Although the mudra’s mentioned below are the Four Most Common Buddhist Mudra’s seen in Buddha statues, imagery and art in Burma/Myanmar it is by no means comprehensive, there are many others but are rarely seen or not so common.
Four Most Common Buddhist Mudra’s
The Buddha’s hand gesture in Abhaya Mudra shows the Buddha standing with his right hand bent at the elbow with palm facing outwards and fingers extended upwards at the level of the heart. This mudra is usually seen with the opposite hand representing another mudra and sometimes seen with both hands in Abhaya mudra.
The Abhaya mudra is the gesture of fearlessness, it stands for assurance, tranquillity and protection, as well as devoting oneself to the salvation of mankind. It is shown when the Buddha is in a walking or standing position and in the seated position.
The figure of the standing Buddha’s hand gesture in Abhaya Mudra represents the incident of the attempted assassination of the Buddha by assassins at the instigation of Devadatta a cousin of the Buddha.
Abhaya in Sanskrit means fearlessness.
Dharmacakra Mudra also referred to as the preaching or teaching mudra, symbolizes the first preaching of the law by the Buddha upon attaining enlightenment in the deer park at Sarnath, in the city of Benares, where he explains and teaches the Dharma, the true knowledge he obtained though his own experiences. This mudra whether standing or sitting suggests setting the “wheel of the law in motion”.
This mudra is depicted in Burmese Buddha Statues, Buddhist iconography and in Burmese art, although not as common as the Bhumisparsa mudra.
Images from India of the Buddha’s hand gesture in Dharmacakra mudra from the Gupta period onward show the left hand held near the heart with the tips of the middle finger and the thumb joined together and palm facing the heart. The right hand shows the tips of the thumb and the forefinger touching each other so as to form a circle with the remaining fingers open. The palm of the hand is faced away from the body with left hand overlapping the fingers on the right hand.
The Gandhara image of the Buddha in Dharmacakra mudra is different. The palm of the left hand held in cup form is turned upwards and that of the right hand turned towards the heart with left hand thumb and forefinger touching the pinkie on the right hand. There are variations of this posture also.
The three extended fingers on the right hand represent the three vehicles of the Buddha’s teaching:
- The pinkie (smallest finger) represents the Mahayana or Great Vehicle
- The middle finger hearers of the teachings
- The ring finger solitary realisers.
The three extended fingers on the left hand symbolize the three jewels of Buddhism:
This mudra is also commonly seen in Buddha images and Buddhhist art of Japan and China.
Bhumisparsa Mudra relates to the most important event in the life of the Buddha, depicting the moment of attaining enlightenment. This mudra shows the Buddha with the left hand resting on his lap, palm facing upwards. The right-hand palm falls over the right knee with all fingers extending downwards. In images of the Buddha the fingers touch the pedestal or throne on which he is seated and is commonly referred to as “the touching earth mudra”.
The Bhumisparsa Mudra indicates the moment when Siddhartha Gautama ceased to be a Bodhisattva, (future Buddha) and became the enlightened Buddha. This mudra is commonly found in Burmese Buddha statues, paintings, wall murals and iconography.
This mudra illustrates the event prior to the Buddha’s enlightenment when the evil demon Mara who thought the seat of enlightenment belonged to him tries to seduce the Buddha through his three beautiful daughters named Desire, Pleasure and Passion, but the Buddha remained steadfast.
Mara then himself attacked the Buddha by shooting arrows at him. After this failed to distract the Buddha from his path, Mara called his army of followers, represented as demons, monsters, whirlwinds, floods and earthquakes. The Buddha still remained unshaken, and in anger Mara proclaimed loudly that there was nobody near at hand to witness his enlightenment, the Buddha remained steadfast and replied by calling the earth to bear witness, and to testify to his attainment of perfect knowledge and enlightenment.
The scene of the seduction of the Buddha by Mara’s daughters is depicted on the bottom front of this Pagan Buddha statues.
The Dhyana Mudra is also referred to as samadhi mudra, meditative mudra or samahita mudra.
This Mudra shows the back of the right hand placed in or on top of the left hand and together they rest on the lap both facing upwards. This is the attitude of ardent meditation. Sometimes a medicament or alms bowl or a vase may rest in the palm.
Unlike the bhumisparsa mudra, this mudra belongs to several events in the life of the Buddha both before and after his enlightenment.
Some of these events:
- After hearing the news that his wife Yasodhara had given birth to a son one morning, he sat up in bed that same night and saw her sleeping as though dead
- When he performed his first meditation after renunciation
- After six years of fasting and penances, he rejected extreme asceticism and accepted Sujata’s rice and alms. This alms bowl can be seen in some of the Dhyana Mudra hand gestures
- When he sat with his alms bowl in his lap under the hood of Muchalinda Naga. It has been said that after enlightenment there was a great storm in Bodhgaya with torrential rain for several days. At this time a Naga king named Muchalinda protected the Buddha by coiling his body around him and spreading his hood to protect him from the rain. These scenes are depicted in many art forms and sculptures of the Buddha
- When sitting in the house of gems (Ratanaghara) meditating on the abhidhamma in the fourth week after his enlightenment. Abhidhamma is the higher teaching of the Buddha, also referred to as the ultimate teaching (paramattha desana)
- On his second visit to Rajagriha after enlightenment when King Bimbisara presented to the Buddha a peaceful and secluded haven called the Veluvana “Bamboo Grove”
- When he reformed the proud and arrogant King Jambupati. In this scene the Buddha is dressed in royal attire with full regalia to humble King Jambupati. In the dhyana mudra he is holding a medicant bowl in his hands.
The majority of Burmese Buddha statues show the Buddha with the right hand in Bhumisparsa mudra and the left in Dhyana Mudra sometimes holding an alms bowl of medicament bowl with a few showing the Dhyani Mudra gesture.