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.