On holding hands

If you’ve spent time in Asian monasteries, you might have noticed that it’s quite common for people to hold hands. I’ve noticed among the monks, and it’s one of those little cultural quirks. In my upbringing, you held hands with your girlfriend, it wasn’t really a thing otherwise. But I’m sure this varies!

Anyhoo, in MN 31 = MN 128 and MN 125 there’s a term hatthavilaṅghaka, which Ven Bodhi translates are “joining hands” or “ holding hands”. Now, vilaṅghaka only occurs in this context, and the PTS dictionary is clearly incorrect in saying that it means a “gesture”.

Note that the commentary at MN 31 has both “joining hands” (Hatthavilaṅghakenāti hatthena hatthaṃ gahetvā) and “lifting by hand” (Hatthavilaṅghakenāti hatthukkhepakena). At MN 125 it only has the former. The subcommentary sees these as complementary:

Hatthehi ukkhipanaṃ hatthavilaṅghanaṃ. Tenāha ‘‘hatthukkhepakenā’’ti. Atha vā vilaṅgheti desantaraṃ pāpeti etenāti vilaṅghako, hattho eva vilaṅghako hatthavilaṅghako, tena hatthavilaṅghakena, aññamaññaṃ saṃsibbitahatthenāti vuttaṃ hoti. Dve hi janā hatthena hatthaṃ saṃsibbetvā dvīsu hatthesu ṭhapetvā uṭṭhapentā hatthavilaṅghakena uṭṭhapenti nāma

The two contexts that the term appears in are when two mendicants lift up a heavy water pot, or when two friends are approaching a mountain. Now, in the first case, “holding hands” as a gesture of friendliness is obviously incorrect, but it seems appropriate enough in the second case.

However, the root is laghu, light, and it can hardly be a coincidence that in both contexts the action is that of getting up into a high place. If it was a general term for friendly behavior, you’d expect to see it somewhere else. Rather, the most cogent reference would seem to be “many hands make light work”. The two mendicants “give each other a hand” lifting up the water jar, and the two friends “lend a helping hand” in navigating the rugged ground leading to the foot of the mountain.

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For what it’s worth, I looked up the translation in the Pali-Burmese disctionary and it translates to: “raise hands.”

Also interesting is the MN 31 approach of the Buddha to the park where the three venerables are staying:

The park keeper saw the Blessed One coming in the distance and told him: “Do not enter this park, recluse. There are three clansmen here seeking their own good. Do not disturb them.”

This always reinforces for me that the Buddha walked about looking as any other ascetic. He was not unusual in apprearance, but obviously distinct from all others in mind. But, this could not be seen or felt by the park manager, who perceived him as any other wandering ascetic of the times.

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I imagine that one’s perception of the Buddha depended on one’s merit and conditioning. He would probably seem rather ordinary to some but quite extraordinary to others on first sight.

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You make a good point, James. I had in mind how the Buddha presented from the perspective of one who saw him in this context ( a park keeper), and I recall other contexts where rajas came to, say, the Squirrel Park and could not distinguish the Buddha from the other monks.

I can also see your point through the lens of being fortunate to meet a Bhikkhu in Thailand that, upon seeing him at his wat, and hearing his first words, I felt a sense of peace, and deep Metta. From this perspective, yes, there can be this perceived sense of an extraordinary teacher in one’s midst.

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I know what you mean. I’ve met similar bhikkhus and even anagarikas where simply the sight of their complexion gives rise to a sense of peace.

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