Buddha sculptures come in many different shapes and forms. For example, the sculpture can be depicted standing, walking, sitting or in a reclining posture. Reclining statues notwithstanding, the Buddha is usually depicting gestures with his hands that are called mudras.
Reclining statues are a depiction of the original Buddha (lying on his right side) as he is preparing to leave the earthly realm and enter paranirvana. Thus, he is not using a mudra. Although a standing, walking or seated Buddha sculpture is always using a mudra.
There are over 100 different mudras that have various meanings which help to make each Buddha statue unique. Each of these poses illustrates some significant event in the past life (lives) of the original Buddha.
Some examples include:
(1) Abhaya Mudra (protection)
(2) Dharmachakra Mudra (teaching)
(3) Dhyana Mudra (meditation)
(4) Bhumisparsha Mudra (calling the earth to witness)
(5) Vitarka Mudra (Intellectual Discussion)
(6) Varada Mudra (Boon Granting of Charity Mudra)
The protection mudra can be expressed with either the right or left hand. The palm is flat and faces forward away from the body. Additionally, the deity expressing the mudra can also be holding something in the same hand. For example, the Tara statue below holds the stem of a lotus flower between her index finger and thumb. She is expressing the Abhaya mudra with her left hand and her right hand expresses the Varada mudra.
Moreover, the statue using the mudra can be seated, standing or walking. The mudra signifies protection and overcoming. Thus, it represents both reassurance and fearlessness. Both bodhisattva and Buddha statues presenting the Abhaya mudra are very common in Buddha sculptures. This is because it represents important fundamental concepts of Buddhism.
The origins of the Abhaya mudra are derived from Buddhist folklore. The anecdote behind this mudra is that Gautama Buddha once stopped a charging elephant by raising his hand in this manner. It has since been used to inspire fearlessness and perseverance in devotees.
After the Buddha achieved enlightenment it is believed that he gave his first sermon to a companion in the Deer Park of Sarnath. The right hand is depicted palm facing outward with the index finger touching the thumb. This gesture forms a small circle which symbolizes that the “Wheel of Dharma” has been set in motion. The left hand is turned inward and the index finger and thumb of the left hand join to touch the circle. Additionally, the mudra is always displayed at chest level to indicate that it comes straight form the Buddha’s heart.
This mudra was used by the Buddha for his meditation under the bodhi tree. It is always preformed in a seated position with the back of the right hand resting on the palm of the left hand. The backs of both hands are resting in the practitioners lap with the thumbs of both hands touching to form a triangle. The Buddha sculptures display this mudra in order to symbolize peacefulness and calm. Although Buddhist adherents cannot have a bodhi tree in their meditation rooms, this Buddha statue will make a useful focus point to find inner peace and calm after a long day.
On the eve that the Buddha was to obtain enlightenment a demon called Mara appeared and tried to dissuade the Buddha. The Buddha used meditation to regain confidence and after meditating all night he was able to fight off the evil temptations of Mara.
The Buddha then called on the earth goddess to witness his triumph over evil. This mudra is preformed in the sitting position only with the left hand in the lap and the flat palm open and facing upwards. The right palm is facing inwards and is draped over the right knee with the fingers pointing towards the ground. Thus, the Buddha is calling the earth to witness the truth at the moment he obtained enlightenment. As a result, it is said that the earth goddess then rung her hair and created a flood which washed away the demon Mara. This mudra is exclusive to Gautama Buddha.
The Vitarka mudra is somewhat similar to the Dharmachakra mudra in that the right hand is held close to the Buddha’s chest. The right hand is also held palm facing outwards with the index finger touching the thumb forming a circle. The circle symbolizes the constant flow of energy signifying that there is no beginning or end, only perfection. The left hand is depicted with palm facing upwards and it is placed in the lap.
This Buddha statue shows the importance of teaching, discussion and intellectual debate. Triumph of darkness over light requires the subjugation of ignorance and it is an important virtue featured in Buddhist teachings. Therefore, discussion and intellectual debate are important tools that will prevent individuals from turning inwards and possibly blocking out the light of the Buddha’s teachings.
Boon granting or charity mudra is one of the most common mudras expressed by Buddha statues.
The palm is flat and facing forwards away from the body. Additionally, this mudra can be expressed by either hand although the right hand is most common. Furthermore, the statue can be seated, standing or walking. Buddhas and bodhisattvas use the Varada mudra to express the granting of a boon such as knowledge or compassion. For example, Bhaisajyaguru commonly uses the mudra to express granting the boon of medicine.
Additionally, Tara statues use the mudra to express their unwavering compassion and the rewards of enlightenment to faithful practitioners.