Wednesday, November 24, 2010

SAUNDARANANDA 6.40: A Call to Chastity

praayeNa mokShaaya viniHsRtaanaaM
shaakya'-rShabhaaNaaM viditaaH striyas te
tapo-vanaan' iiva gRhaaNi yaasaaM
saadhvii-vrataM kaamavad aashritaanaam

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

You are acquainted with wives

Of Shakya bulls gone forth in pursuit of liberation:

As a rule,
they are women whose homes are like ascetic groves

And who observe a vow of chastity
as if it were their pleasure.

The speaker, woman number two, is speaking with good intentions, out of affection for Sundari and a desire to comfort her. At the same time, her approach seems rather headmistress-like and direct; it seems to lack a certain guile, and so what she is saying does not pass the pragmatic test of truth -- it doesn't work. She wishes to console Sundari, but what she says does not have the desired effect.

This woman, then, may be seen as a female equivalent of the monk who mounts his attack on women in Canto 8. Just as the woman speaking now wants to help Sundari, the monk's intention, similarly, is to help Nanda. He tries to put Nanda off Sundari by emphasizing the inherent ugliness of women in general. But the monk's direct strategy doesn't work. What actually works is the cunning ploy of the Buddha who makes Nanda aware of beauty so amazing that it puts even the lovely Sundari in the shade. (This amazing beauty, alas, Nanda then sees to be fleeting.)

We might easily think that all the real gold of Saundarananda is contained in those Cantos where the Buddha demonstrates the use of skillful means, or where Ashvaghosha paints his portrait of the Buddha, or where the Buddha preaches the truth to Nanda, or where Ashvaghosha describes the process of Nanda's own awakening. That I am prey to such thinking is demonstrated by the order in which I have attacked the translation of the cantos of Saundarananda. I have followed my usual way (oft complained about in the bedroom) of going directly for the target.

But true thoughts that run counter to this blinkered, goal-oriented approach are, in the words of FM Alexander, "To know when we are wrong is all that we shall ever know in this world;" and in the words of Zen Master Dogen, "Ordinary people are deluded about enlightenment; buddhas are enlightened about delusion."

In that spirit, the same interest that we show in the skillful means of the Buddha, we might also show in the unskillful means of the monk in Canto 8, and of the woman speaking now.

In the end, I sit myself in lotus and where do I start? What do I know?

I know that my habitual end-gaining is not skillful. It creates clutter. But by seating myself in solitude I have already begun to be free of that clutter, and dug out for myself a bit of space -- and this feels good. Such is the first dhyana, born of solitude and divorced from the taint of end-gaining.

What I know then is that feeling good is not the point of practice. The point is rather to go in a meaningful direction and this means, in the first instance, going from a state of pleasant indulgence in miscellaneous thoughts and ideas in the direction of "the state of not thinking" or "one-pointedness."

How does one go in that direction? Not by blind unconscious doing. Not by suppressing thought through an effort of physical gymnastics. As George in a recent comment pointed out from his own experience, that is the direct route only to becoming a champion of stiff hips.

If not by doing, then by thinking... but how?

I don't know.

FM Alexander described his work as "an exercise in finding out what thinking is." It seems to me more to the point to describe this work of sitting practice as an exercise in finding out what thinking is not.

And that is why the present series of verses, though their relevance may not be immediately apparent, are of absolutely vital relevance to the one great matter.

EH Johnston:
You know that for the most part the wives of those mighty Sakyas who go off in search of salvation treat their homes as groves of asceticism, taking on themselves the vow of chastity as if it were the same as love.

Linda Covill:
You know about those wives of eminent Shakyas who go forth for liberty's sake -- most of them observe a vow of chastity as though it were a passionate promise, and make their homes like ascetics' groves.

praayeNa: ind. mostly , generally , as a rule ; most probably , likely
praaya: m. (fr. pra + aya √ i) going forth , starting (for a battle) ; departure from life , seeking death by fasting (as a religious or penitentiary act); anything prominent , chief part , largest portion , plenty , majority , general rule
mokShaaya (dat. sg.): m. emancipation , liberation , release
viniHsRtaanaam (gen. pl. m.): mfn. gone forth or out , issued forth
vi-niH- √ sR: to go forth , issue out , spring from (abl.)

shaakya'-rShabhaaNaam (gen. pl.): of Shakya bulls
RShabha: m. (fr. v RSh, to thrust) a bull (as impregnating the flock) ; the best or most excellent of any kind or race
viditaaH (nom. pl. f.): mfn. known , understood , learnt , perceived ; apprised , informed
striyaH (nom. pl.): f. a woman, female, wife
te (gen. sg.): to you

tapo-vanaani (acc. pl.): n. a grove in which religious austerities are performed
iva: like
gRhaaNi (acc.. pl.): m. house, home
yaasaam (gen. pl. f.): who

saadhvii-vratam (acc. sg. n.): vow of chastity
saadhvii: f. a chaste or virtuous woman , faithful wife
vrata: n. a religious vow or practice , any pious observance , meritorious act of devotion or austerity , solemn vow , rule , holy practice (as fasting , continence &c
kaama-vat (acc. sg. n.): mfn. being in love , enamoured , wanton
kaama: m. love, sensual pleasure
vat: ind. like, with
aashritaanaam (gen. pl. f.): mfn. attaching one's self to , joining
having recourse to ; following , practising , observing

No comments: