Wednesday, November 30, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA Colophon: Great New Beginnings?

saundaranande mahā-kāvya ājñā-vyākaraṇa nāmaṣṭādaśaḥ sargaḥ/

ārya-suvarṇākṣī-putrasya sāketakasya bhikṣor ācārya-bhadant'-āśvaghoṣasya mahā-kaver mahā-vādinaḥ kṛtir iyam //

The 18th canto in the epic poem Handsome Nanda,
titled "Affirmation of Full Autonomy."

This is the work of a beggar, the respected teacher Aśvaghoṣa of Saketa, son of the noble Suvarṇākṣī, crafter of epic poetry and talker of the great talk.

My working title for Canto 18 was originally simply "Affirmation" but for the last couple of months, further to commenting on 18.6, I have favoured "Bearing Witness."

In 18.21, I translated vyākaraṇaṁ as "testimony" (EHJ: "declaration;" LC: "discriminating analysis"). Canto titles consistent with that translation might be "Attesting to Enlightenment" or "Enlightened Testimony."

But I have reverted to "affirmation" for the vyākaraṇaḥ of the canto title," firstly because (as already mentioned in comments to 18.6) vyākaraṇa corresponds to 授記 JUKI, the title of Shobogenzo chap. 32, which in the Nishijima-Cross translation is translated as "affirmation" or "giving affirmation;" and secondly because "affirmation" fits the content of Canto 18, in which the Buddha and Nanda affirm each other's respective virtues.

That leaves the problem of how to understand ājñā, which as a noun is given first in the dictionary as order, command, unlimited authority, power -- "Affirmation of a Mission"? "Affirmation of Unlimited Authority/Power"?

As a verb, ā-√jñā means to notice, undertand or realize. Hence, according to a note by EHJ, "ājñā is the special knowledge of the man who has attained salvation" -- and hence EHJ's chapter title "The Declaration of Insight." Accepting EHJ's gist might lead us in the direction of "Affirmation of Insight" or "Affirmation of Enlightenment."

This would fit well enough with the content of Canto 18. But since the original meaning of ājñā, according to the dictionary, has to do not so much with the exercise of wisdom as with the exercise of power, I am drawn back to translations like "Affirmation of Free Rein" or "Affirmation of Unlimited Power" or "Affirmation of Full Autonomy."

The canto title I have thus arrived at could hardly be further away from the spirit of LC's "His Instructions Revealed." But again, it would be not uncharacteristic of Aśvaghoṣa to choose a title which seemed to mean one thing while really meaning the opposite.

Some readers might like to ask a supreme Buddhist authority for a ruling on the canto title -- they might like to ask some Buddhist Patriarch or other to reveal his instructions. Some might prefer to use their own head.

You pays your money and you takes your choice. But it is Aśvaghoṣa fans from the latter group whose individual testimonies I am interested in, and I will start publishing those contributions the day after tomorrow, beginning with Jordan's, on Friday. Anybody who wishes to contribute but hasn't yet is welcome to do so by emailing me at

Moving from the canto title to the closing sentence (or "colophon"), this line represents Aśvaghoṣa taking individual responsibility for a work of Sanskrit literature -- the first buddha-ancestor, as far as we know, who thus announced that "I, So and So, son of So and So, wrote this."

This attitude of Aśvaghoṣa, it might be argued, also says something about the affirmation of full individual autonomy.

To what extent was Aśvaghoṣa approach a new departure?

The Monier Williams dictionary defines mahā-yāna as: "great vehicle" (as opposed to hīna-yāna), name of the later system of Buddhist teaching said to have been first promulgated by Nāgārjuna and treated of in the Mahā-yāna-sūtras.

I regard with skepticism this designation of a great vehicle beginning with Nāgārjuna. Should we recognize that there was anything great in the teaching of later ancestors like Nāgārjuna, Bodhidharma, and Dogen that wasn't already greatly present in the teaching of earlier ancestors like Gautama, Ānanda, and Aśvaghoṣa?

As a rule, probably not. At the same time, I remember Dogen praising, as a secret of the great vehicle, the tradition of wearing a buddha-robe to sit in, regardless of distinctions such as male and female monk, lay man and lay woman.

However one understands the significance of the mahā in the closing words of the colophon, I think the attempts of EHJ and LC to translate mahā-kaver mahā-vādinaḥ (great eloquent poet; great poet and eloquent speaker) fail to reflect real understanding of the value system of a buddha-ancestor like Aśvaghoṣa, according to which the primary thing -- as he has just told us -- is never great poetry. The first way these epithets should be undestood, as I read them, is ironic self-deprecation.

mahā-vādin is given in the dictionary as "a great controversialist." In this sense Aśvaghoṣa following on from yesterday's verse, I am sure, was describing himself in a self-deprecating way, as a purveyor of verb-root-rooted dust, as a great talker of the talk -- that is to say, not necessarily a great walker of the walk.

At the same time, mahā-vādin can also be understood as "a propounder of the great" i.e. "teacher of the great vehicle" or "proponent of the mahāyāna teaching." Might this also be what Aśvaghoṣa intended?

My answer is the usual refuge of the dabbler whose staff lacks the iron thump of Zen enlightenment: I don't know.

In the end, the only certainty is that Saundara-nanda is full of ironic twists and ambiguity. From the first verse to the colophon, what Aśvaghoṣa seems to mean on the surface is not what he seems to mean after one has dug around for a while. And there may be deeper and deeper levels of meaning that requie a spade sharper than mine to dig them out.

It is perhaps permissible, nevertheless, to hope that this work, despite its shortcomings, may attract readers to a very fine poem, and that it may help them to the understanding and enjoyment of it. So wrote EH Johnston, 80 years ago in October 1931 in the preface to his English translation of Saundara-nanda. It is perhaps permissible to hope, in other words, even as Aśvaghoṣa himself may have hoped and intuited two thousand years ago, that this moment might not be the end of anything but rather the beginning of something, based on true foundations.

* The discoveries of FM Alexander.
* Practical understanding of how vestibular reflexes underpin all human behaviour.
* Reliable translations (based on the original words, not some poser's Buddhist intuition) of ancient texts.
*Devotion to upright sitting in the traditional cross-legged manner.

These are my four corners stones. Whether they are solid enough foundations for what Gudo Nishijima called "the establishment of true Buddhism" in the world, time will tell. My sense, as an old rugby player, is that, deep into the second half, we are several converted tries behind.

EH Johnston:
This poem was written by the great eloquent poet, the mendicant and teacher, his reverence Ashvaghosha, the noble son of Suvarnakshi of Saketa.

Linda Covill:
End of Canto 18: His Instructions Revealed

This is the composition of the Venerable Ashva-ghosha of Saketa, noble son of Suvarnakshi, monk, teacher, great poet and eloquent speaker.

saundara-nande mahaa-kaavye (loc.): in the epic poem Handsome Nanda
aajNaa-vyaakaraNaH (nom. sg. m.)
aajNaa: f. order , command ; authority , unlimited power ; permission
ā- √ jñā: to mind , perceive , notice , understand ; (causative) to order , command , direct ; to assure
vyaakaraNa: n. separation , distinction , discrimination ; explanation , detailed description ; manifestation , revelation ; (with Buddhists) prediction , prophecy (one of the nine divisions of scriptures)
vy-aa-√kR: to undo , sever , divide , separate from (instr.) ;
to expound , explain , declare ; (with Buddhists) to predict (esp. future births)
naama: by name
aShTaa-dashaH sargaH (nom. sg. m.): 18th canto

aarya-suvarNaakShii-putrasya (gen. sg.): the son of noble Suvarṇakṣī
aarya: noble
suvarNaakShii: f. name
suvarNa: of a good or beautiful colour , brilliant in hue , bright , golden , yellow ; gold , made of gold ; of a good tribe or caste
putra: m. son
saaketakasya (gen. sg.): of Saketa
bhikShoH = gen. sg. bhikShu: m. a beggar , mendicant
aacaarya-bhadant'-aashvaghosasya (gen. sg. m.): the respected/celebrated teacher Aśvaghoṣa
aacaarya: m. "knowing or teaching the aacaara or rules" , a spiritual guide or teacher (especially one who invests the student with the sacrificial thread , and instructs him in the vedas , in the law of sacrifice and religious mysteries)
bhadanta: m. (from √bhand) a term of respect applied to a Buddhist , a Buddhist mendicant
√bhand: to be greeted with praise , receive applause
ashva: m. a horse
ghosa: m. indistinct noise , tumult , confused cries of a multitude , battle-cry , cries of victory , cries of woe or distress , any cry or sound , roar of animals ;
mahaa-kaveH = gen. sg. mahaa-kavi: m. a great or classical poet ; a great seer, an eminently sly man, a man of great cunning
mahat: great (in space , time , quantity or degree) i.e. large , big , huge , ample , extensive , long , abundant , numerous , considerable , important , high , eminent
kavi: mfn. gifted with insight , intelligent , knowing , enlightened , wise , sensible , prudent , skilful , cunning ; m. a thinker , intelligent man , man of understanding , leader ; m. a wise man , sage , seer , prophet
mahaa-vaadinaH = gen. sg. mahaa-vaadin: m. a great controversialist ; a great talker ; a propounder of the great
vaadin: mfn. saying , discoursing , speaking , talking , speaking or talking about ; m. a speaker , asserter , (ifc.) the teacher or propounder
kRtiH (nom. sg.): f. the act of doing , making , performing , manufacturing , composing; creation , work ; literary work
iyam (nom. sg. f.): this


Jordan said...

As a child my folks thought I should play soccer. I ended up as a fullback. I could often be seen in the back field, sitting cross legged, picking dandelions. Were we ahead, behind, I didn't know. I still got to eat oranges.

Mike Cross said...

Sounds like you were made for sitting-zen, Jordan, or happily playing your bamboo flute. God knows how you ended up spending years following the writings of a competitive bastard like me!