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.


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

I'm looking forward to hearing your recitation. Are you using your best "Goodness gracious me" accent? Employing a little coloratura? I do hope so!

I agree that the two-line presentation works well. It also looks very nice. Thanks for doing it.

I don’t have a printer. If I did, I would have printed out your blog post translations, with grammar analysis, kept them and used them for Sanskrit study purposes. There is no book that I’m aware of available for students of the langauge that takes a Sanskrit Buddhist text and treats it in this way. Your translation of Saundarananda is my vote for such a book. Does the idea appeal?


Mike Cross said...

Thanks Malcolm. The credit for the two-line presentation should go to Ānandajoti Bhikkhu of AncientBuddhistTexts.Net. I am making the audio files also at Ānandajoti's behest.

"Does the idea appeal" is a good question.

On Monday I was lying down ("inhibiting and directing" to use Alexander jargon) before a lesson with a young pupil. He asked me how I was and I complained that I couldn't claim to be in the zone. "Oh, what's on your mind?" he asked.

I was quite happy about the thought processes behind this question. It made me think I might not be such a bad Alexander teacher after all. When this chap's mother first phoned me up to inquire about Alexander lessons, she had expressed the hope that Alexander work might help with posture -- which of course, it does. It helps a person stop worrying about "right posture," it helps a person give up the idea of "right posture," since it becomes apparent that there has never been any such thing.

That is why it has been said since ancient times, if you meet a person on the road who has the right posture, kick him in the goolies.

The point is, the point my 15-year-old pupil has grasped, is that when something goes wrong there is invariably lurking in the background an uninhibited idea.

Before giving an Alexander lesson, for example, I am vulnerable to pernicious ideas like "I don't feel in good condition," "I haven't been using my hands enough recently; whatever skills I ever had I am losing," "Giving a lesson to a young person is a big responsibility, and I am not up to the task...." et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The reason I did the work on Saundarananda the way I did, as slowly as I did, one verse per day, was largely as an exercise in not letting the tail wag the dog.

But preparing the audio recordings has been a much less satisfactory experience... as I knew it would be, based on past experience. A finishing line, it seems, is a bigger obstacle than Beecher's Brook.

Bloody great obstacles like Beecher's Brook actually exist. Whereas in a work like this a finishing line is only an idea. But just as Alexander said, the most difficult things to get rid of are the ones that don't exist.

So my short answer to your question has to be "No."

No, fuck the idea.

But if the work appeals to you, and if you fancy doing it as an exercise in polishing a tile, or as exercise in integrity (not letting the tail wagging the dog), then that might be a very worthwhile thing to do, for self and for others.