Monday, September 26, 2011

Canto 11: Negation of Heaven

Ananda's teaching in this canto meets the pragmatic test of truth in the sense that, unlike the striver's preaching in cantos 8 & 9, it works: it leads Nanda in the direction of confidence in a better way. How to follow a better way than end-gaining in samsara is the central point of the teaching that the Buddha gives Nanda in cantos 12 to 16. Canto 17 describes how Nanda makes that teaching his own. And in Canto 18, to which we now turn, the Buddha affirms that Nanda is going irreversibly in the right direction and asks him, having redeemed himself, to start helping others.

Reviewing Canto 11 in the round, the opposition between wandering through the realms of saṁsāra, of which Ashvaghosha mentions five, and practising brahmacarya, or devout abstinence, is liable to stimulate in my mind a nagging doubt that I am required by the Buddha's teaching to give up things that I am reluctant to give up, things that I enjoy. Abstinence does not sound like much fun. Also in this canto, however, to lighten the mood, are verses like 11.33 - 11.35 that speak of the unequalled enjoyment of turning one's own light and letting it shine.

Above all, the one sentence that stands out in my mind is 11.52, ratir bhavati n' āsane "there is no enjoyment in sitting." Whether up in heaven or down here on earth, that is always a bad sign.

An injured knee, as I have at present, makes it more difficult to enjoy sitting. But this difficulty only makes me clearer in my own mind how important it is for sitting to be enjoyable, difficult or not. If sitting is not enjoyable, something needs attending to. For a self-regulating system, negative feedback is just about the most valuable thing there is, and we blot it out at our peril.

Finally, if there has been any merit in the translation of this canto, I would like to direct it towards my wife's mother, who died at the beginning of this month. She was regarded as something of a Sundari in her day, and was a tireless and self-sacrificing worker for her family.

And so, having gazed upon those women

Who wander in the Gardens of Nandana,

Nanda tethered to a post of restraint

The fickle and unruly mind.

Not relishing the taste of freedom from care,

Sapless as a wilting lotus,

He went through the motions of dharma-practice,

Having installed the apsarases in his heart.

Thus did one whose sense-power had been restless,

Whose senses had grazed on the pasture of his wife,

Come, by the very power of sense-objects,

To have his sense-power reined in.

Adept in the practices of love,

Confused about the practices of a beggar,

Set firm by the best of practice guides,

He did the devout practice of abstinence.

Stifling restraint

And ardent love,

Like water and fire in tandem,

Smothered him and burned him dry.

Though naturally good-looking,

He became extremely ugly,

Both from agonizing about the apsarases

And from protracted restraint.

Even when mention was made of his wife,

He who had been so devoted to his wife

Stood by, seemingly bereft of passion;

He neither bristled nor quavered.

Knowing him to be adamant,

Turned away from passion for his wife,

Ananda, having come that way,

Said to Nanda with affection:

"Ah! This is a beginning that befits

An educated and well-born man --

Since you are holding back the power of your senses

And, abiding in yourself, you are set on restraint!

In one entangled in desires,

In a man of passion, a sensualist,

That this consciousness has arisen --

This is by no small cause!

A mild illness is warded off

With little effort;

A serious illness is cured with serious efforts,

Or else it is not.

An illness of the mind is hard to remove,

And yours was a powerful one.

If you are rid of it,

You are in every way steadfast.

Good is hard for an ignoble man to do,

Meekness is hard for an arrogant man,

Giving is hard for a greedy man,

And devout abstinence is hard for a man of passion.

But I have one doubt

Concerning this steadfastness of yours in restraint.

I would like assurance on this matter,

If you think fit to tell me.

Straight talk

Should not be taken amiss:

However harsh it is,
so long as its intention is pure,

A good man will not retain it as harsh.

For there is disagreeable good advice,
which is kind,

And agreeable bad advice,
which is not kind;

But agreeable good advice is hard to come by --

Like sweet and salutary medicine.

Trust, acting in the other's interest,

Sharing of joy and sorrow,

And tolerance, as well as affection:

Such, between good men, is the conduct of a friend.

So now I am going to speak to you

Out of affection, with no wish to hurt.

For my intention is to speak of a better way for you --

In regard to which I ought not to be indifferent.

For apsarases as wages,

So they say, you are practising dharma.

Is that so? Is it true?

Such a thing would be a joke!

If this really is true,

I will tell you a medicine for it;

Or if it is the impertinence of chatterers,

I shall speak out on the basis of fact."

Then -- though it was tenderly done --

Nanda was stricken in his heart.

After reflecting, he drew in a long breath,

And his face inclined slightly downward.

And so, knowing the signs

That betrayed the set of Nanda's mind,

Ananda spoke words

Which were disagreeable but sweet in consequence:

"From the look on your face I know

Your motive in practising dharma.

And knowing that, there arises in me towards you

Laughter and at the same time pity.

Just as, for the purpose of sitting,

Somebody might carry around on his shoulder
a heavy rock;

That is how you also, for the purpose of sensuality,

Are labouring to bear restraint.

Just as, in its desire to charge,

A wild ram draws back,

So, for the sake of non-abstinence,

Is this devout abstinence of yours!

Just as merchants buy merchandise

Moved by a desire to make profit,

That is how you are practising dharma,

As if it were a tradable commodity,
not for peace.

Just as, with a particular crop in view,

A ploughman scatters seed,

That is how, because of being desperate for an object,

You have renounced objects.

Again, just as a man might want to be ill

In his craving for a pleasurable remedy,

That is how you are seeking out suffering

In your thirst for an object.

Just as a man sees honey

And fails to notice a precipice,

That is how you are seeing the apsarases

And not seeing the fall that will come in the end.

Blazing with a fire of desire in your heart,

You carry out observances with your body:

What is this devout abstinence of yours,

Who does not practise abstinence with his mind?

Again, since in spiralling through samsara

You have gained celestial nymphs and left them

A hundred times over,

Why this yearning of yours for those women?

A fire is not satisfied by dry brushwood,

Nor the salty ocean by water,

Nor a man of thirst by his desires.

Desires, therefore, do not make for satisfaction.

Without satisfaction, whence peace?

Without peace, whence ease?

Without ease, whence joy?

Without joy, whence enjoyment?

Therefore if you want enjoyment,

Let your mind be directed within.

Tranquil and impeccable is enjoyment of the inner self

And there is no enjoyment to equal it.

In it, you have no need of musical instruments,

Or women, or ornaments;

On your own, wherever you are,

You can indulge in that enjoyment.

The mind suffers mightily

As long as thirst persists.

Eradicate that thirst; for suffering

Co-exists with thirst, or does not exist.

In prosperity or in adversity,

By day or by night,

For the man who thirsts after desires,

Peace is not possible.

The pursuit of desires is full of suffering,

The attainment is not where satisfaction lies,

The separation is inevitably sorrowful --

And separation is the celestial constant.

Even having done action that is hard to do,

And reached a heaven that is hard to reach,

A man comes right back to the world of men,

As if to his own house after a spell away.

The backslider

When his residual good runs out

Finds himself among the animals
or in the world of the departed,

Or else he goes to hell.

Having enjoyed in heaven

The utmost sensual objects,

He falls back, beset by suffering:

What has that enjoyment done for him?

Through tender love for living creatures

Shibi gave his own flesh to a hawk.

He fell back from heaven,

Even after doing such a difficult deed.

Having attained half of Indra's throne

As a veritable earth-lord of the old school,

Mandhatri when his time with the gods elapsed

Came back down again.

Though he ruled the gods,

Nahusha fell to earth;

He turned into a snake, so they say,

And even today has not wriggled free.

Likewise King Ilivila

Being perfect in kingly conduct,

Went to heaven and fell back down,

Becoming, so they say, a turtle in the ocean.

Bhuri-dyumna and Yayati

And other excellent kings,

Having bought heaven by their actions,

Gave it up again, after that karma ran out --

Whereas the asuras, who had been gods in heaven

When the suras robbed them of their rank,

Went bemoaning their lost glory

Down to their Patala lair.

But why such citing of royal seers,

Or of asuras, suras, and the like?

Mighty Indras have fallen in their hundreds!

Even the most exalted position is not secure.

Again, Indra's luminous sidekick,

He of the three strides, lit up Indra's court,

And yet when his karma waned

He fell to earth from the apsarases' midst, screaming.

"Oh, the grove of Citra-ratha! Oh, the pond!

Oh, the heavenly Ganges! Oh, my beloved!" --

Thus lament the distressed denizens of heaven

As they fall to earth.

For intense already is the pain that arises

In those facing death in this world

And how much worse is it for the pleasure-addicts

When they finally fall from heaven?

Their clothes gather dust,

Their glorious garlands wither,

Sweat appears on their limbs,

And in their sitting there is no enjoyment.

These are the first signs

Of the imminent fall from heaven of sky-dwellers,

Like the unwelcome but sure signs

Of the approaching death of those subject to dying.

Of the pleasure that arises

From enjoyment of desires in heaven

And the pain of falling,

The pain, assuredly, is greater.

Knowing heaven, therefore,

To be ill-fated, precarious,

Unreliable, unsatisfactory, and transitory,

Resolve to get off the merry-go-round.

For though he attained a peak experience

Of bodiless being, Sage Udraka,

At the expiration of his karma,

Will fall from that state into the womb of an animal.

Through seven years of loving kindness,

He went from here to Brahma's world,

But Sunetra span around again

And came back to live in a womb.

Since heaven-dwellers, even when all-powerful,

Are subject to decay,

What wise man would aspire

To a decadent sojourn in heaven?

For just as a bird tied to a string,

Though it has flown far, comes back again;

So too do people return
who are tied to the string of ignorance,

However far they have travelled.

Just as a man temporarily released from prison on bail

Enjoys home comforts and then, when his time is up,
must go back to prison,

So having got to heaven, as if on bail,
through restrictive practices beginning with meditation,

Is one eventually dragged --
after enjoying those objects
which were one's karmic reward --
back down to earth.

Just as fish in a pond who have swum into a net, unwarily,

Do not know the misfortune that results from capture
but contentedly move around in the water,

So meditators in heaven (who are really of this world of men),
thinking they have achieved their end,

Assume their own position
to be favourable, secure, settled --
as they whirl around again.

Therefore, see this world to be shot through
with the calamities of birth, sickness, and death

And -- whether in heaven, among men, in hell,
or among animals or the departed --
to be reeling through samsara.

For the sake of that fearless refuge,
for that sorrowless nectar of immortality
which is benign, and beyond death and decay,

Devoutly practice abstinence,
and abandon your fancy for a precarious heaven.

The 11th canto in the epic poem Handsome Nanda,
titled "Negation of Heaven."

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