Sunday, February 21, 2010

SAUNDARANANDA 17.40: Three Seats of Release

muulaany atha triiNy a-shubasya viiras
tribhir vimokSh'-aayatanaish cakarta
camuu-mukha-sthaan dhRta-kaarmukaaMs triin
ariin iv' aaris tribhir aayas'-aagraiH

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

And so the hero cut the three roots of shameful conduct

Using three seats of release,

As if three rival princes,
bearing bows in the van of their armies,

Had been cut down by one prince using three iron points.

By the three roots of shameful conduct, symbolized by three enemy princes at the head of great armies, Ashvaghosha clearly means:
Enemy no. (1) raaga : redness; red passion; blind, end-gaining love; lust; vehement end-gaining desire;
Enemy no. (2) vyaapaada: malice, ill-will; or dveSha: hatred, enmity;
Enemy no (3) moha: ignorance, delusion.

What he means by the three vimokSh'-aayatana "seats of release," symbolized by three iron points, is up for discussion -- line 2, as I read it, is an invitation for every reader to dig as deeply as he or she would like to dig.

Johnston notes that the three vimokSh'-aayatana or "bases of liberation" are usually called the vimokSha-mukhas or "means/causes of liberation," which are namely:

shuunyataa: emptiness
a-nimitta: not having a cause
a-praNihita: not having a desire or purpose.

Following EHJ in apparent deference to the Buddhist dictionary, LC notes that the three supports of liberation are the conditionless, the desireless, and emptiness.

If you were brought to this blog by devotion to the practice of sitting-dhyana, you may feel, like me, that these terms on their own do not have much practical value for us.

The Buddhist dictionary has its place in the Universe, diligent Buddhist scholars like EH Johnston certainly have their place in the Universe, a talented linguist and lovely writer of English like Linda Covill certainly has her place in the Universe. But so do the seekers for whom I write this blog -- practitioners who are devoted to the pursuit of release in their own sitting practice, and who cannot therefore be satisfied with superficial explanations. If you are not like that, then I don't need you here holding up a mirror to me with your trivial "takes" on practice and your false pride in the fixed edifices of your intellectual knowledge.... Or there again maybe I do.

Anyway, setting aside external sources of Buddhist scholarship, is it possible for deeper understanding of the three vimokSh'-aayatana to be dug out from the goldmine of Saundarananda itself?

In verses 16.59 to 16.64 of Canto 16 the Buddha, using an analogy from aryuvedic medicine, instructed Nanda exactly in a three-pronged approach to cutting the three roots of passion, malice, and delusion, viz:

When the mind is filled with the red joys of passion,

Direction towards oneself of loving-kindness is not to be practised;

For a passionate type is stupefied by love,

Like a sufferer from phlegm taking oil.

Steadiness lies, when one's mind is stirred up by passion,

In coming back to a disagreeable stimulus;

For thus a passionate type obtains relief,

Like a phlegmatic type taking an astringent.

When a mind is wound up, however, with the fault of malice,

A disagreeable stimulus is not to be dwelt upon;

For unpleasantness is destructive to a hating type,

As acid treatment is to a man of bilious nature.

When the mind is agitated by the fault of malice,

Loving-kindness should be practised, towards oneself;

For kindness is calming to a hate-afflicted soul,

As cooling treatment is to the man of bilious nature.

Where there is wandering of the mind, tied to delusion,

Both loving-kindness and unpleasantness are unsuitable,

For a deluded man is further deluded by these two,

Like a windy type given an astringent.

When working of the mind is deluded in nature,

One should appreciate the causality herein;

For here in the midst of mental delusion lies a path to peace,

Like treating a wind condition with oil.

Echoing this three-pronged instruction, Ashvaghosha in Canto 17 has described Nanda escaping from the net of shabby views and defeating passion and malice, by appreciating everything depending on everything (17.31); by his use of a disagreeable stimulus to kill passion (17.38); and by his use of loving-kindness to beat malice (17.39).

The three elements of this three-pronged approach are liable to be interpreted, by Buddhist scholars and voice-hearers of the small vehicle, as (1) meditation on so-called dependent origination (pratyaya-samutpada); (2) impurity meditation; and (3) loving-kindness meditation.

For Dogen, however, and therefore I assume for his ancestor Ashvaghosha, if there is any such thing as meditation it is only sitting-meditation, in which sitting is the meditation and the meditation is sitting.

Digging deeper then, I would like to understand the three seats of release on a more integrated and unified basis -- for example, as the shiila (integrity), shama (stillness), and prajNaa (wisdom) which are totally centred on the practice of sitting upright with legs fully crossed. This three-way classification of the noble path is as described from 16.30 to 16.37, wherein shiila (integrity) affords protection against the afflictions which are the root of shameful conduct, shama (stillness) repells those afflictions, and prajNaa (wisdom) destroys them without trace.

So above are three interpretations of what Ashvaghosha might mean by three seats of release, or three supports of liberation. The latter two interpretations arise out of seeing a fault in the previous one, and that process of becoming aware of faults in interpretations has not finished yet.

Ashvaghosha neglects to spell out for us exactly what he means by vimokSh'-aayatana. I suspect that this might be intentional, because he wishes to encourage each listener to ask and answer the question for himself or herself -- to embark on his own process of coming up with bright ideas and saying "No!" to them.

What three seats of release do you rely upon for support?
- Three words from a Buddhist dictionary?
- Resorting to a disagreeable stimulus, practice of loving-kindness, and investigation of causality?
- Threefold practice of integrity, stillness, and wisdom?

Truly, it may be that such asking and answering and saying "No, not that answer!", cannot take place for real without face-to-face contact with a teacher who knows the score. Ultimately it may be impossible for a practitioner on his own to dig out the true gold even from Ashvaghosha's own words, much less from the Buddhist dictionary. And even contact with a teacher who knows the score, if there is any such animal on the earth today, could not be sufficient in itself. Ultimately, each person is required to do his or her own digging for gold alone on a round cushion. Ultimate negation takes place only on the round cushion.

And on that basis, when Ashvaghosha wrote of three seats of release, I wonder: might he secretly have had in his mind the mat under his left knee, the mat under his right knee, and the sitting-cushion under his bum?

EH Johnston:
Then the hero cut away the three roots of evil with the three bases of liberation, as an enemy cuts down with three steel-tipped arrows three enemies standing at the head of the hostile array and holding bows.

Linda Covill:
Then he, the hero, cut away the three roots of impurity with the three supports of liberation, like a noble man cuts down three bow-bearing enemies at the head of their army with three metal-tipped arrows.

muulaani (acc. pl.): n. roots
atha: ind. then, now
triiNi (acc. pl. n.): three
a-shubasya = gen. sg. m./n. a-shuba: mfn. not beautiful or agreeable , disagreeable; n. a shameful deed , sin ; m. misfortune , harm , mischief
viiraH (nom. sg.): m. a man , (esp.) a brave or eminent man , hero

tribhiH (inst. pl. n.): with three
vimokSha: m. being loosened or undone ; release ; letting go
aayatanaiH = inst. pl. aayatana: n. resting-place , support , seat , place , home , house , abode
aa-√yat: to arrive , enter ; to adhere , abide ; to attain to ; to rest on , depend on ; to be at the disposition of ; to make efforts
cakarta = 3rd pers. perfect kRt: to cut , cut in pieces , cut off

camuu: an army or division of an army (129 elephants , as many cars , 2187 horse , and 3645 foot)
mukha: n. the mouth, face ; the fore part , front , van (of an army); the upper part , head , top , tip or point of anything ; cause, means
sthaan = acc. pl. m. stha: mfn. (only ifc.) standing , staying , abiding , being situated in
dhRta: mfn. held , borne
kaarmukaan = acc. pl. kaarmuka: n. a bow
triin (acc. pl. m.): three

ariin = acc. pl. ari: m. enemy, a rival prince
iva: like
ariH (nom. sg. m.): an enemy, a rival prince
tribhiH (inst. pl. n.): with three
aayasa: mfn. of iron , made of iron or metal , metallic ; armed with an iron weapon ; n. iron
agraiH = inst. pl. agra: n. foremost point or part; n. tip; n. point

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