Monday, May 16, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 9.47: Desires as Causes of Suffering

ih' aiva bhuutvaa ripavo vadh'-aatmakaaH
prayaanti kaale puruShasya mitrataaM
paratra c' aiv' eha ca duHkha-hetavo
bhavanti kaamaa na tu kasya cic chivaaH

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Those who were his deadly enemies in this world

Can in time become a man's friend;

But not benign for anybody, in this or other worlds,

Are desires which are the causes of suffering.

I have translated these words to read as if they could have been spoken by the Buddha. But since the striver is speaking them, I think Ashvaghosha's intention is that the reader should understand the fault in the thinking behind them.

The fault may be obscured by the multiple meanings of the word kaamaaH (desires, objects of desire) in line 4. In the context of his discussion of viShayaaH (objects) in 9.46 and 9.48, we can assume that objects of desire, and especially objects of sexual desire, are what the ascetic striver is still blaming.

But to the extent that kaamaaH also means desires in general, this verse prompts us to consider whether desires are indeed causes of suffering (duHkha-hetavaH).

Not all desires, as I see it, are causes of suffering. If all desires were causes of suffering, the Buddha would not have advocated having small desire and knowing contentment.

This morning I found myself reflecting on the history of my grandfather who was born in a South Wales steel town into a family of Irish catholic immigrants, the lowest of the low. My grandfather was ex-communicated from the catholic church when he married in a protestant chapel, but as far as I know he wasn't greatly bothered. What seemed important to him, as I knew him, was not religion but rugby, and boxing, and education. He used to tell me that you only got great boxers in times of real poverty -- not like the era in which we were talking, in the 1960s and 1970s. "Got to be tough, see, Mike." Just to get by, as he had got by, in the slums of Ebbw Vale, you had to be tough. But to be great, you had to be hungry. You had to have desire.

Maybe I took my grandfather's words too much too heart and became too ambitious, too much of a striver, too inclined to rely on fighting spirit at the expense of reason. But I still hear a certain truth in the words my grandfather was telling me on the basis of his experience. It is the truth of the negation of having no desire. Certainly, if you want to win in sport, or in a battle, even in a battle with yourself, you have got to want it. And this is something I know in my bones. So if I hear a religious person preaching the negation of desire as a general principle, I am very much inclined to distrust that preaching.

If the Buddha's teaching is that desires are causes of suffering, I am not going to take anybody's word for it, least of all the words of an ascetic striver. I want to be clear on the basis of experience exactly which desires are the causes of suffering.

It does seem to be true as a general principle that big, greedy desires are causes of suffering. Being too ambitious is a cause of suffering. Trying too hard is a cause of suffering. Trying to be right is a cause of suffering.

So when an ascetic striver sees objects of desire as the cause of suffering and blames those objects, or when he sees desires as the cause of suffering and wants to eliminate or suppress those desires, an original cause of suffering might be right there, in the striver's tendency to try to be right.

If possession of a human body is an opportunity, by following a way, not primarily to defeat external opponents but primarily to defeat certain tendencies in oneself, an important part of the battle is knowing those inimical tendencies. Chief among those inimical tendencies for a Buddhist practitioner, it seems to me, is the tendency to try to sound like Buddha -- as the striver is again doing in today's verse -- which is part of the wider tendency of trying to be right.

It always a good sign that this particular enemy is in retreat when sitting practice is enjoyable. So precepts bequeathed by the Buddha like have small desire, know contentment, dwell in a secluded place enjoying peace and quiet, and so on, have to me a real ring of truth about them. But by the striver's words I remain totally unconvinced.

EH Johnston:
Murderous enemies in this world may come round in time to friendship with a man, but both in this world and hereafter the passions are causes of suffering only and do not enure to anyone's advantage.

Linda Covill:
Those who are a man's deadly enemies here and now can in time become his friends; but desires, the cause of suffering, are not benign for anybody, neither now or in the future.

iha: ind. here and now, at this time and place, in this world
eva: (emphatic)
bhuutvaa = abs. bhuu: to be, become
ripavaH (nom. pl.): m. enemy
vadh'-aatmakaaH (nom. pl. m.): deadly
vadha: m. one who kills , a slayer , vanquisher , destroyer; a deadly weapon (esp. indra's thunderbolt)
aatmaka: having or consisting of the nature or character of (in comp.)

prayaanti = 3rd pers. pl. pra- √ yaa: to go to; to get into a partic. state or condition
kaale (loc. sg.): in time
puruShasya (gen. sg.): m. of a man
mitra-taam (acc. sg.): f. friendship

paratra: ind. elsewhere , in another place , in a future state or world , hereafter
ca: and
eva: (emphatic)
iha: ind. here and now, at this time and place, in this world
ca: and
duHkha-hetavaH (nom. pl. m.): causes of suffering
duHkha: n. discomfort, pain, trouble, suffering
hetu: m. cause

bhavanti = 3rd pers. pl. bhuu: to be, become
kaamaaH (nom. pl.): m. desire, object of desire; pleasure , enjoyment; love , especially sexual love or sensuality
na kasya cit: not of/for anybody
tu: but
shivaaH (nom. pl. m.): mfn. auspicious , propitious , gracious , favourable , benign ; happy , fortunate

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