Monday, February 22, 2010

SAUNDARANANDA 17.41: The Fruit of Not Returning

sa kaama-dhaatoH samatikramaaya
paarShNi-grahaaMs taan abhibhuuya shatruun
yogaad anaagaami-phalaM prapadya
dvaar'-iiva nirvaaNa-purasya tasthau

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

In order to go entirely beyond the sphere of desire,

He overpowered those enemies that grab the heel,

So that he attained, because of practice,
the fruit of not returning,

And stood as if at the gateway to the citadel of Nirvana.

In line 1 kaama-dhaatu, "the sphere of desire" is the first of the three spheres of kaama (desire), ruupa (form) and a-ruupa (non-form) that make up the Triple World. The relation between the Triple World and the Buddha-Mind is discussed by Dogen, for example, in Shobogenzo chap. 47 Sangai-yuishin, "The Triple World is Only the Mind." Further detailed information about the six realms that make up the kaama-dhaatu, and the unenlightened gods and men who are thought to inhabit those realms, can be gleaned from Buddhist dictionaries.

But what is Ashvaghosha actually saying, in the first two lines of this verse, about what Nanda did or didn't do in practice, and about what we should or shouldn't do in practice?

For a start, line 1 makes no logical sense, though in practice it does make sense. It makes no logical sense because samatikramaaya, being in the dative case, expresses a kind of desire -- a desire to go entirely beyond the sphere of desire. What is paradoxical in logic makes sense in practice, when a practitioner gives up many kinds of other desire because of the desire to be free. So maybe a distinction needs to be made between two kinds of desire -- for example, the desire for a bit of nothing vs the desire to get something; or the desire to follow an indirect path vs the desire to go straight for an end.

In making this kind of distinction, using the terms "means-whereby" and "end-gaining," FM Alexander explained that the desire to follow the new conscious means has to be stronger than the old instinctive desire to go straight for an end, guided by faulty sensory appreciation. For this reason I think that abhibhuu in line 2 is aptly translated as "overpower."

Among those enemies that seem to sneak up and grab us from behind, enemy number one might be Mara, the personification of the Moro reflex, and at the same time the personification of the end-gaining tendency in all of us. The imagery of being grabbed by the heel, or attacked from behind, seems appropriate in the sense that I am very often blind to my own fearful end-gaining. If I have a hidden agenda the agenda is likely to be hidden most of all from me -- until something I wasn't aware of seems to trip me up... or kick me up the backside, as the case may be.

In Alexander's terms, the overpowering of those end-gaining tendencies that grab the heel has not only a volitional component ("direction") and an inhibitory component ("inhibition") but an additional all-important component of going into action (e.g. moving a leg, or rising from a chair). These are the essential elements, as Alexander saw it, in working on the self. And working on the self is what is expressed in line 3, as I read it, by the word yoga.

The ablative yogaat means through, on the grounds of, because of, as a result of work, or practice. So I think Ashvaghosha is again emphasizing, as in 17.37, that Nanda attained what he attained not by accident, but as a result of hard work.

"Not returning" (an-aagaami) in line 3 means not returning to what or where?

When Johnston took it upon himself to translate aagaami as "rebirth on earth," it must have been on the basis of some Buddhist theory that he, as a Buddhist scholar, had about re-incarnation. But when I as a non-Buddhist read this verse without the filter of belief in some stupid damn theory of re-incarnation, it looks to me that Ashvaghosha is describing a condition in which a practitioner's desire for freedom has been sufficiently strong, and has been sufficiently translated into work on the self, that the practitioner is not subject to the pull of those end-gaining desires which would otherwise enslave him.

And Nanda's attainment of this fruit was not the end of anything. Rather, it took him as if to the gateway of Nirvana. It remained for him to enter, primarily by taking the backward step of turning his light and letting it shine. That backward step, the taking of which will be described in detail in the next twelve verses, is the practice of sitting-dhyana.

EH Johnston:
Having overcome those foes who attack from the rear, in order to pass out of the Kaamadhaatu sphere, and having reached by Yoga the fruit of not being subject to rebirth on earth, he stood as it were at the gate of the city of NirvaaNa.

Linda Covill:
In order to pass entirely beyond the sphere of desire, he had overpowered those enemies who attack from behind, and through yogic practice he had won the fruit of not returning to earth; now he stood as though at the gateway to the city of nirvana.

saH (nom. sg. m.): he
kaama-dhaatoH = gen. sg. kaama-dhaatu: m. the region of the wishes , seat of the kaamaa-vacara
kaamaa-vacara: m. pl. the spheres or worlds of desire (six in number , also called devaloka) ; the gods or inhabitants of the worlds of desire
vacara: m. a low person
kaama: m. wish, desire, longing
dhaatu: m. layer , stratum ; constituent part , ingredient (esp. ifc. , where often = " fold " e.g. tri-dh/Atu , threefold); element
samatikramaaya = dat. sg. samatikrama: m. going entirely over or beyond

paarShNi: f. the heel, the rear of an army (paarShNim √ grah with gen. , to attack in the rear)
grahaan (acc. pl. m.): seizing , laying hold of , holding
taan (acc. pl. m.): those
abhibhuuya = abs. abhi- √bhuu: to overcome , overpower , predominate , conquer , surpass , overspread ; to attack , defeat , humiliate
shatruun (acc. pl.): m. enemies

yogaad (abl.): through practice, because of practice
anaagaami-phalam (acc. sg.): the fruit of no going back
anaagaamin: mfn. not coming , not arriving; not future , not subject to returning
phalam: n. fruit; result
prapadya = abs. pra-√pad: arrive at , attain , enter (with acc.)

dvaari = loc. sg. dvaar: f. gate, door, entrance
iva: like
nirvaaNa-purasya = gen. sg. nirvaaNa-pura: the citadel of Nirvana
nirvaaNa: n. blowing out, extinction; perfect calm or happiness
pura: n. a fortress , castle , city , town
tasthau = 3rd pers. perfect sthaa: to stand, stand firm


Happi said...

Mmmmm...I think Dogen once said something like "kind speech has the power to turn around the heavens."

Just a kindly meant reminder. Peace,


Mike Cross said...

Sometimes bad karma from past lives seems to catch up with me....

Anonymous said...

Sometimes? By definition, isn't it true that this entire existence is conditioned by "bad karma from past lives"? I'm familiar with this teaching from Tibetan sources... does Ashvaghosha mention this view?

Mike Cross said...

Hello there, Anon

In general, I think every word Ashvaghosha writes is in the direction of negating all views. The next twelve verses describing Nanda's practice of sitting-dhyana are a case in point -- progress (or regress) from one stage to the next coming as a result of seeing a fault.

But in regard to the particular view you refer to, this verse can be understood as just a negation of that view.

That is to say, on those occasions when it is as if the bad habits I practised in the past catch up with me and trip me up, so that I seem to be useless and dysfunctional, then I by the weakness of my practice have not overpowered my enemies but have rather allowed them to grab me by the heel.

Whereas Nanda, because of his diligent work on himself, is described in this verse as having overpowered those enemies that grab the heel, or attack from behind.

So I think we should understand this verse as encouragement not to be daunted by the view you mentioned, and at the same time as encouragement to keep on with practice, as works in progress, so that the entirety of existence might not be conditioned by bad karma from past lives.

It may be that when the entirety of existence is not conditioned by bad karma from past lives, then kind speech has the power to turn around the heavens.

If, however, we affect kind speech when the entirety of our existence is still conditioned by bad karma, then we are not fooling anybody -- except maybe ourselves.

That's why when my teacher Gudo Nishijima in his old age began calling certain of his students "Venerable So & So," I thought the whole thing was a crock of shit and refused to be part of it.

Insofar as Gudo saw himself as a work in progress, I revered him and served him. But to the extent that he began to behave as if he were the finished article, when I knew damn well that he was never the finished article, I despise him for that, and would like at all costs to avoid going down the same path of lying to self and others.

The affectation of kind speech, from a person who due to the influence of bad karma from past lives is still lying to himself, doesn't sound too good ot my ears.