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The Meaning of the Positions of the Buddha

Updated on January 9, 2010

Buddha Statues depict the Buddha's in Various Mudras, Each with their Own Meaning

This lens discusses the various poses seen in Buddha statues known as Mudras. Each Mudra has a religious and symbolic meaning and is associated with the Buddha's teachings or path to enlightenment.

What is a Mudra?

The word Mudra means "sign" or "seal" in Sanskrit. A Mudra is a symbolic hand position or gesture. Its purpose is to evoke specific concepts of Buddhist philosophy in the mind during meditation or as part of Buddha iconography. The role of the Mudra in Buddhist art is very similar to that of symbols used in Christian art such as the cross. A Buddha statue, sculpture or painting will always depicted the Buddha in Mudra. Along with their symbolic role, Mudra also play a role in ritual meditation, particularly in Tibetan Buddhism.

Lotus Buddha or Meditation Buddha

Displaying a statue of Buddha is often used as a tool for meditation. They symbolizie Buddhism's founder,Siddhartha Gautama, whose journey of enlightenment became the basis of the Buddhist Faith . The goal is a state of existence where suffering does not exist called Nirvana. When one has achieved Nirvana, the cycle of rebirth and death ends. The Buddhist religion stresses mental discipline and the ability to follow the eight fold path as the key to achieving Nirvana.

Often the Buddha is perched atop a lotus flower symbolizing purity and divine birth. One Buddhist quote suggests, "the spirit of the best of men is spotless, like the new Lotus in the muddy water which does not adhere to it."

In the Lotus Buddha statue the position of the hands or mudra position the fingers of the righ hand atop of the left hand. While the hands rested gently in the lap, the legs are crossed. Left foot is placed on the right with the ball and heel foot exposed and the right foot is placed on the left leg in the same posture. This position is commonly used for meditation and relaxation and is known the lotus position.

It's quite common to the see a Buddha statue sitting atop a lotus flower in the meditation pose. Do you have a Buddha statue in your home? Examine the hands and posture of the Buddha. If the hands are folded in the lap and the feet are crossed with the balls of the feet pointed toward the sky, this is the lotus pose.

The Buddha Dispelling Fear

Stories from Buddhist mythology frequently refer to the Buddha's use of the dispelling fear pose to pacify the enemies who threatened him. Only a Buddha statue or bodhisattva sculpture would show this Mudra, as it is only useful to those who have achieved enlightenment.  In Laos and Thailand, the dispelling fear pose is most commonly seen in images of Buddha in a standing position.This mudra is associated with the fifth Dyhani Buddha, Amoghasiddhi.  The five Dyhani Buddhas are the 5 wisdom Buddhas or great Buddhas who represent the core qualities of the Buddhist philosophy. They are often represented as the cardinal directions - North, South, East, West and then Center .  

Those wishing to combat feelings of jealousy and bring a deeper meaning to one's own success.  Jealousy is a negative emotion that can be interpreted as a form of fear, so the dispelling fear pose makes sense.In most statues of Buddha in the dispelling fear pose the right hand assumes the Abhaya Mudra while the left hand hangs at the Buddha side. Sometimes the left-hand takes the varada mudra, a gift-giving gesture.  Another symbolic meaning of the dispelling fear pose is an interpretation of the action of preaching.

Turning the Wheel of Dharma

The Dharmachakra Mudra is also known as Turning the Wheel of Dharma. It symbolizes the moment that the Buddha preached his first sermon after achieving enlightenment. It can be thought of us a symbolic gesture of the Buddha setting into motion the wheel of the teaching of Dharma. The wheel itself is the wheel of law which consists of eight spokes that represent the Noble Eightfold path. These are Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Each a part of the Buddhist philosophy of pursuit of Wisdom, Ethical Conduct and Mental Development.

In this wheel of Dharma pose, the tips of the thumb and index finger of both hands touch to form circles. This represents the wheel of Dharma. It can be thought of in metaphysical terms as the union of method and wisdom. The other fingers are extended and each has a symbolic significance.

On the right hand the middle finger symbolizes those who hear the teachings of Buddha. The ringer finger is the represents the solitary realizers. The little finger is the Mahayana or Great Vehicle. The fingers of the left hand are the three jewels of Buddhism - the Buddha, the Sangha and the Dharma. The proper position for this mudra has the hands placed in front of the heart to represent the teachings that emanate directly from the Buddha's heart.

Calling the Earth to Witness or 'Earth Touching'

Known by many names, the 'earth touching' pose of the Buddha is the Bhumisparsha mudra, which means literally 'touching the earth.' A mudra is a motion or gesture of the hands and body to express a thought. Mudras are the foundation of Buddhist meditation rituals. Buddha statues are often depicted in the earth touching mudra which is also known as 'the earth witness' position.

To perform this mudra, the hand is placed on the ground with all fingers touching. The palm faces inward. It's believed that Buddha assumed the earth touching position after he achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree to call the Earth goddess to witness the event. For this reason, the pose is also known as 'Summoning the Earth Goddess to Witness.'

In the earth touching pose, the right arm rests on the right knee with the fingers extended downward. This position is one of the most common mudras seen in Buddha statues. The left hand rests in the lap, palm up in the mudra of meditation (dhyana mudra). The combination of mudras is intended to symbolize the union of wisdom and method, Nirvana and Samasra. Buddhist teachings tell the tale of how Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, assumed the earth touching pose to resist against the temptations and distractions of the demon Mara who sought to lure the Buddha from his spiritual life. In Buddhist folklore, Mara was viewed as everything from an all powerful demon to a gremlin-like nuisance. This demon was a symbol of temptation who summoned beautiful temptresses to distract the Buddha from his spiritual journey much like the sirens of Greek Mythology

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