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)

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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.

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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

* * *


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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