Friday, February 4, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 8.9: An Ineffable Wish to Do

sa jagaada tatash cikiirShitaM
ghana-nishvaasa-gRhiitam antaraa
shruta-vaag-vishadaaya bhikShave
viduShaa pravrajitena dur-vacaM

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

in between the deep sighs
that intermittently gripped him,

He told the beggar who was adept at hearing and talking

What he intended to do --

An intention that,
for an intelligent man who has gone forth,
is difficult to express.

In this verse Ashvaghosha describes the striver as shruta-vaag-vishada, "adept at hearing/listening and talking/speaking." On the face of it, this looks like words of affirmation. But might Ashvaghosha be wryly suggesting that the striver was adept at hearing what the Buddha said, and then simply parrotting the Buddha's words?

In 15.54, for example, the Buddha tells Nanda: That "I am young," or "I am strong," / Should not occur to you: // Death kills in all situations / Without regard for sprightliness. //

In Canto 9 the striver, in denouncing Nanda's conceit (while evidently remaining blind to his own conceit of being a curer of mental ills) strives at great length to preach to Nanda this admonition against thinking oneself to be strong. But was the striver's admonition the same as the Buddha's admonition, or not? Is "8 x 8 = 64" the same whether parrotted by a striver or thought out by the tathagata?

Reading Saundarananda slowly and attentively, as we are doing, turns out to be an exercise in seeing irony and enduring ambiguity.

As a further illustration of this point, in line 1 of today's verse cikiirShitam, "intention," is from the desiderative of the root √kR, to do. So cikiirShitam means what a person desires of wishes or intends to do.

In what sense, then, was what Nanda intended to do dur-vacam? In what sense was Nanda's intention hard for him to speak, or difficult for a wise monk to assert/affirm/avow, or difficult for anybody to explain?

At the least subtle and most superficial level, it cannot have been easy for Nanda, it must have been shameful for him, as an educated royal who had in a manner of speaking gone forth into the wandering life, to confess that all he really wanted to do was to go home and shag his wife. This is one level of understanding of today's verse -- we could call it the level of understanding of the ordinary bloke.

But if we understand vidvas in line 4 not as "intelligent" or "educated" (which Nanda evidently was), but as "wise" (which Nanda at this stage was not), then the meaning of line 4 seems to change to a more general proposition -- Nanda's intention was an intention that a wise monk would find it difficult to assert or difficult to avow. This level might be a Buddhist monk's understanding of today's verse.

Digging deeper though, I think Ashvaghosha's secret intention might also have been to point to the ineffable mystery of the wish that arises to do. This might be called a non-Buddhist non-monk's understanding of today's verse.

The starting point of the Buddha's teaching is not to do wrong. And sitting in lotus can be seen as the embodiment of conscious practice of not doing wrong. But out of this practice emerges a wish to do something -- to join hands and bow, or join up with one's wife, or give an Alexander lesson, or sew a robe or build a stupa or dig the garden.

And Ashvaghosha himself was clearly familiar with this wish to do.

In some sense, we know very little about who Ashvaghosha was. But in some sense, from the historical fact that Ashvaghosha was a buddha-ancestor, 12th in line from the Buddha, whose Dharma-descendants included Nagarjuna, Bodhidharma, and Dogen, and from the fact that he authored this poem, we know a lot. We know from his place in the lineage that he was a master of the Buddha's fundamental teaching of not to do. At the same time, did this poem titled Saundara-nanda, Handsome Nanda, write itself? Maybe it did -- but not without some intention on Ashvaghosha's part to do it.

What was Ashvaghosha's intention in writing Saundara-nanda?

One might as well ask: What was Bodhidharma's intention in coming from India?

Writing Saundara-nanda arose from an intention to do, as Bodhidharma's journey from India to China also arose from an intention to do. An intention to do what?

Even for the wisest of men who went forth, this intention to do might have been very difficult to express, even through such means as a brandished fist. And to express it through direct verbal expression might have been totally impossible.

One way of exploring the ineffable intention to do, on a small scale, is to lie on one's back with knees bent and investigate the decision to move a leg, as described here.

FM Alexander wasn't against the will-to-do per se. But he cautioned against acting on this 'will' without consciously attending beforehand to preventive directions. Hence Alexander was overheard telling a pupil:

"The will-to-do without direction -- if you are wrong and you 'will' do, God help you!"

Echoing the Buddha who told his first followers to do all kinds of good, but only after telling them not to do any evil, FM Alexander told his pupil:

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

Thus, there might be a lot more to today's verse than initially meets the eye. But the point of this unduly long comment, truly, is not that I wish to get a Ph. D. in Buddhist Studies. Why I produce so much verbage, I sometimes wonder. It could be just a symptom of being an incurable windbag who has spent a lifetime trying to use intelligence to circumvent faulty vestibular functioning. But I would like to think it might be the expression of a genuine wish to clear away, for self and others, that which hinders the lifeblood from flowing.

EH Johnston:
Then choking all the while with deep sobs he told his intention to the disciple who was skilled in sacred learning and in speech, though his intention was such as a wise mendicant would have found it hard to avow :--

Linda Covill:
Then, intermittently overcome by deep sighs, he told the monk, who was pure in learning and speech, what he meant to do -- hard words for a wise man who has adopted homelessness:

sa (nom. sg. m.): he
jagaada = 3rd pers. sg. perfect gad: to speak articulately , speak , say , relate , tell anything
tataH: ind. thence, then, from that
cikiirShitam (acc. sg.): n. " intended to be done , designed " , purpose , design , intention

ghana-nishvaasa-gRhiitam (acc. sg. n.): being grasped by deep breaths
ghana: mfn. thick, dark, deep
nishvaasa: m. breath , expiration or inspiration; a sigh
gRhiita: mfn. grasped , taken , seized , caught
antaraa: ind. in the middle , inside , within , among , between; in the meantime, now and then ; (with acc. and loc.) between , during

shruta-vaag-vishadaaya (dat. sg. m.): skilled in hearing and talking ; (good at parroting?)
shruta: n. anything heard , that which has been heard (esp. from the beginning) , knowledge as heard by holy men and transmitted from generation to generation , oral tradition or revelation , sacred knowledge ; n. the act of hearing ; n. learning or teaching , instruction
vaac: f. speech , voice , talk ; a word , saying
vishada: " conspicuous " , bright , brilliant , shining , splendid , beautiful , white , spotless , pure (lit. and fig.); (ifc.) skilled or dexterous in , fit for ; endowed with
bhikShave (dat. sg.): m. beggar, mendicant, monk

viduShaa = inst. sg. m. vidvas: mfn. one who knows , knowing , understanding , learned , intelligent , wise ; m. a wise man , sage , seer
pravrajitena (inst. sg.): mfn. one who has left home to become a religious mendicant or (with jainas) to become a monk ; m. a religious mendicant or a monk
pra- √ vraj: to go forth ; to leave home and wander forth as an ascetic mendicant
dur-vacam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. difficult to be spoken or explained or asserted or answered ; speaking ill or in pain ; n. abuse , censure

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