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.


  1. Everybody seems to be enjoying the hot-as-hell summer weather, and perhaps for that reason or another nobody wants to send comments. I did get some offline comments from people in the private sector, who raised doubts or objections to two of my points: [1] that 'the Sangha' doesn't include laypeople, and [2] that we ought to go for refuge to the 'highest' or 'supreme' among the sangha.

    I think I can defend myself and answer both the objections by pointing to the same source.

    "Sangha" entry by C. Witanachchi contained in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, vol. 7, Fascicle 4 (Colombo 2006), pp. 699-704.

    Actually, I hadn't considered the idea before that the "best of the sangha" was shared by other Buddhists besides Tibetans. I just hadn't given it any thought. Pali sources, too, use expressions such as Ariya Sangha, which ought to mean monks or nuns who have achieved sublime states of awakening. Also, paramattha Sangha, or 'ultimate' monastics, monastics of 'supreme purpose' or 'ultimate meaning,' or, as Witanachchi puts it, 'ideal' Sangha.

    Of course you can go back to the Sanskrit roots of the word, and just say sangha means 'group' of any kind. But we're in a Buddhist context. As it's used in Buddhism, it's just a shortened way of talking about the Bhikkhu Sangha and Bhikkhuni Sangha (or to speak of both at once, the ubhato Sangha).

    The Tibetan word Gendun (Dge-'dun) doesn't translate Sangha in any literal way, as far as I can see. The Tibetan may be analyzed as 'those who work at virtue.' But regardless of the etymological reading, it's still used just like Sangha, to mean the community/ies of monks and nuns.

    Oh, and anyway, my translation 'best of Sangha' in the Tibetan refuge prayer is not unique to me. Just about everybody translates it this way, or to the same effect. (I did notice one Buddhist prayerbook that just skips the "best of" part in the English version, but that is just an exception.) I'm not lending any new or special meaning to the phrase.

  2. Oh, look! Here's a new news story about how scientists have identified cells with the specific purpose of sending 'itch' messages to the brain.

  3. There is pleasure when a sore is scratched,
    But to be without sores is more pleasurable still.
    Just so, there are pleasures in worldly desires,
    but to be without desires is more pleasurable still.

    Verse no. 169 in Nāgārjuna's Ratnāvalî, as translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, Buddhist Advice for Living & Liberation: Nāgārjuna's Precious Garland, Snow Lion (Ithaca 1998).

    g.yan pa phrugs na bder 'gyur ba //
    de bas g.yan pa med pa bde //
    de bzhin 'jig rten 'dod ldan bde //
    'dod pa med pa de bas bde // //

    Tibetan commentators usually take this itching to be the itching of wounds, sometimes even the itching of the leprous person's sores. Still, there is actually no word in the Tibetan verse to correspond with 'sore' or 'wound.'


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