The Eye in the Back of the Head
In [SN 5.51.20] Vibha.nga Sutta.m §11, the meaning of developing the power-paths such that pacchaapure-sa~n~nii is
yathaa pure tathaa pacchaa||
yathaa pacchaa tathaa pure
is explained as:
Idha bhikkhave, bhikkhuno pacchaapure sa~n~naa suggahitaa hoti sumanasikataa suupadhaaritaa suppa.tividdhaa pa~n~naaya.
I think this is a good example of how Dhamma-vicaya can be done without the aid of commentary, but through careful analysis of the precise terms as they are used.
I also think this is a good example of how Gotama's teaching can be said to be both open-handed - without exclusive secret lore handed from teacher to puple - and hidden. The powerful stuff is hidden in plain sight.
I would also like to suggest that this study is a good illustration of what makes the difference between the translations found here and translations made by reference to the commentaries, by reference to PED or by comparing one translation to another and editing acording to experience. Experience is hightly subject to error of interpretation, and in the case of the Buddha's Dhamma even moreso as his message is not contained in any stock interpretation.
All of these shaman and Brahman who speculate about the past and the future or both do so based on what they have experienced and are but the struggles of the downbound, blinded by desire, to explain what they do not understand.
These shaman and Brahman, Beggars, experience what they experience as a consequence of contact through the six senses. Sense experience gives rise to wanting. Wanting gives rise to going after getting. Going after getting gives rise to Living. Living gives rise to Birth. Birth gives rise to aging and death, grief and lamentation, pain and misery, and despair.
When a Beggar, Beggars, knows as it really is the coming to be and the passing away of sense experience, the satisfaction of sense experience and the way of escape from sense experience, it is then that he knows these advanced things beyond mere points of view.
It is only when one is above points of view based in sense-experience that one is able to understand sense experience in an unbiased way. It is only at this point that consideration of experience should be brought to bear on a translation, and then, usually only in the negative. If one's translation does not comport with perception of unbiased sense experience, then it is likely a mis-translation.
Without careful reading of this passage no translation is really helpful to one who wishes to develop magic power. There are too many possible meanings or the other way around it appears to be meaningless nonsense. Digging in - going back and constructing from the beginning the idea as it is stated, there emerges a sense that is in fact a development of the power-paths that is of great fruit and great profit.
11. Katha~n ca bhikkhave, bhikkhu pacchaapure-sa~n~nii ca viharati yathaa pure tathaa pacchaa yathaa pacchaa tathaa pure?|| ||
Idha bhikkhave, bhikkhuno pacchaapure sa~n~naa suggahitaa hoti sumanasikataa suupadhaaritaa suppa.tividdhaa pa~n~naaya.|| ||
"And how does a monk dwell
perceiving what is in front and behind
so that what is in front is the same as what is behind,
and what is behind is the same as what is in front?
There is the case
where a monk's perception of what is in front and behind
is well in hand,
well-tuned ('penetrated') by means of discernment.
And how, monks, does a monk dwell conscious of what is behind and before, thus: As before, so behind: as behind, so before?
Herein a monk's conscousness of what is behind and what is before is well in hand, well attended to, well considered, well penetrated by insight.
"And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu dwell perceiving after and before: 'As before, so after; as after, so before'?
Here, bhikkhus, the perception of after and before is well grasped by a bhikkhu, well attended to, well considered, well penetrated by wisdom.
This is the instrucction we must understand:
wish-, energy-, heart-, investigation-
one easily gets perception of the after and before
well taken hold of,
well reflected on with wisedom.
to the point where perception of after is as it is with before, and
perception of before is as it is with after.
The first difficulty here is defining precisely the meaning of 'pacchaa-pure.' The uses for both terms of the compound are both of time and location. For the specific reference to 'past' and 'future' there is atiita and anaagata, so this meaning can be ruled out. The use therefore looks to be either in the nature of retrospective perception of what precedes or follows an event or point in time - sequence - or perception of - awareness of - what is behind or in front of one at the present.
What I think is implied by the idea that this perception is both got easily and is at the same time well-studied, 'held' and has been reflected on with wisdom indicates a need to combine the two uses of the terms such that we end up with: the ability see and understand the sequences of movements in what is behind one as easily as what is in front. Awareness of everything surrounding one and the order and significance of events as they occurred without difference as to in front or in back.
I am aware of two examples of this power both of which are subject to the criticism that they are fiction. In Kung-fu movies and some Japanese martial arts movies there is often a scene where the swordsman is standing with his back to an approaching bad guy. He doesn't turn around, but simply thrusts his sword backwards. Similar scenes involve ducking at exactly the right time to avoid a blow, placing one's sward at one's back at the precise time the enemy sward hits, and so forth. The other example is an event in Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan series where Carlos is being chased by a juaguar and he finds himself able to perceive his situation from above and from both the perspective of himself and the jaguar.
This is the perspective of one in an out-of-body experience of looking down at one's own body. In such a case one would be able to see both before and after and we can imagine the case where one had had sufficient experience to quickly judge sequences of events and their significance before and after and take appropriate action in terms of what we want (wish), the energy needed (energy), the will needed (heart), and the know-how (investigation).
So given this analysis, what is the appropriate translation?
In the first paragraph a beggar lives developing wish-, energy-, heart-, investigation-
such that his
is behind him as it is in front of him
is in front of him as it is behind him.
In the second paragraph he does this by
developing his perception of the after and of the before
such that he gets this perception easily
because it has been well-studied,
is well grasped and retained,
and has been thought-over carefully with intelligence and recollection of experience (that's another word for 'wisdom').
And how, beggars, does a beggar live after-before-perceiving,
as before so after as as after so before?
Here, beggars, a beggar
easily gets the
well taken hold of,
well reflected on with wisedom
perception of the after and before.
Bhikkhu Bodh quotes commentary for another interpretation and then provides one of his own:
Spk: This should be understood: (1) by way of the meditation subject; and (ii) by way of the teaching. (i) The interpretation (abhinivesa, or "introduction") of the meditation subject is "before" and arahantship is "after." A bhikkhu who, after interpretaing the root meditation subject, does not allow the mind to fall into the four undersirable conditions (overly lax, etc.) goes on to attain arahantship; he is called one who dwells "as before, so after." (ii) By way of teaching, the head-hairs are "before" and the brain is "after" (among the solid parts in the contemplation of the body). A bhikkhu who develops his meditation from beginning to end witout sliding into the four undesirable conditions is called one who dwells "as before, so after."
The explanation sounds strained. The phrase refers simply to maintaining consistency in attending to the meditation subject in all its aspects throughtout the session, from start to finish. See too the use of the phrase in the sentence pacchaapure sa~n~ni ca.nkama.m adhi.t.theyyaasi (AN IV 87, 2-3), where it seems to have a spatial meaning: "Percipient of what is behind and in front, you should determine on walking back and forth."