Jnana - Zen Dharma Teacher - IBMC
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dhyana mudra (Gesture of Meditation)
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.
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.
Bhumisparsa Mudra (Gesture of
Touching the Earth)
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
Dharmacakra Mudra (Gesture of Turning the Wheel of the Law)
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.
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
Abhaya Mudra (Gesture of Fearlessness
and Granting Protection)
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.
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.
China, Japan and Korea, this mudra of the right hand is often
used in combination with another mudra made with the left hand.
Varada Mudra (Gesture of Granting
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.
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.
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.
Vitarka Mudra (Teaching Gesture)
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
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.
Buddhapatra Mudra (Mudra of the
Buddha’s Alms Bowl)
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.
Vajra Mudra (Mudra of the Fist
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.
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.
Anjali Mudra (The Diamond Handclasp)
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.
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.
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.
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.
by - Rev. Lynn "Jnana" Sipe
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