CONVENIENT WORSHIP FROM THE COMFORT OF YOUR OWN HOME
Have you ever been to a temple in Japan and thought, “I wish I had some of this amazingness in my house?” Then the Japanese butsudan 仏壇 is for you.
A butsudan is a small, household Buddhist shrine. Its exterior often resembles a simple cabinet, with two outward opening doors. Of course, they can also exhibit more elaborate and elegant, designs.
The inside is what makes the butsudan so special. It houses a religious icon, namely a Buddhist statue or image. The name-tablets of one’s ancestors are harmoniously positioned alongside it. A plethora of religious items called butsugu are also arranged inside.
The butsudan is actually unique to Japan. No other Buddhist countries partake in this practice (except some Mongolians). Because there are so many temples in other Asian countries, people don’t need to make altars in their homes.
Wait a minute. There are a lot temples in Japan too! Why do Japanese people need an altar in their own homes? When did this custom start? Let’s uncover the mystery of the Japanese butsudan.
WHAT IS A BUTSUDAN?
The butsudan actually has its origins in ancient India. Practitioners of early Buddhism made a platforms of mud and venerated gods there. It wasn’t long before roofs were added to shelter the platforms from rain and wind. It’s said that this is the origin of temples.
Buddhism eventually made its way to Japan via China, where it took off.
On March 27, 685, the Japanese Emperor Tenmu issued an edict. It stated that each family in every country (pretty presumptious of him, eh?) must make a Buddhist altar that holds a statue of Buddha and the Buddhist scriptures and conduct prayer and memorial services in front of it.
The 27th day of each month was designated as “Butsudan Day” by the Zen-Nihon-Shuukyou-Yougu-Kyoudoukumiai (全日本宗教用具協同組合), which literally means “Japan’s Religious Utensil Dealer Cooperative.”
And that’s where butsudan came from. Right?
The current butsudan is not directly descended from the above-mentioned imperial edict. So how did the current butsudan come to be? There are actually two theories.
#1: THE NOBILITY’S PRIVATE BUDDHA STATUE HALL
Some of the nobility had their own jubitsudou 持仏堂. This a private place where a Buddha statue and ancestor tablets were kept. During the Nara period, the arrangement of items was set up in a small building outside of the house. However, it only began to be placed inside the house during the Heian period.
For example, Fujiwara-no-Yorimichi (藤原頼通, 992 – 1074) had Byoudouin-Hououdou (平等院鳳凰堂, Phoenix Hall of Byodoin temple). Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利義満, 1368-1394) had Rokuonji (鹿苑寺 Kinkakuji temple). These massive complexes acted as their own personal jibutsudou.
According to famed historian Takeda Choshu (竹田聴洲, 1916 – 1980), the above mentioned jibutsudou was eventually made into the smaller butsuma 仏間, which means “a room for Buddha.” It was further reduced into what we now know to be a butsudan, so that it could be put indoors.
#2: SOUL SHELF
Tamadana 魂棚 literally means a soul shelf. In practice, it is an altar to greet spirits of ancestors and the recently deceased during Obon. While its shape varies by region and period, one example is a board affixed to four upright corner pillars made of bamboo or wood. With this image in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that people often used tea tables instead.
The father of native Japanese folklorists, Yanagida Kunio (柳田國男, 1875 – 1962), claims that the tamadana birthed the modern bustudan. It transitioned from its temporary Bon festival usage to a place of permanent installation and eventually became the butsudan.
Although there are two theories, the first theory is regarded as the more likely of the two.
THE SPREAD OF BUTSUDAN
In the Muromachi period (1336 – 1537), the eighth head of Hongan-ji temple was named Rennyo 蓮如. He restored the Jodo Shinshu sect and gave his followers scrolls with the script namuamidabutsu 南無阿弥陀仏, which is an homage to the Buddha of infinite light and life. He encouraged them to enshrine the scrolls in their own butsudan.
When they made their own butsudan, they imitated what was found in the head temple of their respective sect and made it out of gold. This paved the way for the current kin-butsudan, which literally means golden butsudan.
The Jodo Shinshu sect set many standard rules regarding the butsudan. Even now, the sect says the principal image of a butsudan should be a hanging scroll acquired from the head temple of a family’s ancestral temple.
Eventually, butsudan spread outside the Jodo Shinshu sect as family mortuary tablets became common.
In the Edo period, the Shogunate created a system called terauke-seido (寺請制度 ) in which a Buddhist temples certified people as members of their temple. This new system forced individuals to choose a specific temple for their family and support it. To demonstrate membership to the temple, each family had to install a household butsudan for morning and evening worship. Additionally, they were asked to invite a family temple priest to hold memorial services to commemorate the anniversaries of their ancestors’ deaths.
This custom became widespread among commoners and the butsudan became an integral part of Japanese family life.
WHAT GOES IN A BUTSUDAN
The arrangement and types of items in and around the butsudan vary depending on sect and the size of butsudan.
A butsudan usually has doors with an embellishment of a temple gate and three stairs. The highest stair is called shumidan 須弥壇 and is reserved for the most important butsudan item, specifically a Buddha statue. The area above shumidan is called kyuuden 宮殿 and is considered the holy place. It is the area within the butsudan that must be occupied by the Buddha statue, which tipically rests on the shumidan. Alternatively there could be an image of Buddha placed on the back wall of the butsudan, occupying the holy place.
An accompanying statue or image of Buddha is placed on one side of the butsudan and the founder of the respective sect is placed on the other side. There is a vast array of items (butsugu) that could be placed in the butsudan. But it would take up a lot of space in this article, so I’ll skip those today
WHAT DOESN’T GO IN A BUTSUDAN
While there are many things inside a butsudan, there are also some things that don’t belong.
“Officially,” photographs should not be placed inside. Neither should certificates, trophies, or lottery tickets because a butsudan is not a place to expect benefits. Despite this, many people put these things in their butsudan. In fact, my family in Japan places stuff like this in their butsudan all the time.
I once asked my mom why we place things like that in our butsudan, and she said it was to let our ancestors know how we are doing. Although I’m not sure if my ancestors can actually see that stuff, I guess it can’t be completely wrong since the butsudan is used to pray to your ancestors anyway.
HOW MUCH DOES A BUTSUDAN COST?
According to research conducted by いい仏壇.com in June, 2011, most people pay between 100,000 to 500,000 yen for their butsudan (about US $1,000 – $5,000). While not the majority, a staggering 20% people paid over 500,000 yen for theirs. Even more impressive is that 1.2% of the people paid over 2,000,000 yen.
NICONICO DOUGA’S BUTSUDAN INCIDENT
Considering only one percent of people pay more than 2 million yen for a butsudan, 63 million yen seems completely ludicrous!
Someone on Niconico Douga, a Japanese video sharing website, bought a butsudan for 63,000,000 yen (about $630,000)!
This incident occurred on August 7, 2008. It went for a price never before seen. Before this, the product which made the most money on the Niconico Douga online market was Hatsune Miku vocaloid software which sold for 28,900,000 yen. Of course, this is an aggregated price of everyone who ever bought that product, so naturally it would be that high.
The butsudan not only broke the record and doubled that number, it did it with one sale. Everyone thought that the overpriced butsudan was a joke. More surprisingly, the exact same butsudan was sold again the next day for the same price! This, of course, became huge news.
Niconico market only counted it as a sale after the product was shipped. This was to make sure it wasn’t a fake order. Letting the time lapse on the site’s cancelation/shipping agreement makes this a possibility.
Once it was shipped, the sale of those two butsudans was finalized.
On August 11, one more was sold, as well as a 62,000,000 yen butsudan. On August 15, another one was sold. The world never ceases to amaze.
However, on August 18, the butsudan shop which originally posted the butsudan in question, announced they filed a police report about fake orders. They wanted to identify the criminal and demand compensation. The following day, two more 63,000,000 yen butsudan were sold. The butsudan posting was deleted on August, 24th. It seems likely that they could have all been fake orders, but nobody knows if every single one was. It’s possible that some of them were jokes and others, likely fewer, were real. At any rate, even if one was real, buying such an expensive item online is pretty ridiculous.
BEST PLACE TO BUY BUTSUDAN?
No matter the price of the butsudan, buying one online is pretty crazy. We’re talking artisan craftsmanship here. These things are gorgeous and ornate. Not something you really want shipped in a box.
There are lots of places to buy butsudan in Japan. But probably the most unique is in Kanagawa. You can buy butsudan in a drive-thru. No, マクド didn’t start selling butsudan. This is a real place where you can shop for butsudan from your car.
I went there to explore this unique butsudanery (not a real word, but it sounds nice). Check out the travel post later this week. Until then…
The Nyingma school, also called Nyingmapa, is the oldest of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It was established in Tibet during the reign of the Emperor Trisong Detsen (742-797 CE), who brought the tantric masters Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava to Tibet to teach and to found the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet.
Buddhism had been introduced to Tibet in 641 CE, when the Chinese Princess Wen Cheng became the bride of the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo. The princess brought with her a statue of the Buddha, the first in Tibet, which today is enshrined in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. But the people of Tibet resisted Buddhism and preferred their indigenous religion, Bon.
According to Tibetan Buddhist mythology, that changed when Padmasambhava called forth the indigenous gods of Tibet and converted them to Buddhism. The fearsome gods agreed to become dharmapalas, or dharma protectors. From then on, Buddhism has been the principal religion of the Tibetan people.
The construction of Samye Gompa, or Samye Monastery, probably was completed about 779 CE. Here Tibetan Nyingmapa was established, although Nyingmapa also traces its origins to earlier masters in India and in Uddiyana, now the Swat Valley of Pakistan.
Padmasambhava is said to have had twenty-five disciples, and from them a vast and complex system of transmission lineages developed.
Nyingmapa was the only school of Tibetan Buddhism that never aspired to political power in Tibet. Indeed, it was uniquely disorganized, with no head overseeing the school until modern times.
Over time, six “mother” monasteries were built in Tibet and dedicated to Nyingmapa practice. These were Kathok Monastery, Thupten Dorje Drak Monastery, Ugyen Mindrolling Monastery, Palyul Namgyal Jangchup Ling Monastery, Dzogchen Ugyen Samten Chooling Monastery, and Zhechen Tenyi Dhargye Ling Monastery. From these, many satellite monasteries were built in Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal.
Nyingmapa classifies all Buddhist teachings into nine yanas, or vehicles. Dzogchen, or “great perfection,” is the highest yana and the central teaching of the Nyingma school.
According to Dzogchen teaching, the essence of all beings is a pure awareness. This purity (ka dog) correlates to the Mahayana doctrine of sunyata. Ka dog combined with natural formation—lhun sgrub, which corresponds to dependent origination—brings about rigpa, awakened awareness. The path of Dzogchen cultivates rigpa through meditation so that rigpa flows through our actions in everyday life.
Dzogchen is an esoteric path, and authentic practice must be learned from a Dzogchen master. It is a Vajrayana tradition, meaning that it combines use of symbols, ritual, and tantric practices to enable the flow of rigpa.
Dzogchen is not exclusive to Nyingmapa. There is a living Bon tradition that incorporates Dzogchen and claims it as its own. Dzogchen is sometimes practiced by followers of other Tibetan schools. The Fifth Dalai Lama, of the Gelug school, is known to have been devoted to Dzogchen practice, for example.
Nyingma Scriptures: Sutra, Tantra, Terma
In addition to the sutras and other teachings common to all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingmapa follows a collection of tantras called the Nyingma Gyubum. In this usage, tantra refers to teachings and writings devoted to Vajrayana practice.
Nyingmapa also has a collection of revealed teachings called terma. Authorship of the terma is attributed to Padmasambhava and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal. The terma were hidden as they were written because people were not yet ready to receive their teachings. They are discovered at the appropriate time by realized masters called tertons, or treasure revealers.
Many of the terma discovered so far have been collected in a multi-volume work called the Rinchen Terdzo. The most widely known terma is the Bardo Thodol, commonly called the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
Unique Lineage Traditions
One unique aspect of Nyingmapa is the “white sangha,” ordained masters and practitioners who are not celibate. Those who live a more traditionally monastic, and celibate, life are said to be in the “red sangha.”
One Nyingmapa tradition, the Mindrolling lineage, has supported a tradition of women masters, called the Jetsunma lineage. The Jetsunmas have been daughters of Mindrolling Trichens, or heads of the Mindrolling lineage, beginning with Jetsun Mingyur Paldrön (1699-1769). The current Jetsunma is Her Eminence Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche.
Nyingmapa in Exile
The Chinese invasion of Tibet and the 1959 uprising caused the heads of the major Nyingmapa lineages to leave Tibet. Monastic traditions re-established in India include Thekchok Namdrol Shedrub Dargye Ling, in Bylakuppe, Karnataka State; Ngedon Gatsal Ling, in Clementown, Dehradun; Palyul Chokhor Ling, E-Vam Gyurmed Ling, Nechung Drayang Ling, and Thubten E-vam Dorjey Drag in Himachal Pradesh.
Although the Nyingma school had never had a head, in exile a series of high lama have been appointed to the position for administration purposes. The most recent was Kyabjé Trulshik Rinpoche, who died in 2011.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Nyingmapa School.” Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/nyingma-school-450169.
People often think of the current Dalai Lama who travels the world as the highly visible spokesman for Buddhism as THE Dalai Lama, but in reality, he is the only most recent in a long line of leaders of the Gelug branch of Tibetan Buddhism. He is considered to be a tulku–a reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. In Tibetan, Avalokitesvara is known as Chenrezig.
In 1578 the Mongol ruler Altan Khan gave the title Dalai Lama to Sonyam Gyatso, third in a line of reborn lamas of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The title means “ocean of wisdom” and was given posthumously to Sonyam Gyatso’s two predecessors.
In 1642, the 5th Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, became the spiritual and political leader of all of Tibet, an authority passed on to his successors. Since that time the succession of Dalai Lamas has been at the center of both Tibetan Buddhismand the history of the Tibetan people.
01: Gedun Drupa, the 1st Dalai Lama
Gendun Drupa was born to a nomadic family in 1391 and died in 1474. His original name was Pema Dorjee.
He took novice monk’s vows in 1405 at Narthang monastery and received full monk’s ordination in 1411. In 1416, he became a disciple of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa School, and eventually became Tsongkhapa’s principle disciple. Gendun Drupa is remembered as a great scholar who wrote a number of books and who founded a major monastic university, Tashi Lhunpo.
Gendun Drupa was not called “Dalai Lama” during his lifetime, because the title did not yet exist. He was identified as the first Dalai Lama several years after his death.
02: Gendun Gyatso, the 2nd Dalai Lama
Gendun Gyatso was born in 1475 and died in 1542. His father, a well-known tantric practitioner of the Nyingma school, named him Sangye Phel and gave the boy a Buddhist education.
When he was 11 years old, he was recognized as an incarnation of Gedun Drupa and enthroned at Tashi Lhunpo monastery. He received the name Gendun Gyatso at his monk’s ordination. Like Gedun Drupa, Gendun Gyatso would not receive the title Dalai Lama until after his death.
Gedun Gyatso served as abbot of Drepung and Sera monasteries. He is also remembered for reviving the great prayer festival, the Monlam Chenmo.
03: Sonam Gyatso, the 3rd Dalai Lama
Sonam Gyatso was born in 1543 to a wealthy family living near Lhasa. He died in 1588. His given name was Ranu Sicho. At the age of 3 he was recognized to be the reincarnation of Gendun Gyatso and was then taken to Drepung Monastery for training. He received novice ordination at the age of 7 and full ordination at 22.
Sonam Gyatso received the title Dalai Lama, meaning “ocean of wisdom,” from the Mongolian king Altan Khan. He was the first Dalai Lama to be called by that title in his lifetime.
Sonam Gyatso served as abbot of Drepung and Sera monsteries, and he founded Namgyal and Kumbum monasteries. He died while teaching in Mongolia.
04: Yonten Gyatso, the 4th Dalai Lama
Yonten Gyatso was born in 1589 in Mongolia. His father was a Mongol tribal chief and a grandson of Altan Khan. He died in 1617.
Although Yonten Gyatso was recognized to be the reborn Dalai Lama as a small child, his parents did not allow him to leave Mongolia until he was 12. He received his early Buddhist education from lamas visiting from Tibet.
Yonten Gyatso finally came to Tibet in 1601 and soon after took novice monk’s ordination. He received full ordination at the age of 26 and was abbot of Drepung and Sera monasteries. He died at Drepung monastery only a year later.
Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso was born in 1617 to a noble family. His given name was Künga Nyingpo. He died in 1682.
Military victories by the Mongol Prince Gushi Kahn gave control of Tibet to the Dalai Lama. When Lobsang Gyatso was enthroned in 1642, he became the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. He is remembered in Tibetan history as the Great Fifth.
The Great Fifth established Lhasa as the capital of Tibet and began construction of Potala Palace. He appointed a regent, or desi, to handle the administrative duties of governing. Before his death, he advised the Desi Sangya Gyatso to keep his death a secret, possibly to prevent a power struggle before a new Dalai Lama was prepared to assume authority.
Tsangyang Gyatso was born in 1683 and died in 1706. His given name was Sanje Tenzin.
In 1688, the boy was brought to Nankartse, near Lhasa, and educated by teachers appointed by the Desi Sangya Gyatso. His identity as the Dalai Lama was kept secret until 1697 when the death of the 5th Dalai Lama finally was announced and Tsangyang Gyatso was enthroned.
The 6th Dalai Lama is most remembered for renouncing monastic life and spending time in taverns and with women. He also composed songs and poems.
In 1701, a descendant of Gushi Khan named Lhasang Khan killed Sangya Gyatso. Then, in 1706 Lhasang Khan abducted Tsangyang Gyatso and declared that another lama was the real 6th Dalai Lama. Tsangyang Gyatso died in Lhasang Khan’s custody.
The lama who had replaced Tsangyang Gyatso as Sixth Dalai Lama was still enthroned in Lhasa, so Kelzang Gyatso’s identification as 7th Dalai Lama was kept secret for a time.
A tribe of Mongol warriors called the Dzungars invaded Lhasa in 1717. The Dzungars killed Lhasang Kahn and deposed the pretender 6th Dalai Lama. However, the Dzungars were lawless and destructive, and the Tibetans appealed to the Emperor Kangxi of China to help rid Tibet of the Dzungars. Chinese and Tibetan forces together expelled the Dzungars in 1720. Then they brought Kelzang Gyatso to Lhasa to be enthroned.
Kelzang Gyatso abolished the position of desi (regent) and replaced it with a council of ministers.
08: Jamphel Gyatso, the 8th Dalai Lama
Jamphel Gyatso was born in 1758, enthroned at Potala Palace in 1762 and died in 1804 at the age of 47.
During his reign, a war broke out between Tibet and the Gurkhas occupying Nepal. The war was joined by China, which blamed the war on a feud among lamas. China then attempted to change the process for choosing the rebirths of lamas by imposing the “golden urn” ceremony on Tibet. More than two centuries later, the current government of China has re-introduced the golden urn ceremony as a means of controlling the leadership of Tibetan Buddhism.
Jamphel Gyatso was the first Dalai Lama to be represented by a regent while he was a minor. He completed the building of Norbulingka Park and Summer Palace. By all accounts a quiet man devoted to meditation and study, as an adult he preferred to let others run the government of Tibet.
09: Lungtok Gyatso, the 9th Dalai Lama
Lungtok Gyatso was born in 1805 and died in 1815 before his tenth birthday from complications from a common cold. He was the only Dalai Lama to die in childhood and the first of four that would die before the age of 22. His reincarnated successor would not be recognized for eight years.
10: Tsultrim Gyatso, the 10th Dalai Lama
Tsultrim Gyatso was born in 1816 and died in 1837 at the age of 21. Though he sought to change the economic system of Tibet, he died before being able to enact any of his reforms.
11: Khendrup Gyatso, the 11th Dalai Lama
Khendrup Gyatso was born in 1838 and died in 1856 at the age of 18. Born in the same village as the 7th Dalai Lama, he was recognized as the reincarnation in 1840 and assumed full power over the government in 1855–only a year before his death.
12: Trinley Gyatso, the 12th Dalai Lama
Trinley Gyatso was born in 1857 and died in 1875. He assumed full authority over the Tibetan government at the age of 18 but died before his 20th birthday.
Thubten Gyatso was born in 1876 and died in 1933. He is remembered as the Great Thirteenth.
Thubten Gyatso assumed leadership in Tibet in 1895. At that time Czarist Russia and the British Empire had been sparring for decades over control of Asia. In the 1890s the two empires turned their attention eastward, to Tibet. A British force invaded in 1903, leaving after extracting a short-lived treaty from the Tibetans.
Tenzin Gyatso was born in 1935 and recognized as the Dalai Lama at the age of three.
China invaded Tibet in 1950 when Tenzin Gyatso was only 15. For nine years he attempted to negotiate with the Chinese to save the Tibetan people from the dictatorship of Mao Zedong. However, the Tibetan Uprising of 1959 forced the Dalai Lama into exile, and he has never been allowed to return to Tibet.
The 14th Dalai Lama established a Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India. In some ways, his exile has been to the world’s benefit, since he has spent his life bringing a message of peace and compassion to the world
The 14th Dalai Lama was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. In 2011 he absolved himself of political power, although he is still the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Future generations are likely to regard him in the same light as the Great Fifth and the Great Thirteenth for his contributions to spreading the message of Tibetan Buddhism to the world, thereby saving the tradition.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The 14 Dalai Lamas from 1391 to Present.” Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/succession-of-dalai-lamas-450187.
The dharma wheel, or dharmachakra in Sanskrit, is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism. Around the globe, it is used to represent Buddhism in the same way that a cross represents Christianity or a Star of David represents Judaism. It is also one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism. Similar symbols are found in Jainism and Hinduism, and it is likely the dharmachakra symbol in Buddhism evolved out of Hinduism.
A traditional dharma wheel is a chariot wheel with varying numbers of spokes. It can be in any color, although it is most often gold. At the center, there may be three shapes swirling together, a yin-yang symbol, a second wheel, or an empty circle.
What the Dharma Wheel Represents
A dharma wheel has three basic parts: the hub, the rim, and the spokes. Over the centuries, various teachers and traditions have proposed diverse meanings for these parts. Here are some common understandings of the wheel’s symbolism:
The circle, the round shape of the wheel, represents the perfection of thedharma, the Buddha’s teaching.
When a wheel has 24 spokes, the spokes represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination plus the reversing of the Twelves Links and liberation fromsamsara. A 24-spoke dharma wheel is also called anAshoka Chakra.
When a wheel has 31 spokes, the spokes represent the 31 realms of existence from ancient Buddhist cosmology.
The wheel often has spokes protruding beyond the wheel, which we might imagine are spikes, although usually, they don’t look very sharp. The spikes represent various penetrating insights.
The Ashoka Chakra
Among the oldest existing examples of a dharma wheel are found on the pillars erected by theAshoka the Great(304–232 B.C.E.), an emperor who ruled much of what is now India and beyond. Ashoka was a great patron of Buddhism and encouraged its spread, although he never forced it on his subjects.
Ashoka erected enormous stone pillars throughout his kingdom, many of which are still standing. The pillars contain edicts, some of which encouraged people to practice Buddhist morality and nonviolence. There is typically at least one lion on the top of each pillar, representing Ashoka’s rule. The pillars also are decorated with 24-spoke dharma wheels.
In 1947, the government of India adopted a new national flag, in the center of which is a navy blue Ashoka Chakra on a white background.
Other Symbols Related to the Dharma Wheel
Sometimes the dharma wheel is presented in a tableau, supported on a lotus flower pedestal with two deer, a buck, and a doe on either side. This recalls thefirst sermongiven by thehistorical Buddhaafter hisenlightenment. The sermon is said to have been given to five mendicants in Sarnath, a deer park in what is now Uttar Pradesh, India.
According to Buddhist legend, the park was home to a herd of ruru deer, and the deer gathered around to listen to the sermon. The deer depicted by the dharma wheel reminds us that the Buddha taught to save all beings, not just humans. In some versions of this story, the deer are emanations of bodhisattvas.
Typically, when the dharma wheel is represented with deer, the wheel must be twice the height of the deer. The deer are shown with legs folded under them, gazing serenely at the wheel with their noses lifted.
The first turning was the sermon in the deer park, after the Buddha’s enlightenment. Here, the Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths. The second turning was the introduction of the perfection of wisdom teachings on the nature of sunyata (emptiness). The third turning was the introduction of the doctrine of Buddha Nature.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Dharma Wheel (Dharmachakra) Symbol in Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-dharma-wheel-449956.
The term vajra is a Sanskrit word that is usually defined as “diamond” or “thunderbolt.” It also defines a kind of battle club that achieved its name through its reputation for hardness and invincibility. The vajra has special significance in Tibetan Buddhism, and the word is adopted as a label for the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, one of the three major forms of Buddhism. The visual icon of the vajra club, along with the bell (ghanta), form a principal symbol of the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet.
A diamond is spotlessly pure and indestructible. The Sanskrit word means “unbreakable or impregnable, being durable and eternal”. As such, the word vajra sometimes signifies the lighting-bolt power of enlightenment and the absolute, indestructible reality of shunyata, “emptiness.”
Buddism integrates the word vajra into many of its legends and practices. Vajrasana is the location where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The vajra asana body posture is the lotus position. The highest concentrated mental state is vajra samadhi
Ritual Object in Tibetan Buddhism
Thevajra also is a literal ritual object associated withTibetan Buddhism, also called by its Tibetan name,Dorje. It is the symbol of the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, which is the tantric branch that contains rituals said to allow a follower to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, in a thunderbolt flash of indestructible clarity.
The vajra objects usually are made of bronze, vary in size, and have three, five or nine spokes that usually close at each end in a lotus shape. The number of spokes and the way they meet at the ends have numerous symbolic meanings.
In Tibetan ritual, the vajra often is used together with a bell (ghanta). The vajra is held in the left hand and represents the male principle—upaya, referring to action or means. The bell is held in the right hand and represents the female principle—prajna, or wisdom.
A double Dorje, or vishvavajra, are two Dorjes connected to form a cross. A double Dorje represents the foundation of the physical world and is also associated with certain tantric deities.
Tantric Buddhist Iconography
Thevajraas symbol predates Buddhism and was found in ancient Hinduism. The Hindu rain god Indra, who later evolved into Buddhist Sakra figure, had the thunderbolt as his symbol. And the 8th-century tantric master, Padmasambhava, used thevajrato conquer the non-Buddhist gods of Tibet.
In tantric iconography, several figures often hold the vajra, including Vajrasattva, Vajrapani, and Padmasambhava. Vajrasttva is seen in a peaceful pose with the vajra held to his heart. Wrathful Vajrapani wields it as a weapon above his head. When used as a weapon, it is thrown to stun the opponent, and then bind him with a vajra lasso.
Symbolic Meaning of the Vajra Ritual Object
At the center of thevajrais a small flattened sphere which is said to represent the underlying nature of the universe. It is sealed by the syllablehum (hung), representing freedom from karma, conceptual thought, and the groundlessness of all dharmas. Outward from the sphere, there are three rings on each side, which symbolize the three-fold bliss of Buddha nature. The next symbol found on thevajraas we progress outward are two lotus flowers, representing Samsara (the endless cycle of suffering) and Nirvana (release from Samsara). The outer prongs emerge from symbols of Makaras, sea monsters.
The number of prongs and whether they have closed or open tines is variable, with different forms having different symbolic meanings. The most common form is the five-pronged vajra, with four outer prongs and one central prong. These may be considered to represent the five elements, the five poisons, and the five wisdoms. The tip of the central prong is often shaped like a tapering pyramid.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Vajra (Dorje) as a Symbol in Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/vajra-or-dorje-449881.
The monk’s robe goes back to the Buddha’s own time for, it was He who introduced it to the early monks. The “triple robe” (tricivara) comprises an inner garment or waistcloth (antaravasaka), an upper robe (uttarsanga) and outer robe (sanghati) (Vin 1:94 289). In addition to these, the nun also wears a vest or bodice (samkacchika) and has a bathing-cloth (udakasatika) (Vin 2:272) which altogether comprise her “fivefold robe”.
The Sutras often mention: “Then early in the forenoon, the Blessed One, having robed himself and taking his bowl and (upper) robe, approach . . . “. Those unfamiliar with monastic ways may wonder if the Buddha only half-dressed on His alms-round.
According to the Buddhist Scriptures and the Commentaries, in the early monastic days, the monks would go out on their alms-round dressed only in their waistcloth which was neatly worn, and carrying their upper robe and bowl in their hands. When the monks were in the vicinity of houses, they would put on their upper robe before going to collect alms.
The waistcloth is about the size of a sarong, both the other robes measure about 2m by 7m (about 6 feet by 9 feet). The Vibhanga says that “A monk should wear the waistcloth even all around, covering the area of the navel and the area of the knees.” It is secured to the waist with a flat waistband.
The third robe, the outer robe (sanghati), is not often mentioned in the Scriptures but was permitted by the Buddha for additional use during the cold season. These robes measure about 2m by 3m (about 6 feet by 9 feet). Unlike the upper robe which is only of one layer, the outer robe has two. This is the real meaning of the term, “the triple robe”.
According to the Pali tradition, six kinds of cloth are allowed for making the upper and outer robes: plant fibres, cotton, silk, animal hair (e.g. wool, but not human), hemp, and a mixture of some or all of them. The Buddha recommended that the robe design should be cut in the pattern of the Magadha padi-fields.
The robe dye is allowed to be obtained from six kinds of substances: roots and tubers, plants, bark, leaves, flowers and fruits. They should be boiled in water for a long time to get the dun dye. Saffron and ochre (from the jackfruit’s heartwood) are the most prevalent colours today. Though there is a tendency amongst forest monks to wear ochre and city monks to wear saffron, but this is not always the rule.
There are a number of ways the monks wear their robes (depending usually on their sect and country). The most universal one is that which is worn for the alms-round when the robe is covering both the shoulders. The two top corners are held together and the edges rolled tightly together. The roll is then pushed over the left shoulder, down the back, under the armpit and is pressed down with the left arm. The roll is parted in front through which protrudes the right arm.
Within the monastery or residence and when having an audience with a more senior monk, a simpler style is adopted (as a gesture of respect and to facilitate work). The right side of the robe is pushed under the armpit and over the robe on the left leaving the right shoulder bare.
The Buddhist monastic robe is so versatile that it can be used, besides what is already mentioned, as a blanket, a seat-spread, a groundsheet, a head-cover, a windbreak, etc. It is easy to clean and repair. It is perhaps the oldest style of dress still in fashion after 2,500 years.
The robes serve not just as a kind of uniform to remind the wearer that he or she is a member of a larger universal community, but is itself an object of reflection to be worn “properly considering them: only to ward off cold, to ward off heat, to ward off the touch of insects, wind, sun and reptiles; only for keeping myself decent” (M 1:10). Above all, they remind the wearer that he or she has committed him or herself to high spiritual ideals — to master the Dharma, liberate oneself and show others the Way.
In Western society where people are wealthier than in other places, it is literally possible to dress in any kind of clothing. Nevertheless, despite all the possibilities, most people wear more or less the same kind of thing. Ritual garments are few and far between: The flowing black robe of a judge is not seen on the street, nor is Queen Victoria’s innovation — the white wedding dress. Gold braid is left for military officers on parade.
Nowadays, elaborate garments are generally reserved for ceremonial occasions. Yet only fifty years ago, certain people went about their public business dressed in sombre medieval costume; some with what appeared to be enormous white birds as head gear. We would know to which order the nun or monk belonged by the features of the various habits (as the robes of Catholic religious are known.)
The four Tibetan Buddhist denominations are Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. We sometimes hear them referred to in the following way: Nyingma are called Red Hats, Kagyu are also called Red but sometimes, Black Hats, andGelug, of whom the Dalai Lama is a representative,Yellow Hats. The epithets derive from the crowns or ceremonial headdresses of the lineage-holders and are especially used by speakers of Chinese. That is not to say that these expressions are correct.
TheKarmapa‘s Black Crown [Tib.:shwa-nag] an image of which is currently displayed on theKhandro.Nethome page, is the actual headdress conferred by the Chinese ruler when he, among many others, witnessed a crown woven from the hair of dakinis suspended above Karmapa’s head.
This crown continues to signify his realization, but it also is reputed to have the ability of instantly liberating those who see it. Hence, in Sanskrit it is calledvajra mukut (thunderbolt crown.)
It is being kept for now at the Karmapa’s monastery in Rumtek, Sikkim. In this photo, we see the replica that is used in certain practices.
TheSakya(pron. in East Tib.:Shacha) have a distinctive ceremonial hat generally known as thesa-zhu. At a distance itresembles a turban adorned with a diagonal ribbon of rank. This effect is due to the fact that the lappets of the hood are kept in a raised and crossed position. Thoughthis headdress is red, it is not generally referred to by colour.
The original version came into use towards the end of theSakya Pandita‘s (1182 CE) life.It is calledkyang-zhu[sounds likechong ju] meaningextended —a reference to the original long side flaps that formerly were left hanging down on either side of the face.Because of their auspicious benefit for the Sakyas, the lappets that once may have served a utilitarian purpose were folded and crossed like the forearms of meditation deity,Vajradhara.
The Gelugpa’s pointedyellow hoodhas come to be known as theTsongkhapahat after the 15th century Kadampa reformer who established that denomination.
The fringed hat that resembles a horse’s mane or a Roman helmet, is worn in procession by monks of all 3 of the younger (or, Sarma) denominations. It is often referred to as the Vinaya hat. Here we also see some red pandita or, scholars, hoods.
More About Head-coverings
Like the pointed red hood, a scoop-shaped sun hat is often depicted in historical images ofpanditas. Under the blindingly bright sunlight of the region, it is still common custom, though mainly by country folk, to fold a cloth in such a way that it will sit on the top of the head to act as a sun shade.
According to Vinaya, Buddhist monastic rule, the wearing of hats except for ritual headdresses is prohibited. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama received an International University honorary degree the strength of that prohibition mandated that he immediately remove the “mortar board,” which he held in his hands for the rest of the ceremony.
For public appearances under theatrical lighting, the Dalai Lama has popularized the crown-less eye-shade that was formerly used mainly by tennis players. It is permissible since it is not a head-covering.
In denominations where people’s heads are shaven on a regular basis, when they need to go outdoors in a cold climate the rule is sensibly relaxed. Protection is usually some kind of plain woollen tuque (knitted tubular cap.)
Red Hats in the Kagyu Context
Besides the Black Crown of the Karmapa, there is a distinctive headdress though not as significant, for two other high tulkus [incarnate lamas]:The Red Hat Lamaand that of His Eminence Tai Situpa. The role of these two eminent lamas has traditionally been intertwined with that of the Karmapas. They are teacher and disciple to one another across incarnations in a relationship that is calledthe Golden Rosaryof Mahamudra (GreatSeal, ie.SymbolorAttitude,) which is the supreme teaching of the Kagyu.
Also, at the ritual of celebration of the successful traditional three-year three-month and three-day retreat, celebrants wear the red Kagyu hatassociated with a red form of Chenrezi. Red is also the traditional colour of joy and festivity in many Asian countries.
Since the expressionRed Hatcan refer to two very different things, the Old Schools (Nyingmapa, Shakya and Kagyu) and also the Shemarpas of the latter group, it can perhaps contribute to confusion. This mix-up happened, to the dismay of some members of the media, in a few reports about the emergence of the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa from Tibet.
When it means the Old denominations, it is a reference to the color of the Pandit hats worn by the scholars of these schools.
Later, the Indian tradition of saffron yellow for the pandita hoods was reintroduced and the Gelugpas became known as “Yellow Hats”.
Colours and Clothing
There is a kind of irony in the fact that “saffron yellow” is associated with those who reject the pursuit of material goals. Yellow robes are worn, not only by some Buddhist lineages (for example, the Chinese monks of Shao Lin) but also by wandering Hindu ascetics. The contradiction comes from the fact that yellow is the colour of gold — it stands for great wealth.
By association, gold is also the color of nobility. However, although the historical Buddha was the son of a king, it is his Dharma (teachings and methods) that is considered most noble.
In a great part of Asia, the very soil itself is yellowish, so that colour “refers” to our Earth. By extension then, yellow also symbolizes a basis — the Foundation.
“. . . according to Tibetan oral tradition the ceremonial monastic hat in early India had been yellow, the color of the earth, symbol of discipline and the foundation from which all good things are born. However, this had been changed to red, symbol of fire and victory, after the Hindus began gaining the upper hand over the Buddhists in public debate . . . the hat remained red thereafter. The tradition carried over in Tibet during both the early and late phases of the spread of the doctrine, but Tsongkhapa felt that the main threat to Buddhism in Tibet was not unsuccessful debate with non-Buddhists, as it had been in classical India; rather, it was the general laziness and lack of discipline of the Tibetan practitioners. Therefore he changed the color of the hat back to the original yellow, bringing it back to the earth element and the firm foundation required for successful engagement in the higher practices.”
Yellow is also associated with death and dying; it is the colour of dead leaves.
The correct colour is yellow, orange or tawny brown, the same as the kaṇikāra flower,Pterospermum acerifolium(Ja.II,25).<Shravasti Dhammika. buddhismatoz.com/r/Robes.html>
The Tibetan denominations are associated with various colors that distinguish their robes.
For example, theGelugpais sometimes known as the Yellow School. As we have seen, yellow/gold signifiesshilaor discipline. That is the emphasis in the practice of Gelugpas who were known as Kadampa prior to their reformation.
TheNyingma is known as the Red School because of their deep red clothing. Instead of the saffron yellow shirt worn by monks of other denminations, they wear a red or maroon one.
There are several famous Nyingma lineages and two types of religious communities:gendün marpowho are celibate monks and nuns that wear red, andgendün karpo, or white sangha of non-celibate practitioners referred to asgö-kar changlo’i-dé, or “long hair and white kilts.” However, these yogis drape a red shawl (Tib.:zhen) over their white robes.
TheSakyaare known as the Multi-colored School, not after their garments but the stripes that border the outer wall of the original and main Sakya Monastery.
Sa-kyameanspale, orgrey,eartha name referring to the soil’s color at their first monastery’s site. The red stripe stands for Manjushri, the white for Avalokitesvara and the black for Vajrapani. Together they symbolize knowledge, compassion and self-control.
Their distinctive hat identifies them, but its colour does not. Sakya and Kagyu, too, also have traditions in which people dress inwhite.
In fact, theKagyuhave been called the White School, because of the thin white clothing of founders, Marpa and Milarepa (repa: cotton-clad.) Their Indian tantric teachers, Tilopa and Naropa had worn white cotton draped garments. These founders of Kagyu were not monks, but householder-yogis who may also have worn their thin cotton to demonstrate their mastery of tummo(Skt.tapas, heat [generation.]) In Chinese, Kagyupas are referred to as “white robes,” due to the profound impression made by the cotton-clad yogis.
Somengakpas (non-celibate tantric practitioners) wear white to symbolize their life-long commitments. It is meant to underline their having fully accomplished the essence of the Vinaya (the monastic code,) and that they now, in outwardly living in contradiction to the Rule, are trying to transcend it while inwardly scrupulously following its spirit.
That path emulates that of Mahasiddha Saraha who is said to have been able to juggle three iron balls so that all were aloft at the same time. When he left the monastery in order to apply his accomplishments to worldly activity as a yogi, he said, “I have been a monk in name only all my life, but from this day on, I truly am.”
In many cultures, individuals undergoing ritual purification dress in white. Because the cloth is un-dyed, it is considered purer. Also, it resembles snow, clouds and other clean or unearthly substances. White is also the colour of a shroud, the final garment. Therefore when white is worn by a yogi, it can serve as a remembrance of the that there is an urgency to practice. It also indicates to others that the practitioner is in a special state as a result of their proximity to death.
Dyes usedto tint the coarse material used for the robes of religious (and also, military) orders are generally the cheapest — the most readily available. They used mainly to come from plants. In the countries near India the choice was yellow, as from onion skins, and the dark reds fromlacor madder root. Farther east, grey, black and brown are the choice. They can be derived from tree bark.
In China, yellow and red were reserved for the emperor, nobility and officials. There the blue, gray and brown hues worn by peasants are also worn by monastics. The dark blue is from the indigo plant.
Bright blue is the color of the vests of Bonpos, the non-Buddhist practitioners of the old religion of Tibet.
There are two different explanations given for the bright blue border around the armholes of Tibetan monastic robes and vests. One is that it symbolizes Padmasambhava, since it is the bright shade of lapis lazuli, a color that, like purple, is associated with royalty. In depictions, he is portrayed wearing a bright blue inner robe of quality befitting a prince. The other is that it commemoratesHuashang, and though his view of spontaneous enlightenment was defeated, nevertheless it is commemorated and the connection with China is maintained in this symbolic way.
If someone is dressed in a traditional garment, but in unusual colours, you can be reasonably sure that the person is not a celibate monk or nun.
Thezhenor shawl is draped in such a way as to bare the right arm or shoulder. Priests in the earliest cities, as far west as Sumer (Mesopotamia) wore their garments in this fashion. So did those of Mohenjodaro (in the Indus Valley,) as portrayed by the clay figure at left.
In ancient times, cloth was generally not tailored to the body, which entails cutting a precious length of cloth. It was merely draped, or gathered and wrapped. A right-handed person generally finds it awkward to wrap a shawl in such a way as to bare the left side, so this ancient style is also related to modesty as it demonstrates that no other person assisted in dressing. The sari of Indian women when worn in the national style, is also draped in such a way so as to bare the right arm.
But the side a garment is attached can also convey status. Compare the fastening side of the tunics of subjugated peoples with that of the ruling class in traditional China. Notice, too, the subservience inherent in the buttoning practices of western women’s clothing. The garments are meant to be detached by a person facing them!
The exposed right arm is also related to the Western shaking of hands — no weapons are concealed. It is also a sign of the readiness to work, since most people are right-handed. Also, in many parts of the world the left hand is discretely hidden since it is used for cleaning after using the toilet.
This mark of deference is a customary sign of respect to the Buddha. The Sutras mention it speaking of the disciples’ actions as they knelt to ask for teachings. In formal portraits we see garments arranged deliberately to expose the right but conceal the left arm.
Monks shave their heads primarily as a gesture of renunciation in imitation of the Buddha. He cut off his princely topknot in imitation of the wandering ascetics and forest-dwelling yogis of his time.
Itinerant Hindu renunciate practitioners known as sadhus, and other kinds of yogis too may, according to their tradition, dress and act in contrast to monastics. Instead of a shaven head, they may vow to keep their hair (and sometimes, their nails) long. Instead of saffron, they dress in white (seetummoabove) and so on. However, those with high realization may consider such symbolic contradiction elaborate and unnecessary. They dress in whatever way they are used to, including in monastic robes.
When their hair is long it is braided or made into dreadlocks to keep it out of the way and to prevent tiny sentient beings from making their homes in it. Braids can sometimes serve as a kind of mala — a counting device for keeping track of mantras.
Among monks and yogis, as it is in society at large, we cannot judge the importance or role of someone by the details of their garb or general appearance. Therefore, we need to be mindful of the way we react to and behave with people, especially if we are inclined to evaluate status based on appearances only.
~Clothing: The Bare Essentials
Habits or Robes of Monks andNunsCan we judge the book by its cover?
The habit or uniform of Buddhist monastics consists of three outer garments that symbolize the Three Jewels. The robes probably will have been generously donated by lay people.
The main garment in Tibetan orders is the traditionalchubawhich is worn by both men and women in Tibet. It is a wrap-around type of gown that is economically cut and that attaches at the right arm-pit with a special button, brooch or buckle. The sleeveless versiontre.cheis worn by monastics, and it should be visibly repaired or patched to commemorate, among other things,Buddha Shakyamuni‘s poverty after he left his royal estate.
Often the upper-body garment — thezhenor shawl of a ritual costume — is sewn of three pieces, or made of rows of folded squares in such a way as to simulate patchwork. This is especially noticeable intangkas depicting renowned teachers.
The sleeveless robe of women is a wrap-around tunic, or what is called a jumper in North America, that can be adjusted to fit the changing form of a woman. The very generous folds of the traditional pattern has, since the 1970’s, given way to a sleeker contemporary model. It is generally worn with a short, square and complementary-coloured paler, blouse. Often, the collar of the blouse is folded outside the diagonal closing of the outer garment to form a cuffed border resembling a shawl collar.
A similar garment made of thin material can be worn underneath, and there can be more than one of those, as was the custom of Japanese women before Westernization.
Married women wear thepang.den,an apron made of 3 lengths of striped woven cloth sewn longitudinally. Its corners may be embroidered or appliqued with triangular patches in a flower motif. These welcome, frame and protect any new life beneath the apron.
There are prescribed undergarments for both ordained men and women. An outer sleeveless vest was developed for the use of women and it is popular with men, too. As noted above, the various denominations or schools have characteristic colors.
In the West,some individuals and groups have adapted the robes to suit individual occupations or personal requirements. For example, polo shirts or t-shirts or suit jackets in the appropriate hue are an option, and a tubular lower garment (Hindi:lunghi) or a divided skirt similar to that worn by Japanese martial artists may be worn by a woman who prefers to wear trousers.
The wearing of a robe, like other precepts and vows comprisingthepratimoksharule of monastic order, functions as a protection for the wearer. It frees him or her from the problems or attentions associated with the wearing of everyday clothing, and it functions as a reminder to the wearer (and the public) of his or her vows as a renunciate.
There are many other rules concerning distinctions in monastic garb, such as those underlying the differences between the dress of those who have embarked on the renunciate’s path and those who have entirely renounced worldly life. It is considered all right for a yogi (especially one who started out as a monk, e.g. Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Dorje Chang) to dress as a monk, but it is not all right for a monk to dress as a yogi, or as a “householder.”
It could be considered disrespectful for a layperson to wear these robes, but it is a breach of vows for a monastic NOT to dress in them.
If you like to dress in a Tibetanchuba, try not to emulate monastic dress. Perhaps it is a good idea to ask the lama whether it appears misleading.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Anjali mudra is used as a salutation or greeting such as gassho ornamaste.
How to form the Anjali mudra:Hands are held together in prayer fashion directly over the heart/chest.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
TheVajramudra 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
“An Introduction to Buddhist Archaeology,” by Gina L. Barnes. World Archaeology, Vol. 27, No. 2, Buddhist Archaeology (Oct., 1995), pp. 165-182.
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.