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)).