Monday, July 13, 2009

Itches & Scratches: Part Two

There is a widely shared attitude in many parts of the Buddhist world, and not only among Tibetan Buddhists, that monks should attend to their monastic business and lay people should generally not involve themselves in it, at least not very closely. Once I was visiting a major printer of Tibetan texts done by using the traditional woodblock printing method. I expressed an interest in the small pile of pecha leaves that was resting on his desk. It had a set of very fascinating woodcut pictures illustrating the monk rules of the Vinaya, rather like the examples you can see here, both above and below. The printery man took the pecha leaves out of my hands and put in their place a tract on the evils of tobacco,* as if to say, 'That is for monks. This is for you.'
(*There are many such "evils of" types of texts called by the genre term nyemig (nyes-dmigs). Most of them are revelations said to originate from the Tibetan imperial period, especially from Guru Rinpoché, or Padmasambhava. Of course tobacco was a New World product and its smoking was introduced into Tibet only somewhere near the end of the 17th century. Like Englishmen several decades earlier, Tibetans didn't smoke tobacco, they drank it. Still, we are lead to believe that Guru Rinpoché could have known the word for 'tobacco,' tha-mag, or tha-ma-ka, already in the 8th century. One reason we know smoking was rather common by the beginning of the 18th century is because officials took the trouble to ban it in the wider Lhasa area when the Sixth Dalai Lama made his first ceremonial entry into the city. The Buddha in the Vinaya permitted the inhalation of burning herbs for medicinal purposes, and in fact never forbade smoking. It's just a fact that some Buddhist countries do let their monks smoke, and Burmese monks may be seen enjoying their cigars in public, but I wager that you will never see Tibetan monks lighting up. Many do take tobacco in the form of snuff, however.)
I beg to differ with this idea of two separate domains. For one thing, lay people ought to learn more about monastic life just because they should want to know as much as possible about where their donations are going. They ought to be assured that they will get quality results from their investments. Of course the monks and nuns make up one of the 'three precious' (könchog sum) in which Buddhists 'take refuge' (chabsu chi). These three are, according to the Tibetan version as it is most commonly heard:

sangs-rgyas chos dang tshogs-kyi mchog-rnams-la //

byang-chub bar-du bdag ni skyabs-su mchi //

bdag-gis sbyin sogs bgyis-pa 'di-dag-gis //

'gro-la phan-phyir sangs-rgyas grub-par shog //

In the Buddha, the Dharma and the best of the Sangha

I go for refuge until my awakening.

Through these things I do such as offerings and so forth

may I achieve Buddhahood in order to help animate beings.

If you like, you can compare other translations.

"Taking refuge" can and does serve as a kind of declaration of faith in Buddhism, which is surely an important part of becoming and being a Buddhist, I'd say. Still, most Buddhist teachers insist that it's inadequate in and of itself. Most would add something about accepting the 'four seals' that mark ideas (and by implication, scriptures) as being Buddhist. This is called the 'four seals that tie views to the Buddha's Word' or, in Tibetan, lta-ba bkar btags-kyi phyag-rgya bzhi.

'dus-byas thams-cad mi-rtag-pa /

zag-bcas thams-cad sdug-bsngal-ba /

chos thams-cad bdag-med-pa /

mya-ngan-las 'das-pa zhi-ba'o //

All compounded things are impermanent.

All things accompanied by defilements are suffering.

All things are characterized by non-self.

Nirvana is peace (quiescence, cessation).

There is really nothing specifically Mahayana about this formulation. It's arguably universal to Buddhists. The first three are the triad of anicca, dukkha and anatta known to us from Pali-language Theravada sources. And number 4 reflects more the views of the Pali Nikayas on Enlightenment than it does specifically Mahayana ideas about Complete Enlightenment that can be placed in neither sangsara nor nirvana... But really, in this specific context in which we try to decide what or who counts as being Buddhist, we ought to be inclusive. Well, shouldn't we?

Buddhists, regardless of what else they may be thinking, would need to at least provisionally accept that these ideas of impermanence, suffering and nonself are headed in a promising direction. There is really no good reason to isolate these 'intellectual' criteria from the criteria of Refuge. They go together as part of the same developmental process.

Others, but not so many others, want to insist on some level of effort or success in following a Buddhist life. There are ethical requirements, of course, but also requirements about engaging in practices like meditation. Here some Tibetan Buddhists have argued that we might be in danger of setting the bar too high. If we demand ethical perfection in tandem with the most advanced meditative accomplishments, there will hardly be anyone left to include in the category of Buddhist. At some point, by pressing too hard on the practice requirements, we would have to lose the distinction between Buddhist and Buddha (as of course at some evidently very far-off point beyond the horizon, or over the rainbow, we are supposed to do just that, but there I go getting ahead of myself again).

As persons embarking on the Path to Buddhahood, faith in the vehicle[s] is required. But like all faiths, there is a tendency to be devotional and turn such things as the Three Precious into icons to worship, attending to them in a formal way without the deeper commitments being much involved. Of course when any religion is viewed from the outside, it's unlikely any deeper commitments will be immediately available for our inspection. We may see someone offering a plate of fruit in front of a Buddha image and leave the temple with the impression that's all there is to Buddhism. It's as if Buddha had once said, 'Feed my image,' and people instead of resisting the odd command unthinkingly comply, feeling satisfied that they've done their duty. Really, no reason for us to become superficial behavioralists (like the 'trivialists' or nyi-tshe-ba, those worshippers of the ephemeral day-moth [or are they philologists?] Buddhists themselves like to trivialize... You could also read the account of Buddhist merit making in the book by Alec Le Sueur mentioned in the last blog, for a good example of trivialization and what I like to call 'the false authority of being there,' not that I want to pick on him in particular since so many of us are guilty).

I really didn't want to go too far off into this Buddhist definition problem. For this I suggest the amazing new book by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoché. What I really wanted to say is that, of the Three Precious in which Buddhists take refuge, the third one is "the best of the Sangha." Despite some new American Buddhists who insist on using it to mean every Tom, Jane and Harry who imagines they merit the title of 'Buddhists,' it is a fact that Sangha means the assemblies of monks and nuns. I don't think I should have to add that monks and nuns are Buddhists, and that they take refuge just like lay people do. And my argument is that Buddhists, both lay and monastic, ought to make an effort to recognize, through their qualities, who among the Sangha, the ordained Buddhists, would be worthy of forming an object of their refuge.

It's completely understandable when people agree to "respect the robe" even when the wearer might be everything but worthy. This seems to me quite common in Tibetan Buddhist communities. It could be another example of what I'm calling icon making, constructing an image of monastics built around ritualistic exchanges while paying little or no attention to who those monastics really are. And the big question: Are those monastics really engaging in learning practices, and practicing learnings, that will eventually lend help to humans and other sentient beings?

Anyway, I'm not an iconoclast. I think the use of images and imagery in religious practices is totally justifiable, or anyway, makes a great deal of sense. Perhaps someday you would like to hear my tough-minded arguments about this? And by talking about how nuns and monks lead their lives, I don't mean to imply any disrespect to the monastic vocation. Far from it. I just want to ask the question, Do monastics not itch? Do they need food? Baths? Exercise? Shelter? All these things occupied the Enlightened One's mind, if we are to believe the Vinaya texts, and even if that were the only reason for Buddhists to find it interesting it would be sufficient.

At first the Buddha just said, "Come forth," and people came forward and became monks — a little later nuns were also admitted — extracting themselves from worldly life. For rules, he said, "Do only good. Don't do any bad." Good advice for anyone. Try it on your children. And then on yourself. But the rules developed something like this: Say, the monks needed to get to the roof. The Buddha said it would be OK to build a stairway. They built stairs, but some monks fell off the side and hurt themselves. Then the Buddha said, It will be fine if you will add a railing. Every new elaboration of the rules was occasioned by a particular practical problem.

There was even a special group of six* particularly rowdy monks who serve, in the narrative at least, to provoke the Buddha to make new rules covering some of the more extreme possibilities for misbehavior. Read some Vinaya for yourself, and I think you will see what I mean.

(*They were called the 'Group of Six Bhikshus' (Dge-slong Drug Sde), which some like to call the Gang of Six Monks. Shayne Clarke has recently told the interesting stories about how they ate monkey meat. Some people did think, or might have (depending on the version) thought, they were cooking human flesh. This appearance of impropriety led the Buddha to forbid the eating of monkey meat by monastics. Were lay people forbidden to eat it? you may be wondering. No, I don't think so.)

I'm sorry, but I should have informed you right away that I didn't locate any pictures of back scratchers in those Vinaya illustrations (there are some nice sets in the Bechert & Gombrich picturebook, and in the brief article by Anonymous). But tell me, can you even guess what is going on in the frontispiece of today's blog? What is that monk doing? You see the monk standing there with left hand holding on to a cyllindrical looking thing that seems to be tied around what looks like a horizontal pole. Give up?

The Tibetan text reads:
spong-ba-pa'i 'chag-sa srid-du khru bco-brgyad-pa'i dpe-ste / mi 'thom-par bya-ba'i phyir phreng-thag de-lta-bu-la bskon-pa'i spu-gu'am de-la btags-pa'i tha-gu-la 'jus-te bcag-par bya'o // zhes dang / spong-ba-pa'i ni bco-brgyad-do // zhes-so //
And the text below the illustration, which is also relevant, although it turns out that it is mainly making reference to the lowest part of the illustration (perhaps you noticed the two dotted lines, one leading from the top of the illustration to the large chunk of text, the other slanting down to the following line of text):
rkang-pa gnyis-la rdul mi-'go-bar bya-ba'i phyir bar-thang gding-bar bya'o // zhes-pa'i dpe /
These pieces may be translated:
An illustration of the eighteen-cubit length of the 'treading spot' of the mendicant.* For the sake of making [the monk] free of mental fuzziness (or mental confusion). Grasping on to a tube fitted to such a rope as this one, or grasping onto a string attached to it (the tube), do the treading.**

(*'chag-sa, in Sanskrit, caṅkramaṇa, or caṅkama in Pali. See Upasaka, p. 85: "A walking terrace. The Buddha recommended it for strolling particularly for the sick monks. A ledge was also recommended to protect it from falling down. It might be covered by a roof." In my Tibetan sources, its use is recommended for overcoming sadness or depression, skyo-sangs. 'Mendicant' translate what ought to be bhaikṣuka in Sanskrit. I'm not sure but I think it is used here as just another epithet for 'monk.' The Sanskrit emphasizes living through begging food, while the Tibetan literally means 'renunciate, abandoner.'
**I realize I left off the last bit. I suggest it only makes sense as a part of the larger architecture of the text, so it shouldn't be missed too much. There are actually two quotations from the Mdo-rtsa [on that text see the end of this blog down below] here, and this is one of them.)

So that dust will not adhere to the two feet, one ought to spread out the bartang*** carpet. That's what is illustrated here.
(***This word bar-thang may be spelled several different ways, including par-tang, par-thang and bar-tang. The Sanskrit is ciliminikā or cilimilika. The Pali is cimilikā or cilimikā. To judge from the names, it was probably a woven mat made of a material that made odd cricket-like sounds when stepped on. [Have a look here.] Upasaka says it is "a kind of mat or spread used in order to protect the floor," which would seem the opposite to our text, where it protects the feet. He also says it can be made of rags. Since it is used in the 'treading place,' I'm tempted to say that what we have here is a treadmill. However, there is no indication that the cimilikā moved of its own accord. Perhaps this point will be clarified with further research.)
Later on in this text we see a very familiar scene that provokes a deja vu:

The Tibetan says, kha-bton-pa'i 'chag-sa ni khru bcu-gnyis-so // zhes-pa'i dpe /

This means, "The treading place for scriptural recitation is twelve cubits. This illustrates that."

Why is this one a full six cubits shorter and headed in the opposite direction? Let's see... OK. I have no idea. You figure it out. I fully realize that once again, I didn't make it to the important matter of the back scratcher. So I guess there ought to be a Part Three?

I'll keep you guessing.

Many of the illustrations of monastic requisites have to do with water, and I know that water is a subject that interests a few of you. We have water containers and pitchers, of course, but most importantly various devices used to purify water, or at least remove the larger impurities and living beings from it. Apparently there were four different types of sieves or filters recommended for use. The last I knew the Tibetan monks in Drepung in South India were using ultraviolet (UV) water purification systems. The Buddha might have approved, but then again, maybe not. I understand that these implements end the lives of an enormous number of microorganisms that would, if given a choice or a chance, prefer to survive.

I'll leave you to contemplate the meaning. Don't I always?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Read on and on!

Dalai Lama XIII Thubten Gyatso (1875-1933 CE). This is the source of some of the illustrations here. For a full bibliographical reference, look at this page in TBRC.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, What Makes You Not a Buddhist, Shambhala (Boston 2007).

Vinaya Texts, translated from the Pali by T.W. Rhys Davids & Hermann Oldenberg, ed. by F. Max Muller, Low Price Publications (Delhi 1995), reprint of 1882 "Sacred Books of the East" edition. Also available online. This searchable format is most fun and useful.

Anonymous, An Ordained Person's Possessions, Chö Yang [Dharamsala], issue no. 6 (1994), pp. 64-67. Includes drawings of robes, boots, sieves, water pitchers, staff, etc. Highly recommended. The exercise device is illustrated on p. 67, but no explanation at all is offered for it.

Heinz Bechert & Richard Gombrich, editors, The World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson (London 1984). The interesting illustrations of monastic equipment may be found on pp. 40, 56-57. 82-83, 90. In order to avoid any possible copyright infringements, I had to find similar woodblock prints elsewhere, and this explains the poor quality of my photographs. There is, incidentally, a very rare photograph of colored disks used in Sri Lanka for kasina meditations on p. 118.

Shayne Clarke, Locating Humour in Indian Buddhist Monastic Law Codes: A Comparative Approach, Journal of Indian Philosophy. This is available at SpringerLink, as a so-called "Online First" publication, but only if you can find a way to connect through a subscribing institution. Sorry for that.

Lcang-lung Paṇḍi-ta Ngag-dbang-blo-bzang-bstan-pa'i-rgyal-mtshan (1770-1845 CE), Rgya Dkar Nag Rgya Ser Ka-smi-ra Bal Bod Hor-gyi Yi-ge dang Dpe-ris-rnams Grangs Mang-ba, a Peking blockpring in 30 folios. The illustrations of water containers and filters are from this one. The others are from the work by The Dalai Lama XIII.

Gregory Schopen, Buddhist Monks and Business Matters: Still More Papers on Monastic Buddhism in India, University of Hawai'i Press (Honolulu 2004). For a fun look at how a person like G.S. can rattle tempestuous teakettles in moderately Buddhist blogs, look to Homeless Tom. Does "iconoclastic" describe Prof. Schopen? You decide. Don't miss this scene when a Buddhist chaplain leaps up from the trenches to his defense at the Elephant.

Jonathan A. Silk, Managing Monks: Administrators and Administrative Roles in Indian Buddhist Monasteries, Oxford University Press (Oxford 2008). I'll let you know more about this when I've finished reading it. At the moment I have longer, even if not as interesting, books to read.

Kate Wheeler, Vinaya Vignettes, or, Why the Buddha Had to Make Some Rules, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, vol. 3, no. 4 (Summer 1994), pp. 84-89. Tells some of the more titillating bits related to sexual activities and abstinence, and has some worthwhile observations on Vinaya as a whole: "The Vinaya is one of those ancient books of sacred law that just doesn't shy away from regulating, point by point, the entire range of human possibilities."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

All the monastic rule illustration texts (dpe-ris in Tibetan) were made to illustrate a text (with its many commentaries) Tibetans know in short as the Mdo-rtsa, in longer form the 'Dul-ba Mdo Rtsa-ba, which is to say, the Vinaya Sūtra by Guṇaprabha, a circa-5th-century CE disciple of Vasubandhu. It was translated in late Tibetan imperial times by Jinamitra and his Tibetan collaborator Cogro Lui Gyeltsan (Cog-ro Klu'i-rgyal-mtshan). So, it shouldn't be a huge shock to learn that the passage on the 'treading spot' is there, on folio 56 of the Derge version of this text (as transcribed by ACIP), as follows: mi 'thom-par bya-ba'i phyir phreng-thag lta-bu-la bskon-pa'i sbu-gu 'am de-la btags-pa'i tha-gu-la 'jus-te bcag-par bya'o | | mchil-lham-can gyis bcag-par mi bya'o | | rkang-pa gnyis-la rdul mi gos-par bya-ba'i phyir par-tang gding-bar bya'o | |

It has a small bit dropped from the quotation in our derivative text that says, "Do not do the treading with footgear on." Of course, in India, what footgear meant was sandals. I don't think sports shoes were invented yet. Or needed. You see a lot of footwear in the Vinaya illustrations.

One further detail can be known from Guaprabha's autocommentary on his Mdo-rtsa text. There we get a clarification on the tube. It says it can be made of hollow bamboo (smyu-gu'i sbubs).

Thanks to reader J.S. for an email that made me reconsider and fix some things in the translations. Thanks to S.C., too, for sending helpful comments.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Itches & Scratches: Part One

I just finished reading a funny book, and for that reason it's much recommended, even if I fear it may be out of print far ahead of its time. It’s called The Hotel on the Roof of the World: From Miss Tibet to Shangri-La. It was written by Alec Le Sueur (b. 1963), a hotel sales manager. It has nothing whatsoever to do with today’s blog attempt, which if all goes as planned ought to be about traditional implements for the relief of itching, which in its turn probably in no way reflects on the high international standards of the Lhasa hotel that used to be called The Holiday Inn. (Now it’s called "The Former Holiday Inn.")

It was only while reading another less amusing, perhaps, but no less interesting book, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, by John Kieschnick, that I started thinking seriously about this anyway serious and delicate subject. I’m speaking of my new-found fascination with scratching devices, not Material Culture in general, although with the publication of yet another material book by Japan Buddhologist Rambelli we seem to have entered a new phase in the materialization of the Buddhist world. Well, at least as far as two academic giants of Buddhology are concerned.

I imagine by now some of you are already humming a well-known song by Madonna — by the way, herself a convert to the indubitably spiritual teachings of Kabbalah, even if of the Ashlagian / Bergian sort at which so many of our more traditionally-minded kabbalists sniff long and hard while looking down their noses and readjusting their spectacles. (Does anybody know the real history of those red wrist-strings? I'm convinced it's a Tibetan Buddhist practice adapted to Judaism, an "invented tradition," but I'd love to have my beliefs overturned if they turn out to be sadly mistaken.) Kieschnick and Rambelli, from what I know of them, are, like Madonna, not the least bit interested in reducing people, in their case Buddhists, to a set of accoutrements. Not at all.

As Kieschnick at least makes clear (I haven't read Rambelli's book yet), paying more attention to the arts and artifacts of Buddhist culture can give new insights into the actual lives of Buddhists. Even those more lonely academics who rely mainly on texts for their information will start reading from them with new eyes. It doesn't mean becoming a materialist (which would signify that the material stuff we have makes us what we are, rather like the technological historians mentioned in an earlier Tibeto-logic blog, who see mechanical innovations as the primary gear that makes every other little cog in human culture turn and do its business).

Of the many chapters, two in particular I found most captivating: The one on sugar, of course. But also the one on the Ruyi scepter. The Ruyi scepter is not exactly the first thing that leaps to the front of the mind when broaching the subject of Chinese culture. Even Sinologists might not know much about it depending on their areas of expertise. The very idea of specializing in a particular realm of knowledge implies one or many shadow realms of things that are ignored in the process of focussing on that more special subject. If I may use the phrase without insulting anyone’s intelligence, there are “areas of ignorance” in even the best informed of minds.

That said, I’m assuming you will not be overly appalled to learn that this blog writer, a not-so-well-informed one after all, and one with sub-standard and declining recollection functionings, could not recall ever having heard of Ruyi until Kieschnick brought them to his attention. J.K. says that there have been two basic theories on how the Ruyi originated. One group of investigators believes it came from India as an import item along with Buddhism. Another group favors indigenous Chinese non-Buddhist conception and birth (with the Buddhists perhaps latching on to it in later and less interesting times).

But wait, I'm sorry, I haven’t told you what a Ruyi is yet. Let's just say that in different times and places during Chinese history, the Ruyi was understood in different ways:
  1. as a back scratcher,
  2. as a baton used in debate when making a point,
  3. as a royal sceptre to be raised when making a ruling,
  4. as an emblem of Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī in the Vimalakīrti Sūtra,
  5. as a kind of lectern with notes for monastic preaching.
By now you must be wondering what a Ruyi looks like. I don’t have a photo to call my own, but thanks to the web, you can find yourself in the time it takes to wink an eye transported to a richly ornamented paradise of Ruyi photographs at the Palace Museum website (the one in Beijing, not the one in Taipei, not that it matters all that much to anyone at this moment). Look at the pictures, but I don’t advise spending too much time reading what it says there, because I believe there are some small but perhaps crucial parts that you should not find convincing. It’s surprising to see a PRC site giving so much credit to Indian Buddhism instead of choosing the Sino-generative, or nationalistic (a word that signifies, in translation: everything of worth comes from the group of people I identify myself as belonging to), alternative. Still, there is no Sanskrit word anuruddha even remotely linked to itching and scratching, and if Ruyi has anything at all to do with Sanskrit riddhi, ‘super-ordinary abilities’ like walking on water or passing through walls, I just don’t get it. Perhaps I’m getting ahead of my story. What does a lowly plebian back-scratcher have to do with a scepter of royal power? On second thought, I'm sure I am. Getting ahead, that is. Let’s backtrack.

First of all, I think there is no reason to think there is, or would be, anything connected to the Ruyi in Tibetan cultural history. I even know of no knowledge of the Ruyi on the part of any Tibetan writer of times past (I really recommend the chapter on Chinese religions in the newly translated text by Thuken if you want to see how inadequate even the best-informed old Tibetan-language accounts of Chinese culture could be). The absence of the Ruyi in Tibetan cultural consciousness shouldn't be very surprising. We're talking about people who thought of Kong-tse as an obscure progenitor of some particular types of astrology known mainly to professional astrologers, or of an equally rather obscure and certainly arcane (well, to myself in any case) ritual called the toe (gto).*
*(True, a Kong-tse name-sake also oddly pops up in Bön religion's account of the life of their founder Lord Shenrab, something non-Bönpos will scarcely know anything about...)
To try and be fair to both sides we could ask, How much did Chinese of centuries past (and still today, in large part) know about Tibetan cultural heroes like Guru Rinpoche, the figure perhaps better known in the world by his Sanskritic name Padmasambhava? In recent years there have even been a few fairly high-profile incidents of Chinese authorities destroying images of Guru Rinpoche (in both Samye Monastery in central Tibet and at Mt. Kailash in western Tibet). Obviously, they don't 'get' him. Meanwhile erecting outdoor images of Confucius in China is considered highly meritorious (Murray's article).  (Free statues of Confucius often go along with those Confucius Institutes sprouting up on college campuses worldwide.) Why, don't you remember how some delusionary neo-Maoist Chinese actually sponsored and erected a 35-ton earthquake-resistant outdoor statue of Mao in Tibet? Not that I find the double standard unexpected, given who we're dealing with. Still, is it even conceivable that they would want to honor a ruler responsible for over 40 million deaths that had nothing to do with international warfare, a man evidently intent on annihilating his own nation? Ok, you're right... Obviously, I don’t get him.

Constructing a Towering Cultural Figure out of Lost Memory
For more on public Mao-cult art, look here.

Larger than life, true, but not true to life

To get back to the Ruyi, I thought it would be interesting to test the idea of the Ruyi’s Indian origins by looking at Tibetan-language Vinaya sources about itches and scratchers. Perhaps the answer would be found in them. I won’t be sure until I find out. All, or very nearly all, of the Vinaya texts that were translated into Tibetan from Indian languages have been put up in digital form by the Asian Classics Input Project (ACIP), so it has become a fairly simple matter to search for words in them.

But before starting we ought to find out what the classical Tibetan word for 'back scratcher' was. The word ruyi in Chinese means as one wishes, but I don’t know what to do with that. There is so much wish-granting going on in Buddhism, it simply is not specific enough. We have a great pre-modern Tibetan word for itch, which is zatrug (za-’phrug). These itches are sensations that flare up or arise (langs) on the body. We know that the Dharmaguptaka sect’s version of the Vinaya, translated into Chinese but not into Tibetan, mentions the Ruyi in a list of things that might be made from ivory, so we could search for the Tibetan word for ivory, which is baso (ba-so). Another item in the list of things that might be made of ivory is called the khabrel (khab-ral), a special Vinaya term for needle container.

Did you think to ask the obvious question, What is the classical Tibetan word for back scratchers? Well, the only literary source (as distinguished from lexical sources) I know for the Tibetan word with this meaning is (on p. 18) in the late Michael Aris' edition and translation of a late 18th century work by Jigmé Lingpa, one of the most famous teachers in the recent history of the Nyingma school. Here the Tibetan word corresponding to ‘back scratcher’ is yatrug (g.ya’-phrug). The first syllable of it corresponds to yawa (g.ya’-ba), a word for itching known at least as early as the first decades of the 9th century, although I do suspect the bodily sensation goes back much further. Trug (’phrug) the dictionary identifies as synonymous with ndre (’brad), which means to scrape, scratch or abrade (hmmm. No... not going into it, although, hmmmm... Why would that Tibetan word ’brad look so similar to that English word abrade with its excellent Latin pedigree?).

So without any more ado about anything, let’s set off to locate those ACIP texts and start word-searching for those just-mentioned Tibetan words.

— Several hours later... dum-de-dum-dum —

Oh my, Where did my day go? Did I say it was going to be easy? This is a lot more complicated than I imagined. I didn’t find any of those words in the Vinaya Vibhanga, but I did find a number of references to yenpa (g.yan-pa), a disease characterized by itching, which might be treated by the application of mustard seed oil. It’s because of this itching disease, which for want of anything more scientifically precise I will just call ‘prickly heat’ (a common affliction in very hot places in the world, including India where the texts were written), that the monks were allowed to use a special under-garment called the ‘itch cloth’ or ‘itch cover’ (Tibetan yen-gab, [g.yan-dgab], in Sanskrit, kaṇḍū praticchadana; in Pāli, kaṇḍu paicchādi). It appears as one of the thirteen essential possessions of a monk (or as one of the 9 permissible cloth articles, I’m not so clear on this at the moment). Its purpose was not so much to cure or alleviate the disease as it was to protect the robes from being soiled by any oozing from the wounds that might result from scratching the vicious itching (see the Upasak book).

Oh my goodness, there is a lot more itching lore than I had bargained for. I’m afraid it will have to wait for a second installment. I know I've left the puppets hanging for months now, so I'm not so sure you're prepared to take me at my word any more. Well, in my defense I’ve got things to do and people to see and miles to go before I sleep. It seems that the real place to look for back scratchers is in the Vinaya rules about what monks and nuns can and cannot do while bathing. I hope you, like me, are itching to learn more. I won’t leave it on the back burner for very long, I promise. Promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. Thaaat's how it goes.

(continued here)

~ | ~ | ~ | ~ | ~

Reading up on itching etc.:

Michael Aris, ’Jigs-med-gling-pa’s Discourse on India of 1789: A Critical Edition and Annotated Translation of the Lho-phyogs rgya-gar-gyi gtam brtag-pa brgyad-kyi me-long, Studia Philological Buddhica series no. 9, The International Institute of Buddhist Studies (Tokyo 1995). By the way, the late Michael Aris, a prominent Tibetologist, is survived by his more famous wife, the brave and unfortunate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been in the news once again recently.

Boaz Huss, All you Need is LAV: Madonna and Postmodern Kabbalah, Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 95, no. 4 (Fall 2005), pp. 611-624.

Matthew T. Kapstein, ed., Buddhism between Tibet and China, Wisdom (Boston 2009). I’m just beginning to dip into this multi-authored volume. A list of authors and titles is here at Indologica.

John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, Princeton University Press (Princeton 2003). You can get what is known as a “snippet view” or a “limited preview” here.

Shen-yu Lin, The Tibetan Image of Confucius. Contained in: Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, vol. 12 (March 2007), pp. 105-129. Available online. Here is a direct link to the PDF. We may also look forward to a forthcoming paper on Kong-tse in Bön literature by Kalsang Norbu Gurung (Leiden University). When the late Dawa Norbu said, “For no Tibetan knew about Confucius,” he wasn't far off the mark, even if it is true that Tibetans knew about a Kong-tse who scarcely resembled Confucius in any meaningful way.

Julia K. Murray, “Idols” in the Temple: Icons and the Cult of Confucius, Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 68, no. 2 (May 2009), pp. 371-411. Note the photo of the freestanding Confucius image on p. 405. This officially sanctioned standard PRC image was created in 2006, the same year the world got CCTV.

James F. Paradise, China and International Harmony: The Role of Confucius Institutes in Bolstering Beijing’s Soft Power, Asian Survey, vol. 49, no. 4 (2009), pp. 647-669.  On p. 648: 
“That China would be setting up Confucius Institutes in the early years of the 21st century is somewhat surprising. Only several decades earlier, during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, Confucius was reviled, seen as an obstacle to social change and a throwback to the past.  Now, however, Confucius is back in fashion, useful for the government that needs symbols to unify the nation...”
Fabio Rambelli, Buddhist Materiality: A Cultural History of Objects in Japanese Buddhism, Stanford University Press (Stanford 2008). I hesitate to recommend commercial links, as a general principle, but here at the S.U.P. page you can find a table of contents and read the introduction gratis. I will not be held responsible for what happens to your credit card number after you feed it into the electronic order forms that are popping up all over the web. (I’m serious. I won’t.)

Alec Le Sueur, The Hotel on the Roof of the World: From Miss Tibet to Shangri-La, RDR Books (Oakland 2003). I found it hilarious in some parts, even in some of the very parts that might seem offensive to those inclined to take offense, like his portrayal of Tibetan Buddhist merit-making practices. (It could just be me.) You can read the first pages of the book for free, in PDF format, here.

Thuken Losang Chökyi Nyima (1737-1802), The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems: A Tibetan Study of Religious Thought, tr. by Geshé Lhundub Sopa, et al., ed. by Roger R. Jackson, The Library of Tibetan Classics, Wisdom Publications (Boston 2009). See p. 357 for this Mongour Tibetan Buddhist monk’s ethnographic observations on Chinese Buddhist monks:
“The Chinese Buddhists do not eat meat and they do not ride on animals; the monk's robe overlap[s] like birds’ feathers. As there is only a single class of monk in this country, one need not worry about making a mistake in identification, so there is no tradition of sectarian markings for distinguishing one from another. In Chinese tradition, yellow is the auspicious color of the king and red of the ministers, and the king of that time explicitly forbade either color to clerics. By virtue of the fact that according to Chinese tradition it is shameful for bare flesh to be exposed, the heshangs spread the custom of wearing dark-colored robes with sleeves. Later on, Tibetan lamas came... The separately developed customs, whereby the heshangs wear dark-colored cloth and the Tibetan monks wear red or yellow robes, persist to the present day.”
 —— Thuken's words "only a single class of monk in this country" and "no tradition of sectarian markings for distinguishing" are arguably misleading in light of what we may know from Kieschnick's book. Kieschnick tells us (on page 89) that before the 10th century monks from different regions of China could be distinguished by the colors of their robes: pitch black in Jiangnan region, brown around Kaifeng, etc. But since then the colors gradually standardized, and nowadays Chinese monks usually wear black or gray robes (with sleeves, and sometimes even trousers, that were never used in India, Tibet or the Theravada countries of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia). Purple robes were awarded by rulers to monks of special merit, the 1st such award made in 690 CE. Robes could also be symbolic of abbatial succession and Dharma transmission, and as such certainly a mark of distinction with sectarian characteristics, even a mark of leadership over an entire sect. But I suppose Thuken is just trying to make a contrast here for the sake of his Tibetan audience. We Tibetan Buddhists, he is saying, may know to which sect a monk belongs by seeing what they wear, but not so (or not so much so) in Chinese Buddhism...

C.S. Upasak, Dictionary of Early Buddhist Monastic Terms (Based on Pali Literature), Bharati Prakashan (Varanasi 1975). See p. 64 for the entry on the itch cloth:
“This cloth is allowed when a monk is suffering from itches or other cutaneous diseases. It is used as an under-wear in order to keep the antaravāsaka (sarong) free from being soiled by the wound...”
§  §  §

“It was disgusting, my skin felt itchy and my hair was standing on end when I saw people doing the loyalty dance... This way of presenting loyalty is too artificial and hypocritical.”
— Wang (1998: 187) as cited in Xing Lu, Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, p. 134. The loyalty dance was done to the tune of "Beloved Chairman Mao" and involved gestures of entrusting your heart to a visual image of the same.  

Some of the poor photos are my own this time. The frontispiece is called “The palm at the end of the mind,” with a hat tip to Wallace Stevens. The endpiece? “The flower at the heart of the thistle.” Maybe I'll start giving names to all my photos.

~ | ~ | ~ | ~ | ~

I think I’ll find another way
There’s so much more to know
I guess I’ll die another day
It’s not my time to go.

— “Die Another Day,” Madonna

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Here is a photo I just now (meaning in this case June 2011) took in Taiwan inside the famous Longshan Temple of Taipei.  It’s a glowing image of Mañjuśrî seated on a lion and holding as his emblem the ruyi scepter:

I wonder how this uniquely Chinese iconographic usage came about. The Bodhisattva Samantabhadra was on the other side of the central image riding on His elephant.  I also visited the Palace Museum, but was a little disappointed they didn’t have many ruyi on display. Of course they also do not permit photographs inside the museum. 
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