The Meaning of Mudras I Koun Franz

On my altar at home, there is a Buddha, seated—his right hand is up, palm facing forward, and his left hand is on his left knee, fingers down, palm exposed. This is the abhayadana mudra. The right hand shows abhaya, or fearlessness; the left is dana, or generosity. In this pose, the Buddha is offering fearlessness to others. He’s also making it clear that he is qualified to do so.

When we see an image of a buddha or bodhisattva, there’s a lot to take in. I’m interested in robes, so I always notice what kinds of robe the figure is wearing, how they’re wearing it, how it hangs off the body. I look at the face—sometimes there’s a little smile, other times just radiant calm. Most Buddha statues resort to the “marks” of the Buddha—the dot between the eyes, for example, or the extra-long ears—but occasionally I bump into one that looks much more ordinary and human; over the years, I’ve come to appreciate those more and more. And of course, there are the signifiers of the tradition: Tibetan images don’t look like Theravada ones, which don’t look like Zen ones, which look just a little different from Pure Land ones. 

I’m no expert on mudras. But all those other things aside, whatever the image, the mudra is the message—it’s what the Buddha or bodhisattva is saying. The one I have at home is saying, “You are capable of fearlessness; I offer that to you.” Imagine, for a moment, if a radiantly calm and grounded-looking person approached you on the street and said that to you. You might laugh about it or tell people later how weird it was, but really—what a great thing to hear. What if your spouse said that to you? One of your parents? Your friend? It’s a language we don’t really speak in ordinary life—it’s a little too confident, a little too direct. So instead we leave it to statues to say with their hands. Every time I look at that statue, I receive that message. It’s a gift.

The Meaning of Mudras I DharmaCrafts Blog

Another favorite mudra is the one in which the Buddha reaches down with the right hand (this time with the palm facing down) and touches the ground. This is the bhumisparsa mudra, the earth-touching mudra. The story goes that while Siddhartha, the buddha-to-be, sat beneath the bodhi tree, the demon Mara came to distract him, to throw him off. Mara’s function is to be an obstacle to awakening, to keep people trapped in the narrow confines of their conditioned selves. As awakening drew nearer, Mara challenged Siddhartha, asking, “Who gives you the right to do this? Who will stand as your witness?” In that moment, we see this gesture—Siddhartha reaches down and gently touches the earth, who is witness to what he is doing. In this tiny movement of the hand, he declares through the ages, “I belong here.” 

I’ll add one more: the mudra we use in Zen meditation, known as the dhyana mudra or, in Japanese, hokkai join (“cosmic mudra”). Zen students are taught to place the right hand below the belly button, palm up, with the left hand resting on top, thumbs lightly touching in an oval. But on a Buddha statue, you’re likely to see the reverse: left hand on the bottom, right hand on top. There’s a teaching that the latter is the “post-awakening” version, while the former is for the rest of us. But one of my teachers always encouraged us to do it both ways—“After all,” he’d say, “you’re all buddhas.” This mudra can also be done with just one hand, as in most depictions of the bhumisparsa mudra —one hand touching the earth, the other in meditation. 

This is a fun area of study. And there are a lot more than just these. There are even made-up ones; especially in cases where the artists are not necessarily Buddhist, you can find statues with beautiful mudras that just don’t mean anything at all, at least not traditionally. Next time you spot a statue that really resonates with you, go home and look up what it means—guaranteed, that knowledge will add to your feeling about it.

But what I really want to say about mudras is a little unorthodox. It’s this: try them on. If you meditate, you’ve probably done some version of the dhyana mudra. But have you ever sat in a posture of perfect fearlessness, right hand raised? The Buddha offers that up—if that means anything, it means that you can go to that same place, offer up that same thing to others. Try it. Maybe especially when you’re not feeling fearless, try it. Let that be the message you send. 

And what if, in that gesture, you start asking yourself, “Who am I to do this? Who gave me the right?” In that moment, reach down and touch the earth. There’s your answer. Right there in your own hands.

The Meaning of Mudras I DharmaCrafts Blog

Author: Koun Franz

Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.

 

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