Wednesday, March 2, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 8.35: A Pessimistic View of Women's Hearts & Minds

vacanena haranti valgunaa
nishitena praharanti cetasaa
madhu tiShThati vaaci yoShitaaM
hRdaye haalahalaM mahad-viShaM

- - = - - = - = - =
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They beguile with lovely voices,

And strike with sharp minds:

There is honey in women's speech,

And lethal venom in their hearts.

From here through to 8.47, the striver strives to convince Nanda how unattractive women's minds are. From 8.47 the striver then strives to convince Nanda how inherently disgusting women's bodies are. Nanda, however, ultimately remains unconvinced by the striver -- as I also remain unconvinced by the striver.

What I am totally convinced of (and I hope jiblet is similarly becoming convinced, as I strive to erode his doubt), is the irony or ambiguity inherent in Ashvaghosha's portrait of the striver.

The view the striver is verbalizing in today's verse is a kind of pessimism. Against this view, my old Zen teacher used to argue that Buddhism is in fact an optimistic religion.

But to sit on a round cushion and direct oneself up in such a way as not to interfere, for example, with one's whole self as a respiratory mechanism... that kind of effort might be to abandon both pessimism and optimism, not to mention Buddhism, and not to mention religion.

I call it an effort because it is an effort. Because it is an effort, it is ever liable to turn into the grimly determined effort of a striver with gritted teeth, rather than the effortless effort of a buddha with an easy half-smile.

There is an irony inherent in this sitting practice which I think is the essential irony behind all the irony that Ashvaghosha hides in his writing. Here I am on my lonesome in a cold place that is not easy to get to from Aylesbury and not easy to get back from. Why do I bother? I make an effort to travel here, and I am forced to make extra effort to look after myself here without mod. cons. such as central heating, TV, car etc., because I know from experience that in a solitary place like this one, even at the fag-end of winter, it is easier for the right thing to start to do itself. In other words, I make a great big effort to come here so as to experience, even only for odd moments, NOT being the striver.

In pursuit of the Buddha's truth, it seems, striving is unavoidable. But to be the striver is never the point. Striving, for example, gets in the way of full and free breathing. So in allowing the respiratory mechanism to work as nature intended, the point is rather NOT to strive, but to get out of the way.

That being so, when Dogen called himself SHAMON DOGEN, "the striver Dogen," I think it was a kind of modesty or humility. And when Ashvaghosha calls the striver a striver, there is hidden in the word shramaNa, as I read it, a certain ambiguity or irony. I picture Ashvaghosha with a half-smile painting a portrait of a trier, maybe a character drawn from real life, with good intentions and gritted teeth.

"Buddhism is an optimistic religion" is a very problematic statement. The only words I don't take issue with in it are "is" and "an." But the recognition behind the problematic statement might be that the Buddha's teaching is not the pessimistic view of the grimly determined striver. And that recognition is the recognition that Ashvaghosha, as I read him, is encouraging us to come to in this Canto.

Our common mistake is to strive in pursuit of rightness. We are all going around trying to be right. Whereas if we re-directed our effort in the direction of not doing the wrong thing, we might find that the right thing does itself.

EH Johnston:
Women captivate with sweet words and strike with their sharp minds. Honey is on their tongues and the great poison, halahala in their hearts.

Linda Covill:
They enthrall with their charming talk, and attack with their sharp minds. Women's speech is honeyed but there is the deadliest poison in their hearts.

vacanena (ins. sg.): n. the act of speaking , utterance; n. speech , sentence , word
haranti = 3rd pers. pl. hR: to carry off ; to master , overpower , subdue , conquer , win , win over; to enrapture , charm , fascinate
valgunaa (inst. sg. n.): handsome , beautiful , lovely , attractive

nishitena (inst. sg. n.): mfn. sharpened , sharp (lit. and fig.)
praharanti = = 3rd pers. pl. pra- √ hR: to thrust or move forward ; to strike , hit , hurt , attack , assail (
cetasaa (inst. sg.): n. consciousness , intelligence , thinking soul , heart , mind

madhu (nom. sg.): n. anything sweet (esp. if liquid) , mead &c; honey
tiShThati = 3rd pers. sg. sthaa: to stand; to stay , remain , continue in any condition or action
vaaci (loc. sg.): f. speech , voice , talk , language (also of animals) , sound
yoShitaam (gen. pl.): f. women

hRdaye (loc. sg.): n. the heart
haalahalam (nom. sg.): n. a kind of deadly poison (produced at the churning of the ocean by gods and demons)
mahad-viSham (nom. sg. n.): deadly poisonous
mahat: mfn. great, deadly
viSha: mfn. poisonous; n. poison

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