Buddha’s Hand – A Heian Period Sculpture’s Fragment

Hand fragment of a Heian periode colossal sculptureDuring my frequent strolls as a guide through the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin, I always find something new and interesting. This is partly due to the fact that only ten percent or so of the museum’s treasuries are on display. The objects are changed regularly in the exhibition areas. And so was this. A piece, I have never seen (or recognized?) before, suddenly attracted my attention: A wonderful Japanese hand fragment of a colossal buddhist statue from the Heian period (794–1185). The about 30 centimeter long item is depicting the right hand of a Buddha in the gesture of abhaya mudrā (“gesture of fearlessness”), which is presented quite popularly by several Buddha and Bodhisattva pictures as a posture of greeting and protection for those who are taking refuge in the way of Buddhism. The right arm raised, fingers pointing up and the flat palm facing towards the viewers standpoint, it is symbolizing as well the prevention from evil and is also a commonly depiction of Hindu deities.

However, someone might ask, why I claim this a Buddha’s hand, since it has a palm and five fingers like any common hand too? If you watch closely, one can identify a connection between the fingers (broken at the thumb, but obvious between small and ring finger). These ‘webs’ are referring to one of the 32 major “characteristics attributed to a Great Man” (Skt. mahāpuruṣa lakṣaṇa). They are listed and described in the Lakkhaṇa Sutta, thirtieth article of the Buddhist scripture Dīgha Nikāya (“Collection of Long Discourses”, one of three parts that compose the earliest and most complete buddhist literature, the Pali Canon). As quoted there at the sixth position, the toes and fingers of a Great Man are finely webbed. So this small detail, which at first glance appears to be a mere construction help for the dry lacquer made (Jap. kanshitsu-zukuri 乾漆造) and gilded hand, clearly indicates this fragment to be the hand of a Buddha.

With its elegantly and delicately detailed finger position, the hand is giving a glimpse of the former, entire figure’s peace and harmony. Even if it is true, that Buddha has reached parinirvāṇa, the final deathless state, and abandoned his earthly body, it seems here, he left us self-sacrificially a trace leading to enlightment.