ushnisha-Vijaya is told in texts that exist in Sanskrit and Chinese as well as five different dharani-sutras in the Tibetan Kangyur, the oldest translation of the Tibetan versions being The Ushnishavijaya Dharani (Toh 597; published translations of this and the others can be seen in 84000’s Reading Room). In Tibet, the practice of Ushnisha-Vijaya as a deity was seen as particularly efficacious for longevity, and she is seen as a triad of longevity deities along with Amitayus and White Tara. Ushnisha-Sitatapatra (or “White Parasol”) is another ushnisha deity whose practice is popular as a protection against all kinds of obstacles; there are four texts on her in the Kangyur (Toh 590–594, still unpublished). Both these deities (though in male form) are also mentioned in both The Root Manual of the Rites of Mañjushri (Toh 543) and the canonical Kalachakra commentary, the Vimalaprabha (Toh 845), along with other ushnisha deities known as the “ushnisha kings” as embodying the awakened activity of all the buddhas.

The ways in which this non-ordinary physical feature is described in the scriptures and has been depicted down the ages reinforces the message that a buddha, a tathagata, is something more than just a wise or experienced human guide. Mysterious though its exact nature may be, the ushnisha is worthy of our appreciation, having a significant place in the panoply of all buddhas’ physical embodiment, as well as being a mark of their awakened power to lead sentient beings out of the cycle of suffering existence.

So, does it even make sense to think about the ushnisha as a physical object with substance and structure, when the Buddha’s body of manifestation is, according to many profound scriptures, just that—a manifestation of awakening taking only the forms that our own non-awakened minds can perceive? Perhaps the last word should be from The Prajnaparamita in Twenty-Five Thousand Lines:

“Subhuti, if the perfectly awakened buddhas’ thirty-two major marks of a great person were entities and not nonentities, then indeed the perfectly awakened buddhas would not overpower and outshine the world, with its gods, humans, and asuras, with their magnificence and glory. However, Subhuti, the perfectly awakened buddhas’ thirty-two major marks of a great man are not entities, and because they are not entities, the perfectly awakened buddhas do overpower and outshine the world, with its gods, humans, and asuras, with their magnificence and glory….

“Moreover, Subhūti, when bodhisattva great beings practice the six perfections, if they see sentient beings bereft of the major marks, they should reflect, ‘In that buddhafield where I will attain perfect buddhahood in complete awakening, I will practice the six perfections until all sentient beings possess the thirty-two major marks of a great person. I will refine the buddhafields! I will bring sentient beings to maturity!’ ”

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