True change is within; leave the outside as it is. ~ Dalai Lama, xiv
Mudras of the Buddha
The serene smile of the Buddha is his most distinguishing feature. Along with this, the viewer’s attention cannot help but be drawn towards the Buddha’s graceful hands, displayed in a variety of gestures.
Each of these gestures is called a “mudra”. In Sanskrit, the word “mudra” (literally, “seal” or “mark of identity”) is a form of non-verbal communication that refers to symbolic gestures imbued with varied spiritual meanings. Common to both Hindu and Buddhist iconography, mudras are typically expressed with the hands and fingers and sometimes with the whole body.
In Buddhist iconography, mudras invoke specific aspects of Sakyamuni or other Buddhas (for example, as a teacher, protector). They are extensively used during prayer rituals and mantra recitations. It is believed that mudras enable the practitioner to experience a connection with the Buddha being invoked.
The Significance of the Hands
In the Buddhist Tantric tradition, the right hand represents skillful, focused method of action and the active male principle. The left hand symbolizes wisdom, emptiness and the contemplative female principle.
Thus, we find many images of the Buddha where his right hand is portrayed in gestures actively signifying teaching, protection and granting blessings, while his left hand reposes meditatively upon his lap.
Dharmachakra - The Heart of the Buddha Mudra
Sakyamuni’s first sermon on the Four Noble Truths, delivered after attaining enlightenment at Sarnath was a moment of seminal importance. The occasion signifies his setting in motion the Wheel of Dharma, an event captured by the Dharmachakra Mudra.
The tips of the index fingers and thumbs touching each other form a circle that represents the Wheel – a metaphysical union of right action and wisdom. The three extended fingers of each hand are also rich in symbolism. On the right hand, the middle finger represents the Buddha’s audience, the ring finger stands for the few who realize his teachings, while the little finger is the Great Vehicle (Mahayana). The fingers of the left hand represent the Buddha himself, the law of Dharma and the Sangha.
The Buddha’s hands are held in front of his chest, signifying that his teachings come straight from his heart. Other Buddha forms who display the Dharmachakra Mudra are Maitreya, Dipankara, and Manjugosha. Indian and Tibetan Buddhist masters who are distinguished by this mudra are Atisha, Tsongkhapa, Asanga and Sakya Pandita.
Bhumisparsha - Touching the Earth Mudra
Buddha found enlightenment while he was using Budhimsparsha mudra (Earth-Touching mudra).One day, the Buddha, Siddartha Guatama, was sitting meditating by the Bodhi tree when he was attacked the the demon called Mara along with Mara’s monsters.
The attackers hoped to frighten Siddhartha Guatama (Buddha) from his place under the Bodhi tree. But Buddha remained unmoved.
Mara claimed his spiritual successes to be greater than Buddha’s and took his place under the tree.
“I am his witness” cried Mara’s monsters.
“Who will speak for you?” said Mara to Siddhartha.
Sidhartha reached his right hand down to touch the earth.
The earth roared, “I bear you witness.”
The left-hand lies palm facing up on the seated Buddha’s lap. The right-hand lies curved over the Buddha’s crossed knee, fingers just touching the ground. This gesture finds frequent expression in Thai Buddhist shrines. There’s a story behind it:
When Sakyamuni was deep in meditation, he was tormented by the demon Mara who would try and distract him with storms or tempt the Buddha with his three daughters. The hand pointing downwards was Buddha’s call to Sthavara, the Goddess Earth. Rising from within the ground, she wrung her hair dry of water – an action that caused floods and washed away Mara and his demon army.
This mudra is commonly associated with the blue Buddha known as Akshobya.
This mudra has the following benefits:
Helps to calm the mind
Promotes meditation and makes it easier to focus when meditating.
The left palm facing upwards is a very calming position. If you place both your hands upwards on your lap (try it now) you will notice that you feel more accepting and more relaxed.
The fingers reaching down and touching the earth also help you to feel more grounded.
For Buddhists, because this mudra is so symbolic of such an important time in the life of Buddha, the mudra makes you feel more connected to Buddha.
Dhayana - Meditation Mudra
This gesture predates Buddhism, having been used for long by Hindu yogis to develop powers of concentration and healing. The Dhayana Mudra can be a single hand or double hand gesture. When used in the single hand style the left hand is placed on the lap in the Dhyana Mudra, while the right hand may be placed elsewhere. In this fashion the Mudra represents wisdom. Objects such as a singing bowl or text may be placed in the left hand.
The double handed Dhyana Mudra has both hands place on the thighs or held at stomach height. The left hand is placed below the right, palms up, fingers extended. The thumbs may optionally be moved to touch each other lightly at the tips in order to form a mystic triangle. The mystic triangle represents the Three Jewels of Buddhism.
There are three key reasons for using the Dhayana Mudra: focus on the Good Law, aid in meditation and heightening spirituality.
Abhaya - Fearless Mudra
Often seen on standing, sitting or walking statues of the Buddha, the Abhaya Mudra conveys protection from all the fears that beset us in material life. With the arm bent, the palm of the right hand is raised to shoulder level, facing outward, with fingers straight and pointing upward.
Thai Buddhas often have both palms raised in this gesture. In its pre-Buddhist form, the mudra may have represented a cordial greeting to a stranger, a non-threatening approach. Sakyamuni is often represented in frescoes employing this mudra to calm and reassure Devadatta, an attacking elephant.
The Abhaya Mudra is closely associated with the green Buddha known as Amogasiddhi. Interestingly, this mudra parallels the Magna Manus or the ‘great hand’ of Christ depicted in early Christian art.
The mudra is the simplest mudra to use.
To make the gesture, hold your hand at shoulder height with the palm facing outwards.
It is usual for the opposite hand to be positioned in the gift-giving mudra (varada).
Read our guide to Varada mudra so you know how to hold the other hand.
The Abhaya mudra creates feeling of fearlessness and protection. It is very empowering which will stabalise individuals and create calm and security.. It is a powerful mudra that immediately grounds us and restores our power.
Varada - The Giving Mudra
This mudra denotes the act of charity and benevolence, with the associated emotions of sincerity and compassion. It is conveyed with the left arm extending downwards, palm facing in an outward direction. Varada Mudra typically accompanies another gesture like the Abhaya Mudra and is usually seen on images of deities who enrich, grant boons and pacify their followers.
Fourth and fifth-century figures of the multi-headed Avalokiteswara often display this mudra, wherein nectar flows from one of his open palms to assuage the thirst of ancestral spirits (pretas). Varada Mudra is also typical of Buddhist iconography from Southeast Asia. Deities who are bestowers of wealth are depicted cupping a fruit or jewel in their right hand.
Varada Mudra is also known as the distinguishing mark of Ratnasambhava.
Vajra - The Enlightenment Mudra
In this mudra, the extended forefinger of one hand is enclosed within the fist of the other, a Tantric gesture more common to Buddhism in Japan and Korea than India. One interpretation is that the erect finger represents Knowledge cloaked in the illusion of the material world. Another version has it that the index finger is the man, while the five enclosing fingers of the other hand are the elements of earth, air, fire, water, and ether.
The mudra is commonly associated with the radiantly white Vairochana Buddha.
Vitarka - The Teaching Mudra
The Buddha’s hand held close to his heart with thumb and forefinger tips touching symbolizes the transmission of the knowledge he has gained after attaining enlightenment. Another name for this gesture is Vyakhyana Mudra or the “mudra of instruction”. The circle formed by the fingers touching each other signifies perfection, with no beginning or end, like the law of Dharma itself,
There are many variations. The Buddha may be seated or standing while gesturing thus. In other poses, both his hands may display the Vitarka Mudra.
Mandala - Offering the Universe Mudra
This lesser-known mudra is not employed by deities; rather it is a part of the Buddhist practice involving visualization, known as “mandala offering”. The Mandala Mudra is not only complicated but rich in symbolism.
The upright ring fingers are placed together facing away from each other. The second and fourth fingers lie horizontally crossed over the palms. The thumbs are made to extend over the palms and touch the tips of the little fingers. The index fingers curve back and press the tips of the middle fingers.
The two upright ring fingers represent Mount Meru (in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, a golden mountain that is the center of the universe). The crossed middle and little fingers are the four continents around Mount Meru, while the thumbs and forefingers are the salt oceans. Seven golden ranges and lakes are said to encircle Mount Meru. In mandala practice, these are represented by a rosary held within the palms and coiled around the upward pointing ring fingers.