iti karmanaa dasha-vidhena
bhraMshini shithila-guNo 'pi yuge
vijahaara tatra muni-saMshrayaaj janaH
Thus, by means of action, by means of ten precepts,
By most skillful means, by powerful means,
Although virtue was lax in a declining age,
The people there fared well,
through devotion to the sage.
This is a verse in praise of the power of the independent action of individuals. It has taken me another sleepless night to get (I hope) to the bottom of it.
When I went to bed last night, the first two lines stood as: "By means of these ten guiding rules of action,/By this most skillful and effectual means," Then, sometime during the wee small hours I realised that, in the first two lines, the four elements with instrumental endings should each stand separately, so that the four elements form their own fourfold progression:
(1) Kaarman introduces action as an inclusive concept, a generic term, a mental construct; in short, as an idea -- the seed of a possible new direction in life, based on "the philosophy of action," and at the same time the very cause of suffering in samsara. If you want to know in detail how fervent, naive belief in "the philosphy of action" (aka "the viewpoint of true Buddhism" shared by "we, true Buddhists") can lead straight to suffering in samsara, I have left the evidence on the internet in my nest of old blogs. But I wouldn't necessarily recommend reading them.
(2)Dasha-vidhi are the ten individual precepts which have just been listed; namely, not inflicting suffering, not stealing, and not engaging in illicit sex; not lying, not gossiping, not using harsh words, and not bad-mouthing; plus not coveting, not being hostile to the other, and not adhering to a wrong view about karma. If "action" as a generic is the abstract thesis, these ten are the concrete anti-thesis. Similarly, if my deluded reaction to the idea of becoming a world champion of Gudo's philosophy of action actually caused me to become a puffed-up and pitiless bad-mouther of others, then the true anti-thesis to this thesis might exist in the form of a shaven-headed monk that nobody has heard of, quietly living his simple life and not bad-mouthing anybody.
(3) Parama-kushala , "most skillful," means not robotic, unconscious reaction, and not blind adherence to rules. Thus, the meaning of "skillful means," as I understand it, has a lot to do with the conscious practice of inhibition.
(4)Bhuuri, "powerful" means having real effect. Ashvaghosha is talking about a true means-whereby, a means that really works. If I relate it to my experience in tournament karate, what really works is not only inhibiting one's own reaction to the opponent's feints but also, when a real opening emerges, unleashing the counterattack. If I relate it to experience in Alexander work, as described here, what is really effective is not only mental practising of inhibition and direction but also, at some point, giving consent for a bodily movement to happen.
Because the Buddha demonstrated a means-whereby that really worked, it had real power to effect change in a particular society at a particular time -- even in a degenerate age. It seems that the Buddha's own era was also regarded as an age of decline, relative to the golden age of Manu. In general, when policy-makers notice that something in a society is rotten and ought to be changed, they press ahead with some new initiative, which does not work. It does not work because sufficient attention has not been paid to stopping the old thing, on an individual basis, before trying to enforce the desired change on a societal basis. Unenlightened policy-makers are not so different from those Zen teachers who advocate pushing up with the head, pushing down with the knees, et cetera, et cetera. The thing that is missing, in both cases, is inhibition of the desire to go directly for an end, relying on unskillful, inefficient means. The unintended consequence, in both cases, is inefficient allocation of resources -- called in Sanskrit aasrava, "energy leakage."
As translations of muni-saMshrayaat, EH Johnston's “from reliance on the sage” and Linda Covill's "with the help of the sage” both seem perfectly reasonable. But my sense is that Ashvaghosha maybe requires us to dig a bit deeper, through active devotion to the sage.
No, if truth be told, Ashvaghosha is requiring us, with each verse, to dig deeper and deeper and deeper -- maybe deeper than I am able to dig. That must be why, as I now prepare to press the orange "PUBLISH POST" button, I feel absolutely knackered.
Now... where did I leave my spade?
iti: the aforementioned, these
karmanaa (instrumental case of karman): by means of action
dasha-vidhena (instrumental, dasha-vidhi): by means of ten precepts
parama: most excellent, most
kushalena = instrumental of kushala: right, proper, suitable, good; well, healthy, wholesome; skillful
bhuuriNaa = instrumental of bhuuri: much, great, important, mighty
bhraMshini = locative (agreeing with yuge) of bhraMshin: falling, dropping, decaying, decadent
shithila: loose, slack, lax
guNaH (nominative, singular): virtue, good
api: even, though
yuge (locative): in a generation, in an age
vijahaara = perfect of vi + hRi: spend time, roam, disport oneself
tatra: therein, then, therefore, by those means
saMshrayaat = ablative of saMshraya: joining together with, resorting or betaking one's self to any person or place, going for refuge or protection; (in compounds ) devoted or attached to
janaH (nominative, singular): the people
Thus from reliance on the Sage they followed the tenfold conduct which is powerful and good in the highest degree, though from the decadence of the age the people were little inclined to virtue.
Though virtue was lax in that declining age, with the help of the sage the people lived according to the ten great rules of conduct which are so highly meritorious.