Buddha images throughout Thailand for the most part follow strict rules laid down in the 3rd century AD. There are four basic postures: standing, sitting, walking, and reclining; the first three are associated with daily activities of the Buddha, the last with the Buddha’s final moments on Earth as he achieved nirvana. These postures can be combined with hand and feet positions to create a variety of attitudes (mudras), that represent key Buddhist themes. King Rama III (1824–51) drew up a list of 40 attitudes to be used by sculptors, but many of these are rare. Most images in Thailand represent a dozen or so attitudes, the seated image in bhumisparsa mudra occurring most frequently.
Exposition (vitarkha mudra) symbolizes the first public discourse given by the Buddha, to five ascetics in a deer park in India. On this Sukhothai-era image, the thumb and forefinger form a circle – the turning of the “Wheel of Law”.
Touching the Earth
Bhumisparsa is the most common mudra. It symbolizes an important episode in the Buddha’s life when he sat in meditation under a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India, refusing to move until he attained Enlightenment. While his enemy, Mara, offered temptations such as nubile maidens and feasts, the Buddha touched the ground to attract the attention of the Earth goddess, so that she could see his resistance. Just after this he achieved Enlightenment.
Meditation (dhyana mudra) is signified with a sitting posture, shown by this modern Buddha image from Southern Thailand. Both hands are positioned palms up, the right over the left, as still practiced by meditating Buddhists.
Reassurance (abhaya mudra) symbolizes the Buddha’s offer of protection to his followers. The raised right hand is also representative of an episode in which the Buddha settled a heated dispute over water.
Reclining Buddhas, such as this one at Ayutthaya, usually represent the point of parinirvana or ultimate nirvana.