Friday, March 18, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 8.51: A Striver Doubts the Beauty of Beauty

malapaNka-dharaa dig-ambaraa
prakRti-sthair nakha-danta-romabhiH
yadi saa tava sundarii bhaven
niyataM te' dya na sundarii bhavet

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Dirty and unclothed,

With nails, teeth and body-hair in their natural state:

If your 'Beautiful Woman' Sundari were like that now,

She surely would not be to you such a beautiful woman.

What the striver is trying now might somehow be related to the instruction that the Buddha gives Nanda in Canto 16 about how a practitioner is to respond when his or her mind is inflamed by sexual desire:

Steadiness lies, when one's mind is stirred up by passion, in coming back to a disagreeable stimulus; / For thus a passionate type obtains relief, like a phlegmatic type taking an astringent. //

What is or isn't disagreeable, however, is very much an individual matter. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to what is beautiful or disagreeable, we cannot draw general conclusions. But what we can say in relation to the striver's efforts in today's verse, which are aimed specifically at Nanda, is that the striver's tactic did not work. Hence:

Though the beggar reproached him thus, he in no way attained tranquility with regard to his beloved; / Nanda thought of her so much that he did not hear, as if he were unconscious, a word the other said.//

For Nanda, no thought of Sundari was disagreeable. Sometimes, when we stop striving to batter the Buddha's teaching as we understand it into every problem, and look at the reality, the reality of a man's mind is like that.

For Nanda what was really disagreeable was the impermanence of heaven. So the Buddha, using skillful means, showed Nanda how impermanent heaven was. Nanda was really shocked, and out of this shock a period of real growth began.

Many people in Japan right now are in real trouble. In this situation, what has the Buddha's teaching got to offer them?

One Zen teacher I know has said it would be good if Soto Zen temples were opened to the public and people given instruction in how to practise Zazen. Sadly, this teacher does not know much about the reality of Japan and his idea, as I hear it, is on the same level as the striver's idea.

Japanese people are extremely good at being told what to do, so long as they trust the Sensei ("the one who stands before them") who is doing the telling. A true Sensei, however, doesn't just tell his followers en masse what to do; he causes each of them, as an individual, to think for themselves. And sadly, there has been no such Sensei in Japan for a very long time -- maybe 800 years. Maybe never.

When I compare the teaching of Ashvaghosha and Dogen, in some sense there is nothing to compare -- the two teachers don't represent two schools of teaching, but just one lineage that goes back to the Buddha. At the same time, Dogen was Japanese, whereas Ashvaghosha -- geographically, and also as I read his teaching -- was much further towards the west.

On an individual level, many Japanese individuals are really kind, generous, loveable, orderly, reserved, modest, hard-working, and so on. But the Japanese System -- as brilliantly exposed 25 years ago in Karel von Wolferen's book The Enigma of Japanese Power -- leaves a lot to be desired.

Sadly, neither the teaching of Ashvaghosha nor of Dogen can help the Japanese people in their current predicament. But I wonder if it might be possible that one or two individual Japanese could be shocked into starting really to think things out for themselves, and really starting to help themselves.

Then the kind of movement towards greater democracy that we have seen developing in northern Africa we might also see in Japan. But some great Buddha figure dictating to the Japanese what they should do -- much as they might want that -- is not what they need.

EH Johnston:
Your Sundari certainly would not appear fair to you to-day if you were to see her covered with stains and mud, unclothed, with nails, teeth and hair in their natural (unadorned) state.

Linda Covill:
If your Sundari were naked, covered only by dust and mud, with her nails, teeth and hair in their natural state, she definitely wouldn't be beautiful Sundari for you then.

malapaNka-dharaa: bearing filth and dirt
mala-paNka: m. dirt
mala: n. dirt , filth , dust , impurity (physical and moral)
paNka: m. mud , mire , dirt
dhara: mfn. ifc. holding , bearing , carrying , wearing , possessing , having
dig-ambaraa (nom. sg. f.): mfn. " sky clothed " i.e. quite naked
dish: f. quarter or region pointed at , direction ; place ; space ; sky
ambara: n. clothes , apparel , garment

prakRti-sthaiH (inst. spl.): in their natural state
prakRti: f. " making or placing before or at first " , the original or natural form or condition of anything
stha: mfn. (only ifc.) standing , staying , abiding , being situated in , existing or being in
nakha-danta-romabhiH (inst. spl.): nails, teeth, and body-hair
nakha: nails
danta: teeth
roman: n. the hair on the body of men and animals , (esp.) short hair , bristles

yadi: if
saa (nom. sg. f.): she
tava (gen. sg.): your
sundarii (nom. sg.): f. a beautiful woman , any woman; Sundari
bhavet = 3rd pers. sg. opt. bhuu: to be

niyatam: ind. always , constantly , decidedly , inevitably , surely
te (gen. sg.): of/to you
adya: ind. now, today
na: not
sundarii (nom. sg.): f. a beautiful woman , any woman; Sundari
bhavet = 3rd pers. sg. opt. bhuu: to be

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