Thursday, December 24, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 15.61: Impetuous Death

saamnaa daanena bhedena
daNDena niyamena vaa
praapto hi rabhaso mRtyuH
pratihantuM na shakyate

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

For cajoling, bribing, dividing,

Or the use of force or restraint,

When impetuous Death has arrived,

Are powerless to beat him back.

Why does the Buddha call death "impetuous" (rabhasa)?

In preparing this verse, I found myself leaning more towards words like obdurate, unyielding, adamant. But the dictionary says impetuous, violent, wild.

My preferred image of death is like a good doorman -- one who, when he says "You're not coming in" in a voice without doubt or anger, clearly really means it. A good doorman has the same quality as one who is good with dogs -- what Cesar Milan ("the dog whisperer") calls calm assertiveness -- whereas a doorman who has assertiveness without calm is more liable to be assailed, in accordance with the mirror principle, by some customer who has his own issues with anger.

Anger, as my wife pointed out to me a few days ago, tends to make a person weak. Quad Erat Demonstrandum. Sometimes when I get angry the accompanying surge of energy makes me feel strong, but the feeling is not reliable: the strength is not durable; it is more akin to a sugar rush. It is a rush that, for better or for worse, I seem to access all too easily. I probably wouldn't have made a doorman of the kind I would like Death to be -- the fair-minded, calm assertive kind who, like the World Cup-winning England rugby team Thinks Clearly Under Pressure (T-CUP).

In my picture of the inevitable encounter with Death, I see myself arriving at some venue -- let's call it "Eternal Life" -- around 11 o' clock at night with a group of good friends, all of whom are told matter-of-factly, "You are not coming in." In my imagination, Death is reasonable and fair-minded, not impetuous. He might not be inclined to wait around, but why would he need to be in a hurry? He knows that time's arrow is pointing inexorably in his direction.

By calling Death impetuous -- rabhasa, from the root √ rabh, to grab -- the Buddha inconveniently spoils my metaphor of the calm assertive doorman waiting at his door. He turns my calm assertive doorman into a psychopath who comes running in when the evening is but young -- while I am all alone in the shower, say -- and violently grabs me in a manner which strikes me as unwarranted and unfair.

So, with the inconvenient word "impetuous," the Buddha seems to subvert an idea of Death from which I draw some comfort.

And in thus having my own idea turned upside down, I am reminded again of the question Frank Lambert asks in connection with the 2nd law of thermodynamics:

How knowledgeable are we in this modern era if our view of the physical world is so upside down that we consider anything that is disadvantageous to us to be unwarranted and unfair?

EH Johnston:
For Death arrives raging and cannot be combated by conciliation, gifts, sowing dissension, force of arms or abstinence.

Linda Covill:
For impetuous Death, when he arrives, cannot be countered with diplomacy, gifts, sowing dissent, force or sanctions.

saamnaam = inst. sg. saamnan: n. acquisition , possession , property , wealth , abundance ; calming , tranquillizing , (esp.) kind or gentle words for winning an adversary , conciliation , negotiation
daanena = inst. daana: n. the act of giving
bhedena = inst. bheda: m. (from √ bhid, to split) breaking , splitting; a cleft , fissure , chasm; separation , division ; disuniting , winning over to one's side by sowing dissension

daNDena = inst. daNDa: m. a stick , staff , rod , pole , cudgel ; a staff or sceptre as a symbol of power and sovereignty (cf. nyasta-) , application of power , violence ; the rod as a symbol of judicial authority and punishment , punishment
niyamena = inst. niyama: m. restraining , checking , holding back , preventing , controlling
vaa: or

praaptaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. attained to , reached , arrived at
hi: for
rabhasaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. impetuous , violent , rapid , fierce , wild ; strong , powerful (said of the soma); shining, glaring
√ rabh: to take hold of , grasp , clasp , embrace; to desire vehemently; to act rashly
rabhas: n. violence , impetuosity , zeal , ardour , force , energy
mRtyuH (nom. sg.): m. death

pratihantuM = inf. prati- √ han: to attack , assail ; to strike down ; to strike in return , strike back , ward off, remove , dispel , check , prevent , frustrate
na: not
shakyate = 3rd pers. sg. passive shak: to be capable; to be able or capable or possible or practicable (with an inf. in pass. sense)

No comments: