Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Maṇisāramañjusā-nissaya by U Paṇḍicca Sayadaw

Between the mid eighties and mid nineties Sayadaw U Paṇḍicca published in three volumes the Burmese commentary and exegesis of Ariyavaṃsa's Maṇisāramañjusā. Scanned versions of this monumental commentary are available online in some Burmese websites. Here is a picture of the Master that I have cropped from the third volume. U Paṇḍicca's work is definitely an immense contribution to Pali scholarship in Myanmar.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Review: Traditional Thai Medicine (2016)

Salguero, C. Pierce. Traditional Thai Medicine. Buddhism, Animism, Yoga, Ayurveda, Revised Edition. Bangkok: White Lotus, 2016. 120 pp.
   This book offers a very good introduction to the historical and cultural backgrounds of what the author calls "the Thai medical marketplace". Indeed, one of the strong theses of this book is that the peculiarity of Thai medicinal practice lies in its diversity. This diversity, the author claims, is not simply a plurality of suppliers, but a plurality that represents the changing and conditioned needs of the average Thai healthcare client. Contemporary efforts toward standardization, therefore, may prove fatal to the very essence of the system that it intends to regulate. The author claims that Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM), despite its many influences, or precisely because of its many influences, is unique and therefore cannot be simply described as an amalgam of foreign influences. I personally find the quest for origins and originality a non-problem, especially when it comes to national culture (whatever nation and culture are). There seems to be a need to prove that countries are, on the one hand, culturally indebted to other countries and, at the same time, they are unique, that is to say original. For instance, when we define Ayurveda (one of the influences of TTM) as "Indian", it is not totally clear to me what the qualifier "Indian" refers to. Does it refer to the modern republic of India? Or to the ancient civilisation? And if so, which ancient civilisation? Insofar as Indian civilisation is defined by (among other characteristics), the practice of Ayurveda, the argument becomes circular: the presence of Ayurveda in Thailand would indicate that Thailand belongs to the great Indian civilisation. But I understand this book is not the place to discuss such problems (or non-problems). Salguero's book gives a very broad perspective on TTM. Perhaps the uninitiated (like myself) will be surprised at the variety of human practices that are usually not considered part of medicine in the West, but are nevertheless recognised as therapeutic practices conductive to human well-being. The book is concise and well structured. It discusses different areas of TTM, from Ayurveda to incantations (mantras). I did not expect to find such a significant influence from Pali sources. In page 5 we learn that medical manuscripts are often revered as suttas, or even conferred higher authority. Medical books, mostly recipe collections, are worshipped as religious books. The Buddhist monastery is the place where medical instruments (medical technology) is to be found. A very good example of this, perhaps the medical temple par excellence, is Wat Pho in Bangkok. This monastery is well known to tourism, but it was initially built for the centralisation, propagation and revival of old medical traditions, including the yoga of the local ruesis (from Skt. ṛṣis, "sages"). In page 15 we learn that the idea of Rama III, the king who sponsored Wat Pho, was to make medical knowledge accessible to all. In other words, Wat Pho became a medical canon, its murals could be copied by any physician of the kingdom, free of charge. From the reign of Rama IV, King Mongkut (1851-1858) traditional and modern (Western) medicine follow different tracks. The reason that traditional techniques are not so well documented seems to be the reluctance of practitioners to reveal their recipes and techniques. This knowledge is transmitted orally, often secretly, in a teacher-disciple lineage.
   Chapter 2 surveys the diverse historical influence. The role of Theravada and the Pali canon is (surprisingly to me) very prominent, giving the "mythological" background for the discipline in the society. The narrative of Jivaka in the Vinaya takes the role of a foundational myth of medicine as a social institution (at least in the Buddhist world). Not only monasteries were medical centres, but also the Pali canon provides some of the earliest concepts in TTM such as the four mahābhūtas "great elements" (earth, water, fire, wind and, optionally, space), and also the concept of dosas (Skt. doṣas) "defects", that is to say imbalance of the humours (wind, phlegm, bile). Salguero reminds us that in the Pali texts medicine is labelled as "base and wrong means of livelihood". Perhaps this reference can lead to misunderstanding, because what is really wrong in a monk practising medicine is not the practice itself, but charging money for it. There is nothing ethically wrong with laypeople doing that for money, and nothing wrong with monks assisting someone free of charge. Therefore one should not consider monks practising medicine a breach of the Vinaya, unless they charge money for it. Another historical source of TTM is, as the title of the book says, Ayurveda. Ayurveda and the Pali canon share many concepts, the Pali being the oldest attestation. Another cardinal influence is tantra and yoga or Hatha Yoga. Anachronisms are difficult to avoid here: the earliest texts cited seem to be not older than 13th c. Interestingly massage and yoga are connected, as if massage is yoga done by another onto oneself, or yoga is a massage done by oneself. The principles and techniques are virtually the same. Tantra influence allegedly comes from the Khmer civilisation, where Shaiva Tantra and Mahayana were prominent traditions. Part of the old Khmer Empire is today territory of Eastern Thailand. Chinese and Western influence are also described in this chapter. Salguero points out that before the mid. 20th century, traditional medicine did not enjoy much respect from local authorities. In post-colonial time, however, with the rise of Asian nationalism, tradition received government support again.
   Chapter 3 is dedicated to Jivaka Kumarabhacca, the phyisician of the Buddha, well known by all Pali scholars. Indeed this personage is considered the father of Thai Medicine. Salguero himself opens his book with the salutation "Om namo Jivaka Kumarabhacca Pujaya" (p. iv). The figure of Jivaka, even if it is simply a myth, plays a very effective and specific role: it legitimises the practice of medicine as part of Buddhism and it works as a vanishing point for the origin of all medical traditions, thus giving unity to the diversity.
   Chapter 4 deals with TTM Theory, that is to say, with the principles and basic concepts of the different elements, dosas, different types of food according to their tastes that the ailments they cure, etc. Here we find concepts that are familiar to anyone familiar with Indian medicine. Comparative tables with Ayurveda are provided. 
Statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok. (Source)

Chapter 5 explores the theory behind traditional Thai massage. Thai massage is today well known all over the world. This chapter is very important because it underscores the medical principles behind, and not only the execution, of Thai massage. It dispels many misconceptions about this very old practice and helps understanding it beyond the vulgarisation of massage in present day. In massage theory, again, we find concepts such as nadīs "energy channels" (or I prefer to translate: "(life-)streams"), which are part of Tantra and Yoga philosophy. Salguero explains that among the community of practitioners, some do not resort to metaphysical explanations such as energy healing. Regardless of the theoretical frame, the result, in practice, seems to be the same. Practitioners who are more inclined to Western scientific explanations have recently found an experimental basis in the independent research by Thomas Myers

Chapter 6 examines the so-called Popular Healing Practices. Of course, the definition of "popular" is problematic, but here Salguero uses the term in the sense of non-official, i.e. outside government schools and examinations. The author, who has a long experience as a scholar and practitioner in Thailand, claims that these are the traditions that most common in Thailand today. The reader will perhaps be surprised that, among these medical practices, appeasement of ghosts, yantra, tatoos, magic amulets, incantations, and the tham khwan "calling of the soul" ritual are all included. The role of the Chinese community in the ritual of tham khwan is particularly interesting due to its sociological role. The approach to all these practices as medicine is certainly challenging if one comes from a modern European or Western mindset.
     In the last chapter, "Standardization vs. Diversity" Salguero elaborates on his vision of TTM as an inherently diversified medical marketplace that is capable of satisfying the equally varied medical needs of Thai society. The author observes that the tendency to remove superstition from traditional medicine may not lead to any significant change in real practice. A similar push for standardization promoted by Buddhist modernists has not been able to change the "popular" understanding and practice of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Despite the attempt to separate Buddhism or Medicine from "local culture", it is very unlikely that this distinction will ever be accepted by the majority of the people, because if they are Buddhists, and if they believe in the most "scientific" side of traditional medicine, it is precisely because it is part of their local culture.  In this regard, I concur with Salguero's scepticism.
   The book ends with a Conclusion chapter that surveys the scholarship on Thai medicine. The book also contains a very useful annotated bibliography, apart from the general bibliography that also gives different reading options for those who would like to deepen on any of the many aspects of TTM.
   Despite its brevity, this is a very thoughtful and informative book on Thai Traditional Medicine. It puts many important issues on the table. It is not simply a history or survey of medical theories and practices, but an essay on the very limits of medicine and its fundamental nature, not in general, but in a particular human society with its particular needs. I am looking forward to reading other books by Pierce Salguero. I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the social dimension of Theravada Buddhism, in this case, medicine.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Twenty-Eight Buddha Mudras at the Botataung Pagoda of Yangon

1. varadamudrā "wish giver"

2. vyākhyānamudrā "explanation"

3. prāṭihāriyamudrā "miracle"

4. tiṇakiraṇamudrā "grass rays"

5. cīvaramudrā "monk robes"

6. sandassamudrā "complete vision"

7. tilokavijayamudrā "conquest of the three worlds"

8. pattamudrā "alms bowl"

9. dānamudrā "generosity"

10. vitakkamudrā "reasoning"

11. sīhakaṇṇamudrā "lion's ear"

12. uttarabodhimudrā "higher awakening"

13. mahākaruṇāmudrā "great compassion"
14. padūmahattha "lotus hand"

15. abhayamudrā "fearlessness"
16. dhammacakkamudrā "Dhamma wheel"

17. tajjanimudrā "censuring (?)"

18. hajana(sic)mudrā. I do not understand hajana and there is no Roman/Sanskrit equivalent. The Burmese explanation says that "in this way the given mindfulness does not perish".

19. sandassanamudrā. According to the Burmese explanation, it inspires the cultivation of the perfection of wisdom (paññāpāramī).

20. samāhitamudrā. According to the explanation gives peace to the mind so that it can concentrate.

21. vimhayamudrā "wonder"

22. bhūmiphassamudrā "touching the earth"

23. buddhasāmaṇamudrā "Buddha ascetic"

24. karaṇamudrā "instrument"

25. varamudrā "boon"

26. kaṭakahatthamudrā "ring-hand"

27. tripattakahatthamudrā "three-leaf hand"

28. santidamudrā "peace giver"

The 27 statues under a Bo tree

Mural of the early enlightenment days of the Buddha in the background

Another angle

View from the tree. Courtyard near the small Bo Bo Aung temple at the Botataung Pagoda

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Shin Raṭṭhasāra and the Intellectual Path to Liberation

Classical Burmese Poetry is still today one of the lesser-known areas of Buddhist Literature. Among the greatest poets of Burma we find Shin Raṭṭhasāra (1468-1529 C.E.). He was a Burmese Buddhist monk at the court of Ava, closely connected to the royal family and, apparently, an extremely gifted poet since childhood (he grew up in the palace). After a somehow successful intellectual career, he turned for a while to Burmese verse and became a celebrated poet. Some of his poems deal with worldly matters, including sensual love. Others, however, are more in keeping with he Doctrine (buddhasāsana).

Photo Source

Shin Raṭṭhasāra was a Theravadin, he received the scholastic training of his time, which included grammar and poetics. He was a master of Theravada scholastic philosophy. Whereas it is practically impossible to find a single moment of lyrical rapture in the Pali texts of Burma, the situation changes when we move to the vernacular literature. In the 15th and 16th centuries Burmese poetry blossoms and we find the powerful individualities that are generally missing in Pali scholastic works. That does not mean that Buddhist poets were reacting against the scholastic path to "Deliverance". On the contrary: they did not write lyrical poems in Pali out of respect. An example of this is found in one of Raṭṭhasāra's poems, "Deliverance cannot be far distant", translated by Friedrich Lustig (see below). In this poem Raṭṭhasāra describes the ideal of the learned monk. The path of purity is presented as the enduring discipline of the textual scholar. This view is often contested by those who adopt an anti-intellectual position with regard to meditation and spiritual practice. The study of books is criticised as vicarious and borrowed learning, as if it were essentially different from "experience" (whatever that is). A meditator recently told me that we (Buddhist scholars/scholars of Buddhism) organise conferences in order to talk about ideas of others, to discuss the books of those who are missing in the room and have no way to defend themselves. Well, there is certainly a great deal of barren doxography in such meetings, I will not deny that, but the criticism of the anti-intellectual assumes, as it were, that one could think without borrowing and analysing ideas of others (i.e. our predecessors). The truth is that we cannot. Indeed, the old tradition of Theravada Buddhism was also of this opinion: we should first listen, that is to say, we should first learn, and only afterwards we should talk. Raṭṭhasāra's "Deliverance", as Lustig states, "reflects the spirit of scholasticism. However, laying stress on thoroughness as it does, it has a message for our age as well."

I have found this poem in the book "Burmese Classical Poems. Selected and Translated by The Most. Rev. Friedrich V. Lustig, Buddhist Archbishop of Latvia", edited by Margaret M. Kardell. The translator, Friedrich Lustig, was born in Estonia in 1912. He studied Oriental Languages with Sylvain Levi in Paris, and joined the Buddhist order at eighteen, that is to say, around 1930. By the time of the publication of this book, 1966, Lusting had lived seventeen years in exile in Burma (the reasons of this exile are not mentioned, one understands "Communism" as a reason by default).

Friedrich Lustig was interested in the local culture of Burma and began to translate classical poems. He of course received the valuable help of various Burmese scholars, especially, it seems, a monk called Eindawuntha (Indavamsa). Classical Burmese poetry is a hard nut to crack. All the collaborators are all duly credited in the preface of the book. What follows is Lustig's translation of the original Burmese:


Listening, thinking, questioning, answering,
Examining, writing, practicing, and memorizing -- 
Daily these eight disciplines need wearing
As one wears flower garlands.

Constantly, with a spirit of competition and
With diligence, the beginner in fundamental lore
Must practice recitation ... and
If he tries as hard as ever he can
He will become a famous learned man.

If one does not try with the eagerness
Of a daring eagle that firmly catches a hen; 
If one does not study and ponder,
does not question and does not discuss, and
If one cannot give a discourse --
Knowing only how to read palm leaves--
How can one become a well-known man of letters?

Like a cat eating a shrimp with special enjoyment
A learner must study all texts -- omitting none--
And he must learn all by heart.
He must become sharp as teeth of a saw.
Penetrating deeply into all discussed matters.
Thus reaching comprehension
Indelible as a stone inscription.

Then when perfect in understanding
He will be ready to say all by heart.
Then on any matter at any public concourse
He will be ready to give a perfect discourse,
To unravel the subject from beginning to end,
Without fear--like a lion--
To stand in the midst of the crowd,
Like a pillar of stone unshaken,
Going over into every detail
And replying to all without fail.

He must be familiar with verses in Pali,
Various forms of address and old difficult words,
He must know the meanings and formations
Of elements, use of metaphors and versification,
Grammatical method and annotation,
And how to reason forwards and backwards.
Then if he knows all this he will have recognition.
He will be celebrated in this life as a man of erudition.
In future rebirths in this samsāra 
he will come near Buddha Arya Maitreya.
Then for him not too far distant will be Nirvana

There are some words which Lustig did not understand, because they are specific to the Pali scholastic discourse. Raṭṭhasāra refers to dhātu-s and paccaya-s, that is to say verbal roots (not "elements") and suffixes, he also refers to scholastic commentaries, ṭīkā-s, which Lustig translates as "annotations" (technically correct, but the reader misses the point). Apart from these minor details, Lustig's translation seems quite good to me. In any case, we have to be grateful for this wonderful rarity. It certainly refutes the vision of those who think that a Buddhist should not think a lot.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Subjective Review: Veidlinger "Spreading the Dhamma"

Daniel M. Veidlinger. Spreading the Dhamma. Writing, Orality, and Textual Transmission in Buddhist Northern Thailand. University of Hawai'i Press 2006/Chiang Mai, Silkworm Books, 2007.

Some books make me feel that the author had a great time and went into a great adventure to write his work. This is the impression I got from Veidlinger's book. I enjoyed it a lot and learned a lot. It would be useless to try to situate this book in a kind of genre or discipline, because in many ways it is a pathfinder, it's a new way of looking at things. It focuses on the Buddhist textual culture of Lān Nā, that is to say the country of which Chiang Mai was the capital (is the capital?), aka Northern Thailand. I was particularly interested in this book since I had the realisation that grammatical texts have to be understood against the backdrop of oral culture. What Veidlinger does it to follow the texts especially relying on local chronicles, or chronicles of the region, including the Burmese Sāsanavaṃsa or the Sinhalese Mahāvaṃsa. He mines the colophons of the many manuscripts he has done research on. The book is the result of his doctoral research.
    One can see how Veidlinger has gone through so many unexplored sources. At the moment his book was published only Macdaniel had done some work in this field and obviously in the field of Pāli von Hinuber, and the Frech Bizot, Lagirarde, etc. Hans Penth, Harald Hundius, etc. as well. Lammerts is nowadays leading the research on Burmese manuscripts (by the way, he wrote an academic review of Spreading the Dhamma). But the important thing about Spreading the Dhamma is its thesis, which is kind of provocative and at the same time kind of self evident if you think of it: the Dhamma, that is the Pāli canonical texts, spread in Northern Thailand mainly orally. The manuscript record seems to show a very weak and exceptional written tradition. The promoters of written culture in Northern Thailand would have been the usual suspects: communities of forest dwellers araññavāsins of the Mahāvihāra Sinhalese lineage. The book tells us the complete story/history of Lān Nā from the 13th century until the 19th, with printing press and the changes this involved. In fact, Veidlinger's approach is inspired by McLuhan's theories, which I always found very interesting. This tallies with my "new" reflections on the role of vyākaraṇa in the region. If the medium is the message, as Veilinger seems to suggest, the oral Dhamma is a different message than the written Dhamma. Very interesting, simply to highlight one of the many thought provoking meditations in the book, is the role that written Vinaya would have played in strengthening the monastic code and making it more rigid.
    In so many ways, as Veidlinger defends, it is impossible to completely separate oral culture from written culture, as they both live together and influence one another. And whereas I do not think that the entire canon was transmitted orally, or that sometimes the texts simply travelled in the minds of the monks, who would recite them and other people would write them down, whereas I do not think this was the rule, it is nevertheless possible, and many times Veidlinger's re-examination of the vocabulary that is used in the tradition, in the chronicles, deserves attention. It is clearly that many times the monks are learning by heart, they are orally dictating the texts, etc. My impression is, however, that written texts were always there, from the beginning. And on the other hand I would not believe everything the chronicles say. Obviously Veidlinger is very careful with the historiography, but as he himself acknowledges it is very difficult to know about oral culture in the past, because by its nature it has not left traces. Nevertheless I think there are some lines of force in the book that are, to me, very important. One is the correspondence: oral/esoteric/Mon vs. written/exoteric/Laṅkā. When I say Mon I do not mean simply the Mon people but related peoples as well, for instance the Khmer. I am more and more interested in the so-called Tantric Theravāda. This book has helped me understand the development of written culture in Lān Nā. It also has given me some perspective about great authors such as Sirimaṅgala and Ñāṇakitti. As my friend Yamanaka told me, Sirimaṅgala was probably a forest dweller, living apart from the society, secluded, writing stuff. We do not know for certain, but it seems to be the case. In this context it seems to me that the grammar was learnt clearly as part of the general Buddhist education and this was so because texts were expected to be efficient when they were recited. That is why the term for texts is mantra (same as in the Milinda) and there are so many rituals that involve recitation ceremonies. It is clear that even the learned, written Pāli tradition has received so much influence from oral culture, and therefore even when it developed, it was constrained by so many conventions that only make sense in oral culture. I do not know if statements such as Tambiah's:

The fact that Buddhism is aesthetically a musical religion, and that the memorizing of words is closely linked to musical rhythms, gives us a clue to the technique and the way in which novices and monks are in fact capable of memorizing an impressive amount of words in their correct order. (quoted in p.162)

I don't know what to do of this statement. Well, is Buddhism a musical religion? I cannot think of any religion that is not musical, basically because music itself has always been religious, and one can simply look at musical tendencies today to see how quickly music scenes religiousize themselves. There must be some connection. The fact that among all arts, music is the only one that has taken the name of all muses, must mean something. In any case, even in the canon, in the oldest layers of the canon, we have tons of poetry that only make sense orally. I think Spreading the Dhamma is full of interesting reminders. As a Catalan poet said: "Truth needs to be regularly stated because it is regularly forgotten". I very much appreciate, also, in Veidlinger's book, his translations of colophons, or simply interesting references where we see that people who wrote the Pāli manuscripts that we use were sometimes farmers that had to copy the text at night. Consider this one, that I find one of the best, found in Hundius's article on the Journal of the PTS, 1990:

My writing does not look beautiful at all. Senior people are worried that it will be very difficult to read; oh yes, there is no doubt about that. CS 1231 -- Year of the Snake; I was not keen on writing at all!

Brilliant. Many Pāli manuscripts have survived thanks to people like this fellow, who were somehow forced to write without understanding a single syllable. Among other benefits of Spreading the Dhamma, one is having more appreciation for Thai manuscripts plagued with mistakes and written in a crazy way.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Enriquez book "Pagan" and the ponnies

Major C. M. Enriquez Major Colin Metcalfe Enriquez was a British author born in India (then part of the British Empire) in 1884. As well as being an army officer and writer he was also something of a naturalist and explorer. He wrote a number of books (mainly non-fiction) based in the continent, two of these forming a short pony-point-of-view horse series. The books are both beautifully illustrated by K. F. Barker.

I have found this reference in the internet. Captain Enriquez wrote a book on Pagan in 1914. We are talking about a British Empire army officer exactly when the 1st WW broke.
This book is quite amazing, probably useless for a historian of Pagan but amusing for the historian of the discipline. It was done with the help of Duroiselle. There are many highlights about this book. One is that it is dedicated to no other than Shin Arahan (!!!), a person who we don't even know if ever existed. But anyway, Enriquez believed so. There is also a very rudimentary but cute poem at the beginning of this work, with this ending:

Crumbling and frail are the things of this Earth,
The wheel in revolving brings ruin and rust.
The power of princes and men has no worth,
alone in the Law should humanity trust.

Earth, no worth. Rust, trust. Original rhymes indeed! Its a Buddhist poem, very sincere.
Now the funniest thing about Enriquez's Pagan is that it is designed like a Tourist Guide, openly! At the beginning there is a suggested itinerary, and he always points out whether ponies are needed or not. Now this is quite funny because in the page I have linked before, we discover that Enriquez wrote a couple of novels which have a ponny as the main character. I don't really know what all this is about, it simply makes me laugh.
But one thing, only one thing perhaps, but nevertheless very important, must be saved from this book: the pictures. Here we have a drawing of the Sapada (Chapada) Pagoda before the restoration that took place later on, and that is why today we can't see the real ruin. There is also a funny story about Chapada, playing with the etymology of the name, that I didn't know.