Monday, February 14, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 8.19: Nice Metaphor, Shame about the Reality

mahataa khalu jaata-vedasaa
jvalitaad utpatito vana-drumaat
punar icchati niiDa-tRShNayaa
patituM tatra gata-vyatho dvijaH

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

Truly, having flown up and away

From a forest tree blazing in a great fire,

A chick in its longing for the nest

Wishes to fly back there, its former alarm forgotten.

Both 8.16 and 8.19 use the metaphor of a bird escaping danger and then wishing to fly back into danger. The sense of repetition is diminished in the Sanskrit by calling a bird in the first instance viha-gaH "a sky goer" and in this verse dvi-jaH "one twice-born" -- twice born in the sense of being born first in an egg laid by the mother, and then born again on hatching from the egg.

dvi-jaH, "twice-born," also means a person who has in some sense been reborn -- for example in some kind of confirmation ceremony that was part of the Aryan tradition.

So in placing dvi-jaH "twice-born" as the last word of this verse, the striver might be appealing again to Nanda's sense of what is proper for an Aryan man of noble birth. This would be in keeping with the striver's stance as an advocate of propriety (kShama-vaadin; 8.11).

In this verse also, I do not buy the striver's metaphor, because here in Canto 8 Nanda has yet to manifest the kind of alarm that the striver is describing. Rather, Nanda manifests that alarm only when it hits him, at the beginning of Canto 12, that the ravishing beauty of celestial nymphs is transient.

So the striver is speaking words that sound very good, and which may be well-intentioned, but does Nanda actually learn anything from hearing those words? In short, no.

What is Ashvaghosha driving at?

I think Ashvaghosha's point might be that the Buddha's teaching is as changeable as reality is changeable. That being so, it is impossible to nail down in words what the Buddha's teaching is. But we can at least be clear about what it is not. It is not the words that buddhas use to point to it. It is not only nice words. It is not words that are parroted by people who are trying to be right.

That is why, as I read him, Ashvaghosha is contrasting the striver's direct approach in Cantos 8 & 9, and the indirect means that the Buddha uses in Cantos 10 & 11. Both the striver and the Buddha wish Nanda to be happy in the celibate life of a beggar which he has chosen. To that end, the striver's direct approach is to try to turn Nanda off women by pointing out how ugly they are. The Buddha's skillful means, to paraphrase crudely, is to say: look at these gorgeous nymphs, if you practise long and hard enough, your reward will be to have your way with all of them. The striver's approach does not work. The Buddha's approach, with a little help from Ananda, hits the target. It causes Nanda eventually to see for himself, and not only intellectually, the impermanence of female beauty. Nanda, consequently, is repulsed not by the ugliness of women, but rather by the impermanence of their ravishing beauty.

The fundamental contrast, then, is between the words parroted by a striver who is trying to be right, and the teaching which is alive to all possibilities of the Buddha who is living in reality.

"Living in reality." Where have I heard that phrase before?

Ha! Nice words!

EH Johnston:
Verily a bird, who has flown out of a forest tree blazing with a great fire, wishes to fly back to it, losing in his longing for his nest all sense of fear!

Linda Covill:
Here is a bird flown away from a forest tree ablaze with a raging fire, that wishes to fly back there, its qualms forgotten in its longing for its nest!

mahataa (inst. sg.): great
khalu: ind. (as a particle of asseveration) indeed , verily , certainly , truly
jaata-vedasaa (inst. sg.): mfn. (fr. √vid, possess) " having whatever is born or created as his property " , " all-possessor "; m. fire
jaata: mfn. born, created
vedas: n. property, wealth

jvalitaat (abl. sg.): mfn. lighted , blazing , flaming , shining
utpatitaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. springing up , risen , ascended
ut- √ pat: to fly upwards
vana-drumaat (abl. sg.): from a forest tree
vana: forest
druma: tree

punar: ind. ind. back , home , again
icchati = 3rd pers. sg. iSh: to endeavour to obtain , strive , seek for ; to desire , wish , long for ; to wish or be about to do anything , intend
niiDa-tRShNayaa (inst. sg.): through longing for its nest
niiDa: nest
tRShNa: f. thirst , desire

patitum = inf. pat: to fly
tatra: ind. there
gata-vyathaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. freed from pain , unanxious
gata: mfn. gone, absent
vyathaa: f. agitation , perturbation , alarm , uneasiness , pain , anguish , fear
vyath: to tremble , waver ; to be agitated or disturbed in mind , be restless or sorrowful or unhappy ; to be afraid
dvi-jaH (nom. sg. m.): "twice-born"; m. a man of any one of the first 3 classes , any Aryan , (esp.) a Brahman (re-born through investiture with the sacred thread); m. a bird or any oviparous animal (appearing first as an egg)

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