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Why Does the Oldest Chinese Buddha Figure Slump?

June, 2019

 


The oldest surviving dated Chinese Buddha figure shows surprisingly slumped posture. Note the forward head, absence of a stacked spine, and tucked pelvis. He would not look out of place with a smartphone in his hand!

This surprisingly hunched Chinese Buddha figure is the oldest dated Chinese Buddha figure that has survived into modern times. The inscription on its base dates it to 338 AD, 500 years after Buddhism came to China from India. Compare the Chinese Buddha figure with this Indian Buddha figure from roughly 800-1000 AD…
 


This North Indian Buddha figure from the post-Gupta period (7th - 8th century AD) shows excellent form. He has a well-stacked spine, open shoulders, and an elongated neck.

There is a dramatic difference in posture. The Chinese figure looks like a lot of modern folk, whereas the Indian one looks upright and relaxed. Why the difference?

Since the models these figures were based on, and everything and everyone contemporaneous to them are long dead, the best we can do is to make educated guesses about these characters.

India, compared to China, is a warm country. Much of the Indian population sits on the floor cross-legged to gather, eat, play, socialize, and more. To this day, the default praying position is cross-legged without props.



Devotees attending a puja in a temple in Bhubansewar, Orissa.

China, by contrast, is generally a cold country, being further north. It is not comfortable to sit cross-legged on the floor in a cold country, and accordingly, it is common for Han Chinese people to use furniture. In fact, China has many famous styles of furniture, like Ming and Qing Dynasty furniture, and the oldest sitting implements date to earlier than 1000 BC.

 


This historical northern Chinese furniture dates back to the Liao Dynasty (907-1125 AD). Though they are weathered, the chairs’ armrests, backrests, and seat shape give clues about posture in this period. Original image is licensed by Wikimedia Commons user smartneddy under CC BY-SA 2.5.

As is true in our culture, when people sit on chairs, stools, and benches, the hip socket (acetabulum) is not subject to the same forces as in a person who sits cross-legged on the floor habitually. In my blog post about cross-legged sitting, I use a common-sense argument about why the shape of the hip sockets of someone who grew up sitting on the floor are different from those of someone who grew up sitting on chairs. By the time we are 16 years old, the hip socket is entirely ossified and not amenable to significant shaping or “editing”. For this reason, most modern people from colder climates cannot sit comfortably on the floor for long periods without props. This is also why, I conjecture, this oldest Chinese Buddha figure shows an awkward and uncomfortable posture as he sits cross-legged without props.

I imagine the model for the Chinese Buddha statue to have been a dedicated seeker, eager to embody every aspect of his chosen spiritual tradition. Some of these borrowed aspects would have worked well, probably bestowing on him benefits in his chosen path and practice. The borrowed posture, however, does not help him. He would do better with a prop. If he used a prop to elevate his ischial tuberosities (sitz bones) and let his pelvis tip forward, he would all of a sudden discover that he could be upright without any tension or effort. His back could rise and fall with his inhalations and exhalations. And he would be spared much degeneration and discomfort. My guess is that he had the skills to work with much of his pain, but maybe not all of it, maybe not all the time, and maybe not into his old age. The mind has amazing capabilities to override pain signals, but when those pain signals can be quite addressed at their root with simple mechanical solutions, this is worth learning how to do. The mind can then be used to try to address more unavoidable pain, both physical and emotional.



This young woman’s posture, with her protruding head, slumped shoulders, and tucked pelvis, shares many similarities with that of the ancient Chinese Buddha figure. Original image courtesy Andrew Le on Unsplash.

With such slumped posture, my experience indicates that the model’s chest and back would be encumbered by the cantilevered weight of the upper body, and not available for easy expansion. Only the belly is readily available for expansion. The person would learn to soften the belly to allow for easier expansion with the breath. In my imaginings, the belly breathing pattern that started out as a hack could easily get mistaken for a desirable practice to emulate. And this misperception continues into modern times.

If there is any truth to this storyline, the posture demonstrated by the oldest Chinese Buddha figure serves as a cautionary tale. It reminds us that practices develop and thrive in a culturally-specific context. When we import a practice from a different context, it behooves us to consider which portions of the practice can be imported whole, which need modification for local conditions and use, and which need to be edited out of our local version of the practice.

Centuries later, in Japan, Buddhist practitioners invented the zafu, the perfect prop for hip sockets of the kind found in cold countries. A zafu enables a modern meditator to be upright and relaxed, just like the Buddha!

 


Elevating the seat can make a big difference in meditation posture.

Do you engage in practices you find challenging that are easy in the country of their origin? How have you modified an “imported” cultural practice?

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Comments

Lovely post, thanks Esther.

The story goes, in some schools of Buddhism, that the Buddha only achieved enlightenment (after many years of trying) when a kind young grass cutter brought some freshly-cut grass and made a seat for "the monk" (the Buddha before he was enlightened) to sit on. With his behind slightly elevated and thus his body allowed into a totally upright posture with open chest (chakras all aligned some would say) the Buddha attained enlightenment. This is why a good beginner's meditation class will always focus on helping the sitter to find a good straight and comfortable posture.

 

Esther, I am also curious about your views on a traditional hammock and whether it is helpful in promoting a J spine?

What a cool interesting story about the Buddha - I had never heard it. If you know where I could research it more, please let me know. 

Recently at Kripalu I had the pleaure of experimenting with a hammock. You're supposed to lie diagonally so your body  lies straight (instead of cupped). I was able to be very comfortable and rocked to sleep easily by the lake. It wasn't trivial to find the optimal configuration, but possible. I'm sure every hammock is different. Another juicy research project!

Esther, I can't remember where I first read the story about the grass but I have read/heard many variations over the years. Here is one reference I just found online. Also there is currently a beautiful series on the entire life of the Buddha showing on Netflix, just called Buddha, I highly recommend it to anyone interested, it is wonderful!

https://books.google.com.au/books?id=tZ8WAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA196&dq=grass+cutter+buddha&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjk1Jzo3OviAhUCQH0KHTL0AC8Q6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=grass%20cutter%20buddha&f=false

 

Thanks for this post, Esther.  It was very helpful for me to understand how "belly breathing" came to be recommended.  My old Buddhist meditation teacher kept emphasizing a soft, relaxed belly but breathing as you teach always feels better to me.  I'm very excited about all of this.  Thanks so much. XO

Don't take my hand-waving argument as gospel - or dharma! This is just a possible way that belly breathing could become a default - and then an ideal. A little like an S-shaped spine became recognized as normal and then ideal. 

In any case, it makes a lot of sense to pay attention to what feels right / better in your body. Glad you're tracking that! 

Thoughtful perspective, thank you Esther.

A belly-breathing comment - it's really interesting to consider that it was a hack. As a possible hack, it led to some very useful results in terms of alterations of consciousness, which was probably their main focus. Drawing the energy of the breath down into the belly, which if the extant texts are correct, was what peoples of that time considered the center of their being, pretty much the way we consider our heads/brains today, helped calm the mind in a way that other breathing patterns do not - 'Ocean-breath' the feeling of being in the deep unperturbed by any storms on the surface. Chest-based breathing is excellent for everyday consciousness and clear awareness. Belly-based breathing is not good for this, a lesson I learned from you.

I also wonder if people of that time share something that I find common in spiritually-oriented people of our time - the body as a vehicle to achieve enlightenment, not as an active 'partner' in the process; in quotes only because contemporary language makes it difficult not to get dualistic. "Feeling" the picture of the first Buddha, it looks like he's leaving his body behind. In the second picture, the Buddha looks fully embodied.

Thank you for your wisdom and experience! Your musings on belly breathing are intriguing. Also on asymmetry in the  partnership between the body and spirit in enlightenment.

To clarify my position: There's no question that belly breathing has a useful and important place among many possible breathing mechanisms. You are describing one such use. Belly breathing is also very important in singing and playing wind instruments. It's just as a default that I believe it's out of place. 

" It's just as a default that I believe it's out of place.  "

 

Yes, that was the lesson for me. It had become the default without awareness on my part.

I found this meditation bench much more comfortable than sitting cross-legged.  Note the forward slant.

Thank you for this fascinating article. Your observations resonated with me.

The Buddha described the seated meditative posture that monastics should adopt as,

"And how is mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated to be very fruitful and beneficial? It’s when a mendicant has gone to a wilderness, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut. They sit down cross-legged, with their body straight, and establish mindfulness right there.Just mindful, they breathe in. Mindful, they breathe out.

When breathing in heavily they know: ‘I’m breathing in heavily.’ When breathing out heavily they know: ‘I’m breathing out heavily. When breathing in lightly they know: ‘I’m breathing in lightly.’ When breathing out lightly they know: ‘I’m breathing out lightly. They practice breathing in experiencing the whole body. They practice breathing out experiencing the whole body. They practice breathing in stilling the body’s motion. They practice breathing out stilling the body’s motion."

Ajahn Sujato's translation of the Anapanasati Sutta (Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing), Majjhima Nikaya 118 available at  https://suttacentral.net/mn118/en/sujato

Note that the body needs to be straight. And the mindful awareness that needs to be cultivated is of the entire body of breath, the entire body as it breathes in and out. So the posture that facilitates this complete awareness would be the correct posture. That is not awareness of the breath in just the belly, but in the entire body, and in the process of breathing and awareness, calming the body and making it and the mind still and tranquil. 

I think that these words of the Buddha can be adduced as textual evidence that the posture depicted in the Indian Buddha statue is more conducive to the relaxed awareness of the body of breath, than the posture adopted by the Chinese Buddha, which is likely to increase tension rather than induce relaxation. You explain this very clearly in your article above.

 

It's wonderful to hear from seasoned practitioners who are familiar with historical texts on the subject. Thank you so much for your contribution!

Tai chi calls for a sunken, concave chest and expanded back.  Some traditions also use a tucked pelvis; others have it just hang down straight ("drop the waist").  I've found it interested trying to reconcile this with correct posture! 

Correct posture for tai qi may be different from correct posture for everyday life.

I believe it's fine to assume almost any posture for a short stretches, assuming your baseline is healthy. But if your baseline includes something problematic, it may be best not to further load your discs, nerves, and vertebral edges. And if you have the habit of tucking the pelvis and slumping the upper back, it seems undesirable to reinforce that in your dedicated wellness / exercise time. 

Love this post Esther!  As a cultural anthropologist, a big part of what I appreciate about your approach is your cross-cultural perspective. I thought you might find this article interesting also - an analysis of how cell phones are changing skeleton's and how children's skeleton's are developing differently due to lack of physical activity.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190610-how-modern-life-is-transforming-the-human-skeleton

Using your method has saved me from chronic pain due to scoliosis and injury. I share your work with everyone who will listen.

In gratitude

 

In my experience as a student and teacher of Tai Chi for several decades, I've never been taught, or taught, a tucked pelvis. Simply, we aim for a beautiful upright spine by softening the knees, belly, pelvis and lengthening the spine.

An excellent article, Zhan Zhuang/ How to Cultivate Energy With Standing Meditation by Scott Jeffrey, explains healthy spinal alignment beautifully.

"Roll your hips slightly forward as if you were sitting at the edge of a high barstool.

This will straighten the spine in your lower back. Most people have a natural* “s” curve in their spine. One of the primary aims of this standing posture is to reduce the curvature of the spine as much as possible to open the flow of energy. This occurs over time by maintaining the correct posture."

*Gokhale Method teaches the "S" curve as a habitual poor postural alignment rather than "natural".

Dear Ester –

       Your studies of posture in pre-modern cultures are very interesting and some parts of your program have been very beneficial for me. However, I think that there are some problems with this analysis. For one thing China is a very big country and vast regions of it are located in tropical and sub-tropical climate zones. Many millions of Chinese make their livelihoods as farmers and spend a lot of time siting on their hunches where they can relax, be close to their work on the ground, and keep their bottoms up above the dirt. This keeps their hips very flexible even if they sit in a chair for super.

      Artistic license has made its way into Buddhism and any given sculpture may reflect an ideal as opposed to an actual sitting posture. My immediate impression upon looking at the first figure was that this is the way real people look like when they mediate. If you look closely at the older Buddha, you can see that the top of his pedestal slants forward and elevates his hips above his knees, the same effect as is created by using a zafu. When I saw the second figure my initial impression was that this is an idealized figure of a perfect being.

       Because we have a side view of the first figure, and a front view of the second figure, it is hard to compare them, and we have no good idea of what the second figure’s spine looks like. The pictures of the Indians sitting on the ground show that the tops of their spines are bent more forward than the first buddha. The backs of their heads are farther forward from the backs of their shoulders than is the case with the first Buddha. So, he is sitting up straighter. We really can’t see the lumbar regions of the Indian’s backs, to tell if their hips are tucked or not.

       I have been practicing sitting mediation all of my adult life and have probably logged around somewhere around 20,000 hours. I am very tall and thin and my shoulders are curved very far forward. Even when I was young and practicing a lot of yoga I have never been able to find a posture that balances the centers of gravity in my upper and lower torso. I go back and forth between stack sitting and stretch sitting but it gets harder as I get older (I am 70). Everything you say about the evil effects of slumped sitting is true but try as I might, for me, sitting upright “without tension or effort” is a cruel joke. I have taught Tai Chi for thirty some years and one thing I have learned is that we must work with our bodies as they actually are, and not merely as we might wish them to be.

On the other hand, your advice about standing has helped me a lot and I am glad I have read your book.

                                                                                                                                                                     Thanks,

                                                                                                                                                                Craig Voorhees

Dear Craig, 

Thank you for your thoughtful post. You speak truth in your statement that "that we must work with our bodies as they actually are, and not merely as we might wish them to be." Another sentiment I air with students is that we don't know enough to gat emotionally charged about what's not "right" in our bodies. As much as I explore and write about posture, I still consider it to be in the realm of conjecture rather than fact. There are very few studies on the subject and the body is complex, so we're all guessing. That said, educated guessing / hypothesizing / exploring can sometimes give great results. So the endeavor continues!

I'd like to add a few thoughts to some of yours: 

"Everything you say about the evil effects of slumped sitting is true but try as I might, for me, sitting upright “without tension or effort” is a cruel joke." If the spine has become rigid, it's not possible (or desirable) to straighten it. And the rigid bone supports the structure without muscle tension. I think that's partly why joints become rigid over time. If the structure is not entirely rigid, and if there's enough curvature that it takes an inordinate amount of muscular effort to be upright, I recommend using a backrest / support whenever possible (e.g. in meditation). 

 "If you look closely at the older Buddha, you can see that the top of his pedestal slants forward and elevates his hips above his knees" An evenly slanted pedestal doesn't give the same abteverted result in the pelvis as a zafu / folded blanket / wedge with a steep dropoff. In the Chinese Buddha figure, it's not quite supporting the pelvis well. 

About the difficulty in seeing details in various photo angles and past layers of clothing - so true! I face this difficulty and uncertainty all the time. 

 

A wonderful article Esther, thank you.

So glad you liked it!

When I saw the photo of Esther on the zafu, I immediately thought of the Nada Chair. After visiting the Nada Chair website, I see that it can do wonders for the L5-S1 region, but to get that Alexander technique neck we see on the photo, we need practice and training.

 

In my experience, it varies from person to person whether recovering an L5-S1 curve or a well stacked neck is more challenging. In any case, it's all worth working on!