Tag Archives: Buddhism

Buddhism 101: More on Hand Mudras; Mudras: Meaning of Sacred Hand Gestures

Mudras are sacred hand gestures or positions that used to evoke a state of mind. The Sanskrit word “mudra” means “seal”, “mark”, or “gesture”. In Tibetan the word is ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ or “chakgya”. Each of these sacred hand gestures has a specific meaning. Many of them symbolize major moments or events in the Buddha’s life.

In this beautiful photo by Olivier Adam, an elderly nun in Zanskar shows a novice nun how to make the Mandala Offering Mudra.

8 Mudras and their Meaning

Sacred hand gestures or mudras are often depicted in Buddhist art. In this blog we’d like to share descriptions and images of some common mudras. The list here is not exhaustive.

The Earth Witness Mudra

When Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was meditating under the Bodhi tree, he was assailed by the demon Mara, who tried to disturb his mind. Mara represents the passions that trap and delude us. Siddhartha refused to be tempted from the path to enlightenment and he called on the earth to witness his worthiness to become enlightened, saying, “The earth shall be my witness, I will not let myself be seduced.” In the Earth Witness Mudra, (also known as the Bhumisparsa Mudra or Gesture of Witness), the historical Buddha is seated in the meditation posture and touches the earth with the fingertips of his right hand, palm facing inwards. The left hand is placed in the lap with the palm facing upwards.

In this detail from a thangka print, the historical Buddha is depicted seated in meditation and calling the earth as his witness.

The Mudra of Meditation

The Mudra of Meditation (dhyana) is made by placing both hands on the lap, right hand on the left, with the palms facing upwards, the tips of the thumbs touching, and the fingers fully stretched. This mudra helps to calm the mind for meditation and is used for deep contemplation and reflection. The mudra of meditation is a characteristic gesture of the Buddha Shakyamuni.

This ancient stone sculpture shows the Buddha with his hands in the Mudra of Meditation

The Namaskara or Anjali Mudra

This mudra, while not found in representations of the Buddha or other deities, is commonly used by nuns, monks, and lay people to symbolize devotion, prayer, and admiration. Called the Namaskara Mudra or the Anjali Mudra, it is used as a common form of greeting in most Asian countries. Anjali is a Sanskrit word which means “salutation” or “to offer” and Namaskar is Hindi for “good day”. To make this mudra, you bring your palms together in front of your heart space, fingers pointing upwards, and thumbs close to the chest, to symbolize honor, respect, and devotion.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama holds his hands together in greeting and in offering respect to others. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Mudra of Holding the Jewel or Manidhara Mudra

The Mudra of Holding the Jewel looks very similar to the Namaskara Mudra or the Anjali Mudra shown above. Also called the Manidhara Mudra, it is made by holding one’s hands together in front but with the palms and fingers slightly arched, holding the precious, wish-fulfilling jewel. This jewel or gem is also depicted in Tibetan prayer flags, carried upon the back of the Lung Ta  or wind horse. This sacred hand gesture of holding the jewel is a mudra of Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. The Tibetan word for Avalokiteshvara is Chenrezig (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་). The Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Chenrezig,

An elderly nun in Zanskar places her palms together in devotion, holding the wish-fulfilling jewel, a mudra associated with Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan: Chenrezig). Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

The Mandala Offering Mudra

The Mandala Offering Mudra is a complex and sacred hand gesture that acts as a symbolic offering of the entire universe for the benefit of all sentient beings. Performing the Mandala Offering Mudra helps to reduce one’s attachment and to purify the clinging mind. Although this mudra is usually made together with prayers and Buddhist chants, non-Buddhists can also perform it to receive its spiritual benefits.

A Tibetan Buddhist nun performs the Mandala Mudra with her mala (Buddhist prayer beads). Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

To make this complex mudra, sit in meditation pose with your back straight. Calm your breathing and visualize offering the mandala – the universe – to the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and all holy beings, giving with great joy and with purity of heart. Place your hands palms up and intertwine your fingers. With the tips of your thumbs, press down on the tips of the opposite little finger. Then, with the bent tips of your index fingers, press down on the tip of the opposite middle finger. Finally, take your ring fingers, unclasp them, and put them back to back, pressing the backs together and with both fingers going straight up through the center. Together the ring fingers symbolize Mt. Meru, the sacred mountain, and the four continents described in Buddhist cosmology.

A Tibetan Buddhist nun in Zanskar performs the mandala offering mudra. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

Vitarka Mudra or Teaching Mudra

The Vitarka Mudra (the Mudra of Teaching or Discussion) is a common mudra representing the discussion and transmission of Buddhist teachings. It is formed by joining the tips of the thumb and index finger together to form a circle, keeping the other three fingers pointing straight up. The circle formed by the joined fingers symbolizes perfection with no beginning or end.

This mudra is usually made with one hand, most often the right one, with the hand held upward close to the chest and the palm facing outward. However, the mudra may also be made with both hands held in front of the chest, with each index finger and thumb joined in a circle. When two hands are used, the left palm faces inward and the right palm is turned outward. The Teaching Mudra represents the Buddha’s first teaching after becoming enlightened. It also symbolizes the “Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma” or Dharmachakra. There are a great number of variations of this mudra in Mahayana Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is the mystic gesture of Taras and bodhisattvas.

This sculpture shows the mudra of teaching or the Vitarka Mudra, with the tips of the thumb and index finger joined to form a circle.
In this detail from a thangka print, White Tara is holding an utpala flower in her raised left hand. The tips of her thumb and fourth or ring finger are touching. This is a gesture of good fortune and shows that, by relying upon her, one may accomplish complete purity of mind and body.

Generosity Mudra or Varada Mudra

The Varada Mudra is the gesture of generosity, charity, and compassion. It is commonly found in representations of the Green and White Tara. This sacred hand gesture represents the granting of blessings, wishes, or even pardon. It also symbolizes the “gift of truth” – the precious gift of the dharma or Buddhist teachings. In the Varada Mudra, the palm faces out and hangs down, usually touching the right leg. This mudra is often used in conjunction with another mudra. The five fingers represent the five perfections: generosity, morality, patience, diligence, and meditation.

Detail of a thangka print depicting White Tara and showing the outward facing palm and downward hand of the Varada Mudra or Mudra of Generosity.

Mudra of Fearlessness or Abhaya Mudra

Abhaya in Sanskrit means fearlessness. The Mudra of Fearlessness or the Abhaya Mudra symbolizes the dispelling of fear. It can look to Westerners like the common hand gesture for “stop”. The mudra is made by raising the right hand to shoulder height, with the arm bent and the palm facing outward. This mudra is more commonly depicted in standing images.

This very ancient hand gesture is also a sign of peace and friendship. Placing one’s hand up and open in this way indicates that one is free of weapons and comes in peace. In Buddhism, the mudra shows the fearlessness and therefore the spiritual power of the Buddha or bodhisattva who makes it.

It is said that the historical Buddha made this sacred hand gesture immediately after gaining enlightenment. At a later time, the Buddha was about to be attacked by a mad elephant. The poor animal had been fed alcohol and tortured by one who hoped to use the elephant as a weapon against the Buddha. The elephant, enraged and in pain, charged at the Buddha and his followers. While others ran away, the Buddha stood calmly, raising his hand in the gesture of fearlessness. He felt great love and compassion for the stricken elephant. In response, the elephant stopped in its charge, became calm, and then approached the Buddha and bowed its head.

A giant Buddha statue in Hong Kong shows the seated Buddha with the mudra of fearlessness or the Abhaya Mudra

A note about the images of mudras: The thangka prints shown in this blog post were donated to the Tibetan Nuns Project by a generous donor. A range of thangka prints are available through our online store, with all proceeds from sales going to help the nuns. We are very grateful to Olivier Adam for sharing his beautiful photos. Many of his photos are available as cards through our online store. Prints of Olivier Adam’s photographs are available through his Etsy shop, Daughters of Buddha.

Additional Sources

YouTube links to videos of some Buddhist hand mudras.

Reference

Buddhism 101: Hand Mudras

Fancy/Veer/Corbis / Getty Images

Mudras are a silent language of self-expression used in Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Mudra hand gestures or poses are often used in yoga practice, meditation, and for healing purposes.

Anjali Mudra
Alternate Name: Namaste Anjali. photo © Joe Desy

The Anjali mudra is used as a salutation or greeting such as gassho or namaste.

How to form the Anjali mudra: Hands are held together in prayer fashion directly over the heart/chest. 

Pushan Mudra

Give and Take Gesture Pushan. photo © Joe Desy

The Pushan mudra demonstrates the understanding that life energy moves with ebb and flow motion.

How to form the Pushan mudra:
Right hand: Thumb, index finger, and middle finger touch at tips. Ring finger and pinky fingers are fully extended.
Left hand: Thumb, middle finger, and ring finger touch at tips. Index and pinky fingers are fully extended.

Apana Mudra

Earth Connection Apana. photo © Joe Desy

The Apana mudra has a grounding force to help you connect with the earth’s energies whenever you are feeling off balance or flighty.

How to form the Apana mudra: Tips of thumb, middle and ring finger are joined. Pinky and index fingers are extended.

Hakini Mudra

Rememberance Mudra Hakini Mudra. photo © Joe Desy

The Hakini mudra helps thinking and concentration. Powers the brain.

How to form the Hakini mudra: Hands and fingers are open and spread apart. Join hands together at the thumbs and fingertips.

Mantangi Mudra

Hindu Goddess of Peace Mantangi. photo © Joe Desy

The Mantangi mudra reates an atmosphere of calmness and serenity. Tames conflicts. This hand gesture resembles the trunk of an elephant.

How to form the Mantangi mudra: Fold both hands together with fingers inter-twined. Extend both middle fingers outward and point them toward the skies.

Akash Mudra

Heart Mudra Akash. photo © Joe Desy

The Akash Mudra helps to “center” your energies. It nourishes any part of your body that is lacking.

How to form the Akash mudra: Thumb and middle finger are joined. Index, ring, and pinky fingers are extended.

Vajra Mudra

Alternate Name: Fist of Wisdom Vajra. photo © Joe Desy

The Vajra mudra transforms ignorance into wisdom. Symbolizes the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and metal.

How to form the Vajra Mudra: Right-handed fist surrounds left index finger. Remaining fingers of left hand also form a fist below the right hand.

Gyan Mudra

Grounding Gyan. photo © Joe Desy

The Gyan mudra represents the starting place or home. It takes you back to your roots, or a simpler time. Clears the mental facilties.

How to form the Gyan mudra:Thumb and index fingers touch at tips. Middle, ring, and pinky fingers are relaxed, curved slightly.

Ushas Mudra

Stimulates Sacral Chakra Ushas. photo © Joe Desy

The Ushas mudra gesture helps to spark creativity and enliven sexuality. Good catalyst for new projects.

How to form the Kubera mudra:
Females: Interlaced fingers with palms facing upwards. Encircle right thumb between left thumb and index fingers.
Males: Interlaced fingers with palms facing upwards. Right thumb rests on top of left thumb with gentle pressure.

Garuda Mudra

Mystical Bird Garuda. photo © Joe Desy

The Garuda mudra is used to heighten intuition and enable communication with the spirit world.

How to form the Garuda mudra: Place right palm over the top of left hand, spreading fingers apart and crossing thumbs.

Vitarka Mudra

Reasoning Mudra Vitarka.

The Vitarka mudra, a symbol of wisdom, is a variation of the Dharmachakra mudra.

How to form the Vitarka mudra: Thumbs and index fingers of both hands join at tips forming circles. Left hand sits upon lap palm facing upwards. Right hand is held at shoulder height with palm facing downwards.

Prana Mudra

Symbolized Life Force Prana. photo © Joe Desy

The Prana mudra can be used whenever you feel drained or need an extra boost of energy. Good to use in the morning to awaken and fully embrace the new day.

How to form the Prana mudra: Thumb, ring, and pinky are touching. Index and middle finger are extended.

Buddha Mudra

Receptivity Buddha. photo © Joe Desy

The Buddha symbolizes being humble and learning to be grateful. Palms are open to receive gifts.

How to form the Buddha mudra:Both palms open. Rest one hand inside the other hand’s open palm. Thumb tips are touching (traditionally, right hand rests on left for men, left on right for women).

Shunya Mudra

Alternative Name: Heave Mudra Shunya. photo © Joe Desy

The Shunya mudra assists listening and speech. Primarily a remedy for ear afflictions.

How to form the Shunya mudra:Lower the middle finger and place finger pad on the fleshy mound area of your thumb, cover it with your thumb. Index, ring and pinky fingers are extended.

Kubera Mudra

Manifestating / Wish Mudra Kubera. photo © Joe Desy

The Kubera mudra is used for creating wealth and reaching your goals.

How to form the Kubera mudra: Tips of thumb, index, and middle fingers are joined. Ring finger and pinky are folded into the palm.

Uttarabodhi Mudra

Enlightenment Uttarabodhi. photo © Joe Desy

The Uttarabodhi mudra is a gesture that identifies with a supreme power. Symbolizes perfection.

How to form the Uttarabodhi mudra: Index fingers touch one another and are extended, pointing toward the skies. Remaining fingers are crossed and folded down. Thumbs are cross or held next to each other. Clasped hands are held over the head.

Dharmachakra Mudra

Teaching Dharmachakra. photo © Joe Desy

The Dharmachakra Mudra symbolizes the role of the teacher.

How to form the Dharmachakra mudra:Thumbs and index fingers are joined. Middle, ring, and pinky fingers are extended in a relaxed fashion. With left palm facing the body and right palm faced outward join thumbs and index fingers of both hands.

Bhutadamar Mudra

Protection – Wards Off Evil Bhutadamar. photo © Joe Desy

The Bhutadamar mudra serves as a shield keeping negative energies away.

How to form the Bhutadamar mudra: Palms are facing outwards away from the body. Wrists are crossed. Ring fingers are placed down toward the palms.

Ahamkara Mudra

Self Confidence Ahamkara. photo © Joe Desy

The Ahamkara mudra can be used when you are feeling “less-than” or fearful.

How to form the Ahamkara mudra: Index finger is bent slightly. Place thumb on the middle of bent index finger. Middle, ring and pink fingers are extended.

Dhyana Mudra

Meditation Pose Dhyana. photo © Joe Desy

The Dhyana mudra is universally used during meditation and relaxed states.

How to form the Dhyana mudra: Hands form a cup or bowl. Thumbs touch at the tips or comfortably overlapped.

Yoni Mudra

Femininity Yoni. photo © Joe Desy

Feminine Adi Shakti Primal Power Mudra – The Yoni Mudra represents getting in touch with female energies. Symbolizes a woman’s vulva.

How to form the Yoni mudra: Hands form an almond shape with joined thumbs extended upwards. Fingers are joined at tips extended downwards.

Prithivi Mudra

Alternate Name: Earth Mudra Prithivi. photo © Joe Desy

The Prithivi mudra recharges the root chakra aligning it with earth energies.

How to form the Prithivi mudra: Tips of thumb and ring finger are joined. Remaining fingers are extended.

Kapitthaka Mudra

Happiness Kapitthaka. photo © Joe Desy

Smiling Buddha Mudra

How to form the Kapitthaka mudra: Index and middle fingers are held beside each other while extended. Ring and pinky fingers are tucked inside the palm. Thumbs rest on tucked fingers.

Shankh Mudra

Alternate names: Conch or Shell Mudra Shankh. photo © Joe Desy

The Shankh mudra is commonly used during worship or prayer.

How to form the Shankh mudra: The left thumb is placed on the center of the right palm. The right hand forms a firm grip around the left thumb. The left hand rests against the right fist. Right thumb touching the left index finger.

Kalesvara Mudra

Calms Anxieties Kalesvara. photo © Joe Desy

The Kalesvara mudra calms anxious thoughts and agitated feelings.

How to form the Kalesvara mudra: Place both palms together pairing thumbs and all fingers at tips. Fold index, ring, and pinky fingers downward. Middle fingers are extended outward. Point thumbs toward your body.

Linga Mudra

Protective Mudra Linga. photo © Joe Desy

The Linga mudra is used as a remedy for the lungs, guarding against colds and cold weather. Strenghens immune system.

How to form the Linga mudra: Interlace fingers of both hands, extending one thumb upwards, encircle extended thumb with the index finger and thumb of your other hand.

Mukula Mudra

Closed Lotus Mukula. photo © Joe Desy

The Mukula Mudra’s appearance resembles the bud of a lotus flower. Represents new beginnings or start up a new enterprise.

How to form the Mukula mudra:All fingers and thumb are joined together, pointed upwards.

Surabhi Mudra

Alternate Name: Dhenu Mudra Surabhi. photo © Joe Desy

Balances the five elements: Air Fire Water Earth and Metal

How to form the Surabhi mudra: Fingers and thumbs are joined at tips. Thumbs touching each other. Left index finger joins right middle finger. Right index finger joins left middle finger. Left ring finger joins right pinky finger. Right ring finger joins left pinky finger.

Mida-no Jouin Mudra

Dual Worlds Meditation Pose Mida-no Jouin. photo © Joe Desy

The left hand mirrors the right hand representing two worlds: Enlightment and Illusion

How to form Mida-no Jouin mudra: Middle, ring, and pinky fingers create a flat or slightly curved bed resting upon the lap. Two circles are formed with index fingers held together while extended upwards meeting the tips of both thumbs.

Suchi Mudra

Releasing Suchi. photo © Joe Desy

Helpful for chronic constipation. Tames uncontrolled behaviors such as impatience, temper tantrums, clinging to others, etc.

How to form the Suchi mudra: Form a fist, extend index finger pointing up and out away from the body, preferrably arms are extended over the head.

Abhayaprada Mudra

No Fear Abhayaprada. photo © Joe Desy

Abhayaprada mudra is a protective hand gesture symbolizes strength or being fearless.

How to form the Abhayaprada mudra:Hand is held upward with palm facing away from your body.

Varada Mudra

Charity Mudra Varada. photo © Joe Desy

The Varada mudra pose is customarily used whenever a blessing is being offered.

How to form the Varada mudra: Fingers and thumb are downwards. Flattened palm facing outwards away from the body

Ganesha Mudra

Overcoming Obstacles Ganesha. photo © Joe Desy

The Ganesha mudra can be employed whenever you are struggling. Symbolizes strength when facing troubles. Eases tension.

How to form the Ganesha mudra: Palm of your right hands facing your chest. Left hand grasps the right hand forming a locking grasp, tugging firmly.

Mahasirs Mudra

Tension Reliever Mahasirs. photo © Joe Desy

The Mahasirs mudra is used to help give relief for head-related afflictions. Headaches, stress, tension, etc.

hHow to form the Mahasirs mudra: Thumb, index and middle fingers are joined at tips. Ring finger is folded into the palm and tucked into the fleshy part of the thumb. Pinky is extended.

Mushti Mudra

Releasing Mushti. photo © Joe Desy

The Mushti mudra is used as an outlet for “letting go” or releasing pent up emotions or energies.

How to form the Mushti mudra: Hold hand in a fist with thumb placed over the ring finger.

Bhudy Mudra

Intuition Bhudy. photo © Joe Desy

The Bhudy mudra helps you get in touch with your innermost feelings.

How to form the Bhudy mudra: Pinky and thumb tips are touching. Index, middle, and ring fingers are extended.

Mudras Poster: 36 Healing Hand Gestures– Download Free PDF format
Mudra: Gestures of Power DVD – Buy Direct

Reference

  • Desy, Phylameana lila. “Mudra Photo Gallery.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/mudra-photo-gallery-4051990.

Buddhism 101: Aspects and Tenets of Buddhism

Marvin Fox / Getty Images

Buddhism is the religion of the followers of Gautama Buddha (Sakyamuni). It is an offshoot of Hinduism with many variations in practices and belief, including vegetarianism, in some, but not all branches. Like Hinduism, Buddhism is one of the major religions of the world with probably more than 3.5 million adherents. Common threads of Buddhism include the 3 jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha ‘community’), and the goal of nirvana.

The Buddha

Buddha was a legendary prince (or the son of a nobleman), who founded the major world religion (c. the 5th century B.C.). The word Buddha is Sanskrit for ‘awakened one’.

The hanging lobes of the Buddha are supposed to represent wisdom, but originally they likely showed the Buddha’s ears weighed down with earrings.

Dharma

Dharma is a Sanskrit word and concept with different meanings in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. In Buddhism, Dharma is a “truth” which is held in high regard as one of the 3 jewels. The other 2 jewels are the Buddha and the Sangha ‘community’.

8-Fold Path to Enlightenment

Nirvana is spiritual enlightenment and release from human suffering, lust, and anger. One way to nirvana is to follow the 8-fold path. All 8 paths contribute to and show the “right” way. The 8-fold path is one of the Buddha’s 4 Noble Truths. The 4 Noble Truths deal with eliminating duhkha, or ‘suffering’.

Following the 8-fold path can lead to enlightenment and nirvana. Bodhi is ‘enlightenment’. It is also the name of the tree under which the Buddha meditated when he achieved enlightenment, although the Bodhi tree is also called the Bo tree.

The Spread of Buddhism

After Buddha died, his followers enhanced the story of his life and his teachings. The number of his followers also increased, spreading throughout northern India and establishing monasteries where they went.

Emperor Ashoka (3rd century B.C.) inscribed Buddhist ideas on his famous pillars and send Buddhist missionaries to various parts of his empire. He also sent them to the king of Sri Lanka, where Buddhism became the state religion, and the teachings of the form of Buddhism known as Theravada Buddhism were later written down in the Pali language.

Between the fall of the Mauryan Empire and the next (Gupta) empire, Buddhism spread along the trade routes of Central Asia and into China and diversified.

Great monasteries (Mahaviharas) grew important, especially as universities, during the Gupta Dynasty.

Sources

“An Introduction to Buddhist Archaeology,” by Gina L. Barnes. World Archaeology, Vol. 27, No. 2, Buddhist Archaeology (Oct., 1995), pp. 165-182.

Bodhi. (2009), Bo tree. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 17, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-9080360, http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-9015801.

“Buddhas and Bodhisats,” by B. A. de V. Bailey. Parnassus, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Feb., 1940), pp. 26-30+51.

Buddhism. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 19, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:

“Buddhism” A Dictionary of Asian Mythology. David Leeming. Oxford University Press, 2001

Dharma. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 17, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-9030214

Indian philosophy. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 18, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-61575

Monks, Caves and Kings: A Reassessment of the Nature of Early Buddhism in Sri Lanka, by Robin A. E. Coningham World Archaeology © 1995

“Nirvana” A Dictionary of Asian Mythology. David Leeming. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Reference

  • Gill, N.S. “Aspects and Tenets of Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/aspects-and-tenets-of-buddhism-119197.

Buddhism 101: Sambhogakaya

Find out more about the bliss body of a Buddha

Mike Moss, flickr.com, Creative Commons license

In Mahayana Buddhism, according to the doctrine of trikaya a Buddha has three bodies, called the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. Very simply, the dharmakaya is the body of the absolute, beyond existence and non-existence. The nirmanakaya is the physical body that lives and dies; the historical Buddha was a nirmanakaya buddha. And the sambhogakaya might be thought of as an interface between the other two bodies.

Sambhogakaya is the body of enjoyment or the body that experiences the fruits of Buddhist practice and the bliss of enlightenment.

Some teachers compare dharmakaya to vapor or atmosphere, sambhogakaya to clouds, and nirmanakaya to rain. Clouds are a manifestation of atmosphere that enables rain.

Buddhas as Objects of Devotion

Buddhas depicted as idealized, transcendent beings in Mahayana art are nearly always sambhogakaya buddhas. The nirmanakaya body is an earthly body that lives and dies, and the dharmakaya body is formless and without distinction — nothing to see. A sambhogakaya buddha is enlightened and purified of defilements, yet he remains distinctive.

Amitabha Buddha is a sambhogakaya buddha, for example. Vairocana is the Buddha who represents the dharmakaya, but when he appears in a distinctive form he is a sambhogakaya buddha.

Many of the Buddhas mentioned in Mahayana Sutras are sambhogakaya buddhas. When the Lotus Sutra cites “the Buddha,” for example, it is referring to the sambhogakaya form of Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha of the present age. We know this from the description in the first chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

“From the tuft of white hair between his eyebrows, one of his characteristic features, the Buddha emitted a beam of light, illuminating eighteen thousand worlds in the east, so that there was nowhere that it did not reach, down to the lowest purgatory and up to Akanishtha, the highest heaven.”

Samghogakaya buddhas are described in the sutras as appearing in celestial realms or Pure Lands, often accompanied by hosts of bodhisattvas and other enlightened beings. The Kagyu teacher Traleg Rinpoche explained,

“It is said that the Sambhogakaya manifests not in any kind of spatial or physical location but in a place that is not really a place; a place of nowhere called Akanishtha, or wok ngun in Tibetan. Wok mi means “not underneath,” suggesting that Akanishtha, because it is a field of nowhere, is all encompassing. Ultimately wok-ngun refers to emptiness, or sunyata.”

Are these Buddhas “real”? From most Mahayana perspectives, only the dharmakaya body is entirely “real.” The samghogakaya and nirmanakaya bodies are just appearances or emanations of the dharmakaya.

Possibly because they manifest in Pure Lands, sambhogakaya buddhas are described as preaching the dharma to other celestial beings. Their subtle form appears only to those ready to see it.

In Tibetan tantra, sambhogakaya is also the speech of a Buddha or the manifestation of the Buddha in sound.

Reference

  • O’Brien, Barbara. “Sambhogakaya.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/sambhogakaya-449862.

Buddhism 101: The Reason This Buddhist Monk Self-Immolated Is Uncomfortably Familiar

THOUGH OF HISTORICAL VALUE, THESE PHOTOGRAPHS PORTRAY A BUDDHIST MONK SELF-IMMOLATING, AND ARE QUITE EXPLICIT. PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS ARTICLE IF THESE PHOTOGRAPHS WILL HAVE AN ADVERSE AFFECT ON YOU!

In 1963, a Vietnamese monk committed self-immolation in front of hundreds of people. While his primary motivation was protest, the full reasoning behind his final act shed unexpected light on a deeply conflicted nation.

In the midst of the Vietnam War, South Vietnam was corrupted by religious intolerance. Although Buddhists comprised about 80% of the population, Ngo Dinh Diem, the newly-declared President of South Vietnam, was a Catholic who had decisively stripped the religious freedoms of Buddhists. This group was not allowed to fly their religious flags and were openly discriminated against by Catholics. Even though there were far fewer Catholics, they often held higher positions of power. 

The spring of 1963 saw numerous Buddhist protests, many of which were met with fierce resistance from the police and government. These clashes led to many fatalities – including those of children. 

This tension peaked on June 11, 1963, when an older monk named Thich Quang Duc performed a ritualistic ending to his own life in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection. He sat in the traditional lotus position as other monks poured gasoline over his head. After Duc uttered a Buddhist prayer, one of his colleagues lit a match and dropped it into his lap, engulfing him in flames.

The crowd that gathered was stunned by his act of martyrdom, and it was even captured by several Western journalists and photographers. The photos of the burning monk became an indelible image of the 1960s, and his final act of protest was a tipping point for the fight for religious tolerance in Vietnam.

The Monks Demanded Acceptance

Photo:  manhhai/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

President Diem’s discrimination of the Buddhist population pushed hundreds of monks to protest for change. In May of 1963, they presented the government with five demands, including proposed laws against religious discrimination and the freedom to fly whichever religious flags they chose.

The government had promised the monks a response, but Diem essentially ignored their requests. This silence from their government ultimately pushed the monks to much more drastic action to fight for their convictions.

A Journalist Captured Duc’s Utter Composure

Photo: Malcolm Browne for the Associated Press/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Duc prepared himself for his fiery demise with a steady, calm demeanor. David Halberstam, a journalist for the New York Times, was present for Duc’s immolation and wrote about the dramatic act:

“I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think… As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

As for Duc himself, he left his final words in a letter:

“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”

Duc’s Heart Did Not Burn

Photo:  manhhai/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

After Duc’s self-immolation was complete, the other monks placed robes over his body and carried him away in a makeshift wooden coffin. He was later re-cremated for a proper burial, but mysteriously, his heart did not burn and remained intact. 

Duc’s heart was placed on display in a glass container in the Xa Loi Pagoda and was seen as a sacred relic representing compassion.

JFK Addressed The Moment’s Deep Emotional Impact

Photo: Malcolm Browne/manhhai/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Once photographer Malcolm Browne sent his “monk on fire” photos to the Associated Press, they reached US newspapers within 16 hours. The Western reaction to the images was decidedly shocked, and President Kennedy was quoted as saying, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Browne was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the photograph.

The photos, in addition to the news of religious discrimination in Vietnam, supposedly led Kennedy to reexamine America’s policies and presence in the country, ultimately culminating in the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Other Monks Followed Suit

Photo: Richard W. Stewart/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Although Duc’s immolation is known as a pivotal moment in Vietnam’s fight for religious equality, his sacrifice did not instantaneously affect President Diem’s policies. Several other monks followed in Duc’s footsteps in the proceeding weeks, amid continued protests by the Buddhist community. 

In November of 1963, members of the South Vietnamese military assassinated Diem and his brother during a coup, ending his Catholic reign over South Vietnam.

Reference

Buddhism 101: Random and Super Interesting Things About Buddhism

For the unenlightened, Buddhism can certainly come across as a mysterious, even confusing, religion. After all, there is no singular deity watching over. No strict commandments to govern with. And no “great book” to live by. So, what is it exactly? And how does Buddhism uniquely define itself in comparison with other religions around the world? 

The answer is simple: Buddhism extends beyond the ideas of organized religion, and instead presents itself more as a philosophy of life, focusing on morality, tolerance for others, and wisdom. While others seek to contain (and, in some cases, even control) their members through scripture, followers of Buddhism are taught that individuality and finding one’s own self is the core of their practice. That through a journey of self-discovery, they will gain knowledge not only about themselves – but also about their inner spirit.

With over 2,500 years and 300 million followers behind it, Buddhism certainly has a colorful history, one which is shared all around the world. Below are some of the most interesting facts that have arisen from this unique practice. 

That Big Guy Is Not “the” Buddha

Photo:  Lydia Pintscher

You may be familiar with the sight of a rather large bald man, perched cross-legged, and adorned entirely in gold, and perhaps first wonder if this is also what Donald Trump sees when he closes his eyes. But second, you may recognize this as a statue of Buddha himself. 

Well, you’d be wrong on one-and-a-half counts. 

Turns out, the most recognizable symbol (at least, in Western cultures) of Buddhism is not actually of Buddha, but rather Budai, a zen monk who lived in China during the 900s. 

A practicer of Buddhism, Budai was considered such an eccentric and good-spirited figure of the religion that he eventually became its most recognizable face. It was said that Budai always wore a smile, and was so charismatic that he was actually followed by children wherever he went. Because of this, his spirit represented all of which Buddhism strives for, and, as a result, we know his face to be that of one truly enlightened.

Siddhartha Guatama Was the “Real” Buddha

Photo:  Public domain

The real Buddha, however, was a twenty-nine year-old man named Siddhartha Gautama of Lumbini. Born into wealth, Gautama eventually realized that none of his fortune satisfied him, and he took to studying various religions and meditation practices around the world, before eventually becoming “enlightened,” and ultimately founding Buddhism. 

Perhaps ironically, the name “Siddhartha” is Sanskrit for “He Who Achieves His Goal,” a concept which underlines the core intent of Buddhism. 

There Is No Divine Creator

Photo:  Public domain

Just imagine no one looking over your shoulder, checking for sins. No one whispering in your ear to do the right thing. Not having to answer to anyone on a Sunday morning. 

Such is the way with Buddhism, where there is no “divine creator” lording above. True, there is the concept of the human spirit that dwells within, but the idea is more in sync with our consciousness, rather than with an entity that will eventually make its way up to heaven and join one of many hypothetical “big guys upstairs.”  

Instead, Buddhism focuses on the journey of oneself to our own enlightenment rather than seeking the approval of a higher power.

Women Can Never Achieve True “Buddhahood”

Photo:  ShahJahan

When Buddhism first began, some of the Buddha’s teachings about women were very controversial. Not because he taught that women should be subservient to their husbands (as was the case with most early religions), but that husbands should also respect their wives. 

Furthermore, while women were certainly not excluded from the religion (and were actively encouraged to participate), there came some caveats, with the worst of all being perhaps the entire point of Buddhism in the first place:

Despite her dedication to the religion, a woman can never achieve true “Buddhahood.”

Sex Is Sometimes a Complicated Subject

Photo: Otgonbayar Ershuu

For a religion that encourages the exploration of one’s self, sex (both with a partner and without) surprisingly comes with some very serious rules. 

First of all, if you’re a Buddhist monk or nun (referred to as Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis, respectively), you better keep that inner temple to yourself because any act, including masturbation, prevents one from achieving supreme enlightenment. 

For the rest of practicing Buddhists, the rules aren’t quite as strict – though most of them are certainly frowned upon. Particularly because the Buddha perceived the craving for sex as a form of suffering. To that end, if one is consumed by the their sexual urges, they too will not be able to reach enlightenment. 

Not All Buddhists Are Focused on Reincarnation

Photo: Public domain

Among some of the more common misconceptions about Buddhism, are that all Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Such is not the case, as the belief in life after death is not focused on as much as one would believe. Instead, the focus lands mostly on one’s purpose in this life in order to become enlightened.  

Furthermore, there is a common belief that Buddhism originated as a Pagan religion, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason being, because Buddhists don’t worship a god in the first place. Thus, Paganism, which is the worship of any god besides the Christian one, is an entirely different practice. 

Alcohol, Onions, Garlic, Leeks, Chives, and Scallions Are a No-no

Photo: Public domain

Like sex, the desire to over-indulge in certain foods is seen as a form of craving, which is, ostensibly, a form of suffering. 

But there are also specific guidelines to follow if one wished to truly follow the path. Among them, followers cannot enjoy alcohol. While many who “over-indulge” in occasionally shot-gunning beers or knocking back tequila shots would argue they’re at their most enlightened when hammered, in Buddhism, it is seen as a form of “intoxicant,” which, again, keeps one from being truly spiritually enlightened. 

Also, say goodbye to Indian food, as onions, garlic, leeks, chives, and scallions are considered too strong of odors in Buddhist cuisine. The reason? Because their odors are thought to be so pungent, that they incite anger and passion – both of which fall under the umbrella of suffering in Buddhism. 

There is also a common misconception about all Buddhist being vegetarian, but this is not the case. In fact, many Buddhist dishes feature meat. The rule behind this, however, is that Buddhist are not allowed to “kill any sentient being.” That is, they are not allowed to kill the animal and eat it themselves, but procuring meat from elsewhere is perfectly fine.

There Are Four Noble Truths

Photo: Public domain

While the core of Buddhism is the journey to self-discovery and enlightenment, there are a few important items to understand along the way. Described as the “essence” of Buddhism, these are the Four Noble Truths:

  • The Truth of Suffering
  • The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
  • The Truth of the End of Suffering
  • And, finally, The Truth of the Path that Leads to the End of Suffering

Together, these represent the path to self-liberation. A way to understand the plight of all humanity, and that there are certain undeniable events in life that are out of our control – but there is always a way through them. And by understanding and accepting them, we are on our way to true enlightenmen

There Are Two Different Types of Buddhism

Photo: Cheongpeongsa | photo by Alan Chan

Spiritual beliefs can sometimes cause a divide among followers. It’s why there are countless iterations of Christianity around the world. Some of whom believe in the spiritual teachings of Christ’s love, others who think it somehow it pleases him to march along funeral processions holding up hateful and often-misspelled picket signs. 

Clearly, the spectrum reaches far and wide as to what being a “good Christian” means.

Thankfully with Buddhism, there are only two different practices: on one hand, there is the Theravada (“School of the Elders”), and the Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”). 

Theravada is perhaps the most common type of Buddhist practice, with the end goal of all individuals to reach a state of nirvana, which sees the inner spirit break the cycle of death and rebirth, and ultimately move on. 

In the case of Mahayana, an individual strives to achieve “Buddhahood” (supreme enlightenment), in which he or she remains in the cycle of rebirth with the intent of helping others become enlightened as well. 

In either following, the end goal of both types of Buddhism are to attain the highest level of spiritual connectedness. That is, once you peak, it’s time to either move on (Theravada) or pay it forward (Mahayana). 

A Full Moon Day Is Sacred

Photo: Pixabay

Every religion has their one uber-holiday of the year. For some it’s Christmas. Others Dwali. Some people give thanks on that magical day of the year when the McRib finally makes its triumphant return. 

Although Buddhism isn’t exactly a religion in the traditional sense, it’s not without its own special day to celebrate the spiritual journey that so many others are on. 

That day is called “Uposatha”, a day for the “cleansing of the defiled mind,” which falls in accordance of the four lunar phases, starting with the full moon. 

On Uposatha, Buddhist followers intensify their practice, reflecting on their goals to deepen their commitment to themselves and to others. 

There Is a Buddhism-Themed Amusement Park

Photo: By Hans Olav Lien – Own work/https://commons.wikimedia.org

Located just outside Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam is the one and only Buddhist theme park — the Suoi Tien Cultural Amusement Park. 

Featuring roller coasters, rides, an artificial beach and water park, Suoi Tien offers a glimpse of the true happiness and sense of contentment one could only achieve by, well, practicing Buddhism until they reach spiritual nirvana, I suppose.  

Swathed in bright neon colors, the park is said be akin to “Disneyland on acid,” which will certainly help to explain why you’ll encounter men and women dressed up as unicorns, dragons, and Budai himself as they roam around the park grounds. 

But the idea of a Buddhist theme park begs the question: if one has already achieved spiritual happiness prior to buying a ticket, does that make a roller-coaster ride less fun?

Viharas Are Sacred Places

Photo: Cherubino

Also known as Buddhist monasteries, viharas were originally created to help in housing monks who would often only stay in temporary shelters. These early forms were little more than rock-cut caves, carved along trade routes, and which allowed passing monks to reside in and practice their faith safely. 

As time went on however, viharas evolved into much more than just a place for wandering monks to stay, but instead became temples themselves, ones which saw the monks recruiting students who wished to learn more about Buddhism. 

While the process of constructing viharas has certainly improved, the architects behind them today still retain the aesthetics of those once carved into the rock of caves.

The Famous Tooth of Buddha

Photo: Public domain

According to Sri Lankan legend, when the Buddha himself died and was eventually cremated in 543 BCE, he left behind a small souvenir for his followers: his left canine tooth. 

It was said that whomever came into possession of the tooth had the right to rule the country. Thus, it was fought over many times, but ultimately ended up in the town of Kandy, Sri Lanka, where has been held in reverence on display for over four hundred years. 

The Fig Tree Holds a Special Meaning

Photo: www.pixabay.com

Specifically, the ficus religiosa, a type of fig tree that grows only in southwest China. It earned its divine name for a very specific reason: it was under this type of fig tree that Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) first achieved his spiritual enlightenment. Ever since, it has been regarded as sacred, and is a celebrated symbol in Buddhism. 

There Are Many Different Ways People Practice Buddhism

Photo: Public domain

Like many religions, Buddhists can choose to practice puja – the act of worship – either at home, via a personal shrine, or in a public temple. 

If at home, Buddhists create small areas dedicated to connecting with their faith. These shrines typically feature a statue of Buddha himself, as well as various candles, flowers, and incense burners.

Although the practice is a solitary one, Buddhists are never to worship at their shrine with their feet facing the Buddha. Such an act is considered disrespectful. 

If worshipping outside of the home, Buddhist will visit temples called Pagodas, which are vaulting, tower-like structures, or Stupas, which are wider, circular buildings.

Reference

Buddhism 101: The Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism

School of the Dalai Lama

Gelug monks wear the yellow hats of their order during a formal ceremony. Jeff Hutchens / Getty Images

Gelugpa is best known in the West as the school of Tibetan Buddhism associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In the 17th century, the Gelug (also spelled Geluk) school became the most powerful institution in Tibet, and it remained so until China took control of Tibet in the 1950s.

The story of Gelugpa begins with Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), a man from Amdo Province who began studying with a local Sakya lama at a very young age. At 16 he traveled to central Tibet, where the most renowned teachers and monasteries were located, to further his education.

Tsongkhapa did not study in any one place. He stayed in Kagyu monasteries learning Tibetan medicine, the practices of Mahamudra and the tantra yoga of Atisha. He studied philosophy in Sakya monasteries. He sought independent teachers with fresh ideas. He was particularly interested in the Madhyamika teachings of Nagarjuna.

In time, Tsongkhapa combined these teachings into a new approach to Buddhism. He explained his approach in two major works, Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path and Great Exposition of the Secret Mantra. Other of his teachings were collected in several volumes, 18 in all.

Through most of his adult life, Tsongkhapa traveled around Tibet, often living in camps with dozens of students. By the time Tsongkhapa had reached his 50s, the rugged lifestyle had taken a toll on his health. His admirers built him a new monastery on a mountain near Lhasa. The monastery was named “Ganden,” which means “joyful.” Tsongkhapa lived there only briefly before he died, however.

The Founding of Gelugpa

At the time of his death, Tsongkhapa and his students were considered to be part of the Sakya school. Then his disciples stepped up and built a new school of Tibetan Buddhism on Tsongkhapa’s teachings. They called the school “Gelug,” which means “the virtuous tradition.” Here are some of Tsongkhapa’s most prominent disciples:

Gyaltsab (1364-1431) is thought to have been first the abbot of Gendun after Tsongkhapa died. This made him the first Ganden Tripa, or throne-holder of Gendun. To this day the Ganden Tripa is the actual, official head of the Gelug school, not the Dalai Lama.

Jamchen Chojey (1355-1435) founded the great Sera monastery of Lhasa.

Khedrub (1385-1438) is credited with defending and promoting Tsongkhapa’s teachings throughout Tibet. He also began the tradition of high lamas of Gelug wearing yellow hats, to distinguish them from Sakya lamas, who wore red hats.

Gendun Drupa (1391-1474) founded the great monasteries of Drepung and Tashillhunpo, and during his life, he was among the most respected scholars in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama

A few years after Gendun Drupa died, a young boy of central Tibet was recognized as his tulku, or rebirth. Eventually, this boy, Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542) would serve as abbot of Drepung, Tashillhunpo, and Sera.

Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588) was recognized as the rebirth of Gendun Gyatso. This tulku became the spiritual adviser to a Mongol leader named Altan Khan. Altan Khan gave Gendun Gyatso the title “Dalai Lama,” meaning “ocean of wisdom.” Sonam Gyatso is considered to be the third Dalai Lama; his predecessors Gendun Drupa and Gendun Gyatso were named first and second Dalai Lama, posthumously.

These first Dalai Lamas had no political authority. It was Lobsang Gyatso, the “Great Fifth” Dalai Lama (1617-1682), who forged a fortuitous alliance with another Mongol leader, Gushi Khan, who conquered Tibet. Gushi Khan made Lobsang Gyatso the political and spiritual leader of the entire Tibetan people.

Under the Great Fifth a large part of another school of Tibetan Buddhism, Jonang, was absorbed into Gelugpa. The Jonang influence added Kalachakra teachings to Gelugpa. The Great Fifth also initiated the building of Potala Palace in Lhasa, which became the seat of both spiritual and political authority in Tibet.

Today many people think the Dalai Lamas held absolute power in Tibet as “god-kings,” but that is inaccurate. The Dalai Lamas who came after the Great Fifth was, for one reason or another, mostly figureheads who held little real power. For long stretches of time, various regents and military leaders were actually in charge.

Not until the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933), would another Dalai Lama function as a real head of government, and even he had limited authority to enact all the reforms he wished to bring to Tibet.

The current Dalai Lama is the 14th, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso (born 1935). He was still an adolescent when China invaded Tibet in 1950. His Holiness has been exiled from Tibet since 1959. Recently he relinquished all political power over the Tibetan people in exile, in favor of a democratic, elected government.

The Panchen Lama

The second highest lama in Gelugpa is the Panchen Lama. The title Panchen Lama, meaning “great scholar,” was bestowed by the Fifth Dalai Lama on a tulku who was fourth in a lineage of rebirths, and so he became the 4th Panchen Lama.

The current Panchen Lama is the 11th. However, His Holiness Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (born 1989) and his family were taken into Chinese custody shortly after his recognition was made public in 1995. The Panchen Lama and his family have not been seen since. A pretender appointed by Beijing, Gyaltsen Norbu, has served as Panchen Lama in his place.

Gelugpa Today

The original Ganden monastery, Gelugpa’s spiritual home, was destroyed by Chinese troops during the 1959 Lhasa uprising. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard came to finish whatever was left. Even the mummified body of Tsongkhapa was ordered burned, although a monk was able to recover a skull and some ashes. The Chinese government is rebuilding the monastery.

Meanwhile, exiled lamas re-established Ganden in Karnataka, India, and this monastery is now Gelugpa’s spiritual home. The current Ganden Tripa, the 102nd, is Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu. (Ganden Tripas are not tulkus but are appointed to the position as adults.) The training of new generations of Gelugpa monks and nuns continues.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has lived in Dharamsala, India since he left Tibet in 1959. He has dedicated his life to teaching and to gain greater autonomy for Tibetans still under Chinese rule.

Reference

  • O’Brien, Barbara. “The Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-gelug-school-of-tibetan-buddhism-449627.

Buddhism 101: Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Gelug, Jonang, and Bonpo

Buddhism first reached Tibet in the 7th century. By the 8th-century teachers such as Padmasambhava were traveling to Tibet to teach the dharma. In time Tibetans developed their own perspectives and approaches to the Buddhist path.

The list below is of the major distinctive traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. This is only a brief glimpse of rich traditions that have branched into many sub-schools and lineages. 

NYINGMAPA

A monk performs a sacred dance at Shechen, a major Nyingmapa monastery in Sichuan Provinc, China. © Heather Elton / Design Pics / Getty Images

Nyingmapa is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism. It claims as its founder Padmasambhava, also called Guru Rinpoche, “Beloved Master,” which places its beginning in the late 8th century. Padmasambhava is credited with building Samye, the first monastery in Tibet, in about 779 CE.

Along with tantric practices, Nyingmapa emphasizes revealed teachings attributed to Padmasambhava plus the “great perfection” or Dzogchen doctrines.

KAGYU

Colorful paintings decorate the walls of Drikung Kagyu Rinchenling monastery, Kathmandu, Nepal. © Danita Delimont / Getty Images

The Kagyu school emerged from the teachings of Marpa “The Translator” (1012-1099) and his student, Milarepa. Milarepa’s student Gampopa is the main founder of Kagyu. Kagyu is best known for its system of meditation and practice called Mahamudra.

The head of the Kagyu school is called the Karmapa. The current head is the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who was born in 1985 in the Lhathok region of Tibet.

SAKYAPA

A visitor to the main Sakya Monastery in Tibet poses in front of prayer wheels. © Dennis Walton / Getty Images

In 1073, Khon Konchok Gyelpo (1034-l102) built Sakya Monastery in southern Tibet. His son and successor, Sakya Kunga Nyingpo, founded the Sakya sect. Sakya teachers converted the Mongol leaders Godan Khan and Kublai Khan to Buddhism. Over time, Sakyapa expanded to two subsects called the Ngor lineage and the Tsar lineage. Sakya, Ngor and Tsar constitute the three schools (Sa-Ngor-Tsar-gsum) of the Sakyapa tradition.

The central teaching and practice of Sakyapa is called Lamdrey (Lam-‘bras), or “the Path and Its Fruit.” The headquarters of the Sakya sect today are at Rajpur in Uttar Pradesh, India. The current head is the Sakya Trizin, Ngakwang Kunga Thekchen Palbar Samphel Ganggi Gyalpo.

GELUGPA

Gelug monks wear the yellow hats of their order during a formal ceremony. © Jeff Hutchens / Getty Images

The Gelugpa or Gelukpa school, sometimes called the “yellow hat” sect of Tibetan Buddhism, was founded by Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), one of Tibet’s greatest scholars. The first Gelug monastery, Ganden, was built by Tsongkhapa in 1409.

The Dalai Lamas, who have been spiritual leaders of the Tibetan people since the 17th century, come from the Gelug school. The nominal head of Gelugpa is the Ganden Tripa, an appointed official. The current Ganden Tripa is Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu.

The Gelug school places great emphasis on monastic discipline and sound scholarship.

JONANGPA

Tibetan monks work on creating an intricate sand drawing, known as a mandala, at the Broward County Main Library February 6, 2007 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Joe Raedle / Staff / Getty Images

Jonangpa was founded in the late 13th century by a monk named Kunpang Tukje Tsondru. Jonangpa is distinguished chiefly by kalachakra, its approach to tantra yoga.

In the 17th-century the 5th Dalai Lama forcibly converted the Jonangs into his school, Gelug. Jonangpa was thought to be extinct as an independent school. However, in time it was learned that a few Jonang monasteries had maintained independence from Gelug.

Jonangpa is now officially recognized as an independent tradition once again.

BONPO

Bon dancers wait to perform at the Masked dancers at Wachuk Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Sichuan, China. © Peter Adams / Getty Images

When Buddhism arrived in Tibet it competed with indigenous traditions for the loyalty of Tibetans. These indigenous traditions combined elements of animism and shamanism. Some of the shaman priests of Tibet were called “bon,” and in time “Bon” became the name of the non-Buddhist religious traditions that lingered in Tibetan culture.

In time elements of Bon were absorbed into Buddhism. At the same time, Bon traditions absorbed elements of Buddhism, until Bonpo seemed more Buddhist than not. Many adherents of Bon consider their tradition to be separate from Buddhism. However, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has recognized Bonpo as a school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Reference

  • O’Brien, Barbara. “Schools of Tibetan Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/schools-of-tibetan-buddhism-450186.

Buddhism 101: What Is a Buddha? Who Was the Buddha?

Sami Sarkis / Photographer’s Choice RF / Getty Images

The standard answer to the question “What is a Buddha?” is, “A Buddha is someone who has realized the enlightenment that ends the cycle of birth and death and which brings liberation from suffering.”

Buddha is a Sanskrit word that means “awakened one.” He or she is awakened to the true nature of reality, which is a short definition of what English-speaking Buddhists call “enlightenment.”

A Buddha is also someone who has been liberated from Samsara, the cycle of birth and death. He or she is not reborn, in other words. For this reason, anyone who advertises himself as a “reincarnated Buddha” is confused, to say the least.

However, the question “What is a Buddha?” could be answered many other ways.

Buddhas in Theravada Buddhism

There are two major schools of Buddhism, most often called Theravada and Mahayana. For purposes of this discussion, Tibetan and other schools of Vajrayana Buddhism are included in “Mahayana.” Theravada is the dominant school in southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia) and Mahayana is the dominant school in the rest of Asia.

According to Theravada Buddhists, there is only one Buddha per age of the earth, and ages of the earth last a very long time.

The Buddha of the current age is the Buddha, the man who lived about 25 centuries ago and whose teachings are the foundation of Buddhism. He is sometimes called Gautama Buddha or (more often in Mahayana) Shakyamuni Buddha. We also often refer to him as ‘the historical Buddha.’

Early Buddhist scriptures also record names of the Buddhas of earlier ages. The Buddha of the next, future age is Maitreya.

Note that the Theravadins are not saying that only one person per age may be enlightened. Enlightened women and men who are not Buddhas are called arhats or arahants. The significant difference that makes a Buddha a Buddha is that a Buddha is the one who has discovered the dharma teachings and made them available in that age.

Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhists also recognize Shakyamuni, Maitreya, and the Buddhas of previous ages. Yet they don’t limit themselves to one Buddha per age. There could be infinite numbers of Buddhas. Indeed, according to the Mahayana teaching of Buddha Nature, “Buddha” is the fundamental nature of all beings. In a sense, all beings are Buddha.

Mahayana art and scriptures are populated by a number of particular Buddhas who represent various aspects of enlightenment or who carry out particular functions of enlightenment. However, it’s a mistake to consider these Buddhas as god-like beings separate from ourselves.

To complicate matters further, the Mahayana doctrine of the Trikaya says that each Buddha has three bodies. The three bodies are called dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. Very simply, dharmakaya is the body of absolute truth, sambhogakaya is the body that experiences the bliss of enlightenment, and nirmanakaya is the body that manifests in the world.

In Mahayana literature, there is an elaborate schema of transcendent (dharmakaya and sambhogakaya) and earthly (nirmanakaya) Buddhas who correspond to each other and represent different aspects of the teachings. You will stumble upon them in the Mahayana sutras and other writings, so it’s good to be aware of who they are. 

Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light and the principal Buddha of the Pure Land school.

Bhaiṣajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, who represents the power of healing.

Vairocana, the universal or primordial Buddha.

Oh, and about the fat, laughing Buddha — he emerged from Chinese folklore in the 10th century. He is called Pu-tai or Budai in China and Hotei in Japan. It is said that he is an incarnation of the future Buddha, Maitreya.

All Buddhas Are One

The most important thing to understand about the Trikaya is that the countless Buddhas are, ultimately, one Buddha, and the three bodies are also our own body. A person who has intimately experienced the three bodies and realized the truth of these teachings is called a Buddha.

Reference

  • O’Brien, Barbara. “What Is a Buddha? Who Was the Buddha?” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/whats-a-buddha-450195.

Buddhism 101: Buddhist Goddess and Archetype of Compassion

White Tara; detail from a Tibetan Tangka painting. Zzvet / Dreamstime.com 

Tara is an iconic Buddhist goddess of many colors. Although she is formally associated only with Buddhism in Tibet, Mongolia, and Nepal, she has become one of the most familiar figures of Buddhism around the world.

She is not exactly the Tibetan version of the Chinese Guanyin (Kwan-yin), as many assume. Guanyin is a manifestation in the female form of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. Avalokiteshvara is called Chenrezig in Tibet, and in Tibetan Buddhism Chenrezig usually is a “he” rather than a “she.” He is the universal manifestation of compassion.

According to one story, when Chenrezig was about to enter Nirvana he looked back and saw the suffering of the world, and he wept and vowed to remain in the world until all beings were enlightened. Tara is said to have been born from Chenrezig’s tears. In a variation of this story, his tears formed a lake, and in that lake, a lotus grew, and when it opened Tara was revealed.

Tara’s origins as an icon are unclear. Some scholars propose that Tara evolved from the Hindu goddess Durga. She appears to have been venerated in Indian Buddhism no earlier than the 5th century.

Tara in Tibetan Buddhism

Although Tara probably was known in Tibet earlier, the cult of Tara appears to have reached Tibet in 1042, with the arrival of an Indian teacher named Atisa, who was a devotee. She became one of the most beloved figures of Tibetan Buddhism.

Her name in Tibetan is Sgrol-ma, or Dolma, which means “she who saves.” It is said her compassion for all beings is stronger than a mother’s love for her children. Her mantra is om tare tuttare ture svaha, which means, “Praise to Tara! Hail!”

White Tara and Green Tara

There are actually 21 Taras, according to an Indian text called Homage to the Twenty-One Taras that reached Tibet in the 12th century. The Taras come in many colors, but the two most popular are White Tara and Green Tara. In a variation of the original legend, White Tara was born from the tears from Chenrezig’s left eye, and Green Tara was born from the tears of his right eye.

In many ways, these two Taras complement each other. Green Tara often is depicted with a half-open lotus, representing night. White Tara holds a fully blooming lotus, representing the day. White Tara embodies grace and serenity and the love of a mother for her child; Green Tara embodies activity. Together, they represent boundless compassion that is active in the world both day and night.

Tibetans pray to White Tara for healing and longevity. White Tara initiations are popular in Tibetan Buddhism for their power to dissolve obstacles. The White Tara mantra in Sanskrit is:

Green Tara is associated with activity and abundance. Tibetans pray to her for wealth and when they are leaving on a journey. But the Green Tara mantra actually is a request to be freed from delusions and negative emotions.

As tantric deities, their role is not as objects of worship. Rather, through esoteric means, the tantric practitioner realizes himself as White or Green Tara and manifests their selfless compassion.

Other Taras

The names of the remaining Taras vary a bit according to the source, but some of the better-known ones are:

  • Red Tara: is said to have the quality of attracting blessings.
  • Black Tara: is a wrathful deity who wards off evil.
  • Yellow Tara: helps us overcome anxiety. She is also associated with abundance and fertility.
  • Blue Tara: subdues anger and turns it into compassion.
  • Cittamani Tara: is a deity of high tantra yoga. She is sometimes confused with Green Tara.

Reference

  • O’Brien, Barbara. “Buddhist Goddess and Archetype of Compassion.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/tara-archetype-of-compassion-450180.