Sunday, February 6, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 8.11: A Good Talker, But...

ata eva ca me visheShataH
pravivakShaa kShama-vaadini tvayi
na hi bhaavam imaM cal'-aatmane
kathayeyaM bruvate' py asaadhave

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

And so I am particularly keen to speak to you

Who preach propriety;

For what I am feeling now I would not tell
to a man out of balance in himself

Who, though a good talker, was not a true person.

In Canto 3 Ashvaghosha describes Arada, whom the young Gautama served as a teacher, as mokSha-vaadin, one who spoke of freedom, or a proponent of freedom, or a preacher of the doctrine of freedom.

Then Arada, who spoke of freedom, / And likewise Udraka, who inclined towards quietness, // He served, his heart set on truth, and he left. / He who intuited the path intuited: "This also is not it." // [3.3]

In today's verse Nanda uses the same construction to describe the striver as kShama-vaadin, one who speaks of propriety, or a champion of propriety, or a preacher of propriety. And in the background to both uses of the affix vaadin there is, as I see it, the same sense of "It is not that." In the verse describing Arada, the sense is explicit. In today's verse, as I read it, Nanda does not intend any irony, but Nanda's innocence is part of Ashvaghosha's irony.

A further pointer to Ashvaghosha's ironic intention might be bruvate in line 4, from the root √bruu, which can carry a connotation of professing oneself to be what one actually is not. This is precisely what the striver has done in professing himself to be a healer of mental problems -- which is a contradiction in terms.

So what seems to be emerging from Cantos 8 and 9 is Ashvaghosha's use the character of the striver as a device (1) to introduce some aspects of the Buddha's teaching which, as a Buddhist monk adept in hearing and talking, the striver is well qualified to parrot; and (2) further to highlight the little gap that is ever prone to emerge between talking a good talk and walking the good walk. This is the little gap that once opened, as Dogen cautions in his rules of sitting-zen for everybody, is as wide as the separation between heaven and earth.

The character of the striver, then, bears some similarities to the character of the senior lady-in-waiting in Canto 6 who tried unsucessfully to console Sundari. That woman, like this Buddhist monk, was also good at talking the talk, but... for her too, a miss was as good as a mile.

The non-Buddhist king in Canto 2, in marked contrast, is praised primarily for non-verbal virtues -- for being pure in his actions, his lack of conceit, his freedom from stiffness, his effective governance, his keeping of his promises, his quiet devotion to dharma for the sake of dharma and not for the sake of praise, and so on. The king, although as Gautama's father he was in no sense a "Buddhist," is portrayed as a man of true integrity in whom there is no gap between preaching and practice.

The last but by no means least irony to discuss in this verse relates to Nanda's use of the terms cal-aatman and a-saadhu in lines 3 and 4. While innocently using these terms to sing the praises of the conceited striver who denounces conceit, Nanda is somehow at the same time unwittingly manifesting understanding of the ultimate criterion of the Buddha's truth, which is namely, as discussed in yesterday's comment, the balanced state of accepting and using the self. That is to say, a person who is a-saadhu, not a true person, is not a true person because he is cal-aatman, of unsteady essence; i.e. out of balance. Whereas the antithesis of having an unsteady essence is regular enjoyment of the samadhi of accepting and using the self.

My comments, I know, are too long and self-indulgent... but while I was sleeping last night the content of today's verse struck me as totally relevant to something I read yesterday in the old boys magazine of my old school -- the Old Edwardians Gazette. The magazine ran in full a talk given on Speech Day last year by the writer Lee Child, who was five years ahead of me at school. Predictably it was an excellently written speech, full of humour, and was evidently well received. But the main thrust of the speech, one could argue, was very much bound up with the kind of conceit that hinders a bloke from accepting himself fully as he is and from realizing himself as a true person.

Hence, "Your biggest problem in life will be your minority status... -- that of intelligent people required to live in a profoundly stupid world...."

The speech concluded as follows:
"Let me clear about two things. A small handful of us, about three or four, did things of moderate interest, and again, let me be clear, I'm deeply honoured to be invited to give this speech but when your Chief Master considered which of my generation to invite, I should have been 64th or 65th on his list, not 4th or 5th or whatever I was. There should have been prime ministers and Nobel Prize winners and cancer curers and all kinds of world beaters ahead of me.

But there weren't, and that's my plea. Don't settle. Don't chicken out. If you wan't to study law, go for it, but don't then become a solicitor in Erdington, doing divorces and conveyancing. Go to Texas or Mississipi and abolish the death penalty, or go to Africa and write a constitution.

If you want to study medicine, knock yourself out. But don't then become a middle manager in the Health Service. Go defeat malaria or AIDS instead. If you study science, go to Antarctica and find a new mineral and patent a process and win the Nobel Prize and make yourself a fortune.

Of course, I'm talking to the parents here, partly. I know how you feel. I had parents just like you. I was a parent just like you. When your son steps out on adult life, you hold your breath. And I'm asking you to hold your breath for maybe twenty years. I know that's tough. But the upside is that the man who comes home twenty years from now will be the best in the world at something. A giant in his field. Not a solicitor from Erdington who has spent twenty years doing divorces and conveyancing.

So when your son falters, it's your job to spur him on.

And conversely, from you boy's point of view, if your parents falter, it's your job to stand fast. Because it's payback time for you. We were smarter than you, no question. But you haven't blown it yet. You can still do the big things. Make sure you do, OK?"

When I read this yesterday, I couldn't help be lifted by it. The idea that Lee Childs advocates so temptingly -- the idea of striving to be a giant in one's field -- is part of who I am. It is an idea that, if I haven't been attentive enough in inhibiting it, I could easily have passed onto my own two sons. But when I reflect on it in the cold light of morning, isn't the kind of vaulting ambition Lee Child is advocating the very opposite of the Buddha's ultimate teaching of having small desire and being content? And as for Lee Child's intoxicating exhortation to do the big things, the best antidote to that might be to come back to the original teaching of Gautama Buddha and the Seven Buddhas:

"The not doing of any evil."

Or, as FM Alexander put it:

"Like a good fellow, stop the things that are wrong first."

EH Johnston:
That is the reason why I wish especially to speak to you who say what is fitting; for I would not explain this feeling of mine to an unsaintly man of wavering mind, however eloquent he were.

Linda Covill:
That is why I want to talk to you in particular, since you speak with forbearance, for I would not mention my feelings to a bad person with a volatile nature, however eloquent.

ataH: ind. from this, hence
eva (emphatic)
ca: and
me (gen. sg.): of me
visheSha-taH: ind. especially , particularly , above all

pravivakShaa (nom. sg.): f. (fr. Desid. of pra √ vac) the wish or desire to proclaim , announce , praise , commend , mention , teach , impart , explain, speak, say, tell
kShama-vaadini (loc. sg. m.): a preacher of propriety; one who asserts what is fitting, who wiseacres about what is right
kShama: mfn. patient ; n. propriety, fitness
vaadin: mfn. saying , discoursing , speaking , talking , speaking or talking about (often ifc.); m. a speaker , asserter , (ifc.) the teacher or propounder , or adherent of any doctrine or theory
tvayi (loc. sg.): to you

na: not
hi: for
bhaavam (acc. sg.): m. true condition or state ; any state of mind or body , way of thinking or feeling , sentiment , opinion , disposition , intention
imam (acc. sg. m.): this , this here , referring to something near the speaker
cal'-aatmane (dat. sg.): to a man of unsteady essence
cala: mfn. moving , trembling , shaking , loose ; unsteady
aatman: m. essence , nature , character , peculiarity (often ifc. e.g. karmaatman, one whose character is action , endowed with principles of action , active , acting)

kathayeyam = 1st pers. sg. optative kath: to tell , relate , narrate , report , inform , speak about , declare , explain , describe (with acc. of the thing or person spoken about)
bruvate = dat. sg. m. pres. part. bruu: to speak , say , tell ; to speak about any person or thing; to proclaim , predict ; to call or profess one's self to be
bruva: mfn. calling one's self by a name without any real title to it ; being merely nominally (ifc.)
api: though
asaadhave (dat. sg. m.): mfn. not good , wicked , bad ; not an honest man , a wicked man
a: negative prefix
saadhu: mfn. straight, right; leading straight to a goal , hitting the mark , unerring ; m. a good or virtuous or honest man


Happi said...

What a weird coincidence. I don't know about Lee Child, his values or his buddhahood, but until the last couple of years I could say I'd read every book in the Jack Reacher series -- twice probably. Intriguingly, Reacher is homeless and knows something about skillful means.. He is not, however, real.

Happi said...

.. and I bet Reacher's Maserati does 200.

(That's not a dare by the way...)

Mike Cross said...

Jack Reacher seems to fit the archetype of the knight errant, and even though he is not real, Lee Child's intuition that there might be a big market for such a character really hit the target.

I wouldn't mind if this translation tapped into the same market!

Being content with a small readership, however, is just the Buddha's teaching. So I can't complain... but sometimes I still do.