Wednesday, January 7, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 3.24: Thermodynamic Reality

yugapaj jvalan jvalana-vac ca
jalam avasRjaMshi ca megha-vat
sa babhau pradiipta iva sandhyayaa ghanaH

All in harness, he glowed like a fire,

Passed water like a cloud,

And radiated light like molten gold.

He shone like a cloud set aglow,
by the breaking of day, or dusk.

I see these four lines, following on from the conclusion of the previous verse, as having to do with who Gautama was in terms of energy; i.e., (1) thermal energy, (2) potential energy, (3) electro-magnetic energy, and (4) the ineffable energy of sitting-Zen.

The opening word of the stanza, yugapad, literally means "being in the same yoke/harness." This is a way of saying all together, at the same time, simultaneously. But the word harness, I think, might have a deeper significance too. The theme of this verse is the Buddha as energy, and the Buddha's energy was -- until the maha-parinirvana -- held in check. The Buddha was not an explosion of compassion.

So the harness in question might be that bonding between chemical molecules which holds in check time's arrow. For non-chemists who wonder what the hell I am talking about, I recommend following this link to the tremendously helpful writings of Frank Lambert. Lambert clarifies the universal tendency that energy has to spread out, unless prevented from doing so. This tendency, which Master Dogen addresses in Shobogenzo chapter 3 Genjo-koan, is described by the 2nd law of thermodynamics, and is represented most typically by the dissemination of heat energy by a fire (1).

The same tendency is represented, perhaps a-typically, or counter-intuitively, by the falling of rain. The falling of raindrops from a cloud, even if it has a cooling and dampening influence on fires down below, is still the spreading out of energy. Each raindrop is releasing a bit of the potential energy that was gained when a cloud was formed out of evaporating water (2).

Incidentally, I considered translating the second line as Passing water, as does a cloud, and using as a title of this post "Jesus Wept, but Buddha Pissed." Whether Ashvaghosha himself intended to include this iconoclastic sense in the 2nd line, I cannot judge for sure. But if Ashvaghosha did wish to convey this iconoclastic sense of Gautama being a non-buddha, who passed water like everybody else, then the 2nd line would be the natural place for it.

Our Great Master Ashvaghosha refers often to gold, and every time he does so I feel he is reminding me what path is in my blood, what path is in my heart, and what path I am happiest to be on -- the path of the miner. Ashvaghosha has left us as his legacy an incredibly rich seam of gold. And the deeper it is dug, the richer it gets.

The tendency that energy has to diffuse is represented roundly and conspicuously by molten gold, which gives off heat through conduction, convection and radiation and at the same time radiates electro-magnetic energy in the form of shining light (3).

Line 4 brings the previous lines together, so that all is combined in one vibrant scene -- of the kind that Ashvaghosha must have witnessed regularly, around the time of his morning and evening sitting-Zen.

yugapad: 'being in the same yoke'; simultaneously
jvalan = present participle of jval: to flame, burn brightly, blaze, glow
jvalana-vat: like fire
ca: and

jalam: water
avasRjan: (present participle of ava + sRij) letting loose, producing, bringing forth
ca: and
megha-vat: like a cloud

tapta: molten
kanaka: gold
sadRsha: being like, similar to
prabhayaa (instrumental of prabhaa): [shining] with light, with splendour, radiance, brilliance

sa: he
babhau (perfect of bhaa): shone forth, glowed, was luminous, was splendid, appeared in all his glory
pradiipta: inflamed, burning, shining, set alight
iva: like
sandhyayaa = (?) instrumental case of saMdhyaa: twilight, sunset; juncture of the three divisions of the day; the religious acts performed at the three divisons of the day (hence suggestive of the scenery around the time of sitting-zen at dawn and dusk)
ghanaH: cloud

EH Johnston:
Simultaneously blazing like a fire and shedding water like a cloud and shining with the brilliance of refined gold, He resembled a cloud glorious with the hues of sunset.

Linda Covill:
Simultaneously blazing like a fire and giving water like a cloud, he was radiant with light like molten gold, like a cloud at twilight.


Jordan said...

I got the same thing on the "Passing water like a cloud", gave me a nice chuckle this morning, just when I needed it!


Mike Cross said...

Thanks for the feedback, Jordan.

Good to know we are singing from the same hymn sheet.


Mike Cross said...

P.S. I went back this evening and re-jigged the verse so it read more simply, and decided to go with "passing water" instead of "releasing water."

Jordan said...

Reading this verse again this afternoon brought on a spontaneous flash back:

During pre-deployment work ups a few years back I was playing the role of the aggressor for the Marine expeditionary unit I was stationed with at the time. I recall being set up in the field “Strapped in” to my gear, Pissing (and pooping) on a hill side, feeling proud of my Marines, appreciating the California sunset.

Not likely the point Ashvaghosha was trying to make, but oh well.

Mike Cross said...

I don't know, Jordan, but I agree with what Linda Covill writes in her excellent introduction to Saundarananda -- you get the sense that Ashvaghosha had lived a full life and was no shrinking violet himself.

And there seems to us to be no shortage of iconoclastic content to dig out of Line 2s. Unless it is only us seeing, through clouded eyes, some flowers in the sky?

Chris said...

Concerning the translation of yugapad: for this reader (quite ignorant of Sanskrit), "harness" emphasizes a controlling connection between two DIFFERENT things (as beast and man), whereas "yoke" connotes an inseparable connection between two LIKE things (as oxen). The latter would seem to accord better with the remainder of this strophe in your fine translation.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Chris,

I take your point -- I would have liked to use the word "yoke" whose etymological roots are probably closely related to the Sanskrit yug. But for me a yoke suggests joining together of two elements. Actually, Ashvaghosha's intention might have been like that...

In one yoke, he glowed like a fire,

And passed water like a cloud.

Radiating light like molten gold,

He shone like a cloud set aglow,
by the breaking of day, or dusk.

But my sense was that the first three lines are joined together, in one harness, like three huskies pulling a sleigh, and that the fourth line stands alone. This sense comes largely from the experience of translating four-line poems in Shobogenzo, in many of which the fourth line brings together elements of the previous three lines -- suggesting the Truth as one big inclusive bowl of soup.

I'm not sure if anybody else will be going back over this post of two weeks ago, but if anybody is reading it, would be interested to hear people's preference...

Jordan said...

I have a preference for harness, only because "Yoke" brings on an image of an egg.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks, Jordan. Your comment gave me a welcome chuckle.