buddhist mudra

Buddha images' hand gestures provide an insight into the Buddha’s life and the Buddhist religion.

Regardless of your purpose in visiting Thailand, you can not escape the country’s religious beliefs; Buddhism plays an integral part in the peoples’ daily lives and is evident where ever you go. Temples and shrines are a common sight throughout the Kingdom. It is difficult, and would be a shame, for any tourist to not visit at least one wat during their holiday. And though many appear to look alike, each is unique in its own way, providing visitors a never ending opportunity for an exceptional cultural experience when visiting Thai places of worship during their travels.

You do not need to know a thing about Buddhism to appreciate the numerous pieces of art – primarily statues, images of Buddha – found in Thailand’s wats. While every image is different and special, all convey a sense of peace and serenity that touches even those staunch in their own religious beliefs who have no knowledge of Buddhism. On the other hand, a modicum of knowledge can make your visit that much more enjoyable.

I am not a follower of Buddha, and certainly no expert on Buddhism. But I have come to know a bit about the religion, and a bit about the Buddha images most frequently seen in Thailand. I’ll share my limited knowledge with you in this series of posts, not to convert or enlighten but rather to provide a small glimpse of the religion to provide travellers a basic understanding that can add to the experience of visiting a wat in Thailand.

One of the more interesting aspects of Buddha images, to me, are the hand positions seen on Buddha statues. Known as mudras, these gestures are often symbolic and refer to some event in the life of the Buddha, or denote a special characteristic of his enlightenment. I first ran across mudras reading the Inspector Shan series of books by Eliot Pattison. The main character of his novels, veteran inspector Shan Tao Yun, spent time stripped of rank and imprisoned in a gulag for offending the Party in Beijing before being sent off to Tibet to solve various crimes. The locals close ranks, not happy with their Chinese overlords, and often communicate using mudras, secret hand signals, to avoid letting the inspector and Chinese know what they are up to. The books are beautifully written and provide a small glimpse of what it is like for Tibetans to live under communist rule. The mudras stuck in my mind and I recognized them as being the hand gestures seen on Buddha statues.

Mara Vijaya Mudra

Calling the Earth to Witness is one of the most common mudras seen in Thailand.

There are six main hand positions of the Buddha in Thailand, though one is rarely seen. There are also dozens of less common ones. The most common mudra seen in the Kingdom looks like Buddha is just draping his hand over his knee. This mudra is known as the Mara Vijaya posture, or Victory over Mara, or Subduing Mara – the demon, or the Bhumisparsa Mudra. The gesture is also referred to as ‘Calling the Earth to Witness’, represented by Buddha’s right hand touching the ground in a position that symbolizes unshakable faith and resolution. It stems from an important part of the Buddha’s life, and a story is attached.

After living his early years as a wealthy royal, Siddhartha (the Buddha’s pre-enlightened name) began his search for the meaning of life. Determining that neither self indulgence nor self deprivation was the answer, he settled on the ‘Middle Way’ and ended up sitting under a bodhi tree, vowing not to move until he was enlightened. Touching his finger to the ground, he called upon the earth to bear witness to this. Eventually his friends left him.

While meditating, a demon named Mara came and tried to distract him with violence through demons, monsters, and storms, and then through temptation via the demon’s three seductive daughters. Siddhartha remained steadfast. Then in response, pointed to the earth with his hand and called the Earth Goddess, Thorani, who rose from the ground and wrung the water from her long black hair, raising a torrential flood that drowned Mara and his army of demons.

After 49 days, having outlasted Mara, Siddhartha achieved enlightenment, or Nirvana, which literally means ‘no wind,’ and frees one from the karma-based cycle of reincarnation. He was now a Buddha: ‘one who is awakened’ to reality from the dream-like illusion that is life for the rest of us.

Dhyana Mudra

The Dhyana Mudra depicts the Buddha meditating under the Bodhi Tree during his journey to enlightenment.

The second most common mudra is the Dhyana position and comes from the same event in Siddhartha’s life. In this mudra, Buddha’s hands are folded in his lap with palms upward with the right hand on top of the left. When this mudra is used, the Buddha is in a seated position. It depicts Siddhartha meditating under the Bodhi tree while trying to determine the cause of suffering and its cessation during his journey to enlightenment.

double mudra

Double Mudra: The Abhaya position and Varada Mudra at Wat Surat in Bangkok.

The Abhaya Mudra, also called the Imparting Fearlessness position, is made with the hand raised and the palm facing outwards, fingers extended pointing upward with the wrist bent at a right angle with the forearm. The mudra is sometimes made with both hands, and in others the Abhaya Mudra is made with one hand, while another mudra is made with the other. When this gesture is used, the Buddha may be standing, sitting, or walking.

This mudra, a gesture of fearlessness and granting protection, also stems from an event in the Buddha’s life. Típó-dáduo, a rival teacher who wanted to kill Buddha, knew he would be in the town of Wángshè, and tried using archers and then a large boulder to put an end to the Buddha’s life. Both attempts failed, so he arranged that a raging elephant, known for its bad temper and ferocity, would be loosed in the Buddha’s path. Típó-dáduo had the elephant prodded and provoked and then released just as the Buddha came into sight. In a great rage the elephant charged at the Buddha, but as it neared him suddenly became very calm, and simply bowed respectfully before him. The Buddha passed without harm, not even seeming to have noticed the incident.

Vitarka Mudra

The Vitarka Mudra at the Phra Pathom Chedi at Nakhon Pathom

The Varada Mudra, symbolizing charity, is the gesture of bestowing blessings and is formed with the hand lowered, pointing downward with the palm facing outward. This gesture signifies offering, welcome, charity, giving, compassion and sincerity, and is nearly always shown being made with the left hand. The Varada Mudra is rarely seen without another mudra used by the right hand, typically the Abhaya mudra. No particular story is attached to this mudra; it denotes the altruistic quality of the Buddha.

The Vitarka Mudra is a gesture of Intellectual discussion and indicates communication and an explanation of Buddhist teachings. 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. This mudra is mainly used for images of the Great Buddhas, and symbolizes one of the phases of Buddha’s preaching, that of 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. The Vitarka Mudra is usually seen on a Buddha in the sitting or standing position.

Dharmachakra Mudra

The Dharmachakra Mudra is rarely seen in Thailand.

The Dharmachakra Mudra, or Turning the Wheel of the Law in Motion, is rarely seen in Thailand. Similar to the Vitarka Mudra, the hands are generally held closer to the chest of the Buddha, 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 represents a central moment in the life of Buddha, the occasion when he preached the first sermon after his enlightenment to his former companions in the Deer Park in Sarnath.

There are numerous other mudras typically seen in Thailand, some of which I will cover in a future post. One of the wats where you can see a large number of different Buddha hand gestures is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai.

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