Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Vajra in the Sūtras

Today’s blog continues from this one.
What led the revealers of the Buddhist tantras to name their method Vajrayāna, or Vajra Vehicle? Here I would like to suggest, to the certain surprise of some people I know, that the reasons are to be found in polarity symbolism developed already in the sūtras of the Great Vehicle, the Mahāyāna. For example, the Eight Thousand Transcendent Insight Sūtra, often dated by scholars to the first century ce, repeats hundreds of times the phrase “transcendent insight and skillful method,” as the two things most necessary for progressing toward Enlightenment. Not only that, there are at least a dozen places in the same scripture where transcendent insight is called the Mother[1] of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, since it is She who gives birth to them. Although we find in this text no corresponding statement that skillful means or method (the translation ‘creative stratagem’ has also been suggested) is the Father, this would certainly be a logical step to take. The Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra (perhaps several centuries later than the Eight Thousand) does explicitly take that step when it says, “Oh noble son! Skillful method is the father of all Bodhisattvas. Transcendent insight is the mother.”[2]
The Teaching of Vimālakîrti Sūtra says,

Perfection of insight is the Bodhisattva’s mother,
And skilful means, we may say, is the father;
Of all the leaders of the multitudes
There is not one of them who is not born from these.[3]
Also, in the Eight Thousand Transcendent Insight Sūtra, the ‘Vajra Wielder’ (Vajrapāṇi) makes a brief but perhaps for our purposes quite significant appearance:

Furthermore, oh Subhūti, those Great Heroic Minded Bodhisattvas who do not turn back will always be followed by the great yaksha Vajra Wielder, who is difficult to overcome, and humans and non-human [foes] will not be able to get the better [of them].[4]
Here the Vajra Wielder has a clearly protective function for Bodhisattvas of the highest levels, and in Buddhist art from Gandhāra dating from the first centuries ce, it is common to see the Buddha depicted with an accompanying figure holding a (Gandhāran-type) Vajra in his hand. 

Gandhāra, 2nd century CE
That looks like a yak-tail fly whisk in
his right hand, the Vajra in his left

Vajra Wielder has often been viewed as the prototype of all the many later wrathful forms of Buddha known to the tantras. What is more certain is that lesser deities with protective and obstacle-overcoming functions were first portrayed in small and simple forms next to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas they followed. In later times, they became full manifestations of those same Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and like them came to form foci for high aspirations (yi-dam) in their own right.[5]
There are numerous places in the sūtras where Vajra is used as a metaphor for various things. It is not always clear in these cases whether the sūtras might not have the weapon of Indra in mind rather than the diamond, and for our present purposes it doesn’t matter very much. In the Vimalakîrti Sūtra, for example, the Vajra is a simile for the firmness of a resolution, for the solidity of the Tathāgata’s form, and for the highly penetrating power of the Full Knowledge[6] of the Buddha. The last simile is interesting, since Full Knowledge is compared to the Vajra (as is the Bodhisattva’s aspiration to achieve Enlightenment for the benefit of others) several times in the Twenty-five Thousand Transcendent Insight Sūtra as well, and at least six times in the Lalitavistara Sūtra we have Full Knowledge equated with the Vajra or the ‘supreme Vajra weapon.’ In the Twenty-five Thousand we frequently notice a state of contemplative concentration (samādhi) called the Vajra-like Contemplative Concentration, contained in a long and frequently repeated list of samādhis. In commentarial literature, and most notably in the Abhisamayālaṃkāra (‘Ornament of Clairvoyance’), attributed to Maitreyanātha, teacher of Asaṅga, the Vajra-like Contemplative Concentration is the one associated with the very highest level of the Bodhisattva’s Path, the level therein called the Stage of No More Learning.[7] Consistent with Vajrayāna’s general practice of ‘taking the goal as the basis,’ this Vajra-like Samādhi may help explain why it was that the tantras took the Vajra as their most important symbol. For them it was the goal that forms the very basis of the Buddhist Path. 

Now we should go on and start looking at some tantric texts to see how the similes and metaphors of earlier sūtra sources might have inspired the revelation of Vajrayāna symbolism. But first, let’s have a look at a peculiar usage in a work that most scholars today would agree long preceded the historical emergence of the tantras.
An early Buddhist work of praise, one that was written by Mātṛceta in about the second century and one that we know was popularly recited by the monks of India in the seventh century, makes clear metaphorical use of the Vajra in one of its lines in which it praises the power of the Buddha’s Speech-acts: “Because [Your Speech] overcomes the mountain of pride, it resembles the weapon of Śakra.”[8] Here Śakra means Indra, and the weapon of Indra is of course the Vajra. Pride resembles the mountain because it is high and made of hard stuff. Yet the Vajra of the Buddha’s Speech is equal to the nearly impossible task of overcoming it. In making metaphorical usage of the Vajra as equivalent to Buddha Speech, this early source is quite anomalous, but perhaps just for that reason very much worth noticing.
One early tantric text is quoted[9] as saying,
[Question:] You [keep] saying “Vajra, Vajra.”
Why must you call [things] “Vajra?”

[Answer:] It is hard and has no hollowness at its core.
It cuts and cannot be torn apart.
It cannot be burned and knows no destruction.
That is why we call Voidness the ‘Vajra.’
It is free of any and all interfering thoughts
and has abandoned all grasping onto phenomena.
The reality of all phenomena —
Voidness — is expressed in Vajra.

In some tantra texts, such as the Secret Meeting (Guhyasamāja) Tantra* the word Vajra occurs on almost every line. Particularly in the opening chapters of the Secret Meeting Tantra, Vajra is frequently used to qualify the Thought of Enlightenment (Bodhicitta); the Buddha’s body, speech and mind; but also the divinized sense faculties and elements, which are called such things as Vajra Seeing, Vajra Tasting, Vajra Earth, Vajra Water, Vajra Space, and identified with specific Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The illusory interplay of our internal senses and the objects of the external world which they seemingly confront (but which are actually pre-painted to accord with our subjective projections) is deliberately re-experienced as deities, both gods and goddesses, in mutual embrace. In a ritual context, it isn’t enough that the offering substances and instruments to be employed in the ritual remain in their familiar conventional form. Rather, they need to be amplified, brought to life, dissolved into Voidness, divinized or, if we may coin an appropriate word, ‘vajraized.’
(*The translation Esoteric Community is favored by some highly regarded translators. My translation has only half the syllables, although I doubt that will impress them.)

Continued...  here.

§   §   §

:::. Literary references .:::

  2000    The Diamondness of the Diamond Sūtra, Acta Orientalia Hungarica, vol. 53, nos. 1-2 (2000) 65-77.
  1951      The Śatapañcāśatka of Mātṛceṭa: Sanskrit Text, Tibetan Translation and Commentary, and Chinese Translation, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge 1951). Have a look here.
  1992      Mother Wisdom, Father Love: Gender-based Imagery in Mahāyāna Buddhist Thought, contained in: J.I. Cabezón, ed., Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender, State University of New York Press (Stony Brook 1992), pp. 181-199. Have a look at it here.
  1970     What is Vajra?  Bulletin of Tibetology, vol. 7, no. 3 (1970), pp. 42-43. Find it here.
  1999     Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art, Serindia (London 1999). Get a glimpse here.
  1987      Illusion Web: Locating the Guhyagarbha Tantra in Buddhist Intellectual History, contained in:  C. I. Beckwith, ed., Silver on Lapis: Tibetan Literary Culture and History, The Tibet Society (Bloomington 1987), pp. 175-220. Available here.
  2007     Mapping the Path: Vajrapadas in Mahāyāna Literature, Studia Philologica Buddhica series no. 12, International Institute for Buddhist Studies (Tokyo 2007).
  1978      Skilful Means:  A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism, Duckworth (London 1978). A rather old book, it has been reprinted, and may even be possible to get as an ebook.
  1960     Mudrā: A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London 1960). This book is still in print.
  1987      Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Shambhala Publications (Boston 1987).
  2001     The Vajra and Bell, Windhorse Publications (Birmingham 2001).
  2002     Buddhist Insight: Essays by Alex Wayman, ed. by George R. Elder, Motilal Banarsidass (Delhi 2002).

***The English Wikipedia entry “Vajra” (accessed today) isn’t bad, really, although you may notice it has hardly anything to say about the sūtra sources,* which seem to me to be too tremendously significant to be overlooked.
(*except an inevitable casual mention of the Vajra Cutter Sūtra)

[1] We find significance in the fact that the Tibetan text of the sūtra uses the honorific word for ‘mother,’ yum, in this context. The Vajrayāna portraits of deities in sexual embrace called ‘father-mother’ or ‘parental’ (yab-yum) figures are most frequently interpreted as symbolic of the union of Method and Insight, and I think this will become still more clear in what follows. Note, too, that the following quote from the Gaṇḍavyūha employs the non-honorific forms for father and mother, pha and ma.
[2] For the text and a discussion, see Martin (1987: 191-192, 216).  See also this blog page from Janus. Other examples from Mahāyāna literature may be found in Cabezón (1992). Wayman (2002: 107) cites a similar statement from the Śrîparamādya (Tôhoku no. 487). For a quite extensive listing of occurrences of Vajra in Mahāyāna sūtra literature, see now Pagel (2007: 5-6). It ought to be clear that I haven’t attempted to account for every single scriptural occurrence of the word rdo-rje, although canonical usages may now be located with remarkable ease at the Vienna site featured in this blog page.
[3] Translation taken from Pye (1978: 90; it is from chapter 2 of the Sūtra). The same work by Pye (pp. 90, 104) argues that the ‘maleness’ of method, not found at all in the earlier Transcendent Insight literature, received increasingly greater emphasis as time went on.
[4] Compare Snellgrove (1987: 60). See the same work, pp. 134-141 for an interesting study of the significance of the Vajra Wielder. In the fifth- to seventh-century Vinaya Sūtra composed by Guṇaprabha, it is recommended that two Vajrapāṇis (since a Sanskrit dual ending may be indicated by the Tibetan syllable dag) be painted next to the doors of monasteries, and this may be a source of literary inspiration for the sets of two temple-guardian figures encountered in the art and architecture of Buddhist countries (of course, the practice could well have been established prior to the text recommending it, and the idea of placing protective figures on both sides of a door is a rather obvious one, I’d say). For a remarkable story told about Vajrapāṇi as a personal protector of the Buddha in a Pāli Buddhist scripture, see Vessantara (2001: 4-5).
[5] This type of development is a major theme of Linrothe (1999).
[6] Full Knowledge is our translation for Sanskrit Jñāna, Tibetan Ye-shes. In general, Full Knowledge means an Enlightened kind of knowing in which all obstacles due to phenomena (‘knowables’) have been overcome (in the Enlightenment narratives, this took place at dawn under the Awakening Tree). This Full Knowledge must not be understood as a simple private satisfaction of abiding in the knowledge of the Enlightened experience itself, since it also includes knowledge of the factors that will aid others in reaching that experience. Buddhists have indeed understood Full Knowledge to mean or lead to ‘omniscience’ (sarvajñā), but rarely in the usual theistic sense, as a knowledge of every single particular event, rather as the knowledge of all causal conditions and factors that aid or prohibit progress on the Path to Enlightenment. Growth in the two factors of Merit and Full Knowledge is what defines progress on the Path according to Mahāyāna Buddhism. In the Buddhist tantras (with clear roots in sūtras and sūtra-based treatises) it is usually said that there are five Full Knowledges. These will be mentioned in a later blog entry in relation to the five types of “Buddha Family Bells.”
[7] For more along these lines, and suggestions about still other implicated meanings in the sūtra usages of Vajra, see Agócs (2000).
[8] Bailey (1951: 89).
[9] Saunders (1960: 185) identifies the source of this quote as the Vajraśekhara Sūtra (despite the word ‘sūtra’ in its title, this is a tantra of the yoga-tantra class, and one of the most important scriptures of the Japanese school of tantric Buddhism known as Shingon). Compare Saunders’ translation: “Void, the nucleus of all things, like a diamond, may not be demolished by axe, nor be cloven, nor burned, nor destroyed.” Our translation is based on the Tibetan text supplied by Hochotsang (1970: 43), who doesn’t attribute the quote to any particular scripture.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Pavements Like the Sea

Vancouver, August 2010

For a long time I’ve wanted to immerse myself in the Tibetan accounts of Buddha’s life, and in the last few years I’ve found occasions to do just that. Almost all the good books in English that tell the stories are old ones.* More recent Buddha biographies, even many of those written by Buddhists, unfortunately think they have to tell what little they do tell of Buddha’s life as straight-on history, as if they were in a position to be able to tell that the less miraculous a story is, the more verifiable therefore.** 
(*John Strong's recent book is not the only exception to this rule, but definitely one of the better ones. I very much recommend it. ** Today’s blog is about stories that have hardly anything of the miraculous apart from remarkable mechanical skills and empirical verification... It’s all about ‘hard science’ [at least on the surface of things] but — and here’s a point worth making — that doesn’t necessarily assure us of their historical truth... and yes, of course, other truths besides historical ones may well be lurking there... They most definitely are!)
I was looking in one of those old biographies, the one done by Wm. Rockhill, “Second Secretary U.S. Legation in China,” when I saw something that provoked one of those (honestly) not-so frequent déjà vus. It was also a moment of utter perplexity. Is it possible, I was thinking, that the Nepalese Queen of Emperor Songtsen Gampo could be identical to the famous Queen of Sheba who went to marry King Solomon?  (Only with some role reversals?) As you can already tell, it’s necessary to backtrack a little or we won’t accomplish anything beyond spreading bewilderment about in the world more than is really warranted or wanted. Here’s what the footnote in Rockhill's book (p. 70) said:
“In the Mongol history entitled Bodhimur (Schmidt, Sanang Setsen, p. 342), we read of the Nepalese princess, wife of the Tibetan king Srong-btsan-sgam-po, building a temple on Mount Potala at Lhasa, in which was also a crystal floor. The king was also deluded when he first saw it.”
Tritsun, the Newar Queen of Songtsen Gampo
Not having any quick access to Rockhill’s sources, neither to the Mongolian text nor its German translation by Schmidt, I turned to The Mirror that Shines Light on the Generations of Kings, a 14th-century history, perhaps the most popular one with earlier generations of Tibetan readers. I searched and located the story, right there near the beginning of its chapter 15. The following, just to get us oriented in time, would have taken place somewhere around the middle of the 630’s:  

“When [the Nepalese queen] Tritsun opened the door of the [Trulnang] shrine to allow the king to enter, he saw that the floor resembled water and that everything above it was reflected upon it. Thinking that the former lake had burst forth, he dared not proceed. Tritsun therefore removed the ring from her finger and threw it to the floor, whereupon it skidded across the surface like a pebble upon the ice. Seeing this, the king resolved to enter and said to Tritsun, “This shrine of yours is indeed miraculous!”   (Taylor tr., p. 178).
der khri btsun gyis lha khang gi sgo phyes nas / rgyal po nang du byon par bzhed pa la mthil gyi zha la chu'i mdog lta bu / steng phyogs kyi gzugs brnyan thams cad de la shar ba gzigs pas / sngar gyi mtsho 'di brdol 'dug dgongs nas / nang du 'byon ma nus pa dang / khri btsun gyis sor gdub phud de gtor bas / khyag thog khar rde'u bskyur ba bzhin khrol gyis song ba dang / rgyal pos gzigs pas thugs ches te nang du byon no //  der khri btsun la khyed kyi lha khang 'di 'phrul du snang ngo gsungs /  
Compare the Sørensen tr., p. 285, with footnote no. 871, which has references to parallels in other history books that we ought to look up. Note a further description of the floor on Sørensen's p. 286:

“Its cement-floor is lapis lazuli-coloured,
[In which] the drawings [on the ceiling] above (steng) [i.e.] the fish and water-creatures
Are just like reflections in a mirror.”*
(*This bears a positively uncanny resemblance to the quote by Lehmann you will find below.)

Note the goat by the lake
This is the very story that supplies an explanation for the "Trulnang" part of Rasa Trulnang (Ra-sa 'Phrul-snang) Temple. Rasa means goat (ra) earth (sa) because the goats brought the earth that filled the lake (something alluded to in the quote above). Rasa was the original name of the city before it was changed to Lhasa.

Trulnang means ‘magical’ ('phrul) appearance or shining or reflection (snang). Or to keep it simpler, Trulnang just means a bewilderingly fantastic vision. Rasa Trulnang is the more correct name for the Jokhang (as most English speakers are likely to know it) or the Tsuglakhang, as locals are likely to call it. It’s only the most important temple in the entire history of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. And our water-floor story is being told about its builder and one of his wives, just as that other story is told about the most famous temple builder of the Middle East, King Solomon, and one of his many wives... I guess you can intuit where I may be going with this.

On the same pages of his book, Wm. Rockhill tells a canonical episode associated with Buddha’s life, but centered on a figure called Jyotishka. King Bimbisara was invited to Jyotishka's house, or rather we should say, the king, king that he was, had himself invited. As he passed through the wealthy man’s jeweled door,    

He saw before him like a lake of water, in which fish were made to move by machinery. The king, desiring to enter (the room), commenced undoing his shoes, when Jyotishka said, “Sire, why are you getting ready to bathe?”  
“Because I must wade in the water,” he replied. 
“Sire,” Jyotishka answered, “it is not water, it is a floor of jewels which looks like water.”  
“But those fish which seem to move about?”  
“Sire, they are made to move by machinery.”

rgyal pos de’i bar sgo’i phyogs rin po che’i rang bzhin las gyur pa rdzing chus gang ba lta bu de na nya dag rgyu ba ’dra ba’i ’khrul ’khor gyi sbyor ba byas pa dag mthong ste |  nang du ’gro bar ’dod nas lham dag ’dud par brtsams pa dang  |  me skyes kyis smras pa |  lha ci’i slad du chags dag bsil bar mdzad |  des smras pa |  gzhon nu chu la ’bog par bya ba’i phyir ro ||  me skyes kyis smras pa |  lha ’di chab ma lags te |  chab lta bur gda’ ba ni rin po che’i sa gzhi lags so ||  des smras pa |  gzhon nu nya rgyu ba dag ’di ltar snang ngo || lha ’khrul ’khor gyi sbyor ba las de dag rgyu bar gda’o.* 
(*The text was found at this website, in the context of the Vinayakṣudraka. I fixed a few things I was sure needed fixing, but didn’t check the Dergé Kanjur version yet.)

I’d like to point out that the word behind ‘machinery’ here is the very same yantra / mechanism we’ve considered at some length in an earlier blog. But, well, I see that my short story is already getting long, so let me quote from the scripture often known as the Koran (al-Qur'an), ch. 27 - The Ants, verse 44: 

Then she was bidden to enter the palace; but when she saw it, she thought it was a deep pool of water, and bared her legs. 
But Solomon explained, ‘It is just a palace paved with glass.'
And she said, ‘My Lord, I have wronged myself: now I submit myself along with Solomon, to God, the Lord of the Universe!’ 

Persian miniature ca. 1595
As the Mir article amply discusses, we are to understand by this that she simultaneously realized her error with regard to the floor being a water surface and her error at not believing in the one God. Seeing through error is what it’s about, is it?

There are a lot of retellings of the story in the Islamic world, some of them saying Solomon was not all that sure she was marriage material. What he really wanted to do was check and see if she had hairy legs or not, which was why he made the floor so shiny and reflective in the first place. It was just to trick her into lifting up her robe so he could satisfy his curiosity and make a better informed choice. But that's only one of many amusing tales. Most amazing thing of all, for me, is this:  At least one version of the Islamic story (told by Grierson as well as Elias, p. 64) says that Solomon's palace was built with a glass floor, with real fish and other sea creatures swimming beneath it. The stories do, after all, look quite a bit the same.

But wait, take a minute to reflect on what it means to be obvious. Humans can’t take a single step without implicitly trusting in the ground to hold them up. The story upsets the expectation of being grounded, at least for a time. Their eyes are not failing them, yet they don’t see what’s there. Maybe it’s about rethinking our assumptions, our fundamentalisms, even? Hell, I don’t know what the story is about any more. I might have thought I did. If you are in a mood to wonder about it some more, have a look at the Lethaby passages I’ve typed up for you down below. Architecture has its sky above and its earth/waters below just like our world does. That much seems so clear it ought to go without saying. But there, I said it anyway. I hope you’ve enjoyed these small reflections. I hope you didn’t find them too limiting.

The “frozen sea” in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
(read the Barry essay and all will be clear)

•  •  •
Literary works:

Fabio Barry, Walking on Water: Cosmic Floors in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Art Bulletin, vol. 89, no. 4 (2007), pp. 627-656.

Rosemarie Haag Bletter, The Interpretation of the Glass Dream-Expressionist Architecture and the History of the Crystal Metaphor, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 40, no. 1 (March 1981), pp. 20-43.

William M. Brinner, Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam, Journal of the American Oriental Society (January-March 1996).  Digital version here.

W. Crooke, The Queen of Sheba, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, new series vol. 45, no. 3 (1913), pp. 685-686. 
“The tale of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon is current at the present day in Palestine, and an old Saracenic bath-house near the Bâb el-Asbât, or ‘Gate of the Tribes,’ in the eastern wall of Jerusalem is pointed out as the scene of the incident. This building was demolished in 1906...  Tales of walking into a place supposed to be full of water are common...” 
Lois Drewer, Fisherman and Fish Pond: From the Sea of Sin to the Living Waters, Art Bulletin, vol. 63, no. 4 (December 1981), pp. 533-547. Besides the illuminations on the symbolism of fish and fishing, there are some illustrations of mosaic floors with fish swimming in them.

Jamal Elias, Prophecy, Power and Propriety: The Encounter of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  Look here. And if that doesn’t work, look here and scroll down to try and find it. At his footnote 1 you will find a lot of references to writings I haven’t made use of here.

G.A. G[rierson], Duryodhana and the Queen of Sheba, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, new series vol. 45, no. 3 (1913), pp. 684-685.
“In order to prevent Solomon marrying Bilqis, the Jinns told him that her legs were covered with hair, and that she had ass's hoofs instead of feet. To discover if this were true, Solomon built a marvellous palace with a glass floor, beneath which was water supplied with fish and other sea animals swimming therein. He sat on his throne in the midst of the palace and called Bilqis to him. When she came to the glass floor she tucked up her dress in order to wade through the apparent water, and Solomon saw that, sure enough, her legs were hairy...”
Jacob Lassner, Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 1993). This is another book I should have read through before blogging about the subject, but haven’t yet. See parts of it for free here.

Karl Lehmann, The Dome of Heaven, The Art Bulletin, vol. 27, no. 1 (March 1945), pp. 1-27. Page 5:  
“[A] persistent interrelationship exists between ceilings and floor decorations. In most cases, we see projected upon floors the schemes which were originally developed on ceilings. Sometimes, and as early as the first century B.C., we meet a direct representation of a ceiling on a floor, as if it were reflected in a mirror.”
William R. Lethaby (1857-1931), Architecture Mysticism & Myth, Solos Press (Bath 1994) reprint of 1891 edition. Especially the chapter 9, “Pavements like the sea,” and chapter 10, “Ceilings like the sky.”
“Now, there is an Eastern legend of Solomon laying a floor like the sea in his wonderful palace in Jerusalem:—'When the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to prove Solomon with hard questions' (Book of Chronicles). These, according to Eastern tradition, were riddles, like those which passed between Solomon and Hiram of Tyre. But 'there was nothing hid from Solomon,' and, en revanche, he retorts by transporting the throne of Queen Balkis to his palace by the aid of the genii who ever served him, so that on her arrival she was confronted by her own throne. 'It was said unto her: enter the palace. And when she saw it she imagined it to be a
p. 206

great water, and she discovered her legs, by lifting up her robe, to pass through it. Whereupon Solomon said unto her: Verily, this is a palace evenly floored with glass' (Koran xxvii.) Or, as some understand, adds Sale, this was in 'the court before the palace, which Solomon had commanded to be built against the arrival of Balkis; the floor or pavement being of transparent glass, laid over running water in which fish were swimming. Fronting this pavement was the royal throne, on which Solomon sat to receive the Queen.'
A similar floor is given to the palace of The City of Brass, in the 'Arabian Nights,' probably the most wonderful piece of architectural imagination in literature. The Emeer Moosa and his followers came to a high-walled city, from the midst of which shines the tower of brass. They entered and pressed on to the palace, and found a saloon constructed of polished marble, adorned with jewels. 'The beholder imagined upon its floor was running water, and if any one walked upon it he would slip. The Emeer Moosa therefore ordered the Sheykh Abd-Es-Samad to throw upon it something that they might be enabled to walk upon it; and he did this, and so contrived that they passed on.'
The story, incorporated in the Koran soon after the year 622, is probably from the Talmud, which contains this version:—All the kingdoms congratulated Solomon as the worthy successor of his father David, whose fame was great among all nations, save one, the Kingdom of Sheba, the capital of which was called Kitore.
To this kingdom, Solomon sent a letter.
'From me, King Solomon, peace to thee and to thy government. Let it be known to thee, that the Almighty God has made me to reign over the whole world, the kingdoms of the north, the south, the east, and the west. Lo, they have come to me with their
p. 207
congratulations, all save thee alone. Come thou also, I pray thee, and submit to my authority, and much honour shall be done thee; but if thou refusest, behold I shall by force compel thy acknowledgment.
'To thee, Queen Sheba, is addressed this letter in peace, from me, King Solomon, the Son of David.' When Solomon heard that the Queen was coming he sent Benayahu, the son of Yehoyadah, the general of his army, to meet her. When the queen saw him she thought he was the king, and she alighted from her carriage.
Then Benayahu asked, 'Why alightest thou from thy carriage?' and she answered, 'Art thou not his majesty the king?'
'No,' replied Benayahu, 'I am but one of his officers.' Then the queen turned back and said to her ladies in attendance, 'If this is but one of the officers, and he is so noble and imposing in appearance, how great must be his superior the king.'
And Benayahu, the son of Yehoyadah, conducted Queen Sheba to the palace of the king.
Solomon prepared to receive his visitor in an apartment laid and lined with glass, and the queen at first was so deceived by the appearance that she imagined the king to be sitting in water.
And when the queen had tested Solomon's wisdom and witnessed his magnificence, she said, 'I believed not what I heard, but now I have come and my eyes have seen it all; behold, the half has not been told to me. Happy are thy servants who stand before thee continually, to listen to the wisdom of thy words. Blessed be the Lord thy God, who hath placed thee on a throne to rule righteously and in justice.'
There is a practically identical story in another of the quarry books of the world, the Sanscrit epic of the Mahabharata, which sings the long strife of rival royal
p. 208
houses. One of the Rajas celebrates a royal sacrifice. 'When the sacrifice had been fully accomplished, Duryodhana entered the place where it had been performed, and saw very many beautiful things that he had never beheld in his own Raj at Hastinapur. Amongst other wonders was a square, made of black crystal, which appeared to the eye of Duryodhana to be clear water, and as he stood on the margin he began to draw up his garments lest they should be wetted, and then throwing them off he plunged in to bathe and was struck violently on the head against the crystal. Then he was much ashamed and left that place.'
Mr Talboys Wheeler suggests that this may be borrowed from the Koran, but allows that it may have had an independent origin. There can, however, be little doubt that these transcendental palaces, which are handed on through milleniums of Indian story, find their origin in the structures of the land which is not subject to winter's wind, nor any decay—The City of Gold founded in the waters above the firmament.
In the fifteenth century Italian romance, called the Hypnerotomachia, the author seems to have collected all the architectural wonders of history and romance; but how should he come by this same story? Poliphilus, after penetrating zone after zone of gardens, which occupy an island, comes at last to a circular temple, open to the sky, and on entering it was astonished to find 'a marvel more grand and stupefying than anything he had ever seen;' the whole area of the amphitheatre was apparently paved with one sole stone of obsidian, entirely black and of invincible hardness, so polished and shining that at the first moment he feared destruction by walking into an abyss. It reflected the light of day so perfectly that he contemplated the profound and limpid sky as in a quiet sea: everything was reflected as in a polished mirror.
p. 209
According to the story in the Koran, Solomon's throne seems to stand on the waters, just as was imagined of God's throne. 'It is He who hath created the heavens and the earth in six days, but His throne was above the waters, before the creation thereof' (Koran xi.). 'For the Mohammedans supposed this throne, and the waters whereon it stands—which waters they imagine were supported by a spirit or wind—were, with some other things, created before the heavens and the earth. This fancy they borrowed from the Jews, who also say that the throne of glory then stood and was borne on the face of the waters by the breath of God's mouth' (Sale). An account of this pavement of waters above the firmament is given in Smith's 'Dictionary of the Bible'—'Further, the office of the rakia (firmament or solid expansion) in the economy of the world demanded strength and substance. It was to serve as a division between the waters above and the waters below . . . . and accordingly the rakia was created to support the upper reservoir (Psalms cxlviii. 4 and civ. 3), where Jehovah is represented as "building His chambers of water," not simply in water, that being the material of which the beams and joists were made.'
In Ezekiel's vision of a perfect temple, after he has seen every court and chamber, and measured them with his reed, he is brought again to the door (Ezekiel 47:1):—'And, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward: for the forefront it of the house stood toward the east.' The waters came from the south of the altar, and after passing through the court and the outer gate became a mighty river flowing to the sea. It is the river of the water of life, 'and everything shall live whither the river cometh.'
p. 210
To return to Constantinople once more: an account of the emperor's bed-chamber, in the imperial palace, is given by Bayet (L’Art Byzantin.), quoting from Constantine Porphyrogenitus. A range of the palace called 'Cenourigion,' was built by Basil, the Macedonian; one of the rooms had sixteen columns, of green marble, and of onyx, sculptured with branches of the vine, and the vault was covered with golden mosaic. 'But nothing could equal the royal bed-chamber. The pavement was of mosaic, the centre was a peacock in a circle of Carian marble, surrounded by rays, and an outer circle. From this second circle issued, as it were, streams or rivers of green marble of Thessaly, which flowed, seemingly, to the four angles of the room (comme des ruisseaux ou des fleuves de marble vert de Thessalie); the four interspaces left between the marble streams had eagles wrought in mosaic, which seemed to live and to breathe. The lower part of the walls were encrusted with glass, in many pieces of varied colour, in the forms of flowers. Above a gold band, the walls were covered with mosaic, on the golden field of which were enthroned Basil and Eudoxia, and their children around them. In the centre of the ceiling glittered a cross of emerald glass on a star-lit sky.' In the same book (Bayet) is a story taken from Codinus, of flooding Sta. Sophia with water, which, although not questioned by the author, seems to be an expedient so impracticable and injurious as to be obviously a myth—just such a myth as would arise to account for a pavement representing water. 'When the dome fell in Anthemius and Isidore were dead, but the latter had left a nephew, who was charged with the works. He increased the elevation of the cupola, and at the same time gave greater solidity to the great arches. They this time left the centres longer in place, and all
p. 211
the scaffolding. They also inundated with water the lower part of the church, so that pieces of wood in falling should not cause any injury.'
In the great area of Sta. Sophia it is not possible to see the floor, but in one of the galleries a green marble pavement is still uncovered. It is formed of very large slabs of antique Cipollino (Browning's 'onion stone'), the slabs being laid in such a manner....  ___  [Read the whole chapter here.] 

Mustansir Mir, The Queen of Sheba's Conversion in Q. 27:44: A Problem Examined, Journal of Qur'anic Studies, vol. 9, no. 2 (October 2007), pp. 43-56.

Christopher R.A. Morray-Jones, A Transparent Illusion: The Dangerous Vision of Water in Hekhalot Mysticism, a Source-Critical and Tradition-Historical Inquiry, Brill (Leiden 2002). I’d love to read this book but, as it is quite expensive, we have to regard ourselves as fortunate to be able to read the parts of it made available here.

W. Woodville Rockhill, The Life of the Buddha and the Early History of His Order, Derived from Tibetan Works in the Bkah-hgyur and Bstan-hgyur, Followed by Notices on the Early History of Tibet and Khoten, Pilgrims Publishing (Varanasi 2004), reprint of 1901 edition. The relevant passage is on p. 70. 

Per Sørensen, Tibetan Buddhist Historiography: The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies: An Annotated Translation of the XIVth Century Tibetan Chronicle: rGyal-rabs gsal-ba’i me-long, Harrassowitz Verlag (Wiesbaden 1994).

John S. Strong, The Buddha, a Short Biography, Oneworld (Oxford 2001/2002).

McComas Taylor & Lama Choedak Yuthok, trs., Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen, The Clear Mirror: A Traditional Account of Tibet’s Golden Age, Snow Lion (Ithaca 1996).

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Out on the web:

For an argument in favor of the Qur'anic source being older than the Judaic source, look here:

You can see a lot of artworks inspired by the Queen of Sheba here:
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And I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had been ....The very sight of the pavement, therefore, on which they stood ...  Revelations 15:2 (in a visionary description of a heavenly throne room).

I Feel Free
    by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown, from the album Fresh Cream (1966).

Feel when I dance with you,
We move like the sea.
You, you're all I want to know.
I feel free...

I can walk down the street, there's no one there
Though the pavements are one huge crowd.
I can drive down the road; my eyes don't see,
Though my mind wants to cry out loud.
I feel free...

Dance floor is like the sea,
Ceiling is the sky.
You're the sun and as you shine on me,
I feel free, I feel free, I feel free.

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Further support for the idea that it was the floor that gave the Jokhang the 2nd half of its original name Rasa Trulnang...  

The Extensive History of the Dharma's Emergence in India and Tibet, composed by Khepa Deu (ca. 1260's), at p. 292:
“After this speech, the king (Songtsen Gampo) was accompanied by his sixteen ministers as far as the low valleys in the east.  He remained there for thirteen years.  When the temples were finished, after he had constructed Total Completion Very Happy (Yongs-rdzogs Rab-dga') Temple, he returned to the center where Ongjo had built the Temple of Ramoche and Tritsun had built the Temple of Goat Earth with three storeys.* He went to the top of the building and from there it was clear that the inside of Goat Earth was full of water.  So he threw down his staff and it was plain to see that it was floating back and forth on the surface of the water.  But then he was delighted when he tossed away his ring and it made a clear ringing sound.  He declared, "Tritsun's temple here appears to be miraculous ('phrul-du snang)."  From then on the temple was known as Miraculous Appearance ('Phrul-snang).”
blon po bcu drug dang bcas te mdo smad shar phyogs su [phebs] / dgung lo bcu gsum bzhugs te lha khang rnams tshar nas / yongs rdzogs rab dga'i lha khang bzhengs su gsol nas / dbus su byon pa dang / ong cong gis ra mo che'i lha khang bzhengs / khri btsun gyis ra sa'i lha khang sum thog bzhengs 'dug nas / rtser byon pa dang / ra sa'i nang chus gang bar mngon nas / phyag gi lcag bor bas / chu'i kha na lcag yom me 'dug par mngon / sor gdub bskyur bas / sing khrol la song bas mgu ste / khri btsun gyi lha khang 'di 'phrul du snang ngo // gsungs pas 'phrul snang du grags so / 
(*Ongjo is his Songtsen's wife from China, Tritsun (Khri-btsun) his wife from Nepal.  "Goat Earth" translates Ra-sa, meaning the Jokhang Temple.)

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A note on illustrations —  Our frontispiece was photographed at the Sun Yat Sen Chinese Garden in Vancouver in 2010, immediately after the IATS was over. The final photo is taken from the floor of the Greek Chapel (the Catholicon) of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. If you didn’t notice already, look at it again and tell me if what you see is a flat surface. Maybe not?  Look again. Still don’t see it?  I read quite a harsh review of it, so I have to say, if you would like to see the most beautifully conceived and produced book in the recent history of Buddhist studies, I warmly recommend Jan Westerhoff's Twelve Examples of Illusion. You start to appreciate the book before you even open it, such an amazing dust cover covers it. And you don’t have to be a philosopher or a Buddhologist to read it, such amazingly clear prose was used to write it. This book may not really exist. It has illusion written all over it.

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Add-on - May 18, 2012:

I was just looking over the English translation of Ven. Chetsang Rinpoche’s history book today, and noticed this bit translated from the Feast for Scholars (Mkhas-pa'i Dga'-ston). The context is a description of the freshly built Rasa Trulnang Temple (here dated to the "Iron Bull year 641"):
“All the flooring, as blue as lapis lazuli, bore drawings of water fowl and water, on top of which appeared marvelous drawings of fish, crocodiles, birds, and so on.”
Source:  Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang, A History of the Tibetan Empire:  Drawn from the Dunhuang Manuscripts, tr. by Meghan Howard and Tsultrim Nakchu, Songtsen Library (Dehra Dun 2011), p. 223.

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Here’s the passage from the Tibetan version of the history (published in 2010), where it may be found at p. 236:
“de yang mthil zhal thams cad bai .dûrya sngon po ltar ngang pa chu'i ri mo can la / steng gi nya dang chu srin dang / bya la sogs pa'i ri mo dang 'phrul gyi gzugs snang ba...”
Contemplating the Tibetan, I think there is a slight inadequacy in the English translation. As I read it, it’s saying that the forms such as fish, makaras, birds and so on that were painted above (steng-gi) were reflected in the pavement that had the water designs in it as well as ducks (ngang-pa) down below.  The translation obscures another essential message of the original since it doesn’t convey to us that the 3rd and 4th syllables that go into the name of the temple, Rasa Trulnang, are included here.  Really, the miraculousness in the temple name is owed entirely to its floor, which would be one of the main points I wanted to make, actually, in this blog effort.

Try to visualize together with me if you can, how the water designs, the waves and ripples in the floor, might have combined with the reflections of the fish and so on coming from the ceiling above, when you stepped into the room. How would they move in relation to each other as you moved about the room... Could we call it a ‘shifting of planes’? Remarkable, isn't it, even to just imagine it! If you see it there’s no need for me to say more. If you see it, it isn’t just a dream.
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