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Mudras: Buddha's Hands

The Meaning of Mudras in Buddhist Art

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Buddhas and bodhisattvas often are depicted in Buddhist art with stylized hand gestures called mudras. The word "mudra" is Sanskrit for "seal" or "sign," and each mudra has a specific meaning. Buddhists sometimes use these symbolic gestures during rituals and meditation. The list that follows is a guide to common mudras.

Abhaya Mudra

The abhaya mudra is the open right hand, palm out, fingers pointing up, raised to about the height of the shoulder. Abhaya represents the accomplishment of enlightenment, and usually it signifies the Buddha immediately after his realization of enlightenment. The dhyani buddha Amoghasiddhi often is depicted with the abhaya mudra.

Very often buddhas and bodhisattvas are pictured with the right hand in abhaya and the left hand in the varada mudra. See, for example, the Great Buddha at Lingshan .

Anjali Mudra

Westerners associate this gesture with prayer, but in Buddhism the anjali mudra represents "suchness" (tathata) -- the true nature of all things, beyond distinction.

Bhumisparsha Mudra

The bhumisparsha mudra is also called the "earth witness" mudra. In this mudra, the left hand rests palm up on the lap and the right hand reaches over the knee toward the earth. The mudra recalls the story of the historical Buddha's enlightenment, when he asked the earth to bear witness to his worthiness to become a buddha.

The bhumisparsha mudra represents unshakability and is associated with the dhyani buddha Akshobhya as well as with the historical Buddha.

Dharmachakra Mudra

In the dharmachakra mudra, the thumbs and index fingers of both hands touch and form a circle, and the circles touch each other. The three other fingers of each hand are extended. Often the left palm is turned toward the body and the right palm away from the body.

"Dharmachakra" means "dharma wheel." This mudra recalls the Buddha's first sermon, which is sometimes referred to as the turning of the dharma wheel. It also represents the union of skillful means (upaya) and wisdom (prajna).

This mudra also is associated with the dhyani buddha Vairocana.

Vajra Mudra

In the vajra mudra, the right index finger is wrapped by left hand. This mudra also is called the bodhyangi mudra, the mudra of supreme wisdom or the fist of wisdom mudra. There are multiple interpretations for this mudra. For example, the right index finger may represent wisdom, hidden by the world of appearances (the left hand). In Vajrayana Buddhism the gesture represents the union of male and female principles.

Vajrapradama Mudra

In the vajrapradama mudra, the fingertips of the hands are crossed. It represents unshakable confidence.

Varada Mudra

In the varada mudra, the open hand is held palm outward, fingers pointing down. This may be the right hand, although when the varada mudra is combined with the abhaya mudra, the right hand is in abhaya and the left hand is in varada.

The varada mudra represents compassion and wish-granting. It is associated with the dhyani buddha Ratnasambhava.

Vitarka Mudra

In the vitarka mudra the right hand is held at chest level, fingers pointing up and palm outward. The thumb and index finger form a circle. Sometimes the left hand is held with fingers pointing downward, at hip level, also with palm outward and with the thumb and index finger forming a circle.

This mudra represents discussion and transmission of Buddha's teachings.

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