In 1985 a movie would be released in the United States that would captivate the imaginations of thousands of movie goers, adding fuel to the fire of what would become known as the 80’s ninja craze. While Bruce Lee had introduced kung fu to American cinema goers, and The Karate Kid (released just one year prior in 1984) thrilled audiences with its depictions of karate practitioners duking it out in the streets and in tournaments, a film now forgotten by all but a few would help to popularize ninjas — shadowy black-clad figures who were equal parts assassin and martial artist.
In contrast to the wholesome image of the karate kicking Daniel-san who was fighting bullies and hoping to get the girl, ninjas were the “bad boys”of the martial arts world. They used blow guns, threw razor sharp knives and shurikens with deadly accuracy, and could disappear in a flash of smoke, vanishing into the night and melting into the darkness.
Ninjas were cool. And while most action loving audiences loved to see people getting blasted with side kicks or spiraling through the air in acrobatic leaps of prowess that they could only hope to emulate, there was one especially interesting scene in the movie that will serve to get us started on the subject of this article: the symbolic and ritualized expressions of the human hand.
In the movie the protagonist, an orphaned American soldier who learned the art of ninjutsu as a boy from his adopted father (incidentally a ninja grandmaster) — reunites with him as an adult and is taught what we are told is the koba dera, a series of hand gestures or symbols that, when performed regularly, “will focus the ultimate power of purpose.”
There were doubtless many viewers, including many awe struck little kids, who probably forced their fingers into these odd and mystifying shapes, curious to see if they could duplicate the digital dexterity on display and see what powers, if any, they gained. No, they didn’t make you invisible to your enemies, or allow you to scale walls, or move gracefully as a cat, but the gestures did actually mean something.
Just four years earlier, in 1981, Enter the Ninja had been released, officially jump starting the ninja craze in North America. In the following scene we learn that this whole sequence of hand gestures goes by another name: the “Nine Levels of Power.”
So what are these “Nine Levels of Power,” and more importantly, do they actually mean anything? Amazingly yes, they do. Before audiences saw them popularized in films by such B movie stalwarts as Franco Nero and Michael Dudikoff, they had been handed down for hundreds of years and would be known by another name, the kuji kiri: a collection of ritualized hand gestures and mantras referred to in ancient Japanese texts as the “Nine Syllables of Power” or “the Nine Cuts” and that were influenced by esoteric — some even rumored magical — occult Taoist practices.
While this all seems very exotic and “out there,” it may not be that mind-blowing to students of yoga. Indeed, there is a whole subset, practically another system or branch of yoga, sometimes referred to informally as “hand yoga,” that makes use of something known as mudras.
A mudra is a ritualized or symbolic hand gesture that can be found in the iconography and spiritual practices of several religions of India, to include Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Their use can also be seen in many of the schools of traditional folk dances of the Indian subcontinent, as well as in various disciplines of yoga. In hatha yoga they are often used, generally while seated, during meditation or while one is practicing pranayama (yoga breath work exercises) to stimulate the flow of prana (the primordial life-force of the Universe that also permeates one’s self) along one’s chakras — the various spiritual focal points within the body, from deep within the pelvis to the crown of the head, and which are used in a variety of ancient meditation practices collectively known as Tantra.
While the subject of this article is not to make any claim as to the veracity or efficacy of mudras, chakras, or tantra, and while the author is by no means an expert on esoteric Hinduism, Buddhism, meditation, or yoga (I am but a simple lay practitioner of ashtanga yoga) one can not help but find this system of practice to be frankly incredibly interesting — even more so when one notices their prevalence in the arts where they can be found almost everywhere.
If one is a student and lover of the fine arts, especially painting, sculpture and dance, one should pay close attention to what the hands of the figures are doing. Often the hands of a painting or sculpture — what they are holding or what they are doing — can tell us volumes about the subject and lead us to a new awareness and deeper understanding of what the artist was trying to convey. A person’s hands are one of the most expressive parts of their body and we are doing a disservice if we simply ignore them while looking at a painting or sculpture.
For instance, in this image of the Buddha, seated atop a lotus blossom, and that rising from a seven-headed serpent, there are many, many symbols that could be examined and deconstructed — none have been placed here accidentally by the artist. Pay particular attention to what the hands are doing. One hand is resting within the other, and the thumbs are touching. This gesture, in and of itself, is known as the dhyana mudra. It symbolizes contemplation, reflection, and profound meditation.
Today many practitioners of yoga and seated mediation will often find themselves using this mudra without having been taught the meaning behind it or or why, precisely, their hands are resting in this manner.
And here we have the same subject, the Buddha, only this time he is using a different hand gesture or mudra. This is known as the abhaya mudra, the mudra of fearlessness. Many statues and images of the Buddha show him using this gesture. This is one of the oldest mudras and can be found in images across Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. The right hand is open, fingers pointing upwards, almost in a gesture of greeting or as if one were waving “hello” to someone.
This mudra represents protection, fearlessness, benevolence, and reassurance. One theory behind the origins of this hand gesture is that in the meeting of two people who are strangers to one another caution must be taken. One never knows what the other person’s intent may be. Could they be a friend, or an enemy? By showing that one’s hand is open, devoid of any weapons, early adherents to these once new faiths and belief systems demonstrated that they came in peace and were not a threat. Today, throughout much of the Western world — and for well over one thousand years — people similarly shake hands upon greeting to demonstrate that they are not holding any weapons and are friendly.
Amazingly enough, this use of ritualized hand gestures isn’t confined to the Far East and India. In fact mudras, or perhaps more appropriately hand iconography, appear all over early Christian artwork and can be found in depictions of Jesus Christ and his apostles, as well as in images of the early Church Fathers. Take this for example:
In the image of Jesus Christ from the Cathedral of Monreale in Italy, notice the gesture that is being made by his right hand. This gesture or seal (bear in mind that the word mudra comes from the Sanskrit, मुद्रा, meaning “seal”, “gesture”, or “mark”) bears strong resemblance to the prithvi mudra, a mudra associated with stability and security.
Interestingly, this hand gesture, if it is in fact a mudra, appears in Christian art again and again — not only in images of Jesus, but also in many images of his disciples who would go on to be canonized as saints. There is an explanation for this, albeit an interesting one.
The hands of Christ, in many but not all images, are arranged in such a way as to spell out the letters “ICXC.” For those who don’t read or understand Greek the meaning of these letters may be lost on them and appears, at first glance, to be nonsensical.
However, if we are to trace the origins of Christian artwork — and the history of Christianity — we discover that the faith roughly traveled from the Levant and Middle East, to parts of Egypt, Eastern Europe, and to Asia Minor, to what was then the Byzantine Empire — often referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire —and to its capital city of Constantinople, where some of earliest mosaics of Christ and his disciples appeared.
In Eastern Christianity, more specifically the Eastern Orthodox Church, Greek was the most prevalent language spoken and was the preferred liturgical language of the church. Before the Bible was translated from Classical Hebrew and Aramaic to Latin, it would be translated into Greek. The letters “ICXC” make up what is called a christogram —a monogram or combination of letters that spells out, in abbreviated form, the name of Christ himself.
When the name, “Jesus Christ” is translated into Greek, we get: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. The first and last letters of each word, respectively, are “ΙΣ” and “ΧΣ.” In early type printing and painting, the Greek character sigma “Σ” was often denoted with what is called a lunate sigma, rendering it into a character that resembles the letter “C.” Therefore, when “ΙΣ” and “ΧΣ” are spelled out and combined, we get “ICXC.”
Why go through all this trouble, to show Jesus Christ, or the disciples, spelling out things with their fingers? Because, as pointed out in this article, the hands are one of the most expressive parts of the human form.
But Christ isn’t always shown with this hand gesture, spelling out letters in Greek with his fingers. He is often shown making a different gesture, or mudra if you will, altogether.
This hand gesture is often performed to this day by Catholic priests during the benediction service, a short prayer of invocation for divine help, blessing, and guidance for the adherents during the mass. Interestingly, this hand gesture is always performed with the right hand, and is almost always depicted in paintings and sculptures as such.
The reason goes back to ancient Roman times, before Christianity, when there was a prevalent and pervasive belief that the right hand was the hand of goodness and duty, while the left hand and left-handedness was associated with deviance and wickedness. Indeed, the very word in Latin for “left” is sinistram — the origin of the word “sinister.”
There is some historical speculation that this manner of blessing people — making what is known as the benediction sign — was actually the result of a hand injury, and that its use to this day has been carried on through the simple act of tradition.
If one were to have an injury to or atrophy of the median nerve that runs through the forearm to the hand, the result would be a condition that was long known to medical doctors as “preacher’s hand” or the “benediction sign.” Since no priest, even the first religious leaders of the early Church, would ever bless someone with a clenched fist — a symbol long associated with violence, aggression, or defiance — it stands to reason that this hand gesture was the best that the afflicted person could manage. Hypothetically speaking, it’s possible that this is the reason why this gesture gained popularity and has continued in use to modern time. Its depictions in art only helped to cement and crystallize its place in ritual and religious life.
Bringing this all back around to ninjas and martial arts — especially with the reference to the closed hand or fist — one can often observe that practitioners of the martial arts such as karate, kung fu, or tae kwon do, when bowing, will often place their open left hand over their right fist.
The reasons for this are many and vary from art to art and the cultures that they originated from, but one explanation that makes the most sense, and that is perhaps the most poetic, is that in the martial arts practitioners learn how fragile human beings really are. They are taught how to attack the human form, are instructed on what its weaknesses are — and learn the devastating lesson that human beings are easily broken and battered, and hence mortal. By wrapping the closed fist with the palm, one is symbolically emphasizing the restrained use of force, demonstrating that the open hand of peace is stronger — and more preferable — than the closed fist of violence and of war.