Thursday, June 9, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 10.19: A Common Delusion, Or an Oddball's Enlightenment?

Rtaav Rtaav aakRtim eka eke
kShaNe kShaNe bibhrati yatra vRkShaaH
citraaM samastaam api ke cid anye
ShaNNaam RtuunaaM shriyam udvahanti

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

There one by one, season by season,
and moment by moment,

Trees convey their individual form;

While some odd ones also bring out

The combined manifold glory of all six seasons.

From 10.19 to 10.27 Ashvaghosha presents to us a vision of what trees are like in Indra's paradise. From 10.28 to 10.31 the subject changes to birds. There then follows a description of the celestial nymphs, the apsarases, whose effect on Nanda is essential to the overall plot of the poem.

So if we didn't know Ashvaghosha better by now, we might think that the next dozen or so verses are incidental, a kind of poetic interlude that merely sets the scene in heaven for the important action which will ensue there.

But efforts hitherto have led us to suspect that there is no verse without gold for a sitting practitioner to dig for. Rather, those verses which appear on first reading to be least promising are liable to contain the deepest veins of gold.

With that suspicion in mind, what on earth might Ashvaghosha be hinting at in this verse?

This verse ostensibly belongs to the description of a delusion that was common in ancient India, namely, Indra's paradise, a place that has never existed except in people's imagination. But I think the ever-ironic intention of Ashvaghosha might be to describe his real experience, down here on earth, of a different (anya) way of being which is the dialectic opposite of delusion.

Understood like this, today's verse can be read as picking up the thread of yesterday's verse which mentions the Buddha's consideration of a slightly unconventional means, in order to convey a teaching which is nothing if not alternative.

I heard a woman named Marjory Barlow who described herself as "a bit of an oddball" repeatedly come back to four verbal directions formulated by her uncle FM Alexander, namely:
(1) allow the neck to be free;
(2) to let the head go forward, and up;
(3) to let the back lengthen, and widen; while
(4) sending the knees forwards and away.
Each of these four directions contains something to be investigated in its own right. At the same time, Alexander talked of coming back to these individual directions and keeping them going until they became one. "Altogether, one after the other," was a teaching phrase he used. Since words cannot be spoken or listened to altogether, the "altogether" part is inevitably something beyond words. And when one is given a taste in an Alexander lesson of what Alexander meant, for example, when he wrote of "the unity underlying all things," one has the sense that this unity is a very natural experience for human beings, but one that most people have strayed from and are out of touch with.

The oddballs are not many who set aside valuable time in order to endeavour -- through altenative practices like Alexander work, or like sitting upright with the legs tied in a knot -- to let this natural state re-assert itself. And a few of these oddballs achieve conspicuous success in their non-doing endeavour, as manifested in stuff they subsequently do -- Ashvaghosha in India and Dogen in China and Japan being two outstanding examples.

Thus Dogen proclaimed when he came back to Japan from China that the secret of sitting-zen has to do with
naturally/spontaneously becoming all of a piece.

So in this verse, I venture to suggest, Ashvaghosha might be intending to point to something (or a bit of nothing) along the same lines that FM Alexander and Zen Master Dogen were pointing to in their ultimately impossible attempts to point to what words cannot adequately describe.

In the experience of Ashvaghosha, we can suppose, as 12th in a line of transmission from the Buddha, one who was odd or different was Punyayashas, who was 11th in that lineage.

And on that subject, incidentally, there is a point I have been wanting to make for some time, which is that if we accept that the Buddha died in around the 5th century BC and that Bodhidharma came to China in around the 5th century AD, given that Bodhidharma was 28th in a line in which Ashvaghosha was the 12th, and assuming that time between transmissions was roughly equal, then that would tend to date Ashvaghosha earlier (maybe 1st century BC) than scholars have dated him hitherto (1st or 2nd century AD).

A final reflection on what it means to be other, or different, or odd (anye) is prompted by Jordan's recent reference to himself -- in contrast to Zen elephants who like to come together and trumpet mutual encouragement -- as "practising the Buddha way in a vacuum."

According to Dogen's teaching, when we sit in full lotus without any tainted agenda, buddhas in all directions in the three times are sitting with us. If Jordan, as befits an old punk rocker, wishes to describe such practice as pretty vacuous, fair enough. Anybody who, after all these years, still hasn't got fed up with reading my unduly long and wordy daily outpourings must himself be bit of an odd one!

EH Johnston:
There some trees at every moment bear the appearance of their own season, while others exhibit the splendid glory of all six seasons in their entirety.

Linda Covill:
Some of the trees there manifest one or other season from moment to moment, while others wear the combined and various glory of all six seasons at once.

Rtau = loc. sg. Rtu: m. an epoch , period (esp. a division or part of the year) , season
aakRtim (acc. sg.): f. form , figure , shape , appearance , aspect
eke (nom. pl.): m. one of two or many (eka - eka , eka - dvitiiya , the one - the other ; esp. pl. eke , some , eke - apare some - others , &c ); (eka repeated twice , either as a compound [cf. ek'aika] or uncompounded , may have the sense " one and one " , " one by one ")

kShaNe (loc. sg.): m. instant, moment (kShaNe kShaNe , every instant , every moment)
bibhrati = 3rd pers. sg. pres. bhR: to bear , carry , convey; to bring , offer , procure , grant , bestow
yatra: ind. wherein
vRkShaaH (nom. pl.): m. a tree

citraam (acc. sg. f.): mfn. conspicuous , excellent , distinguished; bright; variegated ; various , different , manifold
samastaam (acc. sg. f.): mfn. thrown or put together , combined , united , whole , all
ind. (As a separable adv.) and , also , moreover , besides , assuredly , surelyke cid (nom. pl. m.): some [trees]
anye (nom. pl. m.): mfn. other, different

ShaNNaam = gen. pl. ShaSh: six
RtuunaaM = gen. pl. Rtu: m. season ; in later time six seasons are enumerated , viz. vasanta , " spring " ; griiShma , " the hot season " ; varShaas (f. pl. nom. ) , " the rainy season " sharad , " autumn " ; hemanta , " winter " ; and shishira , " the cool season "
shriyam (acc. sg.): f. light , lustre , radiance , splendour , glory , beauty , grace , loveliness
udvahanti = 3rd pers. pl. ud- √ vah : to lead or carry out or up , draw out , save; to bear up , lift up , elevate ; to bear (a weight or burden) , wear (clothes &c ) ; to wear , have , possess ; to show


Jordan said...

Well, I may be pretty vacuous… Or at least feel that way after the computer that my job revolves around had a catastrophic failure at work today. I know, faulty sensory appreciation and all.

But if buddhas in all directions in the three times are sitting with me, maybe I had better do a better job of keeping the dog hair off the spare cushions.

Mike Cross said...

That's right. And if they are all sitting with you, hopefully none of them will be round here noticing the scruffy state of my dojo.