Friday, March 30, 2012

Some Nuggets

Simultaneously glowing like a fire and passing water like a cloud, /
He gave off a light resembling molten gold, like a cloud set aglow by daybreak or by dusk. // 3.24 //

Looking up at him in the network of gold and pearls that seemed to wrap around him like an upraised flag, /
The king became joyful beyond measure and the assembled people, bowing down, felt deep appreciation. // 3.25 //

A shining gold they shone with their ochre robes, in the clear sky,/
Like a pair of greylag geese rising up from a lake, embracing one another with outstretched wings. // 10.4 //

Filled with the heady fragrance of the divine deodar, full of rivers and lakes, and springs and gulches, /
And filled with golden ore was the Himālayan mountain full of divine seers at which the two arrived, immediately. // 10.5 //

A lion with shoulders made orange from contact with the orange-red ore of 'the mind-rock,' arsenic,/
Looked like Āmbika's crumpled armband of wrought silver streaked with refined gold. // 10.9 //

Communities of golden mountain-men, the Kirātas, their limbs streaked with shining peacock gall, /
Rushed out from their caves like flying tigers, as if spewed out of the unmoving mountain. // 10.12 //

In various colourless hues, or else white; beautifully illuminated with golden dividing lines; /
Beyond the weaving together of strands, being nothing but a unity; are the exquisite robes that trees there bear as fruit. // 10.22 //

There rise golden lotuses with beryl stems and diamond shoots and stamens; /
Receptive to touch, they have a scent of the ultimate: still pools without ripples allow them to grow. // 10.24 //

Birds which are -- again -- different, with distinctively golden wings and bright, beryl-blue eyes, /
Birds called śiñjirikas fly to and fro, carrying away minds and ears with their songs. // 10.29 //

Adorned with curling feathers that are red at the tips, golden in the middle, /
And the colour of beryl within borders, birds there move. // 10.30 //

Just as gold born from dirt is pure, spotless, gleaming, /
And while lying in the dirt is not tarnished by the dirt's impurities, // 13.4 //

And just as a lotus-leaf is born in water and remains in water, /
But neither above nor below is sullied by the water, // 13.5 //

So the Sage, born in the world, and acting for the benefit of the world, /
Because of his state of action, and spotlessness, is not tainted by worldly things. // 13.6 //

A dirt-washer in pursuit of gold washes away first the coarse grains of dirt, /
Then the finer granules, so that the material is cleansed; and by the cleansing he retains the rudiments of gold. // 15.66 //

In the same way, a man whose mind is poised, in pursuit of liberation, lets go first of the gross faults, /
Then of the subtler ones, so that his mind is cleansed, and by the cleansing he retains the rudiments of dharma. // 15.67 //

Just as gold, washed with water, is separated from dirt in this world, methodically,
And just as the smith heats the gold in the fire and repeatedly turns it over, /
Just so is the practitioner's mind, with delicacy and accuracy, separated from faults in this world,
And just so, after cleansing it from afflictions, does the practitioner temper the mind and collect it. // 15.68 //

Again, just as the smith brings gold to a state where he can work it easily
In as many ways as he likes into all kinds of ornaments, /
So too a beggar of cleansed mind tempers his mind,
And directs his yielding mind among the powers of knowing,1 as he wishes and wherever he wishes. // 15.69 //

Holding gold in the mouth of a furnace, a goldsmith in this world blows it at the proper time, /
Douses it with water at the proper time, and gradually, at the proper time, he leaves it be. // 16.65 //

For he might burn the gold by blowing at the wrong time, he might make it unworkable by plunging it into water at the wrong time, /
And he would not bring it to full perfection if at the wrong time he were just to leave it be. // 16.66 //

Likewise, for garnering as also for calming, as also when appropriate for leaving well alone, /
One should readily attend to the appropriate factor; because even diligence is destructive when accompanied by a wrong approach." // 16.67 //

If, though fended off by such means, faults do not turn back, /
Then, eliminated in order of their grossness, they must be driven out like impurities from gold. // 16.80 //

And so, a glowing gold in his yellow-red robe, he bowed his head to the Guru /
Like a karnikāra tree, with an outburst of ruddy shoots, and a glorious blaze of flowers, nodding in the wind. // 18.5 //

After speaking thus, he prostrated himself on the ground with his whole body, out of deep appreciation for the Guru; /
He looked like a great fallen column of gold tinged with red sandalwood. // 18.20 //

Seeing, in general, that the world is moved primarily by fondness for objects and is repelled by liberation,
I for whom liberation is paramount have told it here like it is, using a kāvya poem as a pretext. /
Being aware of the deceit, take from (this verb-rooted dust) what pertains to peace and not to idle pleasure.
Then elemental dust, assuredly, shall yield up serviceable gold. // 18.64 //

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Value of Gold

I have been writing this blog during "interesting times" -- as per the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."

When I started "mining Aśvaghoṣa's gold" in October 2008, an ounce of gold cost around $US 750; or, conversely, a thousand US dollars cost 1.33 ounces of gold. Today the market price of an ounce of gold is $1650 US dollars, so the cost of a thousand dollars, using gold as the standard, has fallen to 0.6 ounces of gold.

In UK money, again, the price of an ounce of gold has more than doubled, from less than £500 in October 2008 to over £1000 now. Or to put it the other way, using the gold standard, the cost of £1K sterling has fallen from more than two ounces to less than one ounce of gold.

What has been happening?

Has the demand for dollars and pounds being going down? Has money become less desirable? Have people started to value American and British money less?

Or has the demand for gold been going up? Has gold been becoming more desirable? Have people been valuing gold more?

It depends which way one looks at it.

We are accustomed to see things in money terms. So for example valued in pounds sterling, the house where I live hasn't fallen too much since the peak in the housing market in around 2007 -- from which perception, I take comfort. But by the gold standard, our house has lost more than half its value -- from which perception, I feel anxious.

Gold has been rapidly rising in price not only in US dollars and UK pounds but also in euros and Japanese yen, in Canadian and Australian dollars, and Indian rupees and Chinese yuan. So it seems that the global demand for gold has been rising faster than gold-hoarders and gold-mining operations around the world have been willing or able to increase the supply.

When one starts to try to understand the components of global demand for gold, things get complicated, especially when the role of speculative investment is taken into account. But the broad picture is that during these interesting times global demand, or desire, for gold has been rising prodigiously, so that for anybody who, circa 2005, saw a banking crisis coming, gold has been a very good investment.

Maybe the price of gold will continue rising steadily. Maybe it will become a speculative bubble, if it is not one already, and burst. I seriously do not know. But I think the big rise in the price of gold over the past three or four years might be a reliable signal of history in the making.

What were the causes of the Renaissance which began in Italy from around 1400? Or of the European enlightenment from around 1650? Or of the Pax Britannica from 1815? I don't know. Historians and philosophers have competing ideas about the causes, and about the historical significance, of those golden ages of learning and international development. What is less open to debate is that for about 80 years from 1400-1480, for about 70 years from 1660-1730, and for the first 80 years of the Pax Britannica, people's desire/demand for stuff and the supply of that same stuff, were roughly in balance.

That demand and supply were roughly in balance in these periods, is not open to too much debate, because records show that prices of things didn't swing too wildly. When demand and supply of stuff remain roughly in equilibrium, this is definitively reflected in the relative stability of the price of stuff.

But when demand starts to outstrip supply, prices go up. And price instability tends to beget further price instability.

David Hackett Fischer, in his book, The Great Wave, Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History, describes how each of the three aforementioned golden ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Pax Britannica, was preceded by a great wave of rising prices. The great inflationary wave which preceded the Renaissance crested and broke during the catastrophe of the Black Death, which peaked in 1348-50. Before the Enlightenment there was a great inflationary wave which culminated in the Thirty Years War (1618-48). And the Pax Britannica was proceeded by a period of rising prices during the 18th century which culminated in revolutions in France and America and the Napoleonic wars.

Fischer, writing presciently in 1996, describes how in the crisis before a period of price equilibrium, there are volatile swings in the prices of things, so that there are big winners and big losers, giving rise to heightened social inequality.

I read The Great Wave a couple of years ago, and I have recently been re-reading it.

Hacker quotes a statement attributed to Mark Twain: "History doesn't repeat itself -- but it rhymes."

We seem to be in the midst of a financial crisis right now, as has been reflected (so far) in the rising price of gold, and it may be that what Hacker describes as the "20th Century Price-Revolution," the most recent great wave, is about to crest and break.

So what? What has all of this talk of gold prices and golden ages got to do with Aśvaghoṣa?

The Saundarananda of Aśvaghoṣa has been called (by Linda Covill for one) "a story of religious conversion." Again, the Dalai Lama, when asked by Jeremy Paxman how to address him, replied "human brother," and yet this venerable human being is customarily referred to as "His Holiness."

For fuck's sake! How far have we really come since the dark ages?

Aśvaghoṣa, as I read him, was so far ahead of his time that even now, almost two thousands years on, we still haven't caught up with him.

If we are on our way, through interesting times, to a new period of equilibrium, akin to what Hacker identifies as "the Renaissance Equilibrium," "the Enlightenment Equilibrium," and "the Victorian Equilibrium," might that be when the value of Aśvaghoṣa's gold starts to be truly and widely recognized?

I absolutely do not know, any more than I am able to predict the direction of the gold market.

What I do know, having spent the last three years studying it in detail, is that the Saundarananda is not a story of religious conversion. If it is anything, it is a story of individual transformation. It is the story of a process of transformation that Aśvaghoṣa compares to the mining and refining of gold.

So in my next blog post, still on the subject of gold, I will shut up and let Aśvaghoṣa speak for himself.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Letting Your Own Light Shine

The ultimate teaching of Dogen and of Aśvaghoṣa
and of Gautama Buddha, says me,

Is just to sit in lotus

And learn the backward step

Of letting one's own light shine.

(photo from

arhattvam-āsādya sa sat-kriyārho
nirutsuko niṣpraṇayo nirāśaḥ /
vibhīr-viśug-vītamado virāgaḥ
sa eva dhṛtyānya ivābabhāse // 17.61 //

Having attained to the seat of arhathood,
he was worthy of being served.

Without ambition, without partiality,
without expectation;

Without fear, sorrow, pride, or passion;

Being nothing but himself,
he seemed in his constancy to be different.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Darkness & Light (3)

Here is a brief individual reflection on darkness & light, born out of experience:

Religious belief is darkness.

Scientific discovery is light.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Darkness & Light (2)

Like the son of Aditi [the sun] shining light into darkness, [the King] with the intensity of his energy caused the enemies to scatter. // 2.29 //

To one who was a lamp of honour came a supreme bringer of the brightness of betterment: / He shone with tranquil splendour like dharma in a separate bodily form. // 2.56 //

To people possessed by ends, serving many and various paths, / Splendour had arisen that seemed like the sun: Gautama was like the sun, dispelling darkness. // 3.16 //

Simultaneously glowing like a fire and passing water like a cloud, / He gave off a light resembling molten gold, like a cloud set aglow by daybreak or by dusk. // 3.24 //

It is not surprising, in such a case, that one whose mind is shrouded in darkness should be overpowered by the wrongness that arises out of a tainted desire; / For a person's wrongness ceases only when the darkness of ignorance, having reached its limit, begins to diminish. // 9.3 //

And so the Sugata, the One Gone Well, seeing Nanda wandering in the darkness called "wife," / Took his hand and flew up into the sky, wishing to take him up -- like an honest man in the water bearing up a pearl. // 10.3 //

Just as a light in the dark is extinguished by the thousand-rayed brightness of the rising sun, / So the lovely radiance of women in the human world is put in the shade by the brilliance of the celestial nymphs. // 10.44 //

Desiring to dispell that darkness in his heart like the moon dispersing the darkness that rises by night, / Then spoke the moon of great seers, the disperser of the world's darkness, the one devoid of darkness – Gautama: // 10.58 //

Obviously, the dust of passion was blocking the consciousness that is now awakening in you, / Like the dust of a sand-storm blocking the light of the sun. // 12.28 //

But now [consciousness] is blossoming forth, seeking to dispell darkness of the heart, / Like that sunlight spewed forth from mount Meru which dispells the darkness of night. // 12.29 //

Therefore, knowing it to be darkness, you should not let sleep enshroud you / While the faults remain unquieted, like sword-wielding enemies. // 14.31 //

On your right side, then, remaining conscious of light, / Thinking in your heart of wakefulness, you might with peace of mind fall asleep. // 14.33 //

Even if, as a result of calm consideration, you have let go of desires, / You must, as if shining light into darkness, abolish them by means of their opposite. // 15.4 //

If hatred or cruelty should stir up your mind, / Let it be charmed by their opposite, as turbid water is by a jewel. // 15.12 //

Know their opposite to be kindness and compassion; / For this opposition is forever like brightness and darkness. // 15.13 //

Again, you must understand how, due to this cause, because of men's faults, the cycle of doing goes on, / So that they succumb to death who are afflicted by the dust of the passions and by darkness; but he is not reborn who is free of dust and darkness. // 16.18 //

From that extreme predicament, from that worthless mire, up he dragged me, like a feeble-footed elephant from the mud, / To be released into this quieted, dustless, feverless, sorrowless, ultimate true reality, which is free from darkness. // 17.72 //

Therefore forgetting the work that needs to be done in this world on the self, do now, stout soul, what can be done for others. / Among beings who are wandering in the night, their minds shrouded in darkness, let the lamp of this transmission be carried. // 18.57 //

Monday, March 12, 2012

Darkness & Light (1)

In the spring of 1994, shortly after starting to look into the teaching of FM Alexander, I had to make the dreaded visa renewal trip, subjecting myself to all kinds of indignity at the hands of people who I sometimes felt to be racist bureaucrats. On this occasion, I was living in Bushi, in Saitama Prefecture, and noticed that the immigration office lay at the end of a long route that I could easily cycle, along the side of the river. I remember it as one of the happiest days that I spent during my 13 year stretch in Japan. Most of the way there and back I found myself singing the old Johnny Nash song I Can See Clearly Now.

"Here is the rainbow I've been praying for."

The song pretty much summed up how I felt at that time, as I cycled merrily along.

"I can see all obstacles in my way."
Ha! How reliable were my feelings?

"Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind."
Oh really?

For he saw that in Nanda the seed of liberation, which is wisdom, was tenuous; while the fog of the afflictions was terribly thick; 9.15

This morning in the middle of my sitting, the neighbour's dog started yapping. I observed my habitual reaction to an auditory stimulus that I perceive to be a noxious one. Enemy number one, in my pantheon of auditory enemies, are low-flying light aircraft, closely followed by Mme Pickard's unnecessarily large flock of cockerels, but incessantly barking dogs are also somewhere up there in the top ten.

For through an illusory fixed conception one is bound to an object; Seeing that very same object as it really is, one is set free. 13.51

On seeing one and the same form this man is enamoured, that man is disgusted; Somebody else remains in the middle; while yet another feels thereto a human warmth. 13.52

Thus, an object is not the cause of bondage or of liberation; It is due to peculiar fixed conceptions that attachment arises or does not. 13.53

My habitual reaction to an auditory stimulus is darkness itself, unconsciousness itself. And the antidote to this darkness is simply light itself, consciousness itself.

"Say no to the desire to be right. Let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the spine lengthen and the back widen, while sending the knees forwards and away."

"This is suffering; this is the tangled mass of causes producing it; This is cessation; and here is a means." 3.12

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Ten Fetters, Two Crocodiles, and Eight-Piece Raft

I have been making recordings for the past few weeks so that this translation of Saundarananda might be made into a kind of audio book. I have just finished the first run-through of the recordings. (It remains for me to edit out my gasping and wheezing, et cetera.) So this week I have been re-reading cantos 16, 17, and 18. For most of the verses, I have been changing the four-line per verse format into a two-line per verse format, to facilitate reading aloud. You can see the results here.

One of the things I became more aware of, in this process, was the manner of Aśvaghoṣa's treatment in Canto 17 of the ten fetters, four fruits of dharma, seven limbs, four abodes, five powers, and so on. To state the obvious, Aśvaghoṣa does not treat these as the Buddha's teachings per se. That is to say, he does not put these teachings into the mouth of the Buddha, but rather acknowledges them by referring to them in his own description of Nanda's progress in Canto 17.

I think we can take it for granted that what Aśvaghoṣa saw as the Buddha's true gold he put into the mouth of the Buddha himself, whereas Buddhist views whose validity he wished us to examine with a critical eye he put into the mouths of others – like the unenlightened Nanda, and the striver.

In Canto 16 the eight branches of the path are absolutely integral to the Buddha's teaching as expounded by the Buddha himself, centred on the four noble truths. But the Buddha does not mention four stages on the way to arhathood; still less does he mention ten fetters, seven limbs of awakening, or four abodes of mindfulness. It is not the Buddha, in fact, who enumerates four stages of sitting-meditation. It is Aśvaghoṣa, not the Buddha, who defers to these teachings.

Besides referring explicity, in 17.57, to Nanda's cutting of the five upper fetters, Aśvaghoṣa seems to refer implicitly (in a way that might gladden the hearts of astute adherents to the small vehicle) to Nanda's cutting of the five lower fetters. Thus:

athātma-dṛṣṭiṃ sakalāṃ vidhūya caturṣu satyeṣv-akathaṃkathaḥ san /
And so, having shaken off every vestige of the personality view, being free of doubt in regard to the four truths,
viśuddha-śīla-vrata-dṛṣṭa-dharmo dharmasya pūrvāṃ phala-bhūmim-āpa // 17.27 //
And knowing the score in regard to pure practice of integrity, he attained the first fruit of dharma.

The first fruit of dharma, i.e, stream-entry, is associated in ancient Pali texts with the cutting of three of the lower fetters, namely: 1. the personality view, 2. doubting, and 3. clinging to precepts and rituals (as opposed to genuine integrity and untainted devotion to practice). The three elements of this verse seem to describe cutting of those three fetters.

There is no direct affront, then, upon the bullet-point approach favoured by some early followers of the Buddha. Aśvaghoṣa is always too circumspect for that – as he has already amply demonstrated by his ironic subversion of the ascetics traditions of Brahmanism. Aśvaghoṣa's attitude rather brings to mind the teaching of Zen Master Dogen, who in Shobogenzo chap. 73 Sanjushichi-bon-bodai-bunbo, The 37 Elements of Bodhi, went through the seven limbs, eight branches, four abodes, five powers, and so on, one by one, and then concluded the chapter by saying that we should forget the lot of them, by sitting. Dogen showed a certain reverence for those very ancient attempts to preserve for posterity what the Buddha taught, in bullet-point style. He recommended us to study those teachings. But in the end, ZA-DAN SUBESHI, Dogen concluded: Cut them by sitting.

In light of the above consideration, a certain humour seems to emerge out of the following verse, and it begins to seem less enigmatic:

iti tri-vegaṃ tri-jhaṣaṃ tri-vicam-ekāmbhasaṃ pañca-rayaṃ dvi-kūlam /
Thus he overcame three surges, three sharks, three swells, the unity of water, five currents, two shores,
dvi-grāham-aṣṭāṅgavatā plavena duḥkhārṇavaṃ dus-taram-uttatāra // 17.60 //
And two crocodiles: in his eight-piece raft, he crossed the flood of suffering which is so hard to cross.