Oṃ muni muni mahāmuni śākyamuni svāhā
Om muni muni mahamuni shakyamuni svaha
Shakyamuni was almost certainly the first enlightened figure to be visualized. There’s a beautiful passage in the Sutta Nipata (an early Buddhist text) where Pingiya talks about how he is never separated from the Buddha. He says that at any time he wishes he can see and hear his teacher, even though he lives hundreds of miles from where the Buddha dwells.
Shakyamuni’s mantra is a play on his name. Muni means sage. Maha means great. So the mantra reads "Om wise one, wise one, greatly wise one, wise one of the Shakyans, Hail!"
Also this mantra is commonly found in the following form:
Om muni muni mahamuni shakyamuniye svaha
This form has the name of Shakyamuni in the dative form, so that it reads “Om wise one, wise one, great wise one, to the wise one of the Shakyans hail!”
This is actually the more common form of the mantra in Sanskrit, although in Tibetan the mantra is in the “Tibeticized” version of the shorter form given above: Om muni muni maha muni shakyamuni soha – “soha” being the Tibetan rendering of “svaha.”
Click below to hear an MP3 version of the Shakyamuni mantra:
- a is pronounced as u in cut
- ā is like a in father
- u is like the sound in put or foot
- v is pronounced halfway between English v and w. If in doubt, then a w sound will do
Shakyamuni is an honorific of the historical Buddha, meaning "Sage of the Shakyans," the Shakyans being the tribal republic where the Buddha-to-be was born.
The term “Buddha” is itself an honorific, meaning Awakened One, and Shakyamuni’s actual name was Siddhattha Gotama (Sanskrit: Siddhartha Gautama), Gotama being the family name.
The Buddha was not a God, but a human being who attained an extraordinary insight into the nature of existence: an insight that rid his mind of delusion, hatred, and craving, and which allowed him to attain true happiness, free from suffering.
Standing Buddha, Gandharan style
The Buddha is also known as the Tathagatha, (The One-thus-come or The One-thus-gone), as well as the Sugata (Well-Gone One), Bhagavan (Blessed One), and the Jina (Conqueror).
In considering the Buddha’s life story it’s often hard to separate fact from later elaboration, and even some basic facts, such as the date of his birth, are questionable. The fact that stories about the Buddha are exaggerated or even mythological doesn’t of course negate their value. Often mythology is an attempt to communicate psychological truths in a very accessible and even visceral way.
The links below will guide you through some of the key events in the life of the Buddha, will explain the iconography of Buddha images, and will comment on the myths surrounding the Buddha’s life.
The Buddha’s biography: Birth
According to orthodox Theravadin belief, the Buddha was born in 563BCE, although a second tradition, originating in India, dates his birth to around 450BCE. Modern scholarship’s dates suggest he was born around 485BCE (BCE means “Before the Common Era” and is a non-Christian way of saying “BC”). Unfortunately Indian culture at that time didn’t place much value in keeping dated records.
Mayadevi gives birth to the future Buddha, surrounded by attendants.
The Buddha was born into the republic of the Shakyan clan at a time when the republics were being absorbed by the powerful monarchies of the Ganges basin. He was born in or around village called Lumbini, which is in modern-day Nepal, near the Indian border, and brought up in the city of Kapilavastu.
While the cultures of the Ganges basin, where the Buddha was later to teach, had evolved a rigid caste structure with the Brahmins (priests) having the highest social standing, the Shakyan culture of northern India was less socially stratified. However, according to the Buddha’s own account, he had a privileged upbringing, and his father was almost certainly part of the ruling oligarchy. Quite possibly all land-owning males would have been part of the tribal council, so this may have been nothing special in itself, but the Buddha’s father may well have been one of the more powerful members of the clan.
The Shakyans regarded themselves as warriors (Kshatriyas), although most were probably farmers and the Buddha’s father himself is portrayed as ploughing the land. Whether this was the ceremonial act of an honored leader (like a modern-day politician laying the corner-stone of a new building) or whether it was part of his daily activities is impossible to say.
The later Buddhist tradition promoted the Buddha’s father to “King” and had the Buddha-to-be as a “Prince.” This confusion would have arisen partly because of the fact that in the cultures of the Ganges basin where the Buddha spent most of his adult life teaching a “khatriya” was the term used for the kingly class. At the same time, religious traditions have a tendency to elevate their leaders, and we can compare the Buddha’s “royal” background to the Christian tradition that Jesus was of the line of King David.
The Buddha’s mother is said to have died seven days after giving birth, but even this is controversial. There is at least one place in the Pali canon where the Buddha talks about leaving his father and mother: “While my parents, unwilling, were crying with tears streaming down their faces — I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.”
We should bear in mind that in the biographies of heros it’s common for the mother to die in labor, and this event can be taken to signify the otherworldly power of the hero-to-be, whose potent life-force is such that the mother is worn out by bearing him. So it’s possible that “Queen” Mayadevi’s death after childbirth is a later invention designed to boost the heroic status of the Buddha.
As in many hero stories, the Buddha’s birth is said to have been surrounded by miraculous events. Mayadevi is said to have been visited in a dream by a white elephant that impregnated her. You can compare this to the Christian myth of Mary having been visited by the Holy Ghost.
And just as Christ was supposed to have been the result of a virgin birth (avoiding the messiness of human conception) the Buddha is said to have been born from his mother’s side (avoiding contact with the vagina, which would have been seen in that culture as unclean).
Lastly, Mayadevi is said to have given birth standing up under a tree. Thus, the Buddha’s mythic life story has him born, enlightened, giving his first teaching, and dying under different trees.
Additionally, a sage, Asita, is said to have warned Siddhartha’s father at the birth of the child that the baby would grow up either to be a great king or a great holy man. Suddhodana, the father of the Buddha-to-be, therefore resolved to keep his son from any intimation of suffering or religion so that he would follow the kingly path.
The Buddha’s biography: The Four Sights and the Going Forth
Siddhartha apparently grew up in conditions that were considered luxurious at the time, and had a sheltered life. It’s said in fact that he was completely protected from any hint of old age, illness, or death, by being confined by his father to three palaces, one for each of the Indian seasons.
The following events are often attributed to Shakyanuni, but in the early scriptures they describe the life of an earlier, mythical, Buddha called Vipassi.
At one time in Vipassi’s early adulthood he became curious to see life outside the palace walls and he took a journey with his charioteer to see the sights of Kapilavastu.
It was at this time that the he first saw an old person, a sick person, and a corpse. In each case he was shocked to realize that these fates were inescapable: that he too would get old, become prey to illness, and would die. We can certainly take this story metaphorically.
Along with the sights of an old person, a sick person, and a corpse, Vipassi also saw a sadhu, or wandering holy man. This sight gave him the idea that a life or religious and philosophical questing might be a way to find out how best to live, might in fact be the best way of living. So he began a new life by cutting off his hair, swapping his finery for common robes, and wandering off into the forest to seek spiritual Enlightenment.
It’s likely that Buddha Shakyamuni did in fact have a privileged life, giving little thought to his own mortality or to those around him, although we can consider the problems inherent in literally hiding the fact of death from a young man when his mother has died, or in keeping him from an awareness of illness in a premodern culture with primitive medicines and an abundance of infectious diseases.
The Buddha-to-be surrounded by female attendants as he lives in luxury.
And it’s also likely that at one occasion, as if for the first time, the Buddha had the shocking realization that life was short and that he was one day going to die. This realization jarred him into thinking about what the purpose of life was. How best to live when you know that one day you’re going to be on your deathbed? “How,” he asked himself, “do I find security and wellbeing in this world when everything is impermanent? How can I find reliance in an unreliable world?”
He seems to have had a spiritual crisis in which he saw people’s striving for status and wealth to be utterly vain:
I will tell of how
I experienced dismay.
Seeing people floundering
like fish in small puddles,
competing with one another —
as I saw this,
fear came into me.
The world was entirely
All the directions
were knocked out of line.
The Buddha goes forth into the homeless life.
In later texts Siddhartha is described as leaving home in the middle of the night, creeping away unseen, but in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta — a major source of biographical detail — he talks, as was seen above, about his parents weeping as he left. Although the later tradition may be seeking to dramatize the story, I can’t help feeling that the period of conflict with his parents as Siddhartha came to the decision to leave home was in itself sufficiently dramatic.
These incidents are said to have taken place when Siddhartha was 29 years of age, but this, like most other “facts” of the Buddha’s life, is open to question. The Buddha, looking back on his life, described himself at the time of his Going Forth as “a black-haired young man endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life.” While 29 can be considered as relatively youthful today in the West, where the average person can expect to see his or her late seventies, a 29-year-old would probably have been considered to be well into adulthood at that time in India.
The Buddha’s biography: Spiritual Quest and Awakening
The Buddha found two principle teachers in his quest for Awakening: Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta (Uddaka was the disciple of Rama, his father, whose teachings he promulgated). These teachers seem to have been adept meditators who explored mystical states of mind. The Buddha is said to have excelled at exploring these altered states of consciousness, but was convinced that true insight continued to elude him.
Exalted states of mind may be blissfully enjoyable, but they inevitably end, they can be seen as escapist or even selfish, and they bring no answer to the problem of death itself. Pleasant meditation experiences also do not provide life with a sense of meaning.
Siddhartha seems to have considered even at that time in his life that a major problem in life is dealing with desire, which is the source of much of our suffering. While the meditations on no-thingness and non-perception that he was practicing brought an attenuation of desire, and therefore reduced his suffering, desire still remained, albeit as a quasi-dormant force.
Siddhartha then experimented with extreme asceticism, which at that time was seen as a powerful spiritual practice. The idea behind ascetic practice was that the body, with its appetites and instincts, was the source of desire and therefore of suffering. If the desires of the body could be mastered through fasting, holding the breath, and exposure of the body to pain, then the spirit would be liberated from desire and would be free to experience unending bliss.
The Buddha, however, found that these ascetic practices brought no genuine spiritual benefits and in fact, being based on self-hatred, that they were counterproductive and that the logical outcome of their practice was that he would die of starvation. He therefore decided to give up these practices and was rejected by the small gathering of followers that had gathered around him.
The Buddha-to-be during his ascetic phase.
He is said then to have recalled sitting quietly under a Rose-apple tree in his youth, watching his father plowing a field, and slipping effortlessly into a natural absorption calle the first dhyana, and decided that this was a more promising path to the spiritual Awakening that he sought.
I thought: “I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?” Then, following on that memory, came the realization: “That is the path to Awakening.”
The significance of this can, however, appear to be puzzling, given that Siddhartha had subsequently experienced even more exalted states of mind during his time with Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. It’s possible that the essential difference was that the childhood experience was free from striving, although that’s not entirely convincing. It seems likely, from the Pali account, that the Buddha had realized that his ascetic practice had made him afraid of experiencing pleasure, and convinced that awakening could only be found through painful means:
So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?
The Buddha’s biography: The Awakening
At Uruvela on the bank of the Nerañjara River, having broken his fast and having regained his strength, Siddhartha once more began exploring the path of meditation, and developed an extraordinary degree of mental concentration, accompanied by great bliss. Neither of these things in themselves bring spiritual awakening, so the key point here is that he had gained the tools for developing penetrating insight.
He had developed a state of equanimity in which he responded to pleasure and pain without either pushing them away or clinging to them. He had clung to pleasure and pushed away an awareness of suffering in his early life and in his meditation training with his two teachers, and he had clung to suffering and seen pleasure as a dangerous distraction during his ascetic phase. These approaches had caused suffering rather than dispelling it. In this new phase of his spiritual path he had found a middle way, accepting both pain and suffering without craving or aversion.
He had also developed great stability of mind — onepointedness — that allowed him to reflect deeply. With one-pointed attention, Siddhartha examined the nature of suffering, and realized that all suffering comes from craving. He also saw that all of the things that we try to cling to in life are impermanent and insubstantial; there is no being, only becoming; there are no things, only processes.
Because all things are impermanent, there is in reality nothing to cling to. Penetrating deeply into the reality of this, Siddhartha let go of the very basis of craving, and attained spiritual awakening, free from suffering. He had become the Buddha, the Awakened One.
This spiritual realization did not come easily. On the eve of his awakening (or shortly afterwards, according to some traditions) the Buddha was assailed by the demon, Mara, who is a personification of the forces of delusion. In the simplest and least mythological account of this confrontation, the Buddha describes sensual desire, hunger and thirst, and various other distractions as being Mara’s tenfold army.
In other accounts the confrontation is teased out and expanded. In one tale, Mara sends his daughters to distract the Buddha. In another he sends his sons in the form of a ferocious army — literal this time rather than figurative — to create fear and distraction. When both of these approaches fail to divert the Buddha from his quest, Mara turns to the sneakiest trick of all, adopting the guise of a lawyer (thanks for Dharmacari Saramati for this witty observation) and questions Siddhartha’s right to sit on the diamond throne.
The Buddha dismisses this last attack by calling the earth goddess, Drdha, to witness his lifetimes of spiritual practice.
We can take these accounts to indicate that the Buddha’s enlightenment was not a pleasant journey through mental states of ever-ascending sublimity, but involved a deep and prolonged encounter with the darker forces in his psyche.
The Buddha’s biography: Teaching
At first the Buddha was unsure whether his insight — subtle as it was — could be communicated. According to legend, as he debated whether or not to teach, Brahma Sahampati (“Brahma, Lord of the Earth”) appeared and entreated the Buddha to share his insight with others.
Brahma Sahampati is most senior of the Mahabrahma deities, a collection of gods (but not creator gods — those don’t exist in Buddhism) with subtle forms and long life. Brahma Sahampati points out, in a famous simile, that there are some in the world “with but little dust on their eyes” who would be receptive to the Buddha’s teaching.
This tale can be taken to represent the arising of altruistic side of the Buddha’s awakening. Awakening, it seems, is not a single event but a succession of changes. The Buddha first found liberation from suffering by penetrating into the impermanent and contingent nature of all experiences, and only later did compassion arise. It is only after his initial insight that he became aware that that insight could also benefit others.
Buddha teaching first five disciples.
The Buddha then had to think about whom to teach. He became aware psychically that Uddaka Ramaputta and Alara Kalama, his former teachers, were dead, and so his mind turned to the five ascetics who had deserted him when he abandoned asceticism. Therefore he set off in search of his former companions.
When the five ascetics first saw Shakyamuni approaching them at at the Deer Park in Isipatana, near Benares (modern-day Varanasi) they decided to snub him, but it soon became obvious that something was different about him and they welcomed him with warthm and curiosity.
The Buddha was able to persuade the ascetics that he had not, by giving up asceticism, abandoned the spiritual path, and he told them that he was now a Tathagatha, a Arhat (worthy one), a Buddha.
Then began what must have been an extraordinary seminar in Awakening. Although the texts describe the Buddha making a standard presentation of the four noble truths and the eightfold path, he must surely at this early stage have been groping for ways to express the depth of the insight that he had gained. Eventually, Kondañña came to see what the Buddha meant and understood: “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.”
The successful transmission of the lineage of Awakening from the Buddha to Kondañña is seen in the Buddhist tradition as being, if anything, even more significant than the Buddha’s own enlightenment. When Kondañña gained insight the earth is said to have shaken and a cry is supposed to have gone up from the very heavens:
“At Varanasi, in the Deer Park at Isipatana, the Blessed One has set in motion the unexcelled Wheel of Dhamma that cannot be stopped by priest or contemplative, devas, Mara, or God or anyone at all in the cosmos.”
None of this happened when the Buddha himself became enlightened. That was a more sedate and a quieter affair, with no supernatural partying! So why is it so important that the Buddha managed to communicate his experience?
We should consider first that the Buddha was not, according to tradition, the first human being to become enlightened. Millennia previously, tradition holds, there had been another Buddha, Kassapa, who had established his own lineage, but this had died out. Also, there had been many other “Pratyeka Buddhas” or solitary Buddhas, who had been unable to establish lineages. The reasons for this are muddled. Pratyeka Buddhas are sometimes said to be lack ability in teaching or to lack sufficient compassion to teach, but this doesn’t fit with the descriptions of Pratyeka Buddhas in the Indian oral tradition, where Pratyeka Buddhas are depicted as living in communities with disciples.
But whatever the reason, the point is that enlightenment had been both lost and found many times over, and so it was marvelous first of all that Siddhartha had become the Buddha, but even more significant that he had managed to start a transmission lineage: something that is of great significance to us, 2,500 years later, as we continue to participate in this lineage.
Eventually, all five of the ascetics “got it” and the Buddha entreated his enlightened disciples to go out and teach out of compassion in order to benefit living beings:
“Go forth for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the good and the happiness of gods and men.
“Let no two of you go in the same direction. Teach the Dharma which is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and beautiful at the end.
“Proclaim both the letter and the spirit of the holy life completely fulfilled and perfectly pure.”
The Buddha’s biography: Teaching (Cont.)
The Buddha maintained his mission, continually wandering around India, teaching and practicing meditation, for the rest of this life. He taught householders and wandering ascetics. He taught men and women, and formed both a male and female monastic tradition. He taught commoners and kings. He taught lepers and outcasts. He debated teachers and followers of other traditions. He disdained the caste system and regarded all people as having the same potential for Awakening. He found innumerable ways to explain his basic insight and the way to attain it.
The Buddha, in the time between his awakening in his mid-thirties and his death at eighty, tirelessly walked from city to city in northern India and in the Gangetic plain, crossing and recrossing vast distances on foot. For the three months of the rainy season he stayed put, usually living in small, makeshift huts. For the remainder of the year he walked. He lived by going from door to door begging food, and eating whatever was put in his bowl. He generally lived near towns and cities so that he could live in relative solitude but still be available to teach the locals.
The Buddha taught profound philosophy but could also express himself in simple, direct language. He frequently in taught in metaphor to help people understand his teachings.
The Buddha never wrote, and may in fact have been illiterate, but this was at a time when writing was reserved for mundane activities and when the human memory was more reliable than texts, which were written on dried leaves and which were subject to fire, dampness, and the predations of insects. The Buddha’s disciples memorized the key points of his teachings and passed them on by word of mouth, giving early Buddhist texts their sometimes irritatingly repetitive form.
The Buddha established a spiritual community (Sangha) which persists to the present day and which has expanded worldwide. He founded a body of teachings that has found ever-knew ways of expressing the spiritual path as it has encountered new cultures and new times.
The Buddha’s biography: The Death of the Buddha
At the age of eighty the Buddha, who had been frail but tireless for some time, contracted food-poisoning as a result of eating some bad mushrooms offered by a disciple (sometimes the foodstuff in question is translated as pork, which could well be the sace since the Buddha live by begging food). Although in great discomfort, the Buddha kept teaching right up until the end, and in Kusinara he gave his final teachings and took care of some business, such as ordaining one last bhikkhu (monk) and giving instructions for the discipline of a particularly obstinate monk.
Parinirvana of the Buddha.
Finally, he checked to see if there were any final doctrinal or practical questions that his followers may have had, and then gave his final utterance, “Impermanent are all things; with mindfulness, strive on,” before passing away.
After the Buddha’s death his body was cremated and his ashes interred in a stupa, or reliquary.
The Buddha’s death is known as his Parinirvana (Pali: Parinibbana) or final Nirvana. Shakyamuni steadfastly refused to say what happens to a Buddha after death, saying that it was beyond the comprehension of the unawakened mind. While on a shallower intellectual level this lack of explanation may be frustrating, with more reflection it’s possible to appreciate that the unaided intellect has its limits, and that some truths must be approached experientially.
Iconography of the Buddha Śākyamuni (or Shakyamuni)
This page doesn’t seek to give a complete history of Buddha images, but simply introduces some elements of their origins and early development.
As far as is known, during the Buddha’s life and during the first few centuries thereafter, no images were made. This seems to have been a sign of respect, and an acknowledgement that the Buddha was too transcendent a figure to be represented visually.
Those who by my form did see me,
And those who followed me by voice
Wrong the efforts they engaged in,
Me those people will not see.
Although these words are from a much later text (the Diamond Sutra) than the period we’re discussing, they sum up neatly the problem with relating to the Buddha in terms of his visual image. The Buddha is the Buddha by virtue of his insight into the nature of reality, by virtue of his realization of the Dharma. This truth was expressed by the Buddha himself when he said, “Yo Dhammam passati so Buddham passati,” or, whoever sees the Dhamma sees the Buddha. To truly see the Buddha, to see his essence, we need to recapture the same experience of Awakening that made him what he was.
The empty throne.
So it was probably for reasons such as these that the Buddha’s form was not originally shown in images. For centuries, the Buddha would be represented by an absence. The Bodhi tree, beneath which the Buddha became enlightened and beneath which he must often have taught, is shown, complete with a seat made of heaped kusa grass. But where the Buddha would be, there is only space: an empty throne.
Sometimes the Buddha is represented in another way that is ingeniously a statement both of presence and of absence; his footprints — larger than life and often full of elaborate symbols — are shown. These giant footprints are symbolic of the massive effect that the Buddha had on Indian culture, while cleverly avoiding showing the Buddha himself.
The Buddha’s footprints.
Other aniconic representations of the Buddha include: The Wheel, representing the Dharma; Lions (just as the lion is chief amongst animals, so the Buddha is chief amongst sentient beings); the lotus, representing purity and wisdom; the parasol, a symbol of royal status; and, after the Buddha’s death, the stupa, or reliquary.
Earliest known Buddha Image
The earliest known Buddha image that can be confidently dated is the Bimaran casket.
The Bimaran Casket.
Unearthed in the 1800’s, the casket contained coins of the Indo-Scythian king Azes II, suggesting a date around 30BCE to around 10BCE. The casket shows the standing Buddha (center) with the right hand in the Abhaya (fearlessness) mudra. He is flanked by the gods Brahma (right) and Sakka (left).
The iconography is already quite sophisticated, and if the date is accurate then presumably there were earlier Buddhist images that have not survived or have not been found.
Many of the earliest Buddha images are from the Gandharan area of northern Pakistan, from the first century CE. In this region and time, classical Greek culture, brought by the invading forces of Alexander the Great, met Indian culture.
One of the finest and most enduring fruits of this meeting of cultures was Gandharan Buddhist art, which included Hellenic depictions of the Buddha. Unlike Indian Buddhists, the Greeks had no reservations about creating religious icons, and the Gandharans produced exquisite sculptures of the Buddha, based on Greek representations of Apollo, complete with Greco-Roman toga.
Gandharan standing Buddha.
One early Buddha image can be seen on this Kushana dynasty (first century CE) coin, which depicts a standing Buddha on the reverse side and the inscription “BODDO.” This coin is from the reign of King Kanishka I, who encouraged the development of Gandharan art.
Kushana dynasty coin.
Regionalization of Buddhist Art
From the Gandharan period onwards, as Buddhism reached other cultures (Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Tibet, Japan, etc), Buddha images were produced in the local style, and also reflected the local ethnicity. For example, Chinese images of the Buddha show the Buddha as Chinese, and Japanese images show him as Japanese. Western artists have continued this trend and images of the Buddha as a European are in place in many Buddhist centers in Europe, Australia, and North America. There are probably images of the Buddha as an African, although I’ve never seen one.
The various mudras (hand gestures) in images of the Buddha generally refer to different events in his life, express different aspects of his life and mission, or both.
The main mudras of the Buddha are:
- Dhyana mudra (meditation)
- Bhumisparsha mudra (earth-touching)
- Abhaya mudra (fearlessness)
- Vitarka mudra (teaching, or wheel-turning)
- Varada (giving)
There are two main forms of Dhyana mudra, which represents the Buddha in meditation (the meaning of the word “dhyana”).
Dhyana (Meditation) Mudra.
In the simplest form the right hand is laid on top of the left with the thumbs touching. In the form shown (more common in far eastern art) the thumb and index finger of each hand make a circle.
The dhyana mudra is the “default” gesture of the Buddha, and simply reflects his realization. The Buddha spent much of his life in meditation, and is described at times as going off for solitary retreats in order to concentrate on his practice away from the bustle of the spiritual community he had founded.
The Buddha’s dhyana mudra is shared with the archetypal Buddha, Amitabha.
The bhumisparsha, or earth-touching mudra, is connected with the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Bhumisparsha (Earth-Touching) Mudra.
It’s said that on the eve of his awakening the Buddha experienced doubt in the form of a demon, Mara, who challenged his qualifications to sit on the diamond throne (vajrasana) where all previous Buddhas had gained enlightenment. In response the Buddha touched the ground with his right hand, calling forth the earth goddess to bear witness to his practice over countless lives. The earth-touching mudra therefore communicates the Buddha’s confidence and his ancient lineage.
The archetypal Buddha, Akshyobya, shares the earth-touching mudra with Shakyamuni.
The abhaya (fearlessness) mudra shows the right hand held, palm open, at the shoulder. The hand is relaxed.
Abhaya (Fearlessness) Mudra.
This gesture is traditionally associated with a time when the Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, who was jealous of his power, tried to kill him by prompting a wild elephant to charge into his path. The Buddha subdued the animal by raising his hand in this gesture of fearlessness.
The Buddha’s advice on handling fear was basically to “feel the fear and do it anyway.” When fear arises we just experience it and keep on with whatever activity we were engaged with.
The abhaya mudra is also found in images of the archetypal Buddha, Amoghasiddhi.
The Vitarka, or teaching mudra, can be made by one or both hands, and is a supremely delicate gesture.
Vitarka (Teaching) Mudra.
The right hand is held up, the palm outwards. The index finger and thumb of the right hand make a closed circle, with the other fingers extended in a relaxed manner.
The left hand varies. In some cases the middle finger and thumb touch to make a circle, while in others it’s the thumb and index finger. Usually the palm faces the chest, the hand is held a little lower than the left, very close to the right hand. Sometimes the left hand is simply in dhyana mudra.
This mudra is also known as the “wheel-turning,” or Dharmachakra mudra. The Dharma is the Buddha’s teaching, and “chakra” simply means wheel. The Buddha is said to have begun “turning the wheel of the Dharma” when he first taught the five ascetics at Issipatana after his Enlightenment.
The metaphor here is not particularly clear, but the Dharma is often symbolized by an eight-spoked wheel. This wheel is clearly a solar symbol, with the spokes representing the rays of the sun, the sun being the foremost of all celestial objects just as the king is the highest social status amongst unenlightened mortals.
The wheel was a therefore a kingly symbol in ancient India. This association may have been enhance by the fact that the chariot had been the “super-weapon” that had allowed the northern Aryans to conquer the native peoples of the Indus valley and beyond.
Lastly, a friend once told me that the wheel-turning gesture was very similar to that made in starting a spinning-wheel, and since the Buddhist word for a teaching — “sutra” — literally means “thread” it seems conceivable that there was originally some sense of the Buddha setting forth the turning of the spinning wheel what gave rise to the “threads” of the Dharma.
This mudra is also shared with the archetypal Buddha, Vairochana, who is the central Buddha in the five Buddha mandala.
The varada mudra, or gesture of giving, involves either the right or the left hand, which is held, with the arm held naturally by the side, palm outwards. This mudra may be seen on both seated and standing Buddha images.
Varada (Giving/Blessing) Mudra.
The gesture symbolizes both giving and blessing. The Buddha’s life was characterized by giving and this mudra can be connected with the Buddha’s decision to teach after the entreaty by Brahma Sahampati. The Buddha’s life from that point forth consisted entirely of giving.
If the left hand is used for the varada mudra, usually in standing figures, the right is often in the gesture of fearlessness.
This mudra is also seen in Tara and in Ratnasambhava, the Buddha of the South.