Unlocking The Meaning Of Buddhist Mudras: A Guide To Understanding Symbolic Hand Gestures

Symbolic Buddha Hand Mudras & Gestures

Often when you look at any Buddhist artwork, be it a thangka or sculptures, you can witness hand gestures or strange positions the hands seem to be in. It is a recurrent pattern. Such hand gestures are called 'mudra,' or, more definitively, symbolic hand gestures based on significant finger patterns and postures to evoke a wanted state of mind or to communicate a specific idea. This guide will cover all of the fundamentals of all mudras.

What are mudras?

Mudras are symbolic hand gestures or postures used in various spiritual and cultural practices. They have a long history in Buddhism and are integral to meditation, ritual, and artistic expression. Mudras are believed to channel and direct the flow of prana, or life force energy, in the body and enhance meditation and ritual practice. In this context, mudras are seen as a way to "seal" or "stamp" the intention or essence of the practice and to connect with the divine similar to its Sanskrit origin, i.e., the word "mudra" meaning "seal," "gesture," or "mark."

In Buddhism, mudras are requisite in expressing and invoking particular states of consciousness, emotions, and energy and connecting with the divine. They have a long history in Buddhism and are integral to meditation, ritual, and artistic expression. Mudra has its roots in ancient India, with the Vedas, ancient Indian scriptures from the second millennium BCE featuring mudras for the first time. Hand gestures were utilized in the Vedic tradition to carry out ritual tasks and to evoke the gods' favor. Over time, mudras evolved in Buddhist practices for meditation and ritual to evoke specific qualities or states of consciousness and to connect with the divine. 

How many mudras are there in Buddhism? 

Picking down a substantial number of mudras takes a lot of work. Still, in Buddhism, only five significant mudras have been retained, with other mudras being variations or derivations of these five main mudras. Such mudras are usually depicted as carried out by religious leaders like the Buddha and bodhisattvas to transmit themes in particular episodes of the Buddha's life, an effective educational and storytelling tool. 

  • Abhaya Mudra Abhaya Mudra
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    The Abhaya Mudra is one of the five commonly depicted mudras in Buddhism and is associated with the fifth transcendental Buddha. It symbolizes peace, protection, fearlessness, and friendship. It can be performed either with the right, left, or both but in most Buddhist art; the Buddha is depicted performing the mudra with his left hand, denoting a warning or a command to halt. It inspires confidence and courage in those who practice it and the cultivation of wisdom and compassion. 

    Abhaya mudra practice: cross-legged, sit comfortably and relax your body. Bring your right hand up to shoulder level with the palm facing outwards. Extend your fingers and thumb, keeping them close together, and relax your wrist. Inhale a few times deeply and concentrate on the sense of security and tranquility that the mudra evokes.  

    • Dharmachakra Mudra Dharmachakra Mudra
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      It is a more complex mudra commonly used in Buddhist iconography, is associated with the first Dhyani-Buddha. The mudra is named after the Dharmachakra, often known as the "wheel of law," and alludes to the Buddha's first-ever sermon at Sarnath in which he taught the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. It denotes conveying teachings and gaining wisdom. 

        Dharmachakra mudra practice: gather your hands together in a circle at chest level, with the tips of your index fingers touching the tip of your thumbs. Keep your left hand with the palm facing inward and your right hand slightly above the left with the palm facing outward. Gently touch the tips of the index finger of your right hand to the tip of the index finger of your left hand to form a wheel-like shape. Relax your shoulders, take deep breaths, and focus on the purpose of the mudra. Imagine the Buddha's teachings entering your being, dispelling ignorance and suffering.   

        • Bhumisparsha Mudra Bhumisparsha Mudra
        Also known as the earth-touching mudra, represents the moment when the Buddha attained enlightenment. It invokes the earth goddess and stands for the triumph against evil intent and seduction. A significant mudra alludes to the time of achieving Buddhahood as he claimed the earth as his witness to his realization. Often depicted on statues and images of the Buddha, used to inspire spiritual aspiration and determination. 

          Bhumisparsa mudra practice: sit comfortably and place your right hand over your right knee with your fingers extended downwards to touch the ground. Relax your shoulders and focus on the symbolism of the mudra, and sense the moment Buddha attained enlightenment. Combine this gesture with the upturned left hand on the lap in the dhyana mudra to signify the union of skillful means and wisdom. 

          • Varada Mudra Varada Mudra
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            Associated with the third Dhyani-Buddha, it is often also called the 'boon-granting' mudra. The hand gesture is thought to signify generosity, keeping promises or vows, and ideas of salvation and rescue. It is frequently used with a two-handed motion to represent the combination of the feminine and masculine parts of wisdom and agency.  

            Varada mudra practice: extend your left arm downwards and slightly away from the body with the palm facing forward and fingers pointing downward. Relax your shoulder and take deep breaths while focusing on the meaning and purpose of the mudra.   

            • Dhyana Mudra Dhyana Mudra
            Also known as meditation mudra, is used for meditation and contemplation. This mudra symbolizes the relationship between method and wisdom in meditation, with some interpretations suggesting that it is a means to achieve enlightenment by transcending the world of appearances. Dhyana mudra is often used in meditation practices and is associated with cultivating inner peace, clarity, and a meditative state of awareness.

              Dhyana mudra practice: sit cross-legged on the floor or a cushion, with your back straight and your hands resting on your lap, palms facing up. Bring your right hand over your left, and touch the tips of your thumbs together to form a triangle. This represents the union of wisdom and method. Allow your mind to become calm and clear, and cultivate a meditative state of awareness.

              Why You Should Practice Mudras?

              Mudras are a primary feature of the Indian subcontinent's art and culture; consequently, it is also an integral part of Buddhist art, symbolism, and practice. In the artistic context, these mudras are also used to convey non-verbal meanings, ideas, and emotions. Similarly, in Buddhism, these hand gestures carry deep meanings and are believed to aid in spiritual development by invoking specific spiritual states and values.

              Tibetan Buddhist Mudras can help to cultivate mindfulness and concentration, connect with particular qualities or energies, and symbolize spiritual concepts. The five main mudras commonly depicted in Buddhist art have a rich history and significance. Practicing mudras can help one connect with the teachings of the Buddha, and it is essential to approach them with respect, understanding, and a mindful intention. Through the practice of mudras, one can deepen their spiritual practice, cultivate inner peace, and embody the teachings of the Buddha. 

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