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Meditation Posture Revisited

I know meditation posture has been covered before, but one thing I didn’t find anywhere in the archives was this:

‘But these little shaveling recluses are menials, black, the offscourings of our kinsman’s feet. They say, “We are meditatives, we are meditatives”, and with their shoulders drooping, with their faces cast down, as if drugged, they meditate, they meditate absorbed, they meditate more absorbed, they meditate quite absorbed.

As an owl on the branch of a tree when tracking a mouse meditates, meditates absorbed, meditates more absorbed, meditates quite absorbed, so do these little shaveling recluses, menials, black the offscourings of our kinsman’s feet meditate quite absorbed. And as a jackal on the bank of a river when tracking fish meditates, meditates absorbed, meditates more absorbed, meditates quite absorbed, so do these little shaveling recluses, menials, black the offscourings of our kinsman’s feet meditate quite absorbed. And as a cat on the edge of a refuse heap when tracking a mouse meditates, meditates absorbed, meditates more absorbed, meditates quite absorbed, so do these little shaveling recluses, menials, black the offscourings of our kinsman’s feet meditate quite absorbed. And as an ass at the edge of a refuse-heap, its burden removed, meditates, meditates absorbed, meditates more absorbed, meditates quite absorbed, so do these little shaveling recluses, menials, black, the offscourings of our kinsman’s feet, saying: ‘We are meditatives, we are meditatives,’ with their shoulders drooping, with their faces cast down, as if drugged, meditate, meditate absorbed, meditate more absorbed, meditate quite absorbed.

After reading this, I realized that my mental image of what proper meditation posture is was wholly formed by carved statues. Even the parameters of the “eyes-closed, eyes-open” debate are based on statues–nothing scriptural. But, getting back to meditation posture, I have worked hard to sit perfectly erect–chest out, small of the back tucked in, arms arched, thumbs touching, etc.–and felt no small sense of accomplishment once it was worked out. The only scriptural support I had was the standard ujuṃ kāyaṃ pericope. But, all other things being equal, the anecdotal nature of the description of monks’ meditation posture in MN 50 above (even taking into account exaggeration because of it’s being derisive) seems more authentic mostly because it has no reason to be there: it contravenes somewhat the ujuṃ kāyaṃ directive, it is somewhat unflattering or undignified as a posture–it’s not as "regal"as the statues’ posture. The pericope, however, is a more plausible candidate if one of them is to be accepted as contrived or stylized. It’s kind of like juxtaposing the reclining Buddha statues with the image of a man lying down essentially in the fetal position pillowing his head with his curled up forearm. One is ideal; but the other is probably more real.

Anyone have any thoughts?

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What is the material that you’ve quoted? Where’s it from?

Ah, so sorry … the info was buried in a subsequent paragraph.

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Nice finding! I never noticed that description.

The text you quotes is from I. B. Horner right? Bhante Sujato’s translation seems to skip these few words (but I might have missed something in the text…):

pattakkhandhā adhomukhā madhurakajātā

The Pali word lookup gives for them:

  • pattakkhandha: downcast; dejected; with drooping shoulders. (pannakkhandha is more suitable in this connection.) See panna. (adj.)
  • adhomukha: with the face downward; with head bent; facing downward (mf(~ī)n.)
  • madhurakajātā: weak and stiff. (adj.)

I’m not sure what ‘weak and stiff’ means in that context, these two words are almost a contradiction in the way I understand them in the context of a posture…

It would be interesting to know why these words are apparently not translated in Bhante’s text (unless I missed something).


Regarding sitting posture, the only things I found in the EBTs are:

  • Erect body (MN118)
  • Crossed legs (MM118)
  • Motionless, steady body (SN1.18)
  • No shaking or trembling (SN54.7)

With the sits described as either:

  • a sitting cloth (SN51.10)
  • a folded robe (SN16.11)
  • a pile of grass (AN6.63)
  • made of straw (AN8.30)

In later texts we find a bit more information about the sitting posture:

  • Stable, well set up (Vbh. 536)
  • [Firmly] placed, properly disposed body (Patis. 191)
  • Peaceful posture tending neither to idleness nor to agitation (Vism. VIII 160)
  • 18 backbones resting end to end: no twisting of skin, flesh, sinews (Vism. VIII 160)
  • Locked thighs (Vism. VIII 160)
  • Posture allowing easy occurrence of the in-breaths and out-breaths (Vism. VIII 160)

Did you find additional information about the posture in the EBTs?

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Hi,
I raised this issue with Bhante Sujato a couple of months ago in another thread. Bhante replied:

That would be what the experts call “a mistake”! I’ll fix it. Rendering: “Slouching, downcast, and dopey”.

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Mystery solved :grin:
(now I have to check the meaning of ‘dopey’, no idea what that words means… :thinking:)

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@knotty36, don’t give up your hard-earned meditation posture too quickly. These words were insults and caricatures, not real descriptions.

Or as Ven Bodhi put it,

with shoulders drooping, heads down and all limp… [they] meditate, premeditate, out-meditate, and mismeditate.

The negative string of meditations is explained at MN108.26 as meaning to meditate with any of the 5 hindrances present.

Just as the critics got it wrong on how the good bhikkhus were meditating, they weren’t attempting to be accurate in describing posture. Māra had possessed their minds (according to the Commentary causing the householders to imagine wrong things done by the monks leading to feelings of antagonism), based on which they wanted to revile the monks. Their perceptions were distorted, if they even bothered to observe what the monks were actually doing.

And anyway, it reads as a fable of what happened in a lifetime that took place eons ago, maybe not the best basis for practice.

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I m not so sure. I understand that they were caricatures, but they must have a basis in reality (the commentaries interpretation not withstanding). If there were absolutely no forward leaning, no downward slope then the depictions would be meaningless–even as caricatures. I mean, if they were sitting like this…
image
Then I don’t think those particular characterizations would be the ones the people would have chosen.

(Also, I am asking about posture, but the analogies likening the meditators to cats and jackals looking down on their prey makes me wonder about “eyes-open” vs. “eyes-closed”, which, again, has no scriptural prescription, and the true meaning of parimukhaṃ, which itself is a perennial debate.)

Many of us have seen, in person or in photos, old meditators (and, perhaps, some not so old) with arched necks and drooping shoulders when they sit. I always assumed that was poor form; now, I’m not so sure.

I am also reminded of an early Christian contemplative tradition I read about when I was in my teens where the meditating monks were described as resting their chins on their chests. It seems rather uncomfortable to have the head so inclined that your chin touches your chest, but, apparently, it was done; so, to some extent, there’s a precedent. Perhaps the monks in MN 50 didn’t tuch their chests with their chins, but simply had heads hanging down a bit. Would that necessarily disqualify the idea of ujuṃ kāyaṃ?

Hands, arms, lotus (half- or full), eyes, mouth, breathing–all of this is absent from the suttas. I am just saying that I realize that I have assumed a lot about proper posture based mostly on (later) traditions. This depiction in MN 50, disparaging as it is, is the closest we might have to an eye-witness account.

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No. It’s a past life story.

If the revilers did witness meditations they witnessed the meditations of monks under Kakusandha Buddha eons ago.

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The posture of sitting meditation is clearly found in EBTs (such as SN 54.1). Is this meditation posture also shared in common with Hinduism, a part of Hindu yoga tradition?

The right posture is determined by how thoroughly the breath is freed to do its job in the body. When the breath is just right, then the posture is correct.

:slightly_smiling_face:

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Interesting post! Thank you! :heart:

In biblical scholarship, this is called the Criterion of Embarrassment. If something is embarrassing to the church or to believers, the only reason it would be included is if it was real.

I’m not sure that criteria applies here, though. Given the speech is motivated by Māra.

I’m not sure why this would be the better candidate to reject.

Pure speculation moment: When I think of a contemporary meditation teacher like Joseph Goldstein I think of his phrase “Sit and know you are sitting.” If a stylized oral tradition arose around him it seems a phrase he uses repeatedly would be a good candidate.

Speculation aside, it seems an instruction given by the Buddha in the suttas is a stronger candidate for an authentic instruction than a derisive remark made by people under the sway of Māra.

We’ve all seen - and many of us have been - a slumped over, head nodding off meditator at a retreat. If I wanted to make fun of people at a meditation retreat would I use the image of the person sitting straight and Noble, or the person sitting slumped forward?
Pure Speculation Moment: Seeing meditators slumped forward might very well be something people would have seen at the time of the Buddha. The derisive remarks might, as you pointed out, be based on something that existed. But it wouldn’t have to be what was taught, or the way trained meditators sat. It could just be something that happened with novice meditators early in their practice.

Obviously, a lot of speculation in my post. My point is not that it happened the way I speculated. Just that there are other ways of explaining your observations. I think my main concern goes back to taking something said under the influence of Māra as a guideline to practice.

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Thanks. You’re a mind-reader. I couldn’t remember the term.

Okay, we (you and I, as well as @Charlotteannun and I) just have a divergence of interpretation here: irrespective of its being set in an apadana-like story or the attribution of the revilers’ actions to Mara’s influence, I see this passage as possibly reflective of actual reviling which may have been contemporary with the compilation of the sutta. That is, I feel that this is (again, possibly) representative of comments (albeit derisive comments ) real-world observers made about meditators of the early Sangha. This divergence seems to be a question of faith and, as such, we are not likely to see eye-to-eye on this. So, not seeking to convince, I will, however, give my reasons for why I think the way I do about this.

Indeed, in this situation, speculation is about the limit of what we have at our disposal–or, at best, speculation guided by very slim evidence and conjectural logic. As such, please know that I am drawing no final conclusions, nor am I rejecting any view as wholly impossible; I am merely asking questions.

The question of whether or not the comments are empirical does not rest, I think, on whether or not Mara motivated them. In the end, the phrases were included in the sutta by the compilers, who would certainly suffer some embarrassment from their inclusion–all the more so if the comments reflected actual criticisms of the day; although, even if they were invented by the compilers, they would be embarrassing. Even accepting that there were no revilers, that this is all the invention of the compilers, are we to assume that these comments–replete with strikingly vivid similes–were concocted out of thin air? I fear it is far simpler to conclude that, no matter what, they refer to real meditators’ postures.

Allowing that this is speculation, I would still have to say that there is an underlying assumption here that ujuṃ kāyaṃ goes back to the Buddha. I don’t know that I accept that: it could just as easily be an example of later standardization and leveling. Something which cannot be said about the comments in MN 50, however. Again, I am not rejecting either; I am merely asking questions. Such as, "Does ujuṃ kāyaṃ necessarily include the head? Do ‘drooping shoulders’ disqualify from being regarded as ujuṃ kāyaṃ?

This is a valid question: who within the Sangha were the comments directed to? Well, were they necessarily the poorly-practiced in the group? In fact, these were “monks who were of good moral habit, lovely in character.” This was not the group of six! We really have no reason other than possible prior bias to assume that their posture was to be regarded as “poor”. Subsequent to these insults being hurled, we see no evidence of Kakusandha attempting to correct any poor posture. In fact, the monks’ actual posture doesn’t appear to be an issue at all.

I think it is also important to keep in mind what @Charlotteannun said: that these were caricatures. We should expect that these detractors exaggerated in their depictions of the monks’ postures. (But, again, I cannot see how these comments would have absolutely no basis in empirical fact.)

I feel exactly the same way.

You know, with regard to this being Mara’s doing, and that being a criterion of evaluating its being reflective of historical reality, there is an article by Bryan Levman about the first half of the disparaging remarks–“these little shaveling recluses are menials, black, the offscourings of our kinsman’s feet”–which we know reflects historically-attested views of the Buddha’s contemporaries. His article is based on the word, muṇḍaka (“shaveling”), which he claims has an actual tribal association as its referrent–i.e., some Eastern Indian tribal group lying outside the pale of Brahminical caste, such as it was at this time. I just mention this to say that, despite being placed in the mouth of Mara from eons ago, the context in which we find all of these comments made is historical and reflective of contemporary attitudes, views–prejudices, even: but, nevertheless, empirically accurate.

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I feel we’ve understood each other. We just haven’t persuaded each other. :slightly_smiling_face: So rather than rehash what I’ve already said with different wording :smile: I’ll share one other thought.

Physiology hasn’t changed fundamentally in the last 2500 years. It seems it is easier to maintain a long-term posture, that retains alertness, if one is upright.

Thanks for the link to the Bryan Levman article! I look forward to reading.

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Yes. The reason I even asked this question–because, as I alluded to above, I personally practice as perfectly vertical as possible from the tip of the tailbone to the top of the crown–is because a teacher I greatly respect himself practices with a forward lean, head slightly drooping; with wrists on the knees, palms down, fingers hanging down. I rejected this posture outright. But, upon reflection, I realized that I wasn’t so sure about what basis I had for rejecting it. So, I just wanted to throw some of my ruminations out to the forum to see what the responses were. I don’t know that I sought to persuade or be persuaded; I just wanted to run through what I saw to be the primary issues.

So, thank you to all who responded for the stimulating feedback.

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I’m glad that you have been able to resolve the issue from your personal point of view.

However, for the sake of those who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to sit upright or even leaning for long periods, I think it’s important to mention that it is possible to meditate in any position (it may take a bit more effort to get started). Ajahn Brahm often mentions this, and tells a story of how he himself had a profound meditation lying contorted in a hospital bed. I was lucky that I came across his remarks at a time when I was sick and unable to sit at all, and they provided real encouragement to keep going. :slight_smile:

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