Friday, October 2, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 14.31: Need Knives Be Out?

tasmaat tama iti jNaatvaa
nidraaM n'aaveShTum arhasi
a-prashaanteShu doSheShu
sa-shastreShv iva shatruShu

= = - - - - = =
= = = = - = - -
= - = = - = = -
- = = - - = - -

Therefore, knowing it to be darkness,

You should not engulf sleep

While the faults remain unsubdued

Like sword-wielding enemies.

There seems to be a typo in the Clay Sanskrit Library version which has su-shastreShu instead of sa-shastreShu. Sa-shastra means "possessing a sword" or "armed." Su-shastra, meaning "good sword" or "strong weapon," would not fit grammatically, if my nascent understanding of Sanskrit grammar is correct.

Far beyond such hair-splitting, the Buddha in this verse identifies the faults -- namely greed, anger, delusion and the rest of those dystonic patterns that stem from thirsting -- as the enemy.

To have some enemy on which to focus all my large reserves of negative energy suits me down to the ground. This epic poem, with all its military metaphors, is really my cup of tea -- just like it was my cup of tea to stand on the terraces in the 1970s with fellow dusty-eyed supporters of Birmingham City Football Club, chanting rhythmically to rival supporters whose team had just scored a goal: "You're going to get your fucking heads kicked in." Or, alternatively, with the same 12-beat cadence: "You're going home in a fucking ambulance." Or, for a slightly more elegant (cleaner and less direct) variation: "You're going to get what Man. United [or substitute another 3-syllables] got." So, yes, something deep within me rejoices to have some enemy to focus on.

But on reflection did the Buddha really see greed, anger and delusion as mortal knife-wielding enemies of mankind? Did he rise from sitting under the bodhi tree with consciousness of enemies that he wished to enlist people's help in slaying? Or was it rather that, because nobody could understand his direct proclamation of "I am Buddha," the Buddha spoke as a skillful means of enemies? Did the Buddha adopt the Dharma-cakra, a weapon, as a symbol of his teaching in order to suit some warrior-like tendency in himself? Or did he do so in order to engage the brains of stupid men with eyes full of dust and blood full of testosterone who are ever prone to be driven by the herd instinct?

My thoughts have been led in the direction of these question by reading a couple of days ago an insightful introduction to the Four Noble Truths by Ajahn Sumedho, which contains the following account of the Buddha's first attempt to convey what he had realised under the Bodhi tree.

The Buddha was on his way from Bodh Gaya to Varanasi when he met an ascetic who was impressed by his radiant appearance. The ascetic said, 'What is it that you have discovered?' and the Buddha responded: 'I am the perfectly enlightened one, the Arahant, the Buddha."

I like to consider this his first sermon. It was a failure because the man listening thought the Buddha had been practising too hard and was overestimating himself. If somebody said those words to us, I'm sure we would react similarly. What what you do if I said, 'I am the perfectly enlightened one'?

Actually, the Buddha's statement was a very accurate, precise teaching. It is the perfect teaching, but people cannot understand it. They tend to misunderstand and to think it comes from an ego because people are always interpreting everything from their egos. 'I am the perfectly enlightened one' may sound like an egotistical statement, but isn't it really purely transcendent? That statement, 'I am the Buddha, the perfectly enlightened one,' is interesting to contemplate because it connects the use of 'I am' with superlative attainments or realisations. In any case, the result of the Buddha's first teaching was that the listener could not understand it and walked away.

At his next attempt, meeting his five former companions at the Deer Park in Varanasi....

instead of saying 'I am the enlightened one,' he said: 'There is suffering. There is the origin of suffering. There is the cessation of suffering. There is the path out of suffering.' Presented in this way, his teaching requires no acceptance or denial. If he had said, 'I am the all-enlightened one,' we would be forced to either agree or disagree -- or just be bewildered. We wouldn't quite know how to look at that statement. However, by saying: 'There is suffering, there is a cause, there is an end of suffering, and there is the way out of suffering,' he offered something for reflection: 'What do you mean by this? What do you mean by suffering, its origin, cessation, and the path?'

So we start contemplating it, thinking about it. With the statement: 'I am the all enlightened one,' we might just argue about it. 'Is he really enlightened?' ... 'I don't think so.' We would just argue; we are not ready for a teaching that is so direct. Obviously, the Buddha's first sermon was to somebody who still had a lot of dust in his eyes and it failed. So on the second occasion, he gave the teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

We usually think that unconsciousness engulfs us, but the Buddha's expression in the 2nd line seems to put it the other way round, exhorting us not to embrace unconsciousness. And embracing unconsciousness is precisely what I and fellow Blues fans were doing as plastic football yobs in the 1970s. When we sang, "You're going to get your fucking heads kicked in," almost none of us really meant it. We were simply expressing our common grief and anguish, whose origin was a shared desire for a different outcome, and the outlet for which was our common enemy -- the happily cheering opposition supporters.

So Sumedho's insight is so true. Understanding how the mind of the dusty-eyed herd works, the Buddha gave us the Four Noble Truths to chew on, and Ashvaghosha gave us an epic poem to round us up and get us going -- because we are simply unable to cope in our dusty-eyed state with the more direct and greater truth of "I am Buddha."

And finally, again, I see a parallel with FM Alexander and his truth of "The right thing does itself." Alexander arrived at the centre of the British Empire from remote Tasmania in 1904 knowing that he had discovered, or re-discovered, something of the greatest importance for mankind. Having discovered it, he then faced the challenge of conveying it in a way that at least some people of his day might discover it for themselves.

EH Johnston:
Therefore recognising sleep to be mental darkness, do not let it overtake you while the vices, like armed foes, are still unquelled.

Linda Covill:
Therefore acknowledge that sleep is darkness, and do not let it envelop you, since the faults, like heavily armed enemies, are not yet won to peace.

tasmaat: therefore
tama: n. darkness
iti: that it is
jNaatvaa (absolutive of jNaa): knowing

nidraam (acc.): f. sleep , slumber , sleepiness , sloth
na: not
aaveShTum = infinitive of aa-√veShT: to spread over
aa-: (as a prefix to verbs , especially of motion , and their derivatives) near , near to , towards
√veShT: to wind or twist round ; to adhere or cling to (loc.)
arhasi: you should

a-prashaanteShu = loc. pl. aprashaanta (from pra-√sham): not tranquillized , calm , quiet ; not extinguished , ceased , allayed , removed , destroyed , dead
pra-√sham: to be allayed or extinguished , cease , disappear , fade away
doSheShu = loc. pl. doSha: fault

sa: ind. an inseparable prefix expressing "junction" , "conjunction" , "possession"
shastreShu = loc. pl. of shastra: m. a sword; n. an instrument for cutting or wounding , knife , sword , dagger , any weapon
iva: like
shatruShu = loc. pl. shatru: " overthrower " , an enemy , foe , rival , a hostile king


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

I sometimes feel an urge to say something significant or meaningful about this text, or about your comments. Thankfully, that urge is weak, and easy to resist; I'm very content to listen. But I will occasionally pipe up when there's a bit of sanskrit that I've a notion about...

My first thought was that "su-shastra" means "well-armed". Does that fit any better?

jiblet said...

...reading "su-shastreShu" as the locative plural of a (bahuvrihi?) compound = "(while) those whose swords are good" = "the good-sworded" = "well-armed" ??

Mike Cross said...

Thanks jiblet.

I take your point that my objection to su-shastreShu on grammatical grounds may be unfounded. But the major objection, which I didn't make clear in the post, is that in EHJ's original text in devanagari script the compound is definitely sa-shastreShu.

Your listening is much appreciated, as also your interventions.