Wednesday, November 4, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 15.11: Being, Not Mindful of Desires

calaan a-pariniShpannaan
a-saaraan an-avashtitaan
parikalpa-sukhaan kaamaan
na taan smartum ih' aarhasi.

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With regard to changeable, unformed,

Insubstantial and ungrounded desires,

Which are presumed to bring happiness,

You, being here and now, need pay no heed to them.

Desires (kaamaan) are ever-changing, changeable, fickle, shifting (cala); they are unformed, undeveloped, immature or unhatched (a-pariniShpanna) in the sense that they tend to be dream-like and fantastic rather than realistic and for the most part we are not conscious of them; in their lack of materiality they are flimsy, sapless, insubstantial (a-saara); and because they tend to point not here but there, they are unsteady, destabilizing, ungrounded (an-avashtita).

And yet, even though desires are by nature so fickle and flimsy, it is only through our desires that we can arrive here, at this time and place -- the only time and place where happiness/ease (sukha) can exist. So the presumption (parikalpa) that desires bring happiness has not yet been falsified.

But as long as you are in the here and now (iha), engaging in the fundamental, the Buddha seems to be saying, it is needless to be mindful of the desires that got you here.

For one who is living in the here and now, in other words, mindfulness of desires is already redundant.

Thus, with the observation that it may become needless to be mindful of desire, the Buddha concludes a series of verses on the theme of kaama, desire.

In verses 15.3 - 15.11, on one level, kaama may be understood as synonymous with raaga, passion/greed, the first of the three afflictions of passion/greed, anger/ill-will, and ignorance/delusion that poison the human mind. But what Ashvaghosha has done in this series of verses, as I read it, is to encourage the unwary reader in the direction of a simplistic understanding (the passions are an evil to be cut), while below the surface he is subverting that very understanding (desire is life).

On one level then, the Buddha is explaining what it is to purify the mind from defilements, in descending order of their grossness, beginning with gross sensuality. But on a deeper level the Buddha, at least as I hear him, is recognizing that desire is the very lifeblood of sitting practice.

If this understanding is correct, why has Ashvaghosha taken such pains to keep this ambiguity going through this whole series of verses? I think the clue might be in the title that Ashvoghosha chose for this canto, namely vitarka-prahaaNa, "Giving Up an Idea."

With metaphor and skillful means, as opposed to commandments and preachiness, Ashvaghosha is inviting us to experience for ourselves what it feels like to have a succession of insights that, in the end, turn out to have been not the Buddha's true gold at all, but just a load of our own dust and fluff.

EH Johnston:
Take heed not to fix your attention in this world on the passions, which are unstable, unreal, hollow and uncertain ; the pleasure which they give is but a product of the imagination.

Linda Covill:
The passions are shifting, unreal, without a core, unstable. The happiness they bring is a figment of the imagination ; pay no attention to them now.

calaan = acc. pl. m. cala: mfn. moving , trembling , shaking , loose ; unsteady , fluctuating , perishable
a: not, un-
pariniShpannaan = acc. pl. m: pariniShpanna: mfn. developed , perfect , real , existing
pari: ind. round, fully
nis: ind. out , forth , away &c
panna: mfn. fallen , fallen down , gone &c
niSh-panna: mfn. gone forth or sprung up , arisen; brought about , effected , succeeded , completed , finished , ready

a-saaraan = acc. pl. m asaara: mfn. sapless , without strength or value , without vigour , spoiled , unfit , unprofitable
an-avashtitaan = acc. pl. m. an-avasthita: mfn. unsettled , unsteady , loose in conduct
ava: ind. (as a prefix to verbs and verbal nouns expresses) off , away , down
shtita: mfn. standing, standing firm
avashtita: mfn. standing near, placed ; steady , trusty , to be relied on

parikalpa (from pari- √ klRp) : m. illusion; n. fixing , settling , contriving , making , inventing
pari- √ klRp: to fix , settle , determine , destine for (with acc.); to choose ; to perform , execute , accomplish , contrive , arrange , make ; to suppose , presuppose
sukhaan = acc. pl. m. sukha: mfn. (said to mean originally " having a good axle-hole ") running swiftly or easily (only applied to cars or chariots ); pleasant (rarely with this meaning in veda) , agreeable , gentle , mild ;comfortable , happy , prosperous ; virtuous , pious
kaamaan = acc. pl. kaama: m. wish, desire, ambition etc.

na: not
taan (acc. pl. m.): them, those [desires]
smartum = infinitive smR: to remember , recollect , bear in mind , call to mind , think of , be mindful of (gen. or acc.)
iha: ind. in this place , here; now, at this time
arhasi: you should

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