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Buddhas with Attitude

Buddhas with Attitude

Story by Ron Emmons / CPA Media (15 October, 2021)

Buddhas with attitude? Surely that's a contradiction in terms. Though we often hear of politicians with attitude, singers with attitude or athletes with attitude, the notion of a Buddha (or Buddhist) with attitude just doesn't fit. The reason is that Buddhists try to control their feelings; when they experience something they strongly like or dislike, they acknowledge the feeling but try not to let it lead to a knee-jerk reaction. “Having an attitude” stands in stark opposition to the Buddhist goals of equanimity and self-effacement.

Yet in a different sense, Buddhas do have attitude. Another meaning of the word refers to the posture of the body, and when talking about a Buddha image, its attitude refers to the symbolic hand gesture (or mudra, to use the Sanskrit term) that the image is performing. For most Westerners, the beauty of a Buddha image is judged by the material it is made of, by the quality of craftsmanship and perhaps by the expressive features of the face. Yet for Buddhists who view the same image, the gesture communicated by the Buddha's hands has a meaning that adds another dimension to the image. In order to share this esoteric knowledge, it is necessary to delve into the mysterious world of Buddhist iconography.

Before focusing on the significance of the Buddha's hand gestures, let us consider the postures of the Buddha, of which there are only four – sitting, standing, walking and reclining. The great majority of Buddha images in Thailand are in a sitting posture, though many Sukhothai-era images show the Buddha standing or walking. Reclining Buddhas, such as the massive 46-metre long image in Wat Po, Bangkok, are the only ones which do not display mudra with their hands. Incidentally, the reclining Buddha is usually thought to represent the Buddha passing into Nirvana, though sometimes he is seen as just resting prior to passing on.

As the Sanskrit origin of the word mudra suggests, the development of a codified set of hand symbols finds its origins in Hindu art and Indian dance and drama, but it was then adapted to relate to Buddhist teachings and to key events in the Buddha's life. Though there are many different positions of the hands displayed by Buddha images, only a few of these are commonly seen, and it is these that concern us here.

Probably the easiest mudra for Westerners to understand is the dhayana mudra, signifying meditation, in which the right hand lies on the left in the lap, both palms facing upwards, while the Buddha is sitting cross-legged. In many images the hand gesture is complemented by a facial expression of serene detachment. When Buddhists see an image performing this mudra, they are reminded that the only way to grow spiritually is through the mental discipline of meditation.

The dhayana mudra, however, is not the most commonly seen hand gesture of Buddha images in Thailand. That accolade goes to the bhumisparsa mudra, which wins by a landslide. Probably over ninety percent of Buddha images in Thailand are portrayed sitting cross-legged, with the left hand resting palm-up in the lap, as in the meditation gesture, but with the right hand reaching over the knee to make contact with the ground (in extremely rare cases the touching action is performed with the left hand). This mudra is known as ‘Calling the Earth to Witness' or ‘Subduing Mara', and needs a little explanation.

When the Buddha was sitting beneath the bo tree at Bodh Gaya on the eve of his Enlightenment, he was taunted by the demon Mara who offered great riches, power and sensual pleasure, but after a great struggle the Buddha resisted and touched the Earth to invoke the Earth Goddess to witness his victory over temptation. The gesture thus embodies the concept of imperturbability, and can be interpreted as the inner battle we all face with our own demons that seek sensual gratification. One of the reasons for the high incidence of Buddhas depicted in this attitude is that the main image at the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya in India, where the Buddha attained Enlightenment, was in the bhumispara mudra, and was copied by other temples in countries far away. Another reason for its popularity is that this was probably the most significant event in the Buddha's entire life.

Both the dhayana and bhumispara mudra are found only in sitting Buddhas, but the vitarka mudra may be seen in either sitting or standing Buddhas, and is more frequent in the latter. In this attitude, the Buddha's right or left hand is held up near the chest with the thumb and forefinger touching, forming a circle, while the other three fingers are extended upwards. The significance of this gesture is instruction, reminding devotees that the only route to Nirvana is by the Middle Way (between the extremes of asceticism and worldliness).

Another gesture most frequently found in standing Buddhas, though in rare cases in sitting Buddhas too, is the varada mudra. In this attitude, the Buddha's right arm, or occasionally the left, hangs at his side with the palm facing outward – a gesture that signifies charity or compassion. This gesture is sometimes used in combination with others; for example, a Buddha image may perform the vitarka mudra (thumb and forefinger touching) with the right hand, and the varada mudra with the left.

The last of the commonly seen mudras is the abhaya mudra, in which the Buddha's right or left forearm is bent upwards with the palm facing outwards and fingers pointing upwards, not unlike a policeman attempting to stop traffic. Once again, this attitude is usually seen in standing Buddhas, though on rare occasions it may be seen in sitting Buddhas too. The meaning is dispelling fear or reassurance. In a variation on this mudra, both forearms are raised and both palms face outward – a double abhaya mudra, which is particularly common in Laos. In fact Luang Prabang, the former royal city in Laos, is named after such an image. This posture is known as ‘calming the ocean' and refers to the need for humans to control their passions.

Apart from Buddhas in these attitudes, many Thai temples exhibit a line of seven small Buddha images that represent the different days of the week, usually with bowls for offerings in front of them. Briefly they are as follows. Sunday is a standing Buddha with hands clasped lightly in front of the thighs, right over left – a mindful attitude that is used in walking meditation. Monday is a standing Buddha performing a single or double abhaya mudra. Tuesday is a reclining Buddha and Wednesday is a standing Buddha holding an alms bowl, a reminder to ask for nothing in life and take only what is given. Thursday is a sitting Buddha in the dhayana mudra, while Friday is a standing Buddha with arms crossed on his chest, right over left, signifying deep reflection. Finally, Saturday is similar to Thursday, a Buddha sitting in the dhayana mudra, though in this case he is sheltered by a naga king.

For anyone curious to see Buddha images in a wide range of unusual attitudes, a visit to the central courtyard at Wat Benjamabophit (the Marble Temple) in Bangkok or the cloisters around the Phra Phatom Chedi at Nakhon Pathom, 50km west of Bangkok, can be a rewarding experience. A less demanding exercise would be to memorize the mudra for the day of your birth, and next time you're in a temple, make a small offering to the bowl in front of that figure, then spend a few minutes contemplating the significance of that Buddha's attitude. The experience might even tempt you to take a few more steps along the dharma trail.

Text by Ron Emmons; Photo by Ron Emmons - CPA Media