I was reading a blog of a friend of mine, Dave Stoker, over at Thoughts of a Seeker when I noticed a photograph of a statue he used in a post. This statue, that he identified as the Tian Tan Buddha, was intriguing to me because of its unique posture that I had not before recognized in Eastern art. Dave informs us that these arm and hand gestures are quite universal in historical depictions of Buddha, and are known as mudras. He further says that this particular statue is the largest outdoor seated Buddha in the world, completed in 1993 in Hong Kong.
Tian Tan, I have come to find out, is Mandarin for “Temple of Heaven,” or more literally “Altar of Heaven,” and is the same name given to a Taoist temple in Beijing. The term mudra is Sanskrit for “seal” or “seal of authenticity.” Wikipedia further defines the mudra:
A mudrā (Sanskrit: मुद्रा, lit. “seal”) is a symbolic or ritual gesture in Hinduism and Buddhism. While some mudrās involve the entire body, most are performed with the hands and fingers. Mudrā (Sanskrit) is a ‘spiritual gesture’ and energetic ‘seal of authenticity’ employed in the iconography and sadhana of Dharmic Traditions and Taoic Traditions; particularly those influenced by Tantra, Shinto and Shamanism. ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mudra))
Nitin Kumar gives a description of the mudras which is enlightening as to its use and meaning in traditional Buddhism:
Mudras are a non-verbal mode of communication and self-expression, consisting of hand gestures and finger-postures. They are symbolic sign based finger patterns taking the place, but retaining the efficacy of the spoken word, and are used to evoke in the mind ideas symbolizing divine powers or the deities themselves. The composition of a mudra is based on certain movements of the fingers; in other words, they constitute a highly stylized form of gestureal communication. It is an external expression of ‘inner resolve’, suggesting that such non-verbal communications are more powerful than the spoken word. ((http://www.exoticindiaart.com/mudras.htm))
The mudra gestures connect the Buddhist worshipper with the divine:
They indicate to the faithful in a simple way the nature and the function of the deities represented. Mudras are thus gestures which symbolize divine 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 deity. ((ibid.))
Such mudras extend beyond ritual into the arts:
But a mudra is used not only to illustrate and emphasize the meaning of an esoteric ritual. It also gives significance to a sculptural image, a dance movement, or a meditative pose, intensifying their potency. In its highest form, it is a magical art of symbolical gestures through which the invisible forces may operate on the earthly sphere. ((ibid.))
Again, such symbolic gestures invoke the deity, or literally bring the worshipper into divine presence:
This contact between the various elements creates conditions favorable for the presence of the deity at rites performed for securing some desired object or benefit. That is, mudras induce the deity to be near the worshipper. ((ibid.))
The most universal mudras found in Buddhism have been given names. The specific mudras made in the Tian Tan Buddha statue are very common among Buddha representations. The gesture given by the right hand is called the Abhaya mudra, or the seal of “no fear,” and is described thus:
. . . 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 . . .
This mudra, which initially appears to be a natural gesture, was probably used from prehistoric times as a sign of good intentions – the hand raised and unarmed proposes friendship, or at least peace; since antiquity, it was also a gesture asserting power, as with the magna manus of the Roman Emperors who legislated and gave peace at the same time. ((ibid., see also http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/mudra-japan.shtml))
Kumar also tells of an interesting traditional Buddhist legend which incorporates the use of the Abhaya mudra:
Devadatta, a cousin of the Buddha, through jealousy caused a schism to be caused among the disciples of Buddha. As Devadatta’s pride increased, he attempted to murder the Buddha. One of his schemes involved loosing a rampaging elephant into the Buddha’s path. But as the elephant approached him, Buddha displayed the Abhaya mudra, which immediately calmed the animal. ((ibid.))
The mudra made by the left hand is called the Varada mudra, or the seal of “welcome” or “favour.” It signifies “offering, welcome, charity, giving, compassion and sincerity” ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mudra)). This mudra is described thus:
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. ((http://www.exoticindiaart.com/mudras.htm))
It is also noted that this mudra is the “accomplishment of the wish to devote oneself to human salvation” ((ibid.)). This mudra is rarely used alone, but is almost always accompanied by a mudra of the right hand, most often the Abhaya mudra ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mudra)).
Kumar continues to describe the mudras as “an archetypal posture of performed occult significance,” the performance of which is “total, at once subtle but powerful” ((http://www.exoticindiaart.com/mudras.htm)). Through such practices, he says,
we learn to integrate our dissipated thoughts and actions, so that life becomes a graceful flow of energy and understanding. Our whole being can then become a mudra, a gesture of life within, reflecting into our external life. ((ibid.))
As Hugh Nibley has noted, these type of practices are “not for a moment to be equated with the true and celestial order of things,” but “we may be able to learn much from [them]” ((Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, xxix)).
I have been searching the web for three hours, trying to find out what the symbol is on the palms of the Tian Tan Buddha statue. While I can find many, many links to articles, postings, blogs, etc., which reference the Tian Tan Buddha and symbols of Buddhism, all omit what would be to me the most interesting information, i.e.; the symbol in the center of palms of the Tian Tan statue–how weird is that??? People note the svastika on the chest, the third eye, etc., etc., — Has no one noticed the symbol in the palm of the hand?
It’s hard to see the symbol on the palms. Do you have a photograph you could share? Could the symbol be related to the hand with a wheel symbol in Jainism?
Thanks for your response and link to the Jainism article. I have a photo but can’t figure out how to post it here??? I believe you are right about the symbol though. I found a drawing when I googled images for Tian Tan Buddha which shows the hand and the symbol looks most like the wheel in hand in the Jainism Wikipedia site. The picture is posted on artinaday.blogspot.com
I think the photo (actually a drawing I think) is here. I’m not sure if it is the same as the wheel in Jainism or not.
Wow–you found the drawing, and yes, it is a graphite drawing. I guess we’ll never know what the symbol is on Buddha’s palms??? I’ve thought of phoning a Buddhist monastery to see if they know. Thanks for your interest, and, one great thing for me is that this dialog about Buddha’s palms led me to discover Jainism. Not for religious reasons; it’s just fascinating to learn about the evolution of cultures.
D. Rolling Kearney
The symbol in the hand is the karmic wheel (you can see a picture here. There are 8 pegs that represent the Noble 8-fold Path of Buddhism, by which you turn your own wheel of karma according to your actions.
I learned this by attending lectures and ceremonies at a local monastery. That is also where I first came across images of the mudras on a wall in one of the shrine rooms, which was devoted to honoring the lineage of patriarchs of their particular sect of Buddhism (Wei-yang).
BTW, I started visiting this monastery because I realized one day that I had biases against Buddhism and they were based entirely on hearsay (mostly from fearful, misunderstanding Christians), the same way they get all their information about us Mormons, and I didn’t want to do the same thing to others. I learned so much from the classes, free books, and conversations, that I now have a deep love of Buddhism. I highly recommend the experience. Note: Buddhism is as diverse as Christianity. I attended a branch of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, which practices zen. They are very humble and sincere people. Of all forms of Buddhism I have come across, Mahayana will probably be the most familiar to Mormons, doctrinally. You may be surprised how many things are similar to the True Gospel.