yatr' eShTa-ceShTaH satata-prahRShTaa
nir-artayo nir-jaraso vi-shokaaH
svaiH karmabhir hiina-vishiShTa-madhyaaH
svayaM prabhaaH puNya-kRto ramante
= = - = = - - = - = =
- = - = = - - = - = =
= = - = = - - = - = =
- = - = = - - = - = =
There, doing as they please, constantly erect,
Free from pain, free from aging, beyond sorrow --
Each by his actions inferior, superior, or in the middle,
Each letting his own light shine -- merit-makers rejoice.
This could be a description of ascetics enjoying endless sexual union with nymphs in heaven; or it could be a description of a Cloud Hall in the golden days of Chinese Zen.
The ambiguity in today's verse, as I read it, is intentional. What Ashvaghosha is saying, in so many words is: "I have never been to heaven, but I know a bit about how it is down here on earth, and I am confident that the same fundamental rules apply."
Ashvaghosha's vision of heaven does not, as I hear it, convey any reliable information about heaven, because there might not be any such place. But Ashvaghosha's vision of heaven does tell us something about Ashvaghosha's insight into the Buddha's teaching, in which the 2nd law of thermodynamics (or "impermanence") is truly universal, in which unwavering confidence in cause and effect is paramount, and in which nobody but me can let my own light shine.
Something of Ashvaghosha's insight might be reflected in the order of the elements in line 3, hiina-vishiShTa-madhyaaH, the inferior, the excellent, and those in the middle. True, if Ashvaghosha had written the elements in the ascending order of hiina-madhya-vishiShTaaH, inferior, middling, and superior, then the line would not have scanned. But even so line 3 as I read it contains the suggestion that the middle is the place to be. Nagarjuna wasn't the only one to sing a fundamental song of the middle way.
Yesterday on the radio I heard a debate about the merits and de-merits of putting in "streams" primary school children as young as seven years old -- which seems to me to be a very unenlightened approach to education. I can see the point of sets for the teaching of particular subjects, like reading or arithmetic. But seven is an absurdly young age to decide on a general basis whose capabilities in the classroom are inferior and whose are superior.
At the primary school I went to there was an A stream and a B stream and my rank, according to the end-of-year exams was generally no. 1 in the A stream (except in my final year at school when I was surpassed by arch-rival Lesley Blakemore). And this may be part of the reason that I have tended to struggle through life handicapped by a big desire to be excellent. Recently, however, I eschew the translation of shreyas as "Excellence" (LC) or "the highest good" (EHJ) in favour of "a better way." A better way than grim striving with a big desire for excellence, it seems to me recently, is happy maintenance of a small desire to be in the middle. Still, it is easier said than done. Old habits die hard. Some wrong views are not easy to shake off.
Being a parent, and working with struggling children, has for me been a big help in shaking my former view. Because wanting children to be excellent, and wanting them to be happy, evidently, are not necessarily the same thing.
So what Ashvagosha calls shreyas, I am suggesting, is not necessarily "Excellence" or "The Highest Good" as a superior end to be gained. shreyas might mean, more modestly, a better way to be happy -- in the middle.
There those who have earned merit enjoy themselves, doing as they wish, ever joyful, free from affliction and grief, ever young, shining with their own light and having a lofty, middle or low station according to their deeds.
Here the merit-makers take their pleasure, doing as they wish, always blissful, free from pain, old age and grief, the splendor of each being low, great or average according to their former deeds.
yatra: ind. wherein
iShTa-ceShTaH (nom. pl. m.): behaving as they like, doing as they please
iShTa: mfn. wished , desired; liked
ceShTa: n. moving the limbs , gesture ; n. behaviour , manner of life
satata-prahRShTaaH (nom. pl. m.): always bristling with delight
satata: ind. constantly, always, ever
prahRShTa: mfn. erect , bristling (as the hair of the body) ; thrilled with delight. exceedingly pleased , delighted
pra: ind. forth, before ; as pref. to adj. = excessively , very , much
hṛṣṭa: mfn. thrilling with rapture , rejoiced , pleased , glad , merry ; bristling , erect , standing on end (said of the hairs of the body) ; rigid , stiff
nir-artayaH = nom. pl. m. nir-arti: mfn. painless
arti = aarti: f. painful occurrence , pain , injury , mischief ; sickness
nir-jarasaH = nom. pl. m. nir-jaras: mfn. not becoming old , young , fresh; imperishable , immortal
vi-shokaaH = nom. pl. m. vi-shoka: mfn. free from sorrow
svaiH (inst. pl.): his own
karmabhiH = inst. pl. karman: n. act, action ; former act as leading to inevitable results , fate (as the certain consequence of acts in a previous life)
hiina-vishiShTa-madhyaaH (nom. pl. m.): inferior, superior, or in the middle
hiina: mfn. left , abandoned , forsaken ; left behind , excluded or shut out from , lower or weaker than , inferior; brought low , broken down in circumstances
vishiShTa: mfn. distinguished ; pre-eminent , excellent ; better or worse than (abl. or comp.)
madhya: m. middle
svayaM-prabhaaH (nom. pl. m.): shining with one's own light, spontaneously radiant
svayam: ind. self , one's self (applicable to all persons e.g. myself , thyself , himself &c ) , of or by one's self spontaneously , voluntarily , of one's own accord
prabhaa: f. light , splendour , radiance , beautiful appearance (ifc. often mfn.)
puNya-kRtaH (nom. pl. m.): merit-makers
puNya: n. the good or right , virtue , purity , good work , meritorious act , moral or religious merit
kRta: mfn. done, made; doing, making
ramante = 3rd pers. pl. ram: to stop, stay; to be glad or pleased , rejoice at , delight in , be fond of ; to play or sport , dally