Buddha images come in a range of postures – standing, sitting, walking and reclining – to suggest different ways of reviewing Awakening. Those standing suggest a balanced authority, the sitting a collected composure, the walking a sense of engagement, and the reclining a sense of accomplishment. A Buddha image is also referred to as a Buddha rūpa.
The positions of the hands of Buddha images, called mudrā, are significant. Out of their most fundamental meaning, further implications can arise for recollections.
In the earth-touching mudrā (Bhūmiphassa mudrā), the Buddha’s right hand is touching the ground by his right knee. It symbolises the moment of his Awakening, otherwise called the ‘Repelling of Māra’.
Repelling Māra is a fitting name for this gesture in that it implies that a ‘coming to one’s senses’, reaching ground level, or actually meeting Reality, is equivalent to dispelling delusion.
In the folk culture of Buddhism it is said that at the moment when the Buddha was most beset by the terrible forces of delusion, he called upon the earth to bear witness to the countless lives he had spent cultivating virtue – giving up his life and his wealth innumerable times for the sake of others. Now he wished to tap into that great goodness, so he touched the earth to remember what he truly was – Enlightened, Awake, his mind no longer deluded by the influences of Māra.
This particular mudrā is probably the most frequently used in Thai Buddha images, and in Tibetan Buddhism, it is associated with the Buddha of the East, ‘The Imperturbable’ Aksobhya; the one who reflects without interference or destruction like a clear mirror.
In the Abhaya mudrā, the Buddha is depicted with (usually) the right hand raised in front of him (the right hand is probably the most auspicious), the palm facing outwards, the fingers pointing upwards. Abhaya means ‘no fear’, so this mudrā portrays fearlessness, or protection.
In Thailand, the posture indicates ‘Giving the Blessing’, and in Tibetan Buddhism, this mudrā is associated with the Buddha of the North – Amoghasiddhi, representing ‘the unswerving application of perseverance’ – dedication, the ability to keep going and not to be put off from realising the goal, a ‘you can do it’ gesture – all these expressions of undaunted affirmation.
In the less common, Samādhi or Dhyāna mudrā, that of the Buddha of the West, the hands are placed together in the lap, signifying the Buddha’s concentrated mind, enjoying a state of serenity, and of bliss.
In Japan, the Pure Land school is associated with this Buddha, the Buddha of good fortune, well-being and blessings.
In the Dāna mudrā, the hand is shown touching the ground, but with the palm facing outwards in a bliss-bestowing gesture, the Buddha giving his qualities to the world. This is the Buddha of the South, the mudrā of charity and generosity, especially giving the gift of knowledge. The mudrā is mostly associated with Nepalese and Tibetan images, the Buddha in this posture being known as Ratnasambhava, the ‘Jewel-Originated’.
In the Dhammacakka mudrā, the curled forefinger of each hand touches the thumb to form a closed circle, the rest of the fingers radiating out like the spokes of a wheel, a gesture offering the teachings. The right hand is held higher than the left.
The Dhammacakka mudraa is specifically associated with the Buddha’s teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path: the establishing of the Dhamma.
Caring for Buddha Images
Because of the religious symbolism and the gratitude for the teachings which they evoke, it is important that such Buddha images are handled with respect and due reverence.
They should not be picked up by the head, placed on the floor, stepped over or used for any inappropriate purpose such as a door-stop, bookend or toy, when the need to move them arises, this, ideally, should be preceded by making a~njali first and then moving them by holding the base only with the hands.
In similar fashion, copies of the scriptures, religious and chanting books should be respected by not placing them directly on the floor, or, if there is no alternative, by protecting them with a suitable cloth whilst in use. If articles in journals have to be disposed of, then burning or recycling them is more appropriate than throwing them into a dustbin.
In the Tibetan tradition, white scarves (kata) are commonly placed around the neck of the Buddha ruupa as a sign that one is making an offering. (Food and water are also seen as appropriate offerings to place on shrines).
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