buddhas of sarnath

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  • 8/3/2019 Buddhas of Sarnath


    UnderstandingA NewlyComprehension

    Spectacularly beautifuL the SlOne carving ofnorth-central India during the Gupta period(319-('. 500), and especia lly Ihal of the laic 41h ,mdthe 5th centuries, has stood for years as the flf Ch c Iype ofall Ihal is won derful abo ut Indic sculpture. Itis therefore bo th familiar \0 a broad audie nce andquite well understood as to its general iconographiccontent. However. II I my opinion. there is more to belearned about and from these "documents' of humanactivity. Such documents can be read as easily as atext i f the interpreter takes the considerable lime 10learn the vocabulary of gestures and the symboliccon1enl of the signs and symbols of the image underd iscuss ion. Admittedly. Ihis is a rigorous exercise one that I havc spcnt 45 ycars doing ,md i am stillfar from satisfied with my level ofcompn:hension.

    The purpose of this artiele is to share a numberof images and some new obscrvations on the iconography of he great 5th ccntury Buddha images ofSamath (in today's Uttar Pradesh in north-ccntra lIndia), the s it e o f th e historical BuddhaShakyamuni 's (d. c. 400 BeE) first (earthly) ex positi on of the Buddha Dharma to the five mendicantswho wcre his companions during the timc when hepractised asceticism. Known in the sutras as ci therthe Mrigadava (' Game Reservc ', often translated as'Deer Park') or the Ri shipatana (, Place of theRi shi s' or 'S ages'), it is one of the initial fOllr placesof pilgrimage mentioned in the Malw{mrilllrmllaSUlra, and has been known as a paribllOgaka (a'relic ofassociation', referring to a placc of the Buddha's activi ty or an item used by him) site ofShakyamuni throughout its hi story. It shares thatdistinction with the location of Shakyamuni 's birthat Lumbini garden (in tooay's Nepal), his awakening or enlightenment at Bodhgaya ( in India's Bihar

    (Fig. 11SookyarnuniFrom Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, IndioGupta period , 2nd ha ll 01 the 5th centurySandstoneHeight including chattfo 2 ,13 m (appro'i mateIY ISomalh Site Musel>m

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    5th Century Buddhas ofSarnath:Mudra and a New

    f he Dharmachakra MudraHlfJlt i l l.Ttoll

    (Fig. 10)Head 01 theimagllo!Shokyomuniin Figure 1

    (Fig. 1b) Right handof The ,mage ofShokyomuniin Figure 1

    Sl:Ile), and his death, or IXll ' i l l;I '1'(II/(I (' complete ccssulion[frolll all rebirthsn. al Kushinagam (in Ullar Pradesh) (secthi s author's series ofarticles. 'Sowing the Seedsoflhe Lotus' .in Oriel/la/ions. November 1985-Scplcmbcr 1986).

    In comparison wilh theothcr sitcs. Samath is distinctive. inIcnns of the numberofearly im ages discovered there. and alsowi th regard to their iconogr'dphy. whi ch is o nly partially s ilespecific. Lumbini has y ielded vcry few sculptures at ull. andsee ms to have been primarily Ihe location of a temple dedicated to the birth thai dales back to the reign of EmperorAshoka (273-232 BC E). Kushinag:lTa :llso seems to have consisted Ill:linly of a temple or the IJlIrinil'l'finfi from at least asearly as the Maul)'a period (322- 185 IKE). and the seu lplllr:lltinds there ha\e again been minimal. Although there is a greatdeill oflate sculpture:l\ Bodhgaya. mostly proto-Pala (7th-8thcentury) and Pala school (8Ih.1 2th century). images dating tothe 61h century and before arc either no longer extant. or hn ..cyelto be excavated. l-Io\\ c\'Cr. since the British archaeo log istAlexander Cunningham (I R14-93) found Maurya and Shung:lperiod ( 185-72 BCE) material in hi s late 19th century e.

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    (F ig . 2) Shakyamur"liFrom Soma!h, Uttar Pradesh, Ind iaKushan penod . 2nd centurySandstoneHeight 1.82 m (approximate ly)Somolh Site Museum

    th c temple, as with those at Lurnbini andKushinagara, was the major centrc of ul1ention.

    The situation at Samath is radicully different. Thesite has yielded many - perhaps a hundred or more -5th and early 6th century imuges ofa standing Buddhamaking the abl!a.\'a lI1udra with hi s right hand andholding the hem of his robe wi th his left. Of the several examples on display at the Santath Museum, thatin Figure I is one of the most intact. and is accompanied by the umbrella that protects images of the Buddha Shakyamuni. The umbrella accompanying theimage is seen with B u d d h a ~ from the Kushan period(c. 78-240) on, and seems to have bcen one of theearly sculptural iconographic conventions (at least 1 tor 2nd century in stone images).

    The face and head exhibit the scnsuous modelling.protuberant thick lips and half-closed eyes characteristic of the Gupta style. and al though slightly weathered from burial , thc s n a i l ~ s h e l l curls are still evidcntin the mass ofhair (Fig. Ia). Most imponartlto our understanding of the mcssage of the image are the hands(Figs 1band Ie). Theabhaya mudm made by the righthand, with i t ~ graecful. webbed fingers (one ofthc 32major marks of a Buddha) and ulleriy relaxed openness, whi le generally known as the gesture of 'bestowing the absence of fcar', is known from veryearly (c. 1st or 2nd century CE) Gandharan depictionsof the first teaching (in which Shakyamuni is shownseated), and is th us the first known version of theteaching gesture. The left hand of the image holds andproffer.; to the observer the hCIll of the robc, or."al/ga/i. The meaning of this dual gesture is now lostin art-historical literature, but it survives in vidhi - ritual manuals that are used by Nepalese and Japanescteachers in Buddhist practice to the present day. IngeneraL it is known as the Iy akarmw mudra, the'symbolic ges ture of prediction. Interestinglyenough. thi s mlldra expresses the strictly Mahayanaparadigm of having to recei ve a predil:tion of olle'sown future enlightenment from a ."amyaksall1bO(lhiBuddha (an 'awakened one' , one who has absolutelycomplete, highest awakening). This moment in a person's many lives was the point at which allainmcntwas assured from which one could not fall back intounfortunate rebirths (dllrgafi). Thc subject of a prediction, an importallt topic in Mahayana sutras, was amajor feature of the Maitrcya cult, and early in popular practice became an important ritual aspect of theBuddhist iconographic vocabulary. The number ofimages, especially of Shakyamulli , depicted makingthe gesnlrc dcmonstrates that it wa s very popular inthe Kushan period. While it canllot be said that in theKus han era it is always Shakyamuni who makcs il.however. by the Gupta era thi s appears 10 be the case.

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    (F,g . 3) From left Mo,treyo (eos!), Voiroponi (south), Avoloki!eshva ro (west) ond Monl'Jshn (no rth)ChollyO 01 N o ~ h o c Sohol, Nokhochuk tole, Poton, Nepo lLicc hovi period, c. 6th centu"lUnidentified ston eOverall heIg ht (nOI shown) 1.5 m (opproxmlQle1y)

    The dualllllld,.a is in evidence at Sarnath in images from IheKu shan period 3Swell. such 3Sthe (now incomplete) sculpturein Figure 2.

    Kushan era sculptural examples of the Buddha Maitreya(Ihe futu re Buddha who descends from Tushita p.'lradise at theidealized lime o f Kelumat i) Imlke the same gesture asShakyamuni. However. it appears that by the Gupta era.Maitn.:ya images displayed a variant of the gesture. This isknown as the l"ishwlI,)"alw"wl(l IIIlu/m (,universal symbolicgesture of prediet io n'). with thc right hand usually in ra m ormrada /III/dm (the 'gin-bestowi ng gesture') mther thanabhaya mudra. Regrettub ly, th ere are no positively iden tified5th ee11lury Ind ian images. Yet, a mid- Licchavi period (c.400- 750) imnge on the circll 6th century chailya (shrine) atNakhachuk nahal in Pat:!n. Nepal. is positively ident ified bythe fact it is pan ofa standard iconographic set o f the BuddhaMa it Te ya (ca s t) ac com panied by Vajrapani (so uth).Avalokitcshvara (west) :lIld Manjushri (nonh) (Fig. 3). Be-cause this is the st;tndard iconography for Maitrcya in 5th and6th century Nepal. it suggests that such Buddha images in [ndia are probably Maitreya as well (Fig . 4). This idenlificationwould place a cult of Maitrcya' s descelll at Ihe time ofKetumati all across India in the 5th and 6th centuries, scllingso-called -Paradise Cull Iluddhi :.m' broadly in India a majorrevision ofour understanding of Buddhism. This concl usion isalso SUppoT(,'(] by the fltct th at in early 4th to 6th cen tury Chinese popular Buddh ism, meditating to see the Buddha was aco mmon practice for temporary bencfit as well assotcriologicalj)urposes, ri nd Ihatlhc sa me iconographies withthe two lIIud/"ll variations lLppea r in Chinese images of the 4thand 51h cenluries. It is generally accepted Ihat, during theKush:1Il era. l3 uddhi sm WliS being imponed into Chi na from

    IFig. 4) Moitreyo BuddhoFrom Sarnoth, UHor Pradesh , IndiaGupto period, 2nd hall 01the 5th centurySa ndstoneHeight 1.5 m (a pproxima tely )Ind,on Museum, Ko lkata


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    (Fog 5) ShokyomuniFrom Somalh, Uttor Prodesh, IndioGupro period, 2nd hall 01 the 5th centurySondstoneHelghr 1.37 m (opp.roxlmorely)Sornorh Site Museum

    (Fig. 50) Detoil ollhe imoge 01 S h o k ~ o m u n ; in F,gure 5 showing h,s audIence ond the 'edge.on' wheel

    the imageSO"k,"."".,,' in Figure 5showing Ike 'edge-on' wkeeland Mount Meru platform

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    the West. especially from Parthian Iran. and Kushan Gandharaand Kashmir, while in the 5th and 6th centuries it was morelikely to have been brought into China from northern and central India. Thus. I think it is appropriate to expect to find thatthe soteriologieal practice of 'receiving a prediction of enligillenrnenf \vas grounded in Indic images as well.

    The ubiquity of such images of both Shakyamuni andMaitreya Buddhas at Sarnath suggests that the prediction ofenlightenment was ,Ill extremely important practice for visitors to the site. at least from the 2nd to the 6th17thcentury. In view of the costly nature of stone sculp tures, presumably offered by pilgrims. and thei rrelatively large number, I would like 10 suggestthat Sarnath was an - or literally Ihe - importantplace to receive such a prediction in north-centralInd ia.

    In spite of being the commemoration site for the'first tcaching ' . images depicting that eventfrom the Gupta period (by wh ich time the seated

    Shakyamuni usually displayed a form of thedharmaclwkra mudm rather than the ablwyamrujra in such representations), although generally not rare. arc not at all common at Sarnath or atsurround ing sites. However. one pre-eminent im-age docs survive. apparelltly from the late Guptaera (c. 450-75) temple of he fi rst teachmg (Fig. 5).By any measure. the image is magnilicent in manyways. First and foremost, while the product of along stylistic development. its original eoncept that of the historical Buddha teaching his fo rmerascetic eolkagucs at the Mrigadava - is most eloquently stated. Nowhere in the whole of Buddhistart is there a more clearly and specifically articulated vision of the event than this image.

    Nonetheless. true to many 5th century Buddhist images. it conveys far more than the simpleidea of the first teaching' . The image is al so highlynuanced, and to the aware observer has a vastly morecomplex Buddhological message. to be read on sevcmllevc!s. The Buddha is seated with crossed legs inthe I'Gjral'myallka a.wllla (adamantine sitting posture), wearing a clinging robe that is thin to almostnon-existent and di splaying a vers ion of thedlwrmachakra paril"{l/"lww IIII/dm ( ' the symbolicgesture of completely turning the wheel of Dharma ')with his hands. He sits on an elaborate throne. beneathwhich ar e seve n figures an d a wheel. ordlw/"mac/wkra. seen edge-on. with two antelopes inaltendance (Fig. Sa). Five of hese figures (the third tothe seventh from the left) are the fi ve ascetics to whomthe first earthly teaching was given. thereby specifIcally identifying the image as representing the teaching at the Mrigadava. it is usually said that the pres-

    enee of the antelopes and the wheel (whether edge-on or flatlydepicted) arc also symbolic of the first teaching: however. bythe 5th century in Indic Asia and beyond. the antelo pe-dlwrmadwkra symbol also refers to the gcncric teachingof the Buddha in all eontex!s. and must therefore be understood as both a specific and a generic reference to the teachings. Yct. because other clements indicate that this image is atthe Mrigadava. the point of its generic nature is moot: obv iously it is the tcaching at Sarnath.

    {Fig. 6 ) Shokyomuni as Vairochana, flank ed by Avolokiteshva ra a nd VajroponiCove 4, Ajanta , Mahoroshr ra , tnd iaGu pta period, late 5th cen tu ryVolcanic 'tra p rock 'Height 4 .27 m {opp roximare ly)

    I and a nte lopesi period, c. 450550SchisrHe ight 0.3 m, le ngth 1.5 rn (approximate ly)Nahonal Museum of Nepal, Kathma ndu, Nepot

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    (Fig. B) Wheel o g e n ~ From the lion capitol 01 Emperor Ashoko(r. 273-232 BCE ) o t Somoth, Ultor Pradesh, Indio

    Mouryo period, c. 250240 BCESandstoneOiomeler 1.07 m , m o t e l y ) Somoth Site Museum

    On the viewer's left arc a kneeling femaleand a standing child. or possibly adwarf lIIendant (who arc common in thi s period), blll because of the dam.1ge to the figure it is imposs i-ble to be cenain. The se are undoubtedl y addcdto the group as patroness-devotee and child orattendant, a common practice throughout thehi story of Buddhi st an.

    Three components of the sc ulpture aredeeply rooted in the anis tic conception of India. and of the Buddhists in panicular. Theseare the dltarmac!wkra, the Mount Meru platform on which the dlwrmac!wkra sits (Fig.5b). and the Buddha's throne itself. In addi tion, the Buddha image al so exhibits one ofthe more inno vative featurtS of he time in theIIIlIdra ve rsion displayed by the two hands infrom of th e chest (see Fig. 12, B an d BI).

    The edge-on view of the (J/wnllachakra has been noted byan histori.ms as aGupta period stylistic convent ion found geographically from the Aj :tnta eaves in Maharashtra state to theKathmandu valley in Nepal (Fi gs 6 and 7). I am afraid I mu stdisagree with th e co nsensus on the symbol as a stylistic feature. R.llher. Iam convinced that it is gmph ic recogni tion of h efact that the Dharma is to be set in motion (paril'llrla/w, IiI.'completely turni ng'). A f1:lI or side view ofa wheel as essential ly a di sc ha s no inherent idea ofmo tion and could simplybea display of the wheel affixed to a wall as a symbol. I lowever.an edge-on wheel would have to be in Illotion in order 10 balance in an upright position. Funher. such a view also indicutesthai the wheel is rotuting forward. oul towards the viewer. andtherefore that the Dharnlll will be among those who sec it.While sculptures depicting the first leaching from the 5t h and6th centuries arc significantly less common than from later pcriods and we have far fewer ex.amplesof he edge-on clwkl'(I, itappears to IllC that the edge-on wheel is still the usual convention during that period rather than the flat type, and thereforethat its depiction is motiva ted by something more lorceful. inolherwords iconographic correctness. nuher than si mple 'stylistic' considerations.

    As can be easily seen, the wheel ilself is of Ihe multispoked va riety, with an estimated 32 spokes (sec Fig . 5b). Thi sseems quite il3tuml, as th e wher:l that once topped th e greatAshokan pillar aI Samath also had 32 spokes (Fig. 8). as didmany early dlwrll/(lc/wkra. and variants wilh eight, as well assixteen and 24 spokes. which are both multiples of eight. arealso known. (Th ere are occasional odd-numbered e.\amples.)


    The present underst:mding of the (J/wrlll(lchakrll as signifyingthe teach ing of the Eightfold Path according to the Duddha'smethodology was probably currem Ihroughout the hi story ofthe symbol. Indeed. the earliest known representation of aneight-spoked dlwmwcllakrll is on 11 coin of the Indo-Greekking. Menander(r. c. 165 or ISS-c. 130 BeE). now in the British Mu seum.

    Ilowever, it strikes me that in early Buddhism. there wasonce much more to th c sy mbol of the chakra in th e sense ofpower and aut hority (the 'universa l monarch', called achukr(Jl'(lrtill. or 'wheel turner', is ultimately the most powerful and authoritari:m of all kings). perhaps specifica lly engendered by the Mauryan usage al Sarnmh and its spread Ihroughmuch of the lndie world in subsequent copies as commonlyfound in early monum enl s. One of the most elaborme presently known is the great 2nd century clwkra from Amaravati,th e site of an Ashokan Buddhist stupa in today's AndhmPradesh. which is best understood frOIll a reconstruction drawing (Figs 9a and 9b). I think it is based on a description ofIndm 's mjra weapon or 'bo lt ' in the Rig Veda. in which it issaid : '[the god] Tvasta r tumed for thee [ll1(fm ], the Mighty, theboll [I"(ljm] with thousand spikes and hundred edges' (RigVeda VI: 17.10; www.hinduwebsi te.com/ saercdscripts/rigintro.asp). Such a symbol would ha ve been instantly recogni7..able to any educated member of he Brahmin caste who hadmemorized the Rig fhla as a child. Usurping IndrJ's ult imateweapon along with well-known representat ions of Indra andBrahm

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    (Fig 90) 'lv'hee lFrom AmorovclII, Ar.dhrc Prodesh, 100'0Mouryo/Shur>go perooo, C 200100 BCEMorbleHe'ghT opproximolely 1.3 7 mAmorovoti Site Museu mof the primacy of Buddhism over I3rahmanis!1l. By the time ofthis 5th century sculp tu re. such propagandistic devices wereprobably more a mailer of traditional convent ion than meaningful communication. Yet their roots nm deep, and the greatDhannachakra Ouddha ofSa math is an inheritor of such oncehidden messages.

    Another tradi tion-steeped clement 1l13y be seen in the veryspecific type of platfonn on which the dharmachakra rests,which is still in common usc in the presenl day. It is a simpl i-fi ed convention fo r Mount MeTU, the meditational cosmological mountain, fo und ubiqui tously throughout the Buddhistworld (Fig. 10). Wh i le to the casual observer this might secmlike over-reading. it is nol. Indeed the designation 'Sumcru(anothcrname for [Mount] Meru) with reference to this typcofplatfonn has survived simply transli tcrutcd into East Asianlanguages, where in Japanese, for example, we find'Sumedan', with the combined mCllning 'Platfoml of the Exce llent Mountain'. By the placement of the wheel on the

    (F'g. 10) Drow,n9 o f the Mount Meruplolform under the wheel in Figvre 5b(By Ihe oUlhor)



    ....k ... r . di",~ r . , . , ; ; ...MOun ' ........., - - lerril< ..

    M u " . j . ~ of (.i"ence

    (F'g. 9b) RecOnSII'1JO'on 01 the wheel in Fig ur"(By the outhor)

    Mount M('ru platform, the statement is made that the Dh :lrm:labidcs fcternallyJ in the heavens above Mount Mem. and thesymbol sel"\'es as a spcci fie reminder of the five ecrt:linties ofthc leaching of the Dhanna 10 monks. Theyarc: 1) the place isalways Akanishta paradisc ; 2) the te:lcher is always the BuddIm Va irochana: 3) the peers arc always t e n t h ~ r bodhisaU-vas: 4) the teachings arc always the Great Vchicle: and 5) thetime is always thc cternalcontinuumofpas t, prcscm and future.

    Finally, we mu st consider the messages of the Buddha'sth rone (as(lIw) and its aecoutrcmenls (Fig. 11). By the la te5th century. there were four different types of seats/supportsfor a Ouddha. These arc:I) The I"Ojrasu/lll, the Buddha's se:l\ of awakening: both astatcment of his awakening and inherent in all the followingtypes.2) The simlws(lll(l or 'lion throne', which is identic31to theraja.mlla. the 'scat ofa king ; the l3uddha is usually considereda c/l(lkra\"{/rfin king, thus making a positive identity orthe twOth rones, which are not physic.L1ly different from each other3) Thc [Mount] Men! as(/I/(/: the scat at the highest heaven ofMount Mem (i.e. Akanishlll paradise), indicating the univers:tl ity an d eterni ty of thc Dharma and the BuddhaShakyamuni's identity with Vairochana.4) The padmasano, or 'l o tus throne'; esscntially a reaffirmation of the Mount Meru OSflIlll because it is specifically the'I,OOO-petal1cd lotus throne of Vai roeh:lna in Akani shta .These can be combined in any number of ways or used singly,as in the case orthe Sarrmth Dh urmnchakra Uuddha. Hcre thethrone is the simplest fornl of raja.wllla, with only mythica l


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    creatures such as makam (3 quasi-elephantine watercreature) reclining on the cross-har at the top of thethrone back. and the l'Jafaka or ..,/J(ln/ufa (originally awinged lion that has many forms in SOUlh Asia)addorscd against the uprights on the sides of the throneback. As mentioned in 2) above, this then represents theBuddha as the ruler of mundane space. in other words.the mortal teacher of humans known as a lIirll1anaka),a.or transfonnation Buddha. whieh is entirely in keeping with the nature of the seuing as the place of the firstleaching.

    On the other hand. the hulo (pmhlwlI1(/l/dala) orcircle of radiance. flyi ng attendants ('hal/ridhara)and the particular vers ion of the dll(lrll1ac/wkm fill/elmadd details ofinfoml

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    (Fig. 12) A ond AI: Shokyomuni leachingIhe ' Iirsl ' turning ollhe Dhormo wheel whiled,sployong me dhormochokro porworlOnOw"h the lelllorelinge' poinling to the wheelFrom Samolh. Uttor Prodesh, IndioGu plO penod , mod_5th cenlury5ondsloneHe,ght 1.2 m (opprollmO 'e ly)Somalh Sile Museum

    Bond B1 lmoge 01 Sholcyomuni inFigure 5 leoching the 'f,rst' lumlng 01Ihe Dharma wheel wroile d isplaying II.edhormochoh o porivorrono mudro wl lhIhe left middle f,nger poinMg 10 troe wheelFrom Sornolh. Uttar Prodes h, IndioGupl0 period , 2nd half of the 51h cenlurySandsloneHeight 1.37 m (opproximO le ly)Sornolh Slle Museum

    (ond ( 1: Shokyomuni leoch,ng Ihe ' first'hJrning ollhe Dhormo wheel whi le disployingIhe dhormochokro porivorrono mOOro withIhe le t! middle linger poinl;ng to Ihe wheelFrom Sarnolh, Uttor Prodesh, IndiOPoSIGuplo (3 19-e:. 5(0) o r Vo rdhono per,od(e:. 500-6-4 7), 101e 6th/eorly 71n ce nlufYSandstoneHe 'ghl 25cm (o ppro.imotely)Indion Museum, Ko lkolo

    based on the statement in the AIa tamsaka SlIlra IhatShakyamuni. at the very moment or his enlightenment, asccnded to Akanishta paradise and, donning his Vairochanarobes, gave th e firstlcaching 10 the bodhisarn'as in f/..'"Sidcncethcre, thc subject of which was the Al'afllmsaka SlIIra itselr(Huntington und Ch:mdrasckhar. 2000). This sutra. describingthe trU llsccndcnt glory of thc Dharma and o r the abode orVairochanu. hud guincd wide popularity by the 5th century,and cuiminuting in the cult or Drihad (or colossal) Buddhas.whic h in the 7th and 8th centuries included many images orVairochana aTllong others (ror example. ut the Longmen cavesin Henan province. Ch ina: at Todaiji in NUnl. Japan; atBamiya n in Arghanistan: and at Purihaspur in Kashmir).Given the assumed primacy of he teaching ortheAmlamsaka.the teaching at the Mrigadava became the second leaching.which is thus indicated by thc left midd le (second) fingerpointing to the circle made by the right hand. This symbolismis carried through to a third teaching or general Mahayana. using the ring finger. and Ihe very widely known fourth teachingor thc Vairochlll1a-based tanlras (MahavairochallaAbhisamhodhi. San 'alathagato Tattl'osamgraha andSan 'mJlIrgali Plirisho