Category Archives: Buddhism

The Meaning of Om Mani Padme Hum

His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains the meaning of Om mani padme hum. 

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The mantra Om mani padme hum. The six syllables are Om ཨོཾ mani མ་ཎི padme པ་དྨེ hum ཧཱུྃ.

A Talk On Om Mani Padme Hum By H.H. the Dalai Lama

It is very good to recite the mantra Om mani padme hum, but while you are doing it, you should be thinking on its meaning, for the meaning of the six syllables is great and vast.

Om

The first, Om is composed of three letters. A, U, and M. These symbolize the practitioner’s impure body, speech, and mind; they also symbolize the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.

Can impure body, speech, and mind be transformed into pure body, speech, and mind, or are they entirely separate?

All Buddhas are cases of beings who were like ourselves and then in dependence on the path became enlightened; Buddhism does not assert that there is anyone who from the beginning is free from faults and possesses all good qualities. The development of pure body, speech, and mind comes from gradually leaving the impure states and their being transformed into the pure.

How is this done?

The path is indicated by the next four syllables.

Mani

Mani, meaning jewel, symbolizes the factors of method—the altruistic intention to become enlightened, compassion, and love.

Just as a jewel is capable of removing poverty, so the altruistic mind of enlightenment is capable of removing the poverty, or difficulties, of cyclic existence and of solitary peace.

Similarly, just as a jewel fulfills the wishes of sentient beings, so the altruistic intention to become enlightened fulfills the wishes of sentient beings.

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Mani stones outside the Tsuglagkhang Complex, near the home of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, India. Photo by Liz Highleyman, Creative Commons, https://bit.ly/3fuozRB

Padme

The two syllables, padme, meaning lotus, symbolize wisdom. Just as a lotus grows forth from mud but is not sullied by the faults of mud, so wisdom is capable of putting you in a situation of non-contradiction whereas there would be contradiction if you did not have wisdom.

There is wisdom realizing impermanence, wisdom realizing that persons are empty of being self-sufficient or substantially existent, wisdom that realizes the emptiness of duality—that is to say, of difference of entity between subject and object—and wisdom that realizes the emptiness of inherent existence.

Though there are many different types of wisdom, the main of all these is the wisdom realizing emptiness.

Hum

Purity must be achieved by an indivisible unity of method and wisdom, symbolized by the final syllable hum, which indicates indivisibility. According to the sutra system, this indivisibility of method and wisdom refers to wisdom affected by method and method affected by wisdom.

In the mantra, or tantric, vehicle, it refers to one consciousness in which there is the full form of both wisdom and method as one undifferentiable entity.

In terms of the seed syllables of the five Conqueror Buddhas, hum is the seed syllable of Akshobhya—the immovable, the unfluctuating, that which cannot be disturbed by anything.

The six syllables: Om Mani Padme Hum

Thus the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.

It is said that you should not seek for Buddhahood outside of yourself; the substances for the achievement of Buddhahood are within.

As Maitreya says in his Sublime Continuum of the Great Vehicle (Uttaratantra), all beings naturally have the Buddha nature in their own continuum. We have within us the seed of purity, the essence of a One Gone Thus (Tathagatagarbha), that is to be transformed and fully developed into Buddhahood.

First published in Kindness, Clarity, and Insight by The Fourteenth Dalai Lama His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, co-edited by Elizabeth Napper. Snow Lion Publications, 1984. Reprinted here by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com

Video on the meaning of Om Mani Padme Hum

Here’s a video from 2013 of His Holiness the Dalai Lama answering a question about the meaning of the mantra Om mani padme hum.

Eternal Knot Symbol

The eternal knot is one of the eight auspicious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism.

The eternal knot, sometimes called the “endless knot” or “the glorious knot” is called དཔལ་བེའུ། or palbeu in Tibetan. In Sanskrit, it is called shrivasta.

Tibetan eternal knot

Tibetan Eternal Knot

Because the knot has no beginning and no end, the eternal knot symbolizes the endless wisdom and compassion of the Buddha.

The eternal knot symbol has many other meanings.

It may symbolize the interconnectedness of wisdom and compassion; the eternal continuum of mind; samsara, the Buddhist concept of the endless cycle of suffering or birth, death, and rebirth; the union of wisdom and method; and the interdependence and interconnectedness of everything in the universe.

The remaining seven auspicious symbols in Buddhism are a white parasol, two golden fishes, a wish-fulfilling treasure vase, a lotus flower, a conch shell, a victorious banner, and a golden wheel.

In Buddhism, the eight auspicious symbols represent the offerings made to the Shakyamuni Buddha when he attained enlightenment.

eternal knot, Susan Lirakis, Tibetan refugee nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project

This lovely B&W portrait of a Tibetan refugee nun was taken in the 1990s by Susan Lirakis. Behind the nuns is part of a large eternal knot.

The eternal knot and the other symbols of good fortune are used in many ways, such as on khatas or kataks (ceremonial scarves), for door hangings, in greeting cards, in Tibetan handicrafts such as Tibetan carpets or seat mats, on prayer flags, as jewelry, and in art and printed books. Visit our online store to see many products that feature the Tibetan eternal knot design and which are sold to support the nunneries.

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A selection of Tibetan handicrafts with the eternal knot symbol made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and available through our online store.

The endless knot is often used as a design on Tibetan buildings and tents.

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Eternal knots as balcony designs at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala. Photo courtesy of Hillary Levin

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

Tibetan Buddhist nun, mudras, sacred hand gesture, Zanskar, Tibetan Nuns Project

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

About Saga Dawa

The most important month in the Tibetan lunar calendar is Saga Dawa, the 4th month. This year Saga Dawa starts on May 23, 2020, and runs until June 21.

The 15th day of this lunar month, the full moon day is called Saga Dawa Düchen. Düchen means “great occasion” and this day is the holiest day of the year for Tibetan Buddhists. This year, Saga Dawa Düchen falls on June 5, 2020. Saga Dawa Düchen commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana of Buddha Shakyamuni. In other Buddhist traditions, it is known as Vesak or is sometimes called Buddha Day.

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A young Tibetan Buddhist nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery reads scriptures to mark Saga Dawa. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Sangmo.

Saga Dawa is known as the month of merits. Tibetan Buddhists make extra efforts to practice more generosity, virtue, and compassion in order to accumulate greater merit. Tibetans believe that during this month, the merits of one’s actions are multiplied and that on the 15th day of the month the merits of one’s actions are hugely increased.

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A senior Tibetan Buddhist nun prostrates at Dolma Ling Nunnery during special ceremonies to mark Saga Dawa. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Sangmo.

The Tibetan Buddhist nuns at the seven nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project celebrate Saga Dawa in special ways.

Normally practices undertaken during this month include:

  • Praying and reciting of mantras
  • The lighting of butter lamps
  • Making pilgrimages to holy places
  • Refraining from eating meat
  • Saving animals from slaughter and releasing them
  • Making prostrations and circumambulations
  • Giving money to beggars.
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Each year over 230 nuns who live at Dolma Ling Nunnery in India read the entire Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha, during the month of Saga Dawa. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Sangmo.

Every year, during the month of Saga Dawa, over a period of several days, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute read the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon or Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha. Because this month includes some of the holiest days in the Buddhist calendar, the nuns believe they can accumulate more merit by doing such practices at this time. Butter lamps will also be lit during the full moon and everyone will try to practice positive deeds during the full month.

On this day many individuals from the monastic and lay communities also take Thekchen Sojong. In previous years, His Holiness at the main temple gives the vow if he is in town or it is given by an Abbot or Geshe. The vows are to follow the eight Mahayana precepts for 24 hours. Individuals taking this vow to take just one meal that day before noon, after which they fast. One can drink water or light drinks, but not whole milk, thick juice with pulp etc.

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Another sacred text is finished and placed carefully on the stack. It takes several days for the nuns to read the entire Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Sangmo.

In Dolma Ling Nunnery many nuns eat only twice a day during the month of Saga Dawa. Nuns refrain from eating any solid food after finishing their lunch. They can drink water and are served light tea (with little milk) at 6 p.m.

At Tilokpur Nunnery, the nuns participate a number of pujas such as the Nyugney puja, Vajra puja, Avalokiteshvara mantra, Guru Rinpoche puja, Green Tara puja, Phakmo Dakini puja. The nuns also do prostrations and offer thousands of butter lamps during the month. The other nunneries like Geden Choling also do the Nyugney puja (fasting).

This year, with the coronavirus pandemic and the need for social distancing, Saga Dawa will be different at the nunneries than in the past.