The Pali word visūka, although chanted often as part of the eight precepts, is curiously obscure. The PTS dictionary traces it “perhaps to sūc, sūcayati” in the sense of “bright”. It notes that the commentarial gloss—defining visūka in the context of “songs, dances, instrumental music” etc.— is “not clear”: visūkaṁ paṭani-bhūtaṁ dassanaṁ.
In DN 1 “seeing visūka” is described:
This includes such things as dancing, singing, music, performances, and storytelling; clapping, gongs, and kettledrums; beauty pageants and tribal bone-washing ceremonies; battles of elephants, horses, buffaloes, bulls, goats, rams, chickens, and quails; staff-fights, boxing, and wrestling; combat, roll calls of the armed forces, battle-formations, and regimental reviews.
The commentary is as follows. I’m not familiar with translating commentarial idioms, so this is my best guess.
Sāsanassa ananulomattā visūkaṃ paṭāṇībhūtaṃ dassananti visūkadassanaṃ.
“Seeing shows” means seeing shows consisting of gyrations which contradict the religion.
Attanā naccananaccāpanādivasena naccā ca gītā ca vāditā ca antamaso mayūranaccādivasenapi pavattānaṃ naccādīnaṃ visūkabhūtā dassanā cāti naccagītavāditavisūkadassanā.
By one’s own will regarding dancing or having someone dance, etc.; when dancing, singing, and music, even a peacock dance, etc., is happening, seeing a show consisting of dance, etc. is also “seeing shows of dance, song, and music”.
Naccādīni hi attanā payojetuṃ vā parehi payojāpetuṃ vā payuttāni passituṃ vā neva bhikkhūnaṃ na bhikkhunīnañca vaṭṭanti.
For “dance, etc.” instigated by oneself, by another, or instigated in order to see, does not occur for monks or nuns.
- Not sure if “peacock dance” is meant to be an actual peacock or a dance of that name.
The overall assumption is that this concerns “seeing shows” of one’s own volition (rather than just happening by). I think the intent of the last sentence is to say that doing them, as well as going to see them, is forbidden for monastics. But again, I’m not 100% clear on the reading.
What is clear is that the first three items in this list are “dancing, singing, music”, which are the same as the terms in the eight or ten precepts. Here it clearly means “seeing shows of dancing, singing, music” etc. The definition is broader than that, but it is quite possible that the original sense expanded over time.
The commentary to Kp 2 says that the compound in the 8 precepts can be resolved either “dancing, singing, music, and seeing visūka”, or “seeing visūka consisting of dancing, singing, music”. It’s a significant difference: in one, one is not supposed to sing, dance, or play music, whereas the other is much narrower; one should not attend such shows (but says nothing about doing it oneself). While the commentary allows both readings, its description clearly shows that the narrower is meant, for it says that transgression arises when when approaches a show with the intent to see it.
Probably we should translate “seeing shows of dancing, singing, and music”.
The word elsewhere appears as part of two or three closely related terms:
visūkāyikāni visevitāni vipphanditāni
Usually rendered something like: “contortions, writhings, vacillations”.
These appear in the sense of:
- a horse trying to evade the bit (mn65:33.2)
- the distortions of the mind (sn12.35:6.1), especially
- the visūka of views (snp1.3:21.1)
- Māra describes his own attempts to seduce the Buddha, failed like a crab fails to escape children (sn4.24:8.6; also applied to Saccaka mn35:23.9)
The Digital Pāḷi Dictionary is helpful here. It relates vāsuka to the Sanskrit vāsuki. Now, Vāsuki is a great serpent most famed for being used like a rope to churn the milk at the birth of the cosmos. He is thus pre-eminently a “twister”.
This illuminates the commentarial gloss on visūka in the sense of “seeing visūka”. It is paṭani, which again is an obscure word, but according to DDP is “bolt, screw, fastener”. This reinforces the sense “twist, gyrate, swirl”. This sounds like it’s referring primarily to sexy dancing (cf. “the twist”). In English we also have the idiom that to go to an event with song, music and dance is to go to “a dance”.
Now, returning to our set of three terms:
visūkāyikāni visevitāni vipphanditāni
It seems the vi prefix here is meant in the sense “away, turn away, avoid”. The examples show someone trying to get out of a situation.
twists, ducks, and dodges