One of the more curiously sculpted features of a meditating Buddha is the portrayal of connected, or “netted” fingers. The answer to the common question “Why are they webbed?” has been explained in a handful of ways, all of which interestingly compliment each other in a very convenient manner.
From the philosophical point of view, according to some scholars interpreting scripture, webbed hands are only one of the 32 “perfect” physical features of the buddha, which are also referred to as sanjuunisou (三十二相), or “the signs of a great man”. These 32 traits are Indian in origin, and have been carried through the years across many cultures to portray the buddha in painting and sculpture. Some (but not all) of the other physical characteristics often portrayed in sculpture are the Bucchō (a ‘bump of knowledge’ on top of the head); perfectly flat feet; smooth golden skin and exceptionally long arms & fingers. Mammo-so (Pali: jalahathapado) specifically identifies webbed toes & fingers.
Though some translations would suggest that the Buddha literally had webbed or netted fingers & toes, others have come to believe that such descriptions should be regarded as idiomatic — that “webbed fingers” refer to the Teacher’s skill in gathering beings together with a “net of conversion,” and shouldn’t be taken literally. Other explanations indicate that only a truly Enlightened being is unhindered in all matters physical, including air or water. It may be also be possible that the physiological callout of webbed fingers is the result of an early mistranslation of some texts.
Regardless, there is another well-defended possibility that I believe should not be ignored when explaining the Buddha’s trademarked webbed hands, and it is best explained from an image-maker’s point of view. The earliest buddhist images hail from Ghandara, where many sculptures were carved from a brittle stone called schist. When carving, inherent fragility was addressed by leaving enough raw material to ‘anchor’ the delicate details to each other or to more solid areas. Without this connecting “web”, thin fingers would have been far more susceptible to breaking off. Ancient Romans, when carving original works and replicating greek bronzes in marble, would similarly carve tree trunks, small rock pylons or other devices at the thin ankles, which were otherwise not strong enough to support a statue’s overall weight without aid. This approach for increasing the sturdiness of fragile areas is the result of the sculptor’s practical, sharp foresight — in other words, an experienced sculptor knows how to compensate for the limitations of the medium. Conveniently for everyone, though, the stone “webbing” also supports interpretations (or, to some, misinterpretations) of Buddha’s “net of conversion” between the fingers.
By the time Buddhism and its images reached Japan, “webbed” hands were accepted as necessary details for a busshi to include in a sculpture. This is one of the reasons why we see connected fingers sculpted in bronze and wood, which, unlike stone, naturally have the tensile strength to allow for fully delineated fingers. It is worth noting that not all sculpted hands are depicted as webbed — For some, the justification for this (aside from a sculptor choosing not add any unnecessary “webbing”) is that inconsistencies amongst sculptures remind the practitioner to stay on his toes, to remain aware of “the signs of a great man.”
Sculptor and Art History hound David Bilbrey lives in Southern California with his wife and two kids
© Carving the Divine 2018