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Ruminations on Zen's Cows  

Part 7: The Trinity and Triple Gods and Goddesses

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
Page 1 of 3

If only it were a case of Horace’s put-down of hyperbolic verve: "The mountain is in labor. Behold! A mouse is born." But gods are not small creatures that are delivered in spectacular ways. They are great creatures delivered in very humble circumstance.

No, gods cannot be delivered like the rest of us... flown in by a stork who deposits us on our now (thanks to EPA regulations) useless fireplace chimneys. That would be too grand and too easy.

It was probably the Mahabharata that set the precedent for the divine obstetrical dilemma. None of the Kurus or Pandavas made it into the world normally. Gandhari’s case is a case in point.

As wife of the blind Kuru king, Dhritarashtra, Gandhari thought it important that she deliver a royal heir; but royal babies being what they are, hers stubbornly refused to leave all that uterine luxury. So after a few years of pregnant frustration, and one low backache too many, Gandhari had her servant beat her swollen belly with an iron bar. She then delivered a fleshy kind of bowling ball that had to be broken up and placed in a hundred and one individual jars which yielded, after a few year’s pickling time, one hundred sons and one daughter. This may not be the kind of ratio that dairymen appreciate; but kings and peasants, for some inexplicable reason, seem to favor it greatly. So, apparently, do gods.

Nobody knows how people ever managed to tell the Kuru princes apart, but Mahayana Buddhists can certainly appreciate their problem. We have a bewildering array of buddhas, taras, bodhisattvas, guardian gods, wrathful deities, lohans, arhats and an assortment of other heavenly creatures whose identities mystify us. If only they arrived one at a time and with a little fanfare! But no, gods tend to sneak-up on us - like avalanches. One jolt on the spiritual path and the next thing we know we’re inundated by them. Now, just as every snowflake has its unique characteristics, so, of course, do gods; but coming in a hoard as they do, they seem so similar and ordinary - epiphanies that would be prosaic to the point of obscurity were there not so much of it.

Fortunately, most Mahayana temples are stuffed with statuary; so let’s begin our little guide to the divine with a quick look at Buddhist iconography.

Generally speaking, the identity of a divine person is indicated in four ways: (1) by the "attribute object" carried by the figure; (2) by the throne upon which the figure sits; (3) by the asana (posture) the figure takes; (4) by the mudra (hand gesture) he or she makes.

But first - since this is, after all, the Buddha Shakyamuni’s religion, let’s cover the peculiarities of his representation: Siddhartha/Shakyamuni is usually shown with a bump (the usnisa) on the very top of his head. The bump formed as a result of his requiring more room to store the additional information he acquired during his enlightenment. Additionally, there is an aperture in the center of his forehead, between the eyes, called the urna. Light which dispels the world’s dark ignorance streams from this opening.

Especially in Chinese representations, a swastika (one of the famous thirty-two marks of a superman) appears on his chest, although, in recent years, the consternation of western tourists who view this now infamous symbol have caused modern artists to eliminate it. (Someday we may discover how it happened that the emblems of the world’s most non-violent religion (the shaved head, the Aryan Path, the swastika) came to be associated with the world’s most violent people.)

Meanwhile, the Buddha is always represented with a calm, completely peaceful expression and whether sitting, standing, walking or reclining in death (the only postures artistically permitted), is always shown in a non-active, dignified and tranquil manner. His earlobes are extremely long, indicating that he was once a prince and therefore wore the heavy gold and jeweled earrings associated with that rank. Occasionally, his hair is seen to resemble curled sea-shells, this to indicate a lunar (yin) "oceanic" counterbalance to the sun/sky (yang) urna light.

As to buddhas in general, generally speaking:

Buddha figures never have anything in their hands with the exceptions of a lotus flower; a patra (begging bowl); or, in the single instance of Bhaisajyaguru Buddha (the Healing Buddha) a lidded bowl or jar of medicine.

Whenever something is carried, it is held in the left hand and the right hand is usually held up, palm facing the viewer, in the "fear-not" gesture.

A buddha’s throne is always a lotus flower. Usually, a buddha’s posture is sedentary. In Dhyanasana, the padma (lotus) posture, both legs are folded and crossed and both feet are exposed. Sometimes, however, a half-lotus posture is taken and one foot is obscured. In rare instances it is possible to see a buddha take the relaxed pose, lalitasana, in which one leg dangles over the side of the lotus throne.

Relaxed pose lalitasana.

A buddha’s hands may be conformed in a variety of gestures. Let’s look at a few buddhas which differ from each other in appearance only by their identifying mudras:

The Buddha Akshobhya (Mirror Wisdom) conforms his hands in the bhumisparsa mudra, (left hand lies in his lap, right hand reaches palm-down to touch the earth in front of him in the gesture of "calling upon the earth to bear witness". This buddha is usually associated with the eastern direction and the color white.

The Buddha Ratnasambhava (Jewel Creator) conforms his hands in the dana (giving) mudra (the left hand lies in the lap while the right hand, palm-up, is extended in front of the figure. The right-hand finger-tips touch the ground. This buddha is usually associated with the southern direction and the color yellow.

The Buddha Amitabha (Infinite Light) conforms his hands in one of the classic dhyana (meditation) mudras. Usually, the left hand lies in the lap and the right hand, palm-up, lies upon the left; however other positions, in which, for example, the finger tips of one hand touch the counterparts of the other, are also seen.

The Buddha Amoghasiddhi (Goal Attainer) conforms his hands in the abhaya (fear-not) mudra (the left hand lies in the lap and the right hand is raised, palm facing the viewer.) This buddha is associated with the northern direction and the color green.

Four frequently seen buddha mudras: bhumisparsa; dana; dhyana; and abhaya. From Kevin Chambers’ Asian Culture.

The Buddha Vairocana (Radiant One) holds his hands in front of his chest and conforms his fingers in the Dharmachakra mudra (Turning the Wheel of the Law mudra.) In this configuration the thumb and index finger of one or both hands touch to form the "mystic circle," a sun symbol. Vairocana is associated with a central location and with the color blue.

Hands conformed in Dharmachakra mudra; Standing buddha in "full" abhaya mudra, both palms face the viewer, the right hand in the ‘fear-not’ gesture and the left hand held down in the open giving (dana) gesture.

In addition to these buddha figures there are, of course, other buddhas - usually from the remote past, to whom the Buddha himself referred. Now, since Siddhartha realized his Buddha Nature, he had to have one already in existence - and his particular Buddha Nature is usually seen to be that of the Buddha Amitabha. (In the Orient, the name Omitofo or Amitofo (Amitabha) is spoken so often it has become the equivalent of "God be with ye" i.e., "Goodbye", or even the exclamatory, "My Goodness!") This presents an identification problem that no review can ignore. Both Amitabha and Shakyamuni are depicted in the classic meditation posture and without the swastika on Shakyamuni’s chest, it is virtually impossible to tell them apart.

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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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