The most commonly used Tibetan Buddhist hand gesture is called the mudra. This mudra is nowadays popular among modern media. Tibetan Buddhism has taken strong roots in the modern world, and it aligns well with Western science. However, the practice of Tibetan Buddhism in the Western world is often considered elitist.
The varada mudra is displayed by the left hand while the right hand is in the abhaya mudra. The abhaya mudra signifies protection, peace, benevolence, and the removal of fear. In Theravada Buddhism, it is commonly performed while standing with the right arm bent and raised to shoulder level, with the palm facing forward, the fingers closed, pointing upright, and the left hand resting by the side.
This mudra is linked to the walking Buddha in Thailand and Laos and is frequently depicted with both hands performing a double Abhaya mudra that is identical. Before the advent of Buddhism, this mudra was possibly employed as a symbol of good intentions, signifying friendship when approaching strangers. In Gandharan art, it is seen while depicting the act of preaching. During the 4th and 7th centuries, it was also used in China during the Wei and Sui eras. This gesture was utilized by the Buddha to subdue an elephant that attacked him, as shown in numerous frescoes and scripts. In Mahayana Buddhism, the deities of the northern schools frequently combined it with another mudra using the other hand.
A statue of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudrā made of white marble with hints of polychromy is displayed at the Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière in Burma. The iconic image of Buddhism displays Gautama Buddha sitting in meditation with his left hand in his lap, palm facing upwards, and his right hand touching the ground, known as the “earth witness” mudra. This mudra symbolizes the Buddha’s request to Pṛthivi, the earth goddess, to bear witness to his enlightenment when he was confronted by the demon king Mara.
The Bodhyangi mudrā, also known as the “mudrā of the six constituents” or the “hand gesture of insight,” involves clasping the left-hand forefinger with the right hand. This mudrā is frequently depicted on sculptures of the Vairocana Buddha.
Following his Enlightenment, the Buddha delivered his inaugural sermon at Deer Park in Sarnath, which is commemorated by the Dharma chakra or “turning of the wheel” mudrā. Typically, this mudrā is only depicted with Gautama Buddha, except for Maitreya, who is believed to be the future dispenser of the Law.
The Dharma chakra mudrā involves bringing the hands close together in front of the chest in Vitarka, with the right palm facing forward and the left palm facing upward, sometimes towards the chest. Variations of this mudrā exist, such as in the Ajanta Caves frescoes where the hands are separated and fingers don’t touch. In the Indo-Greek style of Gandhara, the right hand’s clenched fist seems to overlap the left hand’s fingers joined to the thumb. In pictorials of Hōryū-ji in Japan, the right hand is placed over the left. Amitābha figures in Japan can also be seen using this mudrā before the 9th century.
The Amitābha statue of Phật Tích Temple in Hanoi is replicated to showcase the Dhyāna mudrā, which signifies meditation and concentration on the Law and the Sangha. To perform this gesture, place both hands on the lap, with the left hand on the right and fingers stretched out (four fingers rested on each other and thumbs facing upwards towards each other diagonally), with palms facing upwards.
The shape formed by the hands and fingers looks like a triangle, symbolizing the spiritual fire or the Three Jewels. This mudra is commonly depicted in representations of Gautama Buddha and Amitābha. In some representations of Bhaiṣajyaguru as the “Medicine Buddha,” the Dhyāna mudrā is used with a medicine bowl placed on the hands. It is believed to have originated in India, specifically in Gandhāra, and in China during the Northern Wei. Although the thumbs are placed against the palms, it is heavily used in Southeast Asia in Theravada Buddhism. The Dhyāna mudrā is also known as “Samādhi Mudrā” or “Yoga mudrā” in Chinese, 禅定印 (Chán) dìng yìn, and jōin or jōkai jōin in Japanese.
The Amitābha statue at Kōtoku-in, Kamakura, showcases a variation of the Dhyāna mudra called mida no jōin, where the index fingers and thumbs are brought together. This variation was mainly used in Japan to distinguish Amitābha (hence “mida” from Amida) from the Vairocana Buddha and was not commonly used elsewhere.
The Varada Mudrā, also known as the “gesture of generosity,” represents acts of kindness, hospitality, benevolence, empathy, and authenticity. It is typically portrayed with the left hand by a venerated individual who is dedicated to liberating humanity from avarice, wrath, and ignorance. The arm may be bent, and the palm may be turned upward slightly, or the arm may be straight with the palm facing downwards, and the fingers may be extended or slightly curved.
The Varada mudrā is almost always depicted together with another mudra performed with the right hand, typically the abhaya mudrā. This mudra is often mistaken for the Vitarka mudrā, which it closely resembles. During the Northern Wei and Asuka periods in China and Japan, respectively, the fingers were initially stiff, but they gradually relaxed over time, eventually becoming naturally curved in the Tang dynasty standard. In India, the Varada mudra was utilized in images of Avalokiteśvara during the Gupta Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries. The statues of Southeast Asia extensively feature the Varada mudrā.
The Vajra mudrā, also known as the “thunderbolt gesture,” represents knowledge. One instance where the Vajra mudrā is employed is in the seventh method (out of a total of nine) of the Nine Syllable Seals.
The gesture known as the “mudra of discussion” or Vitarka mudrā, was commonly used for transmitting Buddhist teachings. It involved bringing together the tips of the index and thumb fingers while keeping the other fingers straight, similar to the Abhaya and Varada mudrās. This mudra had many variations in Mahayana Buddhism and was also used in Tibetan Buddhism as a mystic gesture for bodhisattvas and Tārās, with slight differences depending on the deity depicted in Yab-Yum. Another name for Vitarka mudrā is “mudra of explanation” or Vyākhyāna mudrā. The mudra of wisdom, or gyāna mudrā, on the other hand, required touching the tips of the index and thumb fingers to form a circle and holding the hand with the palm inward toward the heart.
The left-sided Joseon character is demonstrating the karana mudrā, a gesture believed to dispel evil spirits and eliminate hindrances like illness and pessimism. By lifting the index and pinky fingers and curling the remaining digits, one can form this mudra. Although it resembles the “sign of the horns” commonly seen in Western culture, the Karana mudra differs in that the thumb does not press down on the middle and ring fingers. It is sometimes referred to as the tarjanī mudrā and is known in Japanese as Funnu-in or Fudō-in.
Pop Cultures and Mudra, influence in Modern Media
Several Asian combat styles contain gestures that are similar to mudras. Muromoto (2003) mentions Mikkyō, Tendai, and Shingon Buddhism while discussing his experience with mudras in relation to his martial arts training. Mudras are strange hand gestures derived from esoteric Buddhism, mainly from the Tendai and Shingon sects, for those unfamiliar with them.
These gestures are intended to create spiritual concentration and strength, which are then manifested externally in some way. Muromoto (2003) claims that mudras have a lineage in martial arts and refers to Koryū, Ryū, and Kantō.
While charting a historical tributary to mudra within Japanese fighting culture. The use of mudra and other aspects of Mikkyo are found in many instances in many Koryu because Mikkyo and Shinto were the religions of the samurai who founded the ryu that were created before the 17th century. Subsequent ryu developed after the imposition of the Tokugawa government were heavily influenced by Neo-Confucianism, and then later by Zen Buddhism. Although Zen was popularized among the warrior class in the Kamakura period, the 14th century, it did not greatly affect martial arts until the latter part of the Edo Period.