Monday, February 1, 2010

SAUNDARANANDA 17.20: The Real Basis of Emptiness

yatash ca saMskaara-gataM viviktaM
na kaarakaH kash cana vedako vaa
saamagryataH sambhavati pravRttiH
shuunyaM tato lokam imaM dadarsha

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

And since separateness is a construct,

There being no-one who creates or who is made known,

But doing arises out of a whole caboodle of gubbins,

He realised, on that basis, that this world is empty.

In line 1 saMskaara means something made up, a fiction, a construct. As one of the five skandhas (aggregates of being), saMskaara was rendered into Chinese/Japanese with a character (GYO) meaning "conduct" or "action" -- presumably to convey the sense of "impression on the mind of acts done in a former state of existence" [MW; see below].

That Gudo Nishijima and I translated GYO, as one of the five skandhas, as "enaction," then, was not entirely our own fault. It seems that whoever turned to the Chinese character for conduct (GYO) as a representation of saMskaara, either did not understand what Ashvaghosha is saying here, or even if he did understand, there was no other Chinese character that was better suited to convey the original meaning of saMskaara as fiction, or mental construct.

Using Chinese pictographs to convey Sanskrit words, it seems to me, has been very problematic over many centuries in an age of the Imitative Dharma. For conveying the meaning of the Buddha's teaching exactly in writing, it is difficult for me to believe that any writer of Chinese and Japanese might have been able to improve on the writing of Ashvaghosha, who is saying here, clearly, that separateness (viviktam) is encased in a construct (saMskaara-gatam).

Separateness, though only a construct, is a very fundamental and necessary one, without which artefacts like marriage, parenthood, translation partnership, and home ownership might founder. Sometimes it takes an earthquake to bring the edifice tumbling down. But here Nanda, just sitting in lotus and directing his whole body up, having collected his mind into himself, realises that this world is empty not by recourse to a dramatic event like an earthquake, but rather by carrying out an empirical investigation into things as they are.

In a letter to his brother about his painting of cypress trees, Vincent van Gogh wrote, "It astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them." Van Gogh's sentence struck me when I read it. Something in me rejoices at and wants to celebrate his individuality and quest for originality. But truly how great a creative genius was Vincent van Gogh? Ashvaghosha's answer here is: No, nothing -- MU. Vincent van Gogh is a construct. What line 2 is saying, as I read it, is that nobody created the painting of the cypress trees that we attribute to van Gogh; there was no Vincent van Gogh to be made known.

Doing (pravRtti) in line 3 is a key word in Canto 16, viz:

The many and various disappointments of men, like old age,
Occur as long as their DOING goes on.

And this, the suffering of DOING, in the world,
Has its cause in clusters of faults which start with thirsting

Again, you must understand how, due to this cause,
Because of men's faults, THE CYCLE OF DOING GOES ON,

Then comprehend that suffering is DOING,
And witness the faults moving it forward.
Realise its stopping as non-doing,
And know the path as a turning back.

In order to understand how pravRtti (doing) arises out of saamagrya (a whole caboodle of gubbins), then, it might be necessary first to experience inhibition of the whole gubbins in nivRtti (non-doing).

Otherwise philosophical discussion of shuunyataa ("emptiness") might be a futile exercise.

The meaning of space/emptiness (KU) is key in chapters of Shobogenzo such as chap. 22, BUSSHO (The Buddha-nature); chap. 43, KUGE (Flowers in Space); and chap. 77 KOKU (Space), and so my Zen Master talked a lot about the meaning of emptiness in the process of elucidating his take on Shobogenzo. The real basis of emptiness, Gudo never tired of asserting, was balance of the autonomic nervous system.

Clear understanding of the principle of non-doing, however, was sadly lacking in me during my years in Japan. Rather, there was a tremendous amount of doing arising out of constructs like "me", constructs like "my Zen Master", and constructs like "the autonomic nervous system" -- doing, in fact, that arose out of a whole caboodle of gubbins.

I somehow knew there was something wrong with my approach, but nobody could tell me exactly where I was going wrong -- until I started having lessons in the FM Alexader Technique. Then it soon transpired that my pursuit of the truth of non-doing was totally arse over tit.

To realise, on that basis, that this world is empty, is not the realisation of the fourth fruit of the Dharma -- i.e. Buddhahood. It is not even the realisation of the first fruit, which still awaits Nanda in 17.27. It is only one of a series of realisations that causes the tree of afflictions to shake.

EH Johnston:
Since the individual is a mere creature of the saMskaaras and there is neither agent nor knower and active being originates from the complex (of the cause), he saw that this world is devoid (of individuality).

Linda Covill:
Since individuality is produced by conditions, and there is no maker or thinker, and individual activity arises from a network of causes, Nanda saw that this world is empty.

yataH: whence, since
ca: and
saMskaara-gatam (nom. sg. n.): produced from making up
saMskaara: m. putting together , forming well , making perfect , accomplishment , embellishment, adornment , purification , cleansing , making ready , preparation ; forming the mind , training , education
the faculty of memory , mental impression or recollection , impression on the mind of acts done in a former state of existence; (pl. , with Buddhists) a mental conformation or creation of the mind (such as that of the external world , regarded by it as real , though actually non-existent , and forming the second link in the twelvefold chain of causation or the fourth of the 5 skandhas)
saM-s-√kR: to put together , form well , join together , compose
gata: come , come forth from (in comp.)
viviktam (nom. sg.): n. separation , solitude , a lonely place

na: not
kaarakaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. making , doing , acting , who or what does or produces or creates ; intending to act or do
kash cana: any
vedakaH (nom. sg. m.): making known , announcing , proclaiming; restoring to consciousness
vaa: or

saamagryataH: from a totality
saamagrya: f. (fr. sam-agra) totality , entirety , completeness , (esp.) a complete collection or assemblage of implements or materials , apparatus , baggage , goods and chattels , furniture , effects
sam-agra: mfn. whole
-taH: (ablative/adverbial suffix)
sambhavati = 3rd pers. sg. sambhuu: to be or come together , assemble , meet , be joined or united with ; to be born or produced from (abl.) , arise , spring up , develop ; to happen , occur , be , be found , exist
pravRttiH (nom. sg.): f. moving onwards , advance , progress ; active life (as opposed to ni-vRtti, non-doing)

shuunyam (acc. sg. m.): empty
tataH: thence, from that, on that basis
lokam (acc. sg.): m. the world
imam (acc. sg. m.): this
dadarsha (3rd pers. perfect drsh): he saw, realised


Happi said...

Mike -

Got an extra laugh this morning when I encountered "caboodle of gubbins". A stroke of genius? Nice to learn a new word (gubbins) every now and then!

Thanks for the continuing insights.



Mike Cross said...

Thanks Gisela,

Not so much a stroke of genius, I fear, as a whole caboodle of gubbins spontaneously expressing itself in my clumsy efforts to do and not to do.

Thanks for continuing to listen.