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What's a Mudra? Understanding Buddhist Art

On Sunday, March 29, 2009, Dr. Rikki Asher gave a talk entitled, "What's a Mudra? Understanding Buddhist Art" at CMC.

According to Dr. Asher, Buddhist art and images weren't produced until a few centuries after the Buddha's death. The Dharma wheel first appeared in the 1st century BCE. The twenty-four spokes of the Chakra represent the twenty-four hours of the day. Today, the Chakra is a symbol on the national flag of India.

During the 1st century BCE, craftsmen began creating Buddhist images. There were strict rules on depicting images of the Buddha, from the size of his head to the proportions of his body. The Buddha's head is usually portrayed with a bump on the top of the head symbolizing wisdom, and an urna, which is a circle in the center of the forehead, pressed in or protruding outward, also signifying wisdom. The stretched earlobes are symbolic of wisdom and nobility.

What is a mudra? A mudra is a symbolic gesture or an action that gives physical expression of an inner state, i.e. a state of being. In Buddhist art, mudras are primarily hand gestures. There are hundreds of mudras but the most common are the following:

· Abyha Mudra – a gesture of fearlessness (open hand gesture); we see this example in the "Don't Walk" pedestrian traffic lights in today's society.

· Bhumisparsha Mudra – earth-touching gesture (the Buddha calls on Earth to witness the Buddha's enlightenment)

· Dharmachakra Mudra – gesture of the turning of the Wheel of the Law (this is a symbol of the Buddha's teaching of the Four Noble Truths)

· Dhyana Mudra – gesture of meditation

· Varada Mudra – gift-bestowing gesture of compassion (the Medicine Buddha’s gift offering of medicine)

· Vitarka Mudra – gesture of explanation or debate (Dharma Drum Mountain's logo is a vitarka mudra which also depicts three mountain peaks and a side view of a monk meditating.)

Becoming familiar with the symbols can help us to demystify Buddhist art. We can also reflect on our own facial and body expressions and gestures to understand and cultivate our states of mind. At the end of the talk, Dr. Asher distributed handouts to the audience.

(By Rosemary Duong)

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