priya-yashaso bahu-maanam icchataH
nidhanam api varaM sthir-aatmanash
cyuta-vinayasya na c'aiva jiivitaM
- - - - - - = - = - =
- - - - = - - = - = - =
- - - - - - = - = - =
- - - - = - - = - = - =
For the spirited man of noble birth,
For the man who cherishes honour
and strives to earn great respect,
For the man of grit --
Better death for him than life as a backslider.
When we reflect on the Buddha's life story, as summarized by Ashvaghosha in Canto 3, what did the Buddha strive to earn?
Great respect? No.
He wished totally to terminate the terror of being born and dying. [2.64]
To that end the Buddha as a starting point devoted himself to ascetic striving.
Then, having ascertained that this was not the path, he abandoned that extreme asceticism too. / Understanding the sphere of meditation to be supreme, he ate good food in readiness to realise the deathless. // With his golden arms fully expanded and as if in a yoke, with lengthened eyes, and bull-like gait, / He came to a fig tree, growing up from the earth, with the will to awakening that belongs to the supreme method of investigation. // Sitting there, mind made up, as unmovingly stable as the king of mountains, / He overcame the grim army of Mara and awoke to the step which is happy, irremovable, and irreducible. // [3.5 - 3.7]
On the basis of this awakening, in what kind of direction did the Buddha point Nanda? Did the Buddha point Nanda in the kind of direction that has to be followed by every successful man of the world in order to become a successful man of the world -- whether he be a CEO, a brigadier, a top investigative journalist, a hospital consultant, or even a doctor of Buddhist studies -- namely, the direction of earning people's great respect? Or did the Buddha use skillful means to point Nanda in another direction altogether?
Then, knowing from where he was coming, and that, though his senses were set against it, / A better way was now emerging, the Realised One spoke: // "Aha! This gaining of a foothold is the harbinger in you of a better way, /As, when a firestick is rubbed, rising smoke is the harbinger of fire. // Long carried off course by the restless horses of the senses,/ You have now set foot on a path, with clarity of vision, happily, that will not dim. // Today your birth bears fruit; your gain today is great; /For though you know the taste of love, your mind is yearning for indifference. // In this world which likes what is close to home, a fondness for non-doing is rare;/ For men shrink from the end of becoming, like the puerile from the edge of a cliff..." // [12.18 - 12.22]
When I sit in the morning, having memorized today's verse the night before, the question invariably arises: what has today's verse got to do with the one great matter, which is sitting in lotus, learning the backward step of turning one's light and letting it shine.
As an answer to that question, it struck me this morning that the striver's words only become meaningful to me if I turn them totally around. Hence:
A real human being whose pedigree had become irrelevant:
A human being who didn't care for fame,
who didn't mind what others thought of him,
who had gone beyond striving,
And whose teaching was flexible and changeable:
He led Nanda to make the deathless his own
by means of a backward step.
The point of every word Ashvaghosha's striver says, as I hear him, is to help us be clear what the Buddha's teaching is not.
To the man of high family and spirit, who holds his reputation dear and desires respect, death with firmness of soul is preferable to life accompanied by lapse from the Rule.
Better death for a nobly-born man, firm in himself and sound of mind, holding his reputation dear and wishing to be respected, than life for one whose discipline has slipped.
abhijana-mahataH (gen. sg. m.): of noble descent
abhijana: m. family , race ; ancestors ; noble descent
abhi- √ jan: to be born for or to
mahat: mfn. great ; m. a great or noble man
manas-vinaH (gen. sg. m.): mfn. full of mind or sense , intelligent , clever , wise ; in high spirits ; fixing the mind, attentive
priya-yashasaH (gen. sg. m.): valuing his honour
priya: mfn. dear to ; fond of, attached or devoted to (ibc. e.g. priya-devana , " fond of playing " )
yashas: n. beautiful appearance; honour , glory , fame , renown
bahu-maanam (acc. sg.): m. high esteem or estimation , great respect or regard
icchataH = gen. sg. m. pres. part. iSh: to endeavour to obtain , strive , seek for ; to endeavour to make favourable ; to desire , wish , long for
nidhanam (nom. sg.): n. conclusion , end , death
ni- √ dhaa: to put or lay down; to end, close
varam: ind. it is better than , rather than (in these senses varam is followed by na with nom. e.g. varaM mRshyur na c' aakiirtiH , " better death than [lit. " and not "] infamy ")
sthir-aatmanaH (gen. sg. m.): of firm character
sthira: mfn. firm , hard , solid , compact , strong
aatman: m. essence , nature , character (often ifc.)
cyuta-vinayasya (gen. sg. m.): of lapsed discipline
cyuta: mfn. moved , shaken; gone away from ; destitute of, free of (in comp.)
cyu: to move to and fro , shake about ; to fall down ; to fail
vinaya: m. leading , guidance , training (esp. moral training) , education , discipline , control ; m. (with Buddhists) the rules of discipline for monks
jiivatam (nom. sg.): n. life