Category Archives: Feature

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.

Tibetan photographer with a compassionate eye: Delek Yangdron

Venerable Delek Yangdron is one of the most senior nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in northern India. She arrived in India the winter of 1990 as part of the first group to join the newly founded nunnery. Almost illiterate on arrival, she began her education in Buddhist studies and is now the leader of the nuns’ Media Team and is a skilled photographer and videographer.

Her determination and story of academic and professional success are inspiring.

Delek Yangdron Tibetan Buddhist nun

Venerable Delek Yangdron’s path to academic and professional success has been long and difficult. She now heads the Media Team of nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in northern India.

Delek Yangdron was born in Lithang in the eastern Tibetan province of Kham, surrounded by open grasslands and snow-capped mountains. Born into a nomad family, she helped care for the family’s animals, moving the livestock in search of better pastures. Sadly, her father passed away when she was just seven and her mother died in 2000. During her time at home in Tibet, Delek Yangdron never had the opportunity to go to school or to study.

In the late 1980s, a lama from Kham, Yonten Phuntsok Rinpoche, decided to organize a special pilgrimage from Parlhakang in Kham all the way to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Delek Yangdron joined the group of over 150 pilgrims. Continue reading

Life at a remote Tibetan Buddhist Nunnery in Spiti [with photos and audio of chanting]

This is a special post on Sherab Choeling Nunnery and Institute, one of the 7 nunneries in northern India supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. It features photos and an audio recording of the nuns chanting by French photographer, Olivier Adam, who visited the nunnery in the summer of 2015.

This remote nunnery was built in 1995 by 20 nuns and their teacher in the Spiti Valley, an arid mountain valley located high in the Himalaya mountains in the north-eastern part of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.
Sherab Choeling Nunnery, Spiti, Tibetan Nuns Project, Olivier Adam, Tibetan nuns, Buddhist nuns

The nunnery was built to address the problem of inadequate education for women and girls in the region. The vision is to educate Himalayan Buddhist nuns who would otherwise have no opportunity to receive any formal schooling or spiritual education. It is a non-sectarian nunnery that recognizes the beauty and value in all Buddhist traditions.

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Typically, women and girls who live in remote areas like Spiti and who are interested in studying or practicing their religion have very few options. The Tibetan Nuns Project was approached by the nunnery in 2006 to help them develop their institution and we accepted them into our sponsorship program. Continue reading

Giving thanks: What our supporters say about the Tibetan Nuns Project

Through our online survey many people from around the world have shared their stories about how they learned about the Tibetan Nuns Project. They’ve also told us why the nuns and the Tibetan Nuns Project are important in their lives.

5 Tibetan Buddhist nuns hold a thank you sign in Tibetan and EnglishWe are so grateful to everyone who have shared their thoughts and ideas with us. Many of you have given us permission to share your words with a wider audience.

So today, in honor of US Thanksgiving, we give thanks to all our supporters around the world and share a small selection of their stories and words of kindness.

Sue in Alaska wrote: “My husband and I have been very pleased with the Tibetan Nuns Project as an organization over the years… We were fortunate to be able to travel to Dharamsala in 2006 with the Tibetan Nuns Project. It was an extraordinary trip and being able to meet the nun we had been sponsoring for over 8 years was an awesome experience. She showed us her room at the old Shugsep Nunnery and we shared photos from our home in Alaska with her. We really appreciated the work that TNP did to make the trip possible. In December 2010, we returned to Dharamsala for the inauguration of the new Shugsep Nunnery, presided over by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was for us a once-in-a-life time experience. I support the Tibetan Nuns Project because my husband and I have seen the incredible work that TNP has done to benefit the nuns and the larger Tibetan refugee community of India. With a modest number of staff, TNP has accomplished so much, including the beautiful new nunneries of Dolma Ling and Shugsep.” Continue reading

Compassionate Eye: TNP interviews photographer Olivier Adam

Olivier Adam is a French photographer who has been documenting the rich and luminous world of Buddhist nuns since 2008. His photographs focus on the spiritual path and the strength of Tibetan nuns.

Olivier Adam in Kathmandu
On August 14 2014, a moving exhibition of photographs by Olivier Adam will open at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg, Germany.

The opening of the exhibition will coincide His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Hamburg and is being held in conjunction with a series of events about Tibetan culture and Buddhism, including a second exhibition at the museum about Tibetan nomads.

Olivier Adam has been an active supporter of the Tibetan Nuns Project since 2008. He is working tirelessly to spread the word about the Tibetan Nuns Project and donates a portion of proceeds from sales of his high-quality prints to help the nuns.

Here’s an interview with Olivier Adam about his work and why he finds the nuns so inspiring.

Q: When and how did you first start photographing Tibetan Buddhist nuns?
A: I started photographing Tibetan Buddhist nuns in February 2008 at various nunneries in and around Dharamsala, India – at the old Shugsep Nunnery, at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute and at Geden Choeling Nunnery – after a meeting with Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project. She gave me the authorization to start this work with the Tibetan nuns. It was just a few days before the dramatic events in Lhasa in 2008, when demonstrations erupted during the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics and Lhasa was completely locked down for a time.

Q: What is it about the nuns that inspires you?
A: I have always worked on feminine photography projects, for instance, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia or the women who were removing landmines in Cambodia. At the beginning I was inspired (and I am still inspired) by the devotion of these nuns. I’m very impressed at how hard they study, from 5 am until sometimes to 10 pm. They have a mix of laughter and serious discipline. I was very interested in documenting the daily life of these nuns, such as their morning prayers, their time in the classroom and all the moments the nuns are sharing together. I am trying to produce inspiring pictures.

Then journey after journey, I started to collect the stories of these nuns, especially those nuns who had escaped Tibet. These are such difficult stories, full of emotion, and some of the nuns wept when referring to these moments. Some of them had spent years in prison because they took part in peaceful demonstrations in Tibet. At the same time, I never felt in their words, in their eyes, in their acts, any loss of compassion, even towards the people who had tortured them.

Day after day I discovered that the nuns and, more Tibetan women in general, are deeply involved in resistance in Tibet and in exile, as I saw them demonstrating on March 10th, the anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in 1959.

Q: You’ve worked very hard to spread the word about the Tibetan Nuns Project. What do you want people to know about our work?
A: Education. Education is the main goal for me. The Tibetan Nuns Project is doing a wonderful job in educating nuns, not only in Buddhist studies but in all aspects of education that a woman will need in this life. I can recognize in this the influence of Rinchen Khando la who was President of Tibetan Women’s Association and also the first woman to become a minister in the Tibetan government in exile.

The work is so broad, from taking care of elderly nuns who escaped Tibet and giving them assistance to, at the same time, building the future of young nuns. Tsewang Zangmo, for example, a young novice at Shugsep Nunnery, arrived few years ago from the border between Nepal and Tibet with eleven other nuns. As a school without tuition fees, the nunnery welcomes young girls from very poor families or who are orphans and provides them with a good education. The Tibetan Nuns Project is trying at the same time to help some remote nunneries to survive, such as Dorje Dzong Nunnery in Zanskar.

I’m also so happy that now nuns have the opportunity to take the Geshema exams – exams equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism that, until recently, were only open to monks.

Q: You travel widely to remote locations? Can you tell us about one of your favorite adventures?
A: Discovering Zanskar, one of the highest-altitude inhabited valleys in the Himalayas and the nunneries there two years ago was such an adventure. The nunneries in Zanskar are desperately short of schools and teachers. This is why the Tibetan Nuns Project is helping Dorje Dzong with their education projects. In addition to taking pictures, we helped as much as we could to start building some new houses and we helped the nuns to wash barley to prepare tsampa (roasted barley flour) for the coming winter. All this happened at an altitude of 4000 meters, with two nuns who are 80 years old and full of energy. It was such an adventure. Next month I will be back there at Dorje Dzong to give them some prints and to continue my report there.

Q: This August 14 your exhibition “Tibetan Nuns: Resistance and Compassion” is opening in Hamburg. Tell us about it.
A: It’s such a precious occasion to show this work about Tibetan nuns to a very large public and for a long time because the exhibition will run from August 14th to the end of November at least and maybe even to February.

This exhibition has already been shown in different places in France, but never in such an institution where around 100,000 visitors are expected to see it.

Dominique Butet who is working with me, collecting interviews of the nuns and writing regular articles about these nuns, and Heide Koch who initiated this exhibition in Hamburg and organized it with me, both put real effort into writing the most meaningful texts to accompany the pictures to create an “educational” exhibition.

We are also expecting a visit to the museum by His Holiness Dalai Lama who will be in Hamburg for teachings in August. His Holiness is a strong supporter of the nuns’ education and for women in general.

The opening event will also include a lecture on “Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Exile: Heading to a New Self-Confidence” by Dr. Rotraut Jampa Wurst and also the movie In the Shadow of the Buddha about nuns’ daily life.

It’s also an occasion to sell some prints and postcards in the museum’s shop and 25% of the benefits will go directly to the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Q: Do you have any favorite photos of the nuns?
A: Difficult question… because each picture is a meeting.

Tibetan Buddhist nun from Shugsep Nunnery by Olivier Adam

I will first choose one inspiring picture of a ritual I did at Shugsep Nunnery. The 25th day of each lunar month is dedicated to the ritual of Dakini which celebrates the female wisdom. They are considered emanations of the Buddhas as well as guardians of secret knowledge. I hope this picture may inspire all practicioners.

Gyaltsen Drölkar Tibetan nun at March 10th Brussels by Olivier Adam

Then, I would definitely choose this picture of Gyaltsen Drölkar that I took when she was demonstrating in Belgium on March 10th.

When Gyaltsen Drölkar was only 19 years old and already a nun she was arrested in Lhasa, during a non-violent demonstration. In 1993, she and 13 other imprisoned nuns secretly recorded cassettes with songs praising the beauty of the Land of Snow and expressing their yearning for freedom. This cost her another eight years of ill treatment and imprisonment. In 2002 Gyaltsen Drölkar was finally freed but she suffers from the severe physical consequences of her 12 years in prison. She now lives in Belgium where she was granted political refugee status.

Mudra transmission from an elderly Buddhist nun to a novice Olivier Adam

Finally, I love this picture of a senior nun taking care of her community by teaching a young one the mudra (gesture) used in a mandala offering, taken during the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Zanskar.

Q: Any further thoughts?
A: I would like to share these few words from His Holiness Dalai Lama who is here teaching in Ladakh, from where I’m answering these questions:

“We must insist on education for all. Women must be much more involved in our societies and take part in the building of a more peaceful, less violent world in which people help one another.” Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Biography of Olivier Adam

Olivier Adam was born in Laval, France in 1969. He is a physicist, and graduated from the “ Ecole Normale Supérieure” in Paris, but through the years he has turned to being a photographer. He is now a freelance photographer and a teacher at the photography school Auguste Renoir in Paris. In 2001, his work on the Khmer dance and silk was exhibited at the Palais de l’Unesco in Paris. For several years now he has been studying the Tibetan culture and Buddhism, specially attending the Kalachakra classes, taught by His Holiness the Dalai Lama all over the world.

Olivier belongs to a humanist tradition and works on personal subjects, mixing both Man and the Sacred. Rituals, women and their universe hold an important place in his photos. He has worked together with Sofia Stril-Rever, Matthieu Ricard and Manuel Bauer on a book called Kalachakra : un mandala pour la paix, published in April 2008 by Editions de la Martinière and also the book Dalai Lama- Appel au monde published in May 2011 by Le Seuil.

Since 2008, Olivier has been closely interested in the lives of the Tibetan nuns in exile. He started this work in five nunneries near Dharamsala and he has continued to expand this work by meeting nuns who were former political prisoners and who have been granted shelter in the West. Dakinis, this series on the Buddhist female universe, supplemented by sounds and interviews collected by Dominique Butet, Oliviers’s wife, now extends to nuns from across the Himalayas.

Olivier Adam is a regular photographer for the French magazine Regard Bouddiste and is one of the founders of Dharma Eye, a collective of practicing Buddhist photographers and visual artists who use their art in support of beneficial Dharma causes.

You can see more of Olivier Adams work and purchase his prints at these two websites:
www.olivieradam.fr
www.dharmaeye.com