Rev. Jnana - Zen Dharma Teacher - IBMC


A Dharma Talk at the IBMC --- One of the many intriguing aspects in our study and practice of Buddhism is the multiple layers of meaning associated with almost everything we encounter. Something seemingly simple and straightforward as the wonderful Buddha image that is the focal point of our shrine is at the same time replete with various levels of interpretative detail one could choose to pursue more fully. This reflects the fact that Buddhism is a tradition rich in symbolism and every symbol has a meaning. Such tradition has been expressed countless times over the centuries, throughout Asia, in the continuing evolution of the presentation of Buddhist images in sculpture, painting and ritual objects. This morning’s talk will briefly explore one aspect of this symbolism, the mudra, or hand gesture, as a fundamental element in Buddhist iconography. To attempt to do this without providing accompanying graphic imagery is obviously a challenge, but, hopefully, the mudra representations I’ll create as we go along will suffice for our purposes.

Mudras are one of six principle iconographic themes in Buddhism, particularly in esoteric Buddhism. Briefly noted, these other principle thematic elements are mandalas, asanas, thrones, aureoles, and implements and accessories of the deities.

A mandala, of course, is a specifically detailed diagram representing a deity and his forces, or groups of divinities, depicting the invisible universe of the forces that govern the cosmos. The postures that a Buddhist deity assumes in a sculpture or painting are known as asanas. They can be widely varied and divide in to two main groupings: static postures and dynamic postures. Thrones and pedestals on which the deities are placed often condition the asana assumed by them. These regularly include lotus thrones, stands or chairs, demons and lower deities, and support animals, such as lions, elephants, peacocks, etc. Aureoles are the haloes or auras that indicate the divinity or saintliness of a personage and are placed behind the statue or image. There are numerous variations and elaborations among them. Finally, implements and accessories of the deities accompany many mudra, symbolizing material and spiritual virtues and powers of the deity represented. Chief among these are lotuses of various colors, thunderbolt scepters or vajras, of differing numbers of points, bells, wheels, weapons, pots, and maces.

Each of these five iconographic themes represents an interesting area of inquiry, but our focus for the remainder of this discussion is on the remaining iconographic theme of the mudra.

Please be aware of the fact that the whole topic of mudras is one of exhaustive complexity and that what follows is very much a beginner’s, and that certainly includes me, introduction to the subject!

The origins of the word mudra are uncertain as is the precise evolution of its meaning. At a very early period in the post-Vedic literature of India the term mudra designated the idea of a seal or the imprint left by a seal. Somewhat later usage takes on the meaning of “way of holding the fingers”, designating very precisely a ritual gesture. The Pali word for mudra, muddika, derives from mudda, meaning authority. There is thus a developing inter-relationship in these meanings of a gesture enhancing and authenticating the spoken word with mystic and magical values. The gesture is a sign, a ritual seal; seal implies authenticity. As Buddhism spread to China a further usage of the term came to identify mudras as ‘marks of identify’ of the deity being personified.

The symbolic hand gestures called mudras are of two general types. First, the most ancient form of mudras, dating from pre-Buddhist times, are those presented with the purpose as signs symbolic of the metaphysical aspect of Esoteric ceremonies. Mudras used in this sense are of significant importance in the rites of Tibetan Tantrism, Chinese Chen-yen and Japanese Shingon Buddhism. This, of course, is within the larger context of Tantric meditation where the Three Mysteries, or the forces of the spirit, speech, and the body are directed at the one and only goal: enlightenment. Mudras, along with asanas (reflecting the body), mandalas (reflecting the spirit) and mantras (reflecting speech) all provide expedient means in achieving enlightenment. Apart from acknowledging this important aspect of the ritualistic use of mudras in certain schools of Buddhism and the importance of Tantrism in contributing to the expanded use of mudras, our attention is instead directed to the other general type of mudra, the purely iconographic, as represented in Buddhist sculpture and painting.

The earliest representations of the Buddha in human form did not appear until about the second century of the Common Era. At that time, the mudras of the first Buddhist statues in India had no precise iconographic meaning. The few symbolic gestures that initially were employed developed over time, acquiring a more specific nomenclature and a more exact iconographic significance. The mid-7th Century C.E. Mahavairocana-sutra makes note of over 130 separate mudras: 31 for the Great Buddhas, 57 for the great deities, and 45 for others.

The spread of Buddhism throughout Asia naturally imposed on the mudra considerable modifications of form and of meaning. These became more and more apparent as mudras moved further from the country of their origin. The purpose of the mudra remained the same, to indicate to the faithful in a simple way the nature and function of the deities represented. In viewing any Buddhist representational art it is important to keep in mind that there will likely be variations in the exact form or position in the elements of any given mudra, given the historical and cultural context of the artifact’s creation.

Beyond six key mudras there is not much agreement in various reference works as to what are the most important mudras. I’ve selected a total of nine to consider. Each of these has a standard name in Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese. I will refer to the Sanskrit name and provide an English equivalent, as available.

#1: Dhyana mudra (Gesture of Meditation)

The first mudra we will consider is universally peculiar to seated statues. It is represented by the Buddha figure on the altar here in the Zendo. This is the mudra of meditation, of concentration on the Good Law, of the attainment of spiritual perfection, of bodhi, or awakening.

In this mudra, the back of the right hand rests on the palm of the other in such a way the tips of the thumbs lightly touch one another. The hands rest in the lap. The right hand, resting on top, symbolizes the state of enlightenment; the other hand, resting below, the world of appearance. This gesture expresses overcoming the world of appearance through enlightenment, as well as the enlightened state of mind for which samsara and nirvana are one. The position of the hands in this mudra derives, in accordance with the tradition, from the attitude, which the historical Buddha assumed, when he devoted himself to final meditation under the bodhi tree. This is the attitude he was found in when the demon armies of Mara attacked him. He was to alter it only when he called the earth to witness, at the moment of his triumph over the demons.

#2: Bhumisparsa Mudra (Gesture of Touching the Earth)

This is the mudra to which I’ve just referred; it also is peculiar to seated statues. The left hand rests palm upward in the lap: the right hand, hanging over the knee, palm inward, points to the earth. The mudra portrays the Buddha taking the earth as witness to his right to the bodhi throne, witnessing the fact that Shakyamuni has fulfilled the complete discipline and duty of a Bodhisattva. Shakyamuni’s instantaneous transformation from a Bodhisattva to the Buddha recalls the superiority of the knowledge of the Buddha, which is pure bodhi perception and the means that enables the Enlightened One to triumph over the demons.

#3: Dharmacakra Mudra (Gesture of Turning the Wheel of the Law)

The mudra is especially characterized by a variety of forms, even in India. Generally speaking, the right hand is held at the level of the breast, palm facing outward, while the index finger and the thumb, join at the tips to form the mystic circle, touch the joined index and thumb of the left hand, whose palm is turned inward. It symbolizes one of the most important moments in the life of the Buddha, the occasion when he preached to his former companions the first sermon after his Enlightenment, in the Deer Park in Sarnath.

Making explicit reference to the wheel as it does, this mudra is particularly steeped in the rich and ancient symbolism of the wheel in Buddhist metaphysics. Apart from the Buddha Gautama, only Maitreya (the Buddha of the future) can, as a dispenser of the Law, form this mudra.

#4: Abhaya Mudra (Gesture of Fearlessness and Granting Protection)

This mudra is generally made with the right hand raised to should height, the arm crooked, the palm of the hand facing outward, the fingers upright and joined. The left hand hangs down at the side of the body.

This mudra would seem to sustain the theory that symbolic gestures originally sprang from natural movements. Certainly the outstretched hand is an almost universal iconographic symbol. Since antiquity it was a gesture asserting power. Here it is the gesture of the Buddha Shakyamuni immediately after attaining enlightenment. It is also the traditional Indian gesture of appeasement made by the Buddha when a drunken elephant, which had been goaded on by the malevolent Devadatta, attacked him. The Buddha’s gesture immediately stopped the animal in its tracks and subdued it. Accordingly, it indicates not only the appeasement of the senses, but also the absence of fear; and it confers such absence of fear on others, which is a liberating factor.

In China, Japan and Korea, this mudra of the right hand is often used in combination with another mudra made with the left hand.

#5 Varada Mudra (Gesture of Granting Wishes)

The charity of the Buddha is indicated by this mudra, as it is the gesture of dispensing favors. In this symbolism the right hand is directed downward. The palm should be completely exposed to the spectator, open and empty; the fingers may be slightly bent as if to support a round object. When the personage who makes this gesture is standing, he holds is arm slightly extended to the front. In seated statues, the hand remains at about breast level, a little to the side, the palm up; very often the other hand holds a corner of the kesa.

As noted above, this mudra symbolizes offering, giving, welcome, charity, compassion and sincerity. It is the mudra of the accomplishment of the wish to devote oneself to human salvation. The open hand, the extended fingers, symbolize the flowering of the Buddha’s Gift of Truth.

The Varada Mudra is frequently seen combined with the Abhaya Mudra, in which instance the right hand makes the gesture of fearlessness, the left that of wish granting. Standing Buddha figures are often shown in this posture.

#6: Vitarka Mudra (Teaching Gesture)

Here, this mudra is also a universal sign outside of its Buddhist context, especially as witnessed by its frequent appearance in Christian iconography. Both hands are in Abhaya and Varada poses, but with the thumbs touching the tips of the forefingers. The right hand is at shoulder level, the left at the level of the hips.

This mudra is mainly used for images of the Great Buddhas, and symbolizes one of the phases of the preaching of the Buddha, that of discussion or teaching of the dharma. The circle formed by the thumb and the index, a complete form, having neither beginning nor end, is that of perfection; it resembles the Law of the Buddha, which is perfect and eternal.

#7: Buddhapatra Mudra (Mudra of the Buddha’s Alms Bowl)

This is one of the mudras distinctively identified with Shakyamuni Buddha. Here the two hands are placed horizontally in opposition to hold an actual or figurative begging bowl at the level of the breast, one hand above and the other underneath. In some variations, the bowl is replaced by a wish-granting jewel or by a treasure box.

#8: Vajra Mudra (Mudra of the Fist of Wisdom)

The Vajra Mudra is typical of Korea and Japan, but is actually unknown in India, so it should perhaps more appropriately be identified by its Japanese name of Chi Ken-in. This specifically tantric symbol is made by enclosing the erect forefinger of the left hand in the right fist.

This gesture is closely associated with Vairocana, one of the five transcendent Buddhas. The mudra stresses the importance of Knowledge in the spiritual world and is also known as the Mudra of Supreme Wisdom. The five fingers of the right hand also represent the five elements protecting the sixth, man. Another interpretation claims that the erect forefinger represents Knowledge, which is hidden by the world of appearances (the right fist). In Tibet, this mudra represents the perfect union between the deity and his feminine power.

#9: Anjali Mudra (The Diamond Handclasp)

The Anjali Mudra is the mudra of offering and devotion. It is formed by joining he hands, which are held vertically at the level of the breast, palm against palm, fingers against fingers, interlocked at the tips, the right thumb covering the left.

The gesture formed by the union of the two hands, recalls the co-existence of the two inseparable worlds, which are really one: the Diamond World, or vajradhatu and the Matrix World, or gharbhadhatu. These two worlds are the expression of two aspects of one cosmic life and represent the reciprocal action of the spiritual and the materials, the static and the dynamic.

As this mudra is a gesture of adoration, giving homage to a superior state, it is never represented on a statue of the Buddha. It is a gesture, which belongs rather to Bodhisattvas and to lesser personages who give homage either to the Buddha or to the dharma. It is frequently seen on multiple-armed Kannon or Kwan-Yin.

Universally used by people in India and South-East Asia for salutation, it evokes an offering of good feelings, of one’s person, etc. and also indicates veneration if it is made at the level of the face. I would like to close with such an evocation to each of you, thanking you for your attention this morning.

Also by - Rev. Lynn "Jnana" Sipe

Reflections on Mara

Buddhism In the Numbers

An Irreverent Look at Zen in America

The European Discovery of Indian Buddhism