|Mudras are hand gestures and finger positions and thus are non-verbal modes of communication, self-expression and inner resolve.|
Hand positions are used in the Buddhist sculpture and painting. They indicate to the faithful, in a simple way, the nature and the function of the Buddhas. Mudras are thus gestures which symbolize divine-like manifestation. They are also used by monks in their spiritual exercises of ritual meditation and concentration, and are believed to generate forces that invoke the spirituality the Buddhas taught.
A mudra is used not only to illustrate and emphasize the meaning of an esoteric ritual; they also give significance to a sculptural image, a dance movement, or a meditative pose.
The five fingers of the mudra, starting with the thumb, are identified with one of the five elements, namely the sky, wind, fire, water, and the earth. Their contact with each other symbolizes the synthesis of these elements, significant because every form in this universe is said to be composed of a unique combination of these elements. This contact between the various elements creates conditions favorable for the presence of the Buddha.
The following are mudras seen in representations of the Buddha in sculpture:
- Vitarka: Intellectual Argument, Debate, Appeasement
- Dharmachakra: Teaching Preaching, Turning the Wheel of Dharma
- Bhumisparsha: Earth Touching, Calling the Earth to Witness
- Varada: Charity, Compassion
- Dhyana: Meditation
- Abhaya: Protection, Reassurance, Blessing
The gesture of discussion and debate indicates communication and an explanation of the Dharma. The tips of the thumb and index finger touch, forming a circle. All other fingers are extended upwards. Sometimes the middle finger and thumb touch, which is gesture of great compassion. If the thumb and ring finger touch, they express the mudra of good fortune.
Intellectual Argument, Debate, Appeasement
This mudra symbolizes one of the most important moments in the life of Buddha, the occasion when he preached to his companions the first sermon after his Enlightenment in the Deer Park at Sarnath. It thus denotes the setting into motion of the Wheel of the teaching of the Dharma.
Teaching, Preaching, Turning the Wheel of Dharma
In this mudra the thumb and index finger of both hands touch at their tips to form a circle. This circle represents the Wheel of Dharma, or in metaphysical terms, the union of method and wisdom. The three remaining fingers of the two hands remain extended. These fingers are themselves rich in symbolic significance
The three extended fingers of the right hand represent the three vehicles of the Buddha’s teachings, namely:
• The middle finger represents the ‘hearers’ of the teachings
• The ring finger represents the ‘solitary realizes’
• The Little finger represents the Mahayana or ‘Great Vehicle’.
The three extended fingers of the left hand symbolize the Three Jewels of Buddhism, namely, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
Significantly, in this mudra, the hands are held in front of the heart, symbolizing that these teachings are straight from the Buddha’s heart.
This mudra, formed with all five fingers of the right hand extended to touch the ground, symbolizes the Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree, when he summoned the earth goddess, Sthavara, to bear witness to his attainment of enlightenment. The right hand is placed upon the right knee in earth-pressing mudra. It is complemented by the left hand, which is held flat in the lap in the dhyana mudra of meditation. Together they symbolize the union of method and wisdom, samasara and nirvana, and also the realizations of the conventional and ultimate truths. It is in this posture that Shakyamuni overcame the obstructions of Mara while meditating on Truth.
Earth Touching, Calling the Earth to Witness, or The Victory Over (Subduing) Mara
This mudra symbolizes charity, compassion and boon-granting. It is the mudra of the accomplishment of the wish to devote oneself to human salvation. It is nearly always made with the left hand, and can be made with the arm hanging naturally at the side of the body, the palm of the open hand facing forward, and the fingers extended.
The five extended fingers in this mudra symbolize the following five perfections:
• Meditative Concentration
The Dhyana mudra may be made with one or both hands. When made with a single hand the left one is placed in the lap, while the right may be engaged elsewhere. The left hand making the Dhyana mudra in such cases symbolizes the female left-hand principle of wisdom. Ritual objects such as a text, or more commonly an alms bowl symbolizing renunciation, may be placed in the open palm of this left hand.
When made with both hands, the hands are generally held at the level of the stomach or on the thighs. The right hand is placed above the left, with the palms facing upwards and the fingers extended.
The Dhyana mudra is the mudra of meditation, of concentration on the Good law, and of the attainment of spiritual perfection. According to tradition, this mudra derives from the one assumed by the Buddha when meditating under the pipal tree before his Enlightenment.
This mudra symbolizes protection, peace, and the dispelling of fear. It is made with the right hand raised to shoulder height, the arm crooked, the palm of the hand facing outward, and the fingers upright and joined. The left hand hangs down at the side of the body.
Protection, Reassurance, Blessing
This mudra is associated with the movement of the walking Buddha (also called ‘the Buddha placing his footprint’). It is nearly always used in images showing the Buddha upright, either immobile with the feet joined, or walking.