manaMsi khinnaani tapo-dhanaanaaM
haranti yatr'-aapsaraso laDantyaH
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Having first accepted the price in austerities
And made the decision to splash out on heaven,
Ascetics rich in austerities have their weary minds
Enthralled there by the flirting apsarases.
In a series of seven verses from here to 10.39, as part of his thought experiment, Ashvagosha paints the apsarases in an extremely appealing light. There is none of the pessimism by which the striver in Canto 8 seeks to deny women's sexual charms. Ashvaghosha's imagery is more reminiscent of those paintings in the Ajanta Caves that seem to portray sensuality as it is -- if not actually to celebrate sensuality in the spirit of "all dharmas are real form" (SHO-HO JISSO).
Ashvaghosha, unlike the striver, does not try to make the case that women are originally unappealing. Ashvaghosha rather portrays women, in his descriptions of the nymphs here and in his descriptions of Sundari in earlier cantos, as extremely sexually attractive -- with pearl necklaces that are nudged out of the way by their exaggeratedly large and firm breasts, with slender waists, shapely hips, trembling earrings and anklets, darting eyes, coquettish moves, and so on.
Why? What is the point of this thought experiment in which fantastic nymphs in heaven are even more sexually attractive than women down here on earth -- who are already liable to be more than attractive enough to distract a yogin's attention.
Ashvaghosha is laying the ground for Ananda in Canto 11 to shock Nanda with the news that the sensual bliss which union with fantasy women represents can only ever be impermanent, to be followed by the suffering of separation.
Whether, in truth, it is possible to win the sexual favours of celestial nymphs by first paying the price in self-denying austerities is not really the point. What Ashvagosha is doing, as I hear him, is conducting a thought experiment like the one Einstein is said to have conducted when he imagined himself to be travelling at the speed of light.
At the same time, Ashvaghosha's vision of heaven, based on ancient Indian myth, does seem to have some basis in human experience. Sailors who after weeks at sea have arrived at ports around the world to find young women eagerly waiting for them in dimly-lit bars, might feel that there is some basis in reality for the ancient Indian fantasy. Again, I remember going on long winter runs when I lived on the outskirts of Tokyo, running up to a look-out tower (Iruma Tembo-dai) where I could see Tokyo on one side and Mt. Fuji on the other side; and on the way home I would stop off at a vending machine to buy a 100-yen can of hot, sweet coffee. So I would walk the last 100 yards sipping the coffee, and it always felt -- after stepping out into the cold and doing the run -- like the height of luxury. But such luxury was only available to me because I had been prepared first to pay the price in terms of a run in austere conditions.
This kind of luxury, however, the luxury of a sweetly-scented woman after weeks on the salty sea, or the luxury of a hot sweet drink on a frosty morning, is not what is meant in Saundara-nanda by a-mRta, the deathless nectar which Nanda makes his own in Canto 17.
The deathless nectar might have less to do with the gratification of suppressed desires to gain an end, and more to do with replacement of big end-gaining desires by those small desires which constitute a means-whereby for living happily.
As I write this, I am not so much trying to clarify something for others that I have already conclusively figured out for myself; I am rather in the process of figuring it out, again, for myself -- stimulated by the incessant crowing of next-door's roosters which seems to threaten, every morning, to set me screaming.
The many and various disappointments of men, like old age, occur as long as their doing goes on. / (For even when violent winds blow, trees do not shake that never sprouted.) // [16.10]
The Buddha's ultimate teaching on the night before he died, indubitably, was not to have those big end-gaining desires which keep triggering our habitual patterns of doing, but rather to practise small desire (in Sanskrit alp'ecchu).
My teacher, though small in stature even for a Japanese, was a man of very big ambition, and he tended to attract ambitious followers of whom I was one. I see on the internet people who received the Dharma from my teacher, announcing themselves as Zen Masters, and I think it is primarily my teacher's fault. He was too ambitious in wishing to disseminate, for example, his own pet theory of the autonomic nervous system which, in the end, is only a shabby reductionist view. The Gudo Nishijima I knew (for many years before the latter-day Zen Masters appeared on the scene) -- for all his many virtues such as generosity, self-discipline, endurance and patience, great energy and courage, devotion to sitting-dhyana, and philosophical insight, not to mention a certain intuitive wisdom -- was a doer, an end-gainer, and a man of vaulting ambition.
Translating and publishing Shobogenzo, for example, was a very ambitious project. This translation and day-by-day publication of Saundara-nanda, in contrast, is much less ambitious -- and deliberately so. Still, if I were truly free of the end-gaining mind, would the roosters continue to bother me so much? Perhaps instead of sitting at this computer, I would be happy to go for a walk in the forest and find somewhere to sit there, or to adapt to the roosters in some other non-violent way. But no, I would like to silence the bastard roosters for ever and enjoy peace and quiet right here and now, without the bother of going someplace else.
Just as I write this, incidentally, the roosters have for some reason or other fallen silent. Ah, heaven! But I somehow know it won't last....
An end-gaining attitude, even if the means are wrong, may nonetheless result in the gaining of some limited end -- as for example Gudo Nishijima gained his end at last of seeing Shobogenzo in English translated and published by Gudo Nishijima. (At least in his own mind he gained that end.) But if the means are wrong, gaining of the end invariably has undesirable side-effects, aka duHkha, suffering, brought upon oneself and on others.
If the end in view is not a limited end, however, but obtaining of the deathless nectar, then end-gaining does not work. One cannot grab deathless nectar with dirty paws. The nectar that is grabbed with dirty paws is not deathless.
This, I think, is the conclusion that Ashvaghosha's thought experiment is leading to. Let us suspend disbelief for a while and imagine that the sweetest-tasting nectar in the world, the joy of sex with unimaginably gorgeous nymphs, could be obtained by the dirty end-gaining paws of asceticism. Could that nectar be the deathless nectar of which the Buddha spoke? No, it could not. The nectar that is grabbed with dirty paws is not deathless.
There the amarous Apsarases ravish the weary minds of the ascetics who had determined to purchase Paradise by first paying the price in austerities.
Here the apsarases play the flirt, enrapturing the weary minds of ascetics who had decided to buy heaven by first paying the price in ascetic practices.
puurvam: ind. before , formerly , hitherto , previously
tapo-muulya-parigraheNa (inst. sg.): by accepting the price payable in ascetic practice
tapas: n. ascetic practice, austerities
muulya: n. original value , value , price , worth , a sum of money given as payment
parigraha: m. laying hold of on all sides ; taking , accepting , receiving or anything received
svarga-kray'-aartham (acc. sg. n.): to buy heaven
svarga: m. heaven
kraya: m. buying , purchase ; the purchase-price
artha: n. aim, purpose
kRta-nishcayaanaam (gen. pl.): determined to
kRta: mfn. done, made
nishcaya: resolution , resolve fixed intention , design , purpose , aim (nischayaM- √kR, to resolve upon , determine to)
manaMsi = acc. pl. manas: n. mind
khinnaani (acc. pl. n.): mfn. depressed , distressed ; wearied, exhausted
tapo-dhanaanaam (gen. pl. m.): mfn. rich in religious austerities ; m. a great ascetic
tapas: n. ascetic practice, austerities
dhana: n. any valued object , (esp.) wealth , riches ,
haranti = 3rd pers. pl. hR: to take away, carry off; to enrapture , charm , fascinate
yatra: ind. wherein
apsarasaH (nom. pl.): f. apsaras, celestial nymph
laDantyaH = nom. pl. f. pres. part. laD: to play , sport , dally