Why is the mudra so important?

Buddha mudra(c) Can Stock Photo / coffeekai


“When one displays the buddha mudra with one’s whole body and mind, sitting upright in this samadhi even for a short time, everything in the entire dharma world becomes buddha mudra, and all space in the universe completely becomes enlightenment.”[1]


Why is the mudra so important?

In this passage from Bendowa, Dōgen is describing what happens when we really practice what Buddha taught and what Nyojo Zenji taught – in other words, in dropping off body and mind, how does this world look? Dōgen is describing a paradigm shift, a completely different way of how things look. From one side, all objects are a temptation for a person with six sense-organs. When we encounter any object, we try to get it or we try to escape from it. Buddha and Nyojo taught that we should cut off this linking. In our day-to-day lives, we are hooked. Our perception and namarupa are hooked. In our zazen practice, we unhook this fixed connection between subject and object. It is, as I often say, like putting the gears into neutral. But then, how do these things look? That is the other side of the story. I think that is what Dōgen is describing here.

When I read this for the first time I thought this kind of writing should be thrown away, or accepted. We can do only two things. Just accept it and believe it, trust it and practice it – or just throw it away. There is no way we can make sure if this is really true or not. Later, Dōgen Zenji himself said these things cannot be perceived. My question was, if so, how did Dōgen know those things happen? I still have the same question. But after forty years, now I trust that what Dōgen is writing here is really happening in our zazen.

“When one displays the buddha mudra with one’s whole body and mind…”

This “one” is a translation of hito – it means a person. He didn’t say “if a buddha sits in zazen” or “if an enlightened person sits in zazen,” but any person, and even for a short time. Even if we sit as a very beginner for the first time, the same thing happens in our zazen. Buddha mudra is a translation of butsu in. Earlier, Dōgen used the expression ichi butsu shin in; this is the same thing. This in is mudra, ichi is of course one, so this means, “one buddha mind mudra.”

You may know the word “mudra.” [shows mudra with hands]. When we sit in zazen we hold our hands like this and we make an oval with the thumbs. This is called hokkai gyo in; in English, “cosmic mudra.” This means that two sides or duality becomes one, one form, or one circle. In Buddhism, there are many different mudras or ways to hold the hands depending upon which buddha is being described or depicted. Each mudra has its own meaning. But here, this kanji for mudra means in English a stamp or seal. A seal is when you write a letter, put it in an envelope and seal it with something, or put a stamp on it to show by whom this letter is written. Stamps or seals are very important in Chinese and Japanese culture. On certain paintings or calligraphy, if someone’s seal is there, it is a certification that this painting or calligraphy was done by this person. Even today in Japanese society we have a stamp or a seal, and we use it to make legal interactions. This stamp is like a signature in American society.

This Buddhist mudra, stamp, or seal is a certificate which if we find it, we know this belongs to Buddha. It’s like a logo in American culture. If we find the logo, this belongs to this person or this company. So, this is a logo of Buddha. I translate this as “whole body and mind,” but the original expression Dōgen used is san go san is three and go is actions or karma. San go refers to action done with body, speech, and mind. Using those three – body, speech, and thought/mind – we create karma.

This word san go is often used in Vajrayana Buddhism (Jp. Shingonshu). In Vajrayana practice they sit in a certain posture, this is a karma or action of body. They use mantra in their meditation practice, that is an action of mouth or speech. And of course, they concentrate on certain objects, that is an action of mind. So they use three actions in their meditation practice. But in the case of our sitting practice, we don’t use mantras, so we have no speech karma. That’s why instead of translating it as “three actions,” I translate it as “whole body and mind.” In some commentaries it says that we put our tongue on the roof of our mouth. Someone – perhaps Menzan – said this is an action of mouth or speech. But san go is not an action of the mouth, it is an action of the body. So, I think there’s no action of speech in our zazen practice. That’s why I didn’t use “three actions” but instead used “entire body and mind.” When we sit in this upright posture and breathe through our nose deeply from our abdomen and keep our eyes open and hold our hands showing cosmic mudra and let go of everything coming up in our mind, this is how we show the buddha mudra within our whole body and mind.

When we sit in this posture showing buddha mudra, this mudra means that this action belongs to Buddha, and does not belong to Shohaku. Shohaku gives up as an owner of these five skandhas. Shohaku doesn’t use these five skandhas during sitting. Shohaku offers this body and mind, or five skandhas, to Buddha for the sake of Buddha. So in one way, this is Shohaku’s personal action, for the sake of Shohaku, fulfilling Shohaku’s desire. But Shohaku has surrendered, and this is when buddhadharma appears.

“…sitting upright in this samadhi even for a short time, everything in the entire dharma world becomes buddha mudra, and all space in the universe completely becomes enlightenment.”

When we sit showing buddha mudra, this entire universe becomes buddha mudra. When one person is sitting showing buddha mudra, this entire universe becomes buddha mudra. This means this entire universe belongs to Buddha. Depending upon our attitude toward this body and mind, and also toward this world, this world or universe can be this person’s personal possession, or Buddha’s possession. The meaning of this entire world or universe is completely changed depending upon our attitude. That is the point.

Other Buddhist traditions and lineages use different approaches. Their unique style can be called their mudra. Whether that is a buddha-mudra or not is something we cannot judge for other traditions or judge for other persons in the same tradition. It’s really up to our own attitude. Even when I am sitting with this mudra, it can be my ego-centric activity – to experience stillness in order to enjoy this peacefulness. Even though we sit in this posture using this mudra, if this is my personal, individual action for the sake of this person (me), then this is not a buddha mudra. I also think buddha mudra is not only this mudra. There can be numberless forms of buddha mudra. Even if it’s not a so-called buddha mudra, in other traditions they can call the same thing by a different name. We cannot judge that our mudra is buddha mudra and their mudra is something different. What we can do is to make sure that our practice is to show the buddha mudra. I think that is the only thing we can do.

Buddha mudra is using our limited body and mind in order to express this seamless reality.

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[1] The Wholehearted Way: A Translation of Eihei Dogen’s Bendowa with Commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (translated by Shohaku Okumura and Taigen Daniel Leighton, Tuttle Publishing, 1997) p.22.

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi  about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

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For further study:

> Other Questions and responses

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