Thursday, July 21, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 10.61: Buddha Speaks of Pure Action

ih' aadhivaaso divi daivataiH samaM
vanaani ramyaaNy ajaraash ca yoShitaH
idaM phalaM svasya shubhaasya karmaNo
na dattam anyena na c' aapy a-hetutaH

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

Perching here in heaven with gods;

Delightful forests; ageless women --

This is the fruit of your own pure action.

It is not conferred by another; nor is it without cause.

My first impression was that with this verse Ashvaghosha had switched his viewpoint to what Gudo Nishijima used to call "the second phase" -- the viewpoint in which cause and effect is absolute and foremost. Digging deeper, I think that in today's verse, as in yesterday's, the Buddha really has only one thing in mind, and that is pure action (shubhaasya karmaNaH).

If we accepted the premise that the utmost asceticism constitutes good conduct, then we might understand, based on this premise and belief in cause and effect, that the Buddha in today's verse is promising Nanda a reward in the longer-term future for the ascetic practise he is about to do in the short and medium-term future. But such understanding might be false, based on a false premise.

Hence, the opening word of the verse, iha, seems to point not to a future result but just to Nanda's experience here and now.

The Buddha is telling Nanda that what he is experiencing now -- being up in heaven, the forests, the nymphs -- is the result or fruit of... what?

EHJ says Nanda's own good actions. LC says one's own pure deeds. But karmaNaH is singular. My initial attempt to translate shubhaasya karmaNaH, based on the understanding that this verse was all about the moral law of cause and effect, was "your own good conduct." But karman isn't given in the dictionary as conduct; it is given as action.

phalaM svasya shubhasya karmaNaH might most accurately be translated as "the fruit/result of your own pure action." Because it is not conferred by another, it is your own. And because it is not without a cause, it is called a fruit or a result. But what is the meaning of shubhasya karmaNaH, "pure action"? If shubhasya karmaNaH means pure action, what pure action does the Buddha see that Nanda has hitherto realized or is now realizing?

Come to think of it, I don't know. I don't know what pure action is. Pure action is what I thought I spent years studying under Gudo Nishijima, expounder of the Buddhist philosophy of action. In those days I thought I was one of the elite few who knew pure action, one of the few true Buddhists who were ranged against the great mass of idealistic and materialistic non-Buddhists -- practitioners of mindfulness and the like.

But it strikes me as I read today's verse that I don't know what pure action is. If I have learned anything, I might have learned something -- not much -- about what impure action is. Impure action is action that is tainted by the many-tentacled monster of misuse which is stimulated into activity by thirst for some object. Looking back now on interactions I had with Gudo then, I think I might have been the thirstiest monkey in the troop. (Not that I was helped by being instructed to pull my chin back while hyper-extending my back in Zazen.)

It is thirsty end-gaining like this, Ashvaghosha tells us in 11.6, that caused naturally handsome Nanda to become extremely ugly.

Maybe the fact that Nanda was naturally handsome was evidence enough of a natural capacity for pure action.

Apropos of which, when I was encouraged recently to watch some Youtube video clips of Richard Feynman, one of the things that struck me about Feynman was that he seemed to have got better looking in his old age than he was when he was young. Even though I don't know what pure action is, something about the aging Feynman's manner of thinking and speaking struck me -- beyond any moral consideration of good and bad -- as pure.

In conclusion, pure action might be action that is not contaminated or deformed by the grim determination and stiffened neck of the personally ambitious end-gainer.

On first reading, this verse seemed to me to be all about cause and effect. Digging deeper, I wonder what the Buddha meant by pure action.

Originally, it causes a person to be beautiful, to look good. But to pursue pure action as an object, or worse, to turn it into the cornerstone of one's own true Buddhist philosophy, might be to have tainted it already. Yuk.

I say "yuk" having devoted a big chunk of my life to the process of translating Shobogenzo into English. And the overriding sense it has left me with is not one of pride or of satisfaction or of gratitude to anybody, but just one of disgust. Disgust with the end-gaining personal ambition of others -- which all boils down of course, via the mirror principle, to a low opinion of self.

An opinion, a view, that has yet to be dropped off.

As FM Alexander observed, the most difficult things to get rid of are the ones that don't exist.

What, in the end, is pure action?

Whatever I think it is, truly, it is not that.

EH Johnston:
Residence here in heaven with the gods, these lovely groves and unaging women are the reward of your own good actions. No other can give this to you, nor can it be obtained without an efficient cause.

Linda Covill:
Life here in heaven together with the gods, the delightful forests and these unaging women are the reward of one's own pure deeds. The reward cannot be given by anyone else, nor is it available without due motivation.

iha: ind. here
adhivaasaH (nom. sg.): m. an inhabitant; one who dwells above ; a habitation , abode , settlement , site ; sitting before a person's house without taking food till he ceases to oppose or refuse a demand (commonly called " sitting in dharna ")
adhi- √vas: to inhabit; to settle or perch upon
adhi: ind. , as a prefix to verbs and nouns , expresses above , over and above
√vas: to dwell, live
divi (loc. sg.): f. heaven
daivataiH (inst. pl..): n. god, deity
samam: ind. together with

vanaani (nom. pl.): n. a forest , wood ,
ramyaaNi (nom. pl. n.): mfn. pleasing , delighting , rejoicing
ajaraaH (nom. pl. f.): mfn. not subject to old age , undecaying , ever young
ca: and
yoShitaH (nom. pl.): f. women

idam (nom. sg. n.): this
phalam (nom. sg.): n. fruit, result, reward
svasya (gen. sg. n.): mfn. one's own
shubhaasya (gen. sg. n.): mfn. pleasant , agreeable , suitable , fit , capable , useful , good (applied to persons and things) ; good (in moral sense) , righteous , virtuous , honest ; pure (as an action)
karmaNaH (gen. sg.): n. act , action ; former act as leading to inevitable results

na: not
dattam (nom. sg. n.): mfn. given, granted
anyena (inst. sg.): by another
na: not
ca: and
api: also
ahetutaH: ind. without cause
ahetu: m. absence of cause or reason
taH (ablative/adverbial suffix)

No comments: