Friday, May 13, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 9.43: An Ascetic View on Hedonism

na kaama-bhogaa hi bhavanti tRptaye
haviiMShi diiptasya vibhaa-vasor iva
yathaa yathaa kaama-sukheShu vartate
tathaa tath" ecchaa viShayeShu vardhate

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

For sensual enjoyments,
like offerings fed into a blazing fire,

Do not make for satisfaction;

The more one indulges in sensual pleasures,

The more the desire for sensual objects grows.

In Canto 5, the Buddha also has advised Nanda: "Restrain the mind from sensual pleasures" (manaH kaama-sukhaan niyaccha):

Restrain the restless mind from sensual pleasures, which are common, dream-like, insubstantial; / For no more than a wind-fanned fire is sated by offerings are men satisfied by pleasures. // [5.23]

Thus, the striver and the Buddha have each made the same appeal for restraint (or suppression, depending on how one understands ni-√yam), and have each used the same analogy of a fire being fed flammable offerings to make the point that indulging in sensual pleasures does not bring satisfaction.

The negative statement that the Buddha makes about sensual pleasures not bringing real satisfaction, is undeniably true. The truest satisfaction, at least as I know it, seems to come not from greedy pursuit of sensual pleasures, but rather from living the simple life, not being too ambitious, having few wants, being content with not much.

The positive assertion that the striver makes in the second half of this verse, however, even if the Buddha's analogy of feeding a fire hints in that direction, is not always true. As a general rule, the striver's assertion is falsified by experience. Certain sensual objects -- chocolate being a good example -- we describe as "moreish." But after a certain point, even chocolate becomes a disgusting or sickening prospect. Sometimes the fact is that the more one indulges in sensual pleasures, the more weary one grows of those pleasures, and the more keenly one wishes to get the hell out of the funky atmosphere of the bedroom and back to the freedom and fresh air and familiar territory of the playing field or the gym or the dojo.

If I were to correct the striver's words not on the basis of an ascetic prejudice against hedonism but rather on the basis of actual experience of asceticism, today's verse would read like this:

Sensual enjoyments, like offerings offered into a blazing fire,

Do not make for satisfaction.

But the more one suppresses one's desire for sensual pleasures,

The more the desire for sensual objects grows.

The more one suppresses one's desire for sex, the more one's sexual desire grows. That is for damn sure. I spent a number of years studying that principle. But the striver is saying something different. And what the striver is saying, on the basis of my own experience of ascetic striving and its opposite, I don't accept to be true.

Ashvaghosha's ascetic striver is a character who, in his falsity and fakery, is so true to life one senses Ashvaghosha may have based him on some Buddhist he knew in person. At the same time, ascetic striving might be a universal unenlightened tendency among yoga practitioners -- a tendency that is ever liable to creep into the yoga of sitting practice.

So here is some advice that not only Ashvagosha's striver but also a certain striving tendency in me might benefit from hearing, again and again:

If a striver wants to express a view on hedonism, he needn't always frame hedonism as something in the extreme distance, far beyond the middle way, behind enemy lines. He may be able to check it out for himself much closer to home. If, alternatively, the striver aspires to pass on the Buddha's teaching, then instead of striving unsuccessfully to parrot the teaching with excellent words, it might be necessary first to make the teaching his own, primarily by learning well the backward step of turning his own light and letting it shine.

For one who really aspires to pass on the Buddha's teaching, then, like a dragon that found water, and not like the mass ranks of fake elephants who trumpet Zen views, it might be necessary to rid the mind of asceticism, along with hedonism, and Buddhism, and every other -ism.

But even before that, as a first step, it might be necessary to rid the mind of all idea of passing on the Buddha's teaching. And even though I call it a first step, in the singular, this process of ridding the mind of an idea seems to need to happen a lot more than once.

This is, I think, why the Buddha saw it is as necessary for Nanda to abandon Sundari and go forth. Not because indulgence in sensual pleasures with Sundari was making Nanda more and more of a sensualist or hedonist, whereas it was necessary for Nanda to become more and more of an ascetic. But rather because making the four noble truths one's own is not just a recognition like 2 + 2 = 4 (although this kind of reasoning is also necessary); the truth of cessation of suffering, primarily by giving up an idea of going directly for some end, requires a hell of a lot of practice. And for this practice the solitude of a forest provided Nanda with optimal conditions -- not only for the ascetic negation of hedonism, but also for a non-Buddhist negation of asceticism.

EH Johnston:
For no one can ever have enough of the enjoyments of the passions, as a blazing fire is never satiated with oblations; the more prolonged the indulgence in the pleasures of the passions, the more does longing for the objects of the senses grow.

Linda Covill:
For the enjoyment of sensuality is never sufficient, like offerings into a blazing fire; the longer sense pleasure continues, the greater grows the longing for the sensory realm.

na: not
kaama-bhogaaH (nom. pl.): sensual enjoyments
kaama: m. desire ; love , especially sexual love or sensuality
bhoga: m. ( √bhuj) enjoyment , eating , feeding on ; sexual enjoyment
hi: for
bhavanti = 3rd pers. pl. bhuu: to be, become
tRptaye (dat. sg.): f. satisfaction , contentment

haviiMShi (nom. pl.): n. an oblation or burnt offering , anything offered as an oblation with fire (as clarified butter , milk , Some , grain)
diiptasya (gen. sg. m.): mfn. blazing , flaming , hot
vibhaavasoH = gen. sg. vibhaa-vasu: m. fire or the god of fire
vibhaa: mfn. shining , bright
vasu: mfn. good; N. of the gods (as the " good or bright ones ")
iva: liie

yathaa yathaa: ind. according as, in proportion to
kaama-sukheShu (loc. pl.): sensual pleasures
vartate = 3rd pers. sg. vRt: to turn , turn round ; to depend on (loc.) ; to be in a partic. condition , be engaged in or occupied with (loc.)

tathaa tathaa: ind. (correlative of yathaa yathaa) so, the more
icchaa (nom. sg.): f. wish , desire , inclination
viShayeShu (loc. pl.): anything perceptible by the senses , any object of affection or concern or attention , any special worldly object or aim or matter or business , (pl.) sensual enjoyments , sensuality
vardhate = 3rd pers. sg. vRdh: to grow , grow up , increase ; to rise, ascend

[Published again due to recent problems at Blogger]

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