A principle that emerges from this Canto, as I read it, is that eloquence and wisdom are by no means the same thing. And it is at least partly in this light, I think, that one should read Ashvaghosha's description of himself, in the closing words of Saundarananda, as mahaa-vaadin.
mahaa means great, and vaadin means speaking/talking or speaker/talker. So mahaa-vaadin could mean one who speaks of that which is great, or one who is a great talker.
In the former meaning, "speaker of the great," i.e. propounder of the great teaching, mahaa-vaadin might be regarded as including Ashavaghosha's recognition of his own role in promoting that great stream which was later to be called mahaa-yaana, the great vehicle, and of which Ashvaghosha's grandson Nagarjuna is generally regarded to be the main instigator.
At the same time I think that in the latter meaning of "great talker," mahaa-vaadin might also be intended to convey a hint of ironic self-deprecation -- because "a great talker" of the talk is not necessarily a great walker of the walk.
Being a great talker of the talk rests on eloquence, or a poet's gift of the gab. But being a great walker of the walk rests on real wisdom. And, as is evidenced in this Canto, it is invariably wisdom, but not necessarily eloquence, that ultimately causes living beings who are suffering to come to earth.
Because wisdom is so highly esteemed, even among transcendent virtues, it is customary, in China and Japan, to dedicate any merit that has accrued from a period of practice to the following objects of veneration:
All buddhas in the ten directions and three times;
Many venerable bodhi-sattvas and maha-sattvas;
The transcendent virtue which is the great real wisdom
And this real wisdom, I understood from my time in Japan, is centred on nothing but the practice of sitting-meditation. Therefore, from the outset, when I first got my hands on Linda Covill's translation of Saundarananda two years ago, I did not pay much attention to this Canto. I was not naturally drawn to a Canto which is not about sitting-meditation, but which is about a grieving drama queen, about an emotional woman who innocently blurts out the truth without foreseeing the consequences, about a woman who makes worthy pronouncements as if sitting on her high horse, and in the end about a woman who, in not trying to be right, speaks intimate non-truth so as to help her human sister come to earth. I sensed from the outset that this Canto might not have much to say to the iron man of Zen who walks the walk on the stage of real wisdom... and indeed it doesn't.
But what, in the end, is real wisdom? The ultimate message of this Canto, as I have now been forced to read it, is that wisdom starts to operate when misguided effort (for example, trying to be the iron man of Zen) stops. It is in the chinks between trying to be right that niches (which, it is true, may be sitting-buddha-shaped) are carved out of space and time; and in these niches anybody -- everybody's sister and brother, including not only the grieving but also the silly and the high and mighty -- are allowed to come to earth.
Ultimately this Canto seems to draw a line, like a series of scattered drops, around the space in which a human body, whose suffering is real and physical, is allowed to come to earth. And this space and real wisdom, space and wisdom, wisdom and space, seem in some unfathomable way to be connected with each other, very intimately.
(What a lot of talking the talk!)
And so, her husband having been taken
by respect for the Guru,
Bereft of her happiness, left joyless,
Though she remained at the same spot,
high up in the palace,
Sundari no longer seemed to be herself.
Anticipating her husband's approach,
She leant forward,
her breasts invading the bulls-eye window,
As she looked out expectantly
from the palace roof towards the gateway,
With her earrings dangling down across her face.
With her pearl necklaces dangling and straps dishevelled
As she bent down from the palace,
She looked like the most gorgeous of the apsarases
gazing from her celestial abode
At her lover, his ascetic credit exhausted, falling down.
With a cold sweat on her beautiful brow,
Her face-paint drying in her sighs,
And her eyes restless with anxious thoughts,
There she stood, suspecting her husband,
Tired out by a long time standing in that state,
She dropped, just where she stood, onto a couch,
And lay across it with her necklaces scattered
And a slipper half hanging off one foot.
At this one of the women,
Not wishing to see Sundari in her tearful distress,
Stepped too loudly on the stairs from the penthouse
As she suddenly found herself weeping.
Hearing the sound on the stairs of that woman's feet
Sundari quickly jumped back up again;
Transfixed with joy, she bristled with excitement,
Believing it to be the approach of her beloved.
Scaring the pigeons in their rooftop roosts
With the jangling of her ankle bracelets,
She dashed to the stairwell
Without thinking, in her excitement,
about the end of her finery that had fallen off.
On seeing the woman she was crestfallen;
She sighed, threw herself again onto the couch,
And no longer shone:
with her face suddenly pallid
She was as grey as a pale-mooned sky in early winter.
Pained at not seeing her husband,
Burning with desire and fury,
She sat down with face in hand
And steeped herself in the river of worries,
whose water is sorrow.
Her lotus-rivalling face,
Resting on the hennaed stem of her hand,
Was like a lotus above the reflection in the water
Of its mud-born self, drooping down.
She considered various possibilities,
in accordance with a woman's nature;
Then, failing to see the truth
that her husband had taken refuge in the dharma,
While obviously still in love with
and oriented towards her,
She constructed various scenarios
and uttered various laments:
"He promised me: 'I'll be back
Before the paint on your face is dry';
From what cause would such a cherisher of promises
As my beloved is, be now a breaker of promises?
In him who was noble, good, compassionate,
Always in awe of me, and too honest,
How has such an unprecedented transformation
Through a loss of passion on his part?
From a mistake of mine?
The heart of my lover
-- lover of sexual pleasure and of me --
Has obviously waned in its passion for me,
For if he still loved me
He would, having regard for my heart,
not have failed to return.
Another woman, then,
better than me in beauty and in temperament,
My beloved has surely beheld;
For, having soothed me as he did with his empty words,
He has gone off and left me, attached to him as I am.
As for that devotion to the Buddha of which he spoke,
It was only a pretext to me for leaving;
For if he were clearly settled on the Sage
He would fear untruth no less than a grisly death.
While I made myself up,
He held the mirror as a service to me,
and thought of another!
If he holds it now for that other
So much for his fickle affection!
Women who do not wish to suffer grief like this
Should never trust men.
How could he treat me before with such regard
And the next moment leave me this way, like anybody?"
This she said and more, lovelorn,
And suspecting her love of loving another.
Then the weeping woman,
having climbed the palace stairs in a tizzy,
Tearfully told her these words:
"Though he is young and good-looking,
Possessing noble ancestry,
and his share of charm and fortune,
Your husband was never unfaithful to you.
You are being silly and misjudging him.
Ma'am! Do not accuse your beloved husband,
A doer of loving deeds who is deserving of your love;
He has eyes for no woman other than you,
Like a chakra-vaka drake with his chakra-vaka duck.
While wishing to stay at home for you, however,
While wanting to live for your happiness,
He has been banished, his face wet with tears,
By his noble brother the Tathagata, so they say,
into the wandering life."
On hearing then what had happened to her husband
She immediately leapt up, shaking;
She clasped her arms and screamed out loud
Like a she-elephant
shot in the heart by a poisoned arrow.
Her eyes puffy and reddened by tears,
The slender trunk of her body shaking with anguish,
She fell, breaking and scattering strings of pearls,
Like a mango branch overburdened by fruit.
Wearing clothes dyed in lotus colours,
With her lotus face and eyes as long as lotus petals,
She was like Lotus-Hued Lakshmi fallen from her lotus.
And she withered like a garland of lotuses in the sun.
As she thought and she thought
of her husband's good points,
She heaved long sighs and she gasped;
The forearms that bore her gleaming jewellery,
And her hands with their reddened fingertips,
she flung outward.
"I have no need of ornaments now!"
So saying, she hurled her jewels in all directions.
Unadorned and drooping, she resembled
A creeper shorn of its clusters of flowers.
"My husband held this for me," she thought,
As she clasped the golden-handled mirror;
And the tamala paint she had applied so carefully,
She rubbed off her cheeks aggressively,
as if it had angered her.
Like a cakra-vaka duck,
when a hawk is clawing her mate's wing-tip,
She hooted mightily,
As if in competition
with the pigeons on the palace roof,
Cooing with their throats all atremble.
Though she lay down to sleep
in gorgeous soft bedclothes,
On a bed bedecked with beryl and diamonds,
She in her costly crib with its golden legs
Tossed and turned but obtained no respite.
Looking at her husband's ornaments, clothes,
And items of amusement like his guitar,
She entered a state of darkness; she raised a shriek,
And then, as if descending into a mire, sank down.
For as her belly trembled with her breathlessness,
Like a cave being rent inside by a fireball,
And she burned in her innermost heart
with a fire of grief,
Sundari seemed at that moment
to be going out of her mind.
She howled and wilted, screamed and swooned;
She reeled and stood rooted, she wailed and she brooded.
She gave vent to her anger and laid waste to her garlands;
She tore at her face and pulled at her clothes.
the lovely-toothed one,
howling stormily on,
The ladies-in-waiting were pained in the extreme;
They ascended from inside the house to the palace roof,
Like kimnaris climbing nervously
to the top of a mountain.
Their depressed faces wet with tears,
Like lotus ponds with rain-soaked lotuses,
They settled alongside her,
according to rank and as they wished,
And along with her were consumed by grief.
Enfolded on the palace roof by her women,
The slender Sundari, gaunt with worry,
Seemed like a thin lunar crescent
enshrouded by streaks of lightning
Amid the autumn clouds.
There was one there among them, however,
The eldest in years,
a highly regarded woman gifted with eloquence,
Who held Sundari from behind in a firm embrace
And, wiping away her tears, spoke these words:
"Grief ill becomes you, the wife of a royal seer,
When your husband has taken refuge in the dharma;
For a desired inheritance, in the lineage of Ikshvaku,
Are woods suited to the practice of austerities.
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.
Were your husband to be stolen by another,
due to her better looks and qualities,
Then tears you should let flow;
For where is the beautiful and virtuous wife,
rich in her own qualities,
Who would not shed a tear when her heart was broken?
Again, had he met with some disaster
-- And may nothing of that sort ever be! --
then yes, tears;
Because there is no greater sorrow
For a nobly-born woman
who honours her husband like a god.
On the contrary, he is now roving happily,
Meeting no disasters,
but enjoying sound health and a fruitful life.
Free from desires, he is following the dharma:
Why at a time for rejoicing do you,
in a state of consternation, weep?"
Though this woman, out of affection,
thus put to her various arguments,
Sundari could find no stillness at all.
Then another woman told her, intimately,
What suited her mind and fitted the occasion.
"I am telling you, truly, categorically,
You'll see your husband back soon enough.
That guy won't last any longer out there without you
Than a living thing lasts when it loses consciousness.
Even in the lap of luxury he couldn't be happy
Without you there by his side;
And even in dire straits,
Nothing could trouble him,
as long as he were looking at you.
Cheer up and hold back your tears:
Spare your eyes the release of hot teardrops.
His feelings for you and his passion are such
That without you he will find no pleasure in the dharma.
Some might say that,
having put on an ochre robe,
He will not give it up,
due to his combination of ancestry and character.
But he put it on unwillingly,
looking forward to going home:
Where is the fault in taking it off again?"
And so Sundari, consoled by her young women
When her heart had been heisted away by her husband,
Came to earth, just as Rambha,
with her heart turned towards Dramida,
Did once upon a time, surrounded by fellow apsarases.
The 6th canto in the epic poem Handsome Nanda,
titled "A Wife's Lament."