Buddhist sculptures arose out of the belief system that produced them. They are derived from the iconography in Buddhist sutras. Buttressed by the popular religious concepts of the time, they aptly convey the spiritual content in which the religion is rooted. Believers thought that the production of these sculptures would bring about good fortune; practitioners meditated with these images in order to bring about a deeper understanding and wisdom. Religious sermons made use of such profound sculptures to align and intensify the believers' conception of the Buddhist realm.
Among single Buddhist sculptures, one often finds sculptures of the Buddha, Buddhist monks, Bodhisattvas and guardian deities. The Buddha is at the core of the belief and represents the attainment of enlightenment. Disciples rendered in the form of monks transmitted his teachings after his death. Bodhisattvas were made in the image of a secular, royal prince—having reached Buddhahood, they chose to stay in this world in order to assist those who have not. Guardian deities look ferocious, but they avert physical enemies and internal demons. Then there are stupas, representing Nirvana. All these come together to compose the fundamental elements of Buddhist art.
Besides the religious content of Buddhist sculptures, these objects also possess their independent artistic merit. Northern Wei sculptures tend to be modest and simple. T'ang sculptures are often rotund and lively. Starting from the Sung era, sculptures became more closely associated with ordinary people. In addition to revealing the technical development of each period, they also reflect their makers' standards of beauty. Thus, appreciating religious sculpture not only imparts their ideological ideals, but also conveys universal concepts of beauty.