The sword in Buddhism

One might conclude that the word “sword” in Buddhist scriptures appeared for the first time in a Song of the Brethren (Theragāta 1, 757). There we find asattha (n. adj.) [a = negating particle + sattha] “absence of a sword or knife”, which indicates a characteristic of the monk: he is non-violent.
The word sword, however, is more often given als asi, a vedic expression, i.e. belonging to the Sanskrit lore that shaped Hinduism.

It is therefore remarkable that Buddha-ghosa (“Buddha-voice”), a fifth-century native of Bodhgaya in northern India, who migrated to Sri Lanka where he penned his large commentary on the Pali canon under the title Visuddhi-magga, mixed Sanskrit-elements with his newly acquired command of the Pali language. We find another example in Cittā’s gātā.

In his Visuddhimagga Buddhaghosa speaks of ñānāsi which by most translators is translated as “the sword of knowledge“. The paragraph in one of the translation runs as follows (Vism.II, ch, xii):
6. And these enemies (ari), these defilements, are destroyed (hata) by the path. / Because the enemies are thus destroyed he is thus accomplished (arahanta)./ The enemies (ari) that were deployed / [i.e.] greed and the rest, have been destroyed (hata) / by his, the Helper’s, wisdom’s sword (ñānāsi), / So he is “accomplished” (arahanta), all agree on that.

We might say that here, in ñānāsi, we do not encounter a combination of subject and object. Therefore we might translate it as “the sword (āsi) which is knowledge (ñānā).” Ñānā in Buddhist philosophical thinking is generally given a somewhat subordinate place in comparison with paññā, and especially with bodhi. Bodhi (or buddh) is invariably given as “wisdom”. When at the end of his First Exposition of his dharma (or dhamma) Buddha exclaims: “Aññā Kondañña“, he says: “Kondañña knows!”, not “Kondañña has attained to supreme wisdom [buddhi] or insight [pañña]”.

As Buddhaghosa’s family belonged to the upper stratum of Indian society he must have had discussions with brahmin priests who cited the famous Bhagavad Gīta verse (ch.4, 42):
“Therefore, with the sword of knowledge, cut asunder the doubts that have arisen in your heart. O scion of Bharat (India), establish yourself in karm[a] yog[a]. Arise, stand up, and take action!” (“Karma yoga” being the religious cultivation through action.)

Certainly this verse speaks of knowledge that cuts through doubts (or ignorance in other translations) just as a sword cuts through matter. Why later on Arjuna, the main character of the Gīta yet saw the need for using the sword in cutting through matter, Buddhaghosa may not have gotten a satisfactory answer to. Nevertheless, this use of the word sword in connection with knowledge (or wisdom in other translations) must have stuck in his mind, and once in Sri Lanka he jotted the ñānāsi down at the appropriate place, in the passage that describes how the arahan (the enlightened who has almost attained to Buddhahood) cut through the defilements of the mind, so liberating himself. In doing so Buddhaghosa led the reader back to the original meaning of the word: the monk, or arahan (arhat) does not use a sword, and certainly not in the literal sense. His “sword” is his knowledge/wisdom.

Many centuries later when the 13th century Vietnamese zenmonk Tue Trung apparently spoke in riddles when answering questions by his disciples he too refers to the sword, but hardly in combination with knowledge or wisdom.
He says (Les Propos de l’Éveillé Tue Trung, Paris 2015, p.63/64)

Kiém truóc Long Tuyén hiêu
A marvelous sword called Dragon’s Source (Une épée merveilleuse appelée Source de Dragons)

and

Kiém xung xuát hap cáu khói phuc,
The sword is drawn out of its sheat to re-establish peace (L’épée sort du fourreau pour rétablir la paix),

The Vietnamese word for sword is kiẽm.

Where did Tue Trung got this concept of sword from? Was he inspired by Buddhaghosa? That is highly unlikely since his first utterance “A marvellous sword called Dragon’s Source” rather belongs to East-Asian religio-philosophical iconography, and not to the Indian lore.
In the Chinese language one of the translations for sword is jiàn. Is the Vietnamese kiẽm a degeneration of the Chinese jiàn? This seems to be the case. Where did Buddhist China the concept of “the sword called Dragon’s Source” get from? From the Serindian Buddhist canon as it had been carried over the border at Dunhuang? Not so sure.

In Tibetan Buddhist parlance, taught and brought back from the earliest university of Nalanda — a Buddhist(ic) interpretation that did not come to the fore before the 6th/7th century — we find: “flaming ‘sword of wisdom’ “, given as “shes rab ral gri“. Gri meaning “sword”. Tibetan translators even came up with a Sanskrit(ic) source: chūrikā as in prajñā-chūrikā: “knife of wisdom” which they eventually altered into ‘sword of wisdom’, in line with Buddhaghosa’s ñānāsi but a tad different because ‘we’re no theravādin, we’re sarvastivādin if not vajra-yānin. Hence we don’t employ the dictionary of the theravādin.’

It’s therefore not the Tibetan prajñā-chūrikā (wisdom-sword) that Tue Trung had come across. Was he inspired by monks that accompanied Mongolian invadors into Vietnam and Korea? The Mongolian word for sword is ildü (or ildy(n) in the first English-Mongolian dictionary by the hand of Ferdinand D Lessing). No, ildü and kiẽm are in no way comparable.
The only conclusion is therefore that Vietnam obtained the concept of flaming sword out of China, and that China used this concept in the most literal form possible — as all concepts that China uses are to be understood in the literal sense of the word.

The sequence is therefore as follows:
In the earliest period of Buddhism the monk did not carry a sword, i.e. he was by nature and praxis non-violent;
In Buddhaghosa’s 5th century wisdom had become a symbol that, as a sword, cut through mental defilements;
In the next Chinese and Mongolian period of Buddhism one employed a literal flaming sword in ceremonies that were designed to establish the opinion that (evil and/or) ignorance had to be forcefully destroyed — stamp it out!;
In the Vietnamese 13th century the king-monk used the sword wisely (in his opinion) to literally re-establish peace, not to cut through ignorance of defilements.

Brain, mind and consciousness

Recently work of the artists Antoni Tapiès (1923 – 2012) and Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989) came into auction, respectively were brought together in a dedicated exhibition.
That allows us to dwell on the concepts of the brain in connection with physical feelings and that of consciousness and unconsciousness/the subconscious.

Tapiès’ biography (on “Fundacio Tapiès”) states: “The works of the last years are, most of all, a reflection on pain – both physical and spiritual – understood as an integral part of life. Influenced by Buddhist thought, Tàpies believes that a better knowledge of pain allows us to soften its effects and therefore improve our quality of life.

antoni-tàpies-ondulacions-i-brac 2009

Modern science says that at any one moment our brain is receiving about 100 million pieces of information which are fed into the nervous system through the ears, eyes, nose, tongue and touch receptors in the skin. This enumeration, and nothing more than the enumeration, by the way, is taken from the Abhidharmic Buddhist teachings, particularly where it deals with the concept of (Skr./Pali) vedanā, physical feelings. Well done, we might say; the scientific world is learning fast.

There is however a little snag, because in cases of Tapiès’ pains, for example, it’s not the brain that receives information and sends it through to the sense-organs. Rather it’s a malfunction of the body somewhere that sends it’s information “up” to the brain where it is processed as “arm hurts”, to give an example.
Now we must deal with the question of where this pain is located. Where is it sensed? Is there a sensing part of the brains’ functioning in that painful arm? No, actually, there is no proof of the presence of brain-matter anywhere else but in the head.
Well then, is the pain located inside the brain, in the head? No, in the case of a hurting arm or a broken leg the (physical) brain is without pain, it merely processes information.
So where is pain? What is pain?
In the mind of a meditator these questions might lead to a particular insight into the concept of pain — without however solving the scientific question, that’s not the task and function of meditation.

All this is not to say that Mr. Tapiès had a little meditative breakthrough; we don’t know what his “knowledge of pain” consisted of. It merely shows that the scientific labour of love on concepts such as physical sensations and their connections with the brain is only halfway through. More has to be figured out.

Salvador Dali gained fame with his dreamlike paintings: warped watches, dreamlike landscapes, etc.
No doubt the scientific worlds of psychiatry and psychology will be more than happy in suggesting that here the subconscious came into action — subconscious in the sense De Quincey gave it in 1823: “not wholly conscious” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/subconscious). As of 1874 subconscious morphed into something like ‘consciousness on a deeper level’, to emerge suddenly and without manifesting itself as “sub-“; i.e. in the person’s perception it’s seen as real, physically existing, or on an artistic level not to be denied.

Western writers on Buddhism used this Romantic and post-Romantic concept of subconscious when treating the word/concept of (Skr./Pali) Citta: consciousness, as it appears in almost all canonical works of Buddhism.
However, as Buddhism did not arise in the Western world, but in the East, the word subconsciousness cannot be found in any of the canonical treaties of Eastern religion and philosophy. Subconsciousness is foreign to the Eastern thinking.

What we dó find in Eastern thinking is the concept of “unprompted consciousness”, and “consciousness” here is not cittá, but the above-mentioned physical experience called vedanā: feeling with the body.
In that case there is mention of ansankharika vedanā (speak: asan khá rika). Len Rek interprets it as “an attribute of an intention”. A ninth-century Pali-Abhidhamma compiler uses it in a citation that begins with “Vedanā-ñāna-[a]sankhāra …”: knowing that there is an unprompted ([a]sankhāra) feeling (vedanā).
This in apposition with “prompted feeling” as in (Pali) “itthā kantā manāpā piyarūpā kāma rajaniyā“: … endowed with pleasantness, prompting desires. (D i.245=M i.85; 504; D ii.265; M iii.267; VvA 127.)

“Unprompted” seen as “suddenly” has become an important subject in Eastern Buddhist thought when contrasted to, or compared with Daoist thinking. In his translation of Asvaghosa’s Sraddhotpāda shastra (The Awakening of Faith) Yoshito S. Hakeda points to the Chinese concept of hu-jan as in “Suddenly, a deluded thought arises; this state is called ignorance.” His dwelling on the concept is no longer extant in the online Heidelberg translation, but it is referred to in Whalen Lai’s treatment of the scripture called Hu-Jan Nien-Ch’i: Suddenly a Thought Rose; Chinese understanding of Mind and Consciousness. (The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 1980, Vol. 3, Nr 2)
The Chinese understanding of “suddenly”, hu-jan, is that actually this particular piece of consciousness did not arise (out of nothing or out of the subconscious) but was there all along, though not realised. Now when it is suddenly there this non-arisen present mind (i.e. a piece of memory) has in the East never been called subconscious. It is “unconsciousness” and as such a source of embarrassment. Hence it is called ignorance — how stupid could I be, not to see this before! Had I been conscious of it, had I been smarter, I would have had more wisdom; there’s work to be done.

Vasubandhu -1

Th. Stcherbatsky (1866 – 18 March 1942; see pronounciation of the name), says “Mountainman”, was a Russian scholar of Oriental Studies, and a world renowned specialist of Buddhist studies; he wrote a detailed analysis of Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakosha or Abhidharmakosa-bhāsya (bhāsya denotes “spoken word”, utterance”, or “poem/song”; abhidharma is a body of texts describing the interaction between body, mind, and ethics).

Vasubandhu lived during the 4th to 5th Cent., when the Gupta Empire ruled in (Ser-)India. He and his disciple Sthiramati (c.510-570) produced the Madhyānta-Vibhanga, a discourse, they pretended, uttered by Bodhisattva Maitreya (the next Buddha on earth).

Th. Stcherbatsky has been the first to translate this vibhanga (distribution, division, distinction, classification) on the Middle (Way: Madhyānta), first published in 1978, in Delhi.

Unfortunately later generations of scholars in Buddhism didn’t take the pains to review Stcherbatsky’s laudable but not yet fully acceptable attempts. Therefore, as far as faculties of Buddhology go this text with the, in its time, unavoidable mis-interpretations on several points is transmitted without a thourough review along the lines of what we now know of the Yogacara philosophy that bridged the very late Small Vehicle Teachings and those of the full-flung Mahāyāna.

It is remarkable that Vasubandhu and Sthiramati in their first Stanza on The Middle Path (stanza 1.2) refer to the thinking of Nāgārjuna where in one of the latter’s gatha (songs) in his Mūla-madhyāmaka-kārika he writes:

1. na sūnyam nāpi casū
2. tasmāt sarvam vidhīyate,
3. sattvād assattvāt satvāc ca
4. madhyamā pratipat ca sā.

The following are Vasubandhu’s seven-line stanza ending with Nāgārjuna’s four-line above-mentioned gatha. Stcherbatsky translates (p. 24):

Neither is it asserted
That all (the Elements) are unreal,
Nor are they all realities;
1. Because there is existence,
2. And also non-existence,
3. And (again) existence:
4. This is the Middle Path!

The neither-nor discussion with regard to existence as it arose in the monastic circles of in particular the Yogacara is totally foreign to Western thinking. Therefore it is natural that Stcherbatsky struggled with this concepts and desperately introduced the word “elements” in his translation (something must exist!) in a move to maintain the Greco-western philosophy about Being, Is, Existence Is.

Might we now retranslate Vasubandhu’s stanza in the Yogacara philosophical mood of those days, heavilly influenced by the utter neither-nor philosophy of Nāgārjuna, the translation of Vasubandhu’s Stanza 1.2 in Chapter 2 ought to run as follows:

Reality is not denied
Unreality is not denied.
Existence and non-existence
both exist
and do not exist.
This is the Middle Way.

Vasubandhu – 2

Vasubandhu’s and Sthiramati’s treatment of Chapter 3 is near-impossible to treat without long and meditative-philosophical introductions. However, on the subject of imagination we might show Stcherbatsky’s struggle with the neither-nor philosophy with regards to existence. He translates Vasubandhu’s stanza 19.27 (p.38) as follows:

Imagination (is the Mind),
T’ is not itself created by imagination.
But by another mental act.
T’ is split in two, (object and subject).
No ultimate reality obtains
In this dichotomized form.

With Nāgārjuna’s rigorous neither-nor philosophy in mind it would be possible to translate the stanza as follows:

Imagination is not imagined
There is no imaginer nor an imagined
This is the own-essence
which exists nor does not exist.
Not (a) by-another imagined, nor (a) other imaginator.

I.e. since the undivided pure mind, which is neither existent nor non-existent, does not dichotomize into imaginer and imagined, it is impossible to speak of imaginer in contrast to the imagined.

Lines as these are the product of objectless meditation; they cannot be considered from the point of view of philosophy. Objectless meditation was unknown in Stcherbatsky’s time, and still is to a large extent.

More gender

To continue the entry of January 20th on gender, it seems necessary to explain the (Hybrid) Sanskrit and Pali word bhiksunī, resp. bhikkhunī.
On page 128 Beata Grant (“Eminent Nuns; Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China”) laments the fact that Linji Master Jizong Xingche in several 19th-century publications is not recognizable as “the nun Jizong Xingche” but is rather referred to either as Jizong or as Xingchue, without “absolutely no indication of her gender … without the usual character ni [nun] that is usually appended to the names of female monastics.”

The character -ni stands for the last syllable of the Sanskrit/Pali name “bhiksunī/bhikkhunī“. It translates as “fully ordained female monk”, more precisely “female alms gatherer”. The male version = bhikshu, resp. bhikkhu.

Where at all -ni is added to the name of a Chinese female monk it is the last syllable of this “bhiksunī/bhikkhunī“, an appellation that in Chinese is approximately pronounced as “bishunii“. Therefore, if at all ni is added to the name of a chinese female monk such as Jizong Xingche one would expect something like Jizong Xingche Ni.
However, especially the Linji Chan tradition would consider it highly improper to designate a realized Master as a female being – or a male being for that matter. Therefore none of the Linji Masters in Beata Grant’s book will ever have been described as Master xx-xx-ni. This would be unthinkable if not an insult.

Gender

In her “Eminent Nuns; Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China” (2009, Hawai’i Univ. Press), a book that seems to have been put online, entirely or partially, the author Beata Grant addresses the issue – if it is an issue – of female monks of East-Asia.

She writes with the western concept of women’s emancipation in mind, and hence seems to stress the thought that women need to be elevated to the status of men while at the same time at least not downplaying the physical and mental differences between the two sexes.

The East-Asian Buddhist approach of monks and nuns – the Chinese and Korean – is a different one: as the object of one’s endeavours, enlightenment, is genderless, so is the monks Sangha, the men and the women, at least as far as the cultivation goes and the presentation to the world.
Beata’s “defeminization of Buddhist nuns” (p.94) therefore appears correct to the eyes of the western feminist, but it is a non-issue in the eyes of the said Chinese en Korean Sangha-members. (Sangha in the narrow sense of the community of monks and nuns.)

The gender-equality of the Dharma, hence the gender-equality of the East-Asian monks and nuns is demonstrated in the “families” that structurize themselves around a preceptor. Monks and nuns ordained at the same time under a particular preceptor are “brothers”; the “elder generation” of monks and nuns ordained under such a preceptor are “uncles”, and a “younger generation” of ordainees, ordained under this preceptor, are “cousins”. Certainly, this chosen form has gender: as there does not exist a gender-neutral way to convey genderlessness they show the male form.

Therefore Beata’s translation of “Dharma aunt” (p.95) is incorrect. In the absence of the original manuscript we may even surmise that the original Chinese text does not have the word “aunt” (ayi / āyí ) at all.

As an illustration we may give Beata’s feminist rendering of the Linji-monk Yikui Chaochen’s last poem, followed by a gender-neutral rendering:

All her life, this “fellow” has been tough as nails;
Once she dug her heels in, she could not be moved.
At twenty-four, she first found out about this matter;
Ten years she bitterly struggled, for forty forgot herself.
The nine bonds of this suffering world were untied
When she saw how to cut through its ways like water.
She’s long wanted to leave, and now her karma agrees;
Seven springs in a single day, iron nails turned to dust.
The four great elements dispersed by wind and fire.
Leaves fall, it is clearly autumn: time to return to the root.
Ha, ha, ha!
Footloose and fancy-free – that’s me!

A life long this “fellow” has been tough as nails;
Once having firmly footed, there was no way of moving.
At twenty-four the first discovery of this matter;
Ten years of bitter struggle, for forty forgotten the self.
The nine bonds of this suffering world were untied
Once seen how to cut through its ways like water.
Then this longing to leave, and now karma agrees;
Seven springs in a single day, iron nails turned to dust.
The four great elements dispersed by wind and fire.
Leaves fall, it is clearly autumn: time to return to the root.
Ha, ha, ha!
Footloose and fancy-free – (that’s me)!

(Does “that’s me” really occurs in the poem?)

Pity and martyrdom

Pity

Even Sir Monier-Williams (1819 – 1899) whose Sanskrit-English Dictionary saw the light in the last year of his life could in his translatory activities not avoid employing the religio-philosophical terminology that is so important in that culture of which he was a child. When describing the mental attitude of compassion, as it was expressed in the Hindu canon, he automatically translated “day” with “hav(ing) pity”, and “dayā“, resp. “dayākara” with (sympathy, compassion, and) “pity”, resp. “store of pity”.

The same is true for the earlier translators of the Buddhist Sanscritic and Pali canon. Here terms such as “anuganhāti”, “anuddaya”, “anukámpaka/anukámpika”, and even “karunā” are rendered with “merciful” and/or “full of pity” (and “compassion”).
These translators made no distinction between compassion and pity. It seems that the early Buddhist scriptures did. That is to say, when in the Birth Story (Jātaka) the bodhisattva senses the hunger and pain of the trapped tigress who is about to eat her cubs, he offers his own body. Was this a sign of pity?  Was this martyrdom? Could we replace compassion (anuganhāti, anuddaya, anukámpaka/anukámpika, karunā) with pity?

All Buddhist teachers reject the use of the word pity since pity easily entails an attitude of looking down on the person who is “to be pitied” by the person who is so much better off and has a so much better understanding and attitude towards the situation. The pitying person speaks from his very own top of the mountain about the to be pitied masses down below.
Compassion (karunā), in the Buddhist sense of the word, starts off as an universal attitude to be cultivated as an abstractum, not (yet) necessarily directed or applied towards some individual sufferer somewhere. In cases of urgency this universal attitude of karunā is made manifest in a more specific line of action towards the individual: beings in situations like this suffer, or could be better off, hence let me lend a helping hand because in my heart of hearts I know what it feels like; in the distant past I may have been there, and perhaps one day I will be there again.

Martyr

Neither the classical Sanskrit, nor the Hybrid-Sanskrit, Pali, Buddhist Chinese etc. have a word that could be translated with “martyr”, or “martyrdom”. Buddhism has no martyrs; sometimes it has co-sufferers.

Confucianism and martyrdom

When scholars such as Walter H. Slote and ‎George A. De Vos in a publication of 1998 speak of Confucianism and mention that “filiality requires” “self-sacrifice”, they too apply the philosophical terminology of the West on concepts of the East. The same goes for another writer who in a publication of 2002 speaks in terms of “the [Chinese Confucian] martyr’s dedication to advancing society through selfless commitment to justice in public administration, ….”
Even Dorothy Ko, ‎JaHyun Kim Haboush, and ‎Joan Piggott (2003) cannot help but to refer to “the category ‘martyr'” when speaking of the Korean “widows [of the past] who commit suicide as a demonstration of loyalty to a deceased husband, or to avoid ‘humiliation’ …”.

It might be that Confucianists reading theses such as these would raise the same objections as Buddhists do when Western translators jollify the Buddhist canon with such highly sensitive words such as pity and martyrdom.