Sunday, April 29, 2012

BUDDHACARITA: The Birth of Something Beautiful

Death, for all of us, is the maker of ends. And life everywhere is full of suffering and ugliness.

I have just come back to England after four weeks by the forest in France. My brother drove me there and left me with his cold, as a result of which there were a couple of nights that I struggled to get through, unable to stop thinking negative thoughts and feeling like death warmed up.

The first leg of the journey home on Friday consisted of a six-mile walk to the nearest town, Domfront, and then three buses to the ferry port of Ouistreham for the overnight crossing. The second leg on Saturday morning consisted of a coach trip from Portsmouth to Oxford, by which time I was suffering from a sleepless headache, then a one-hour bus-ride home. During the latter the top deck of the bus could not help but eavesdrop on the mobile telephone conversation of a youth who had just been released at the end of a three-year prison sentence -- a young life, clearly, that had been filled thus far with suffering and ugliness. Irredeemably so? In theory, of course not. But in practice I didn't sense any cause for optimism. On the contrary, I deemed the wise course, as the bloke's mood seemed to darken and his tone became more aggressive, to descend to the bottom deck of the bus (not before pondering for a while, I confess, on what part of his personage I might place my knee and my elbow if he turned his attentions towards me -- his testicles and throat being top of the list).

For the six-mile walk to Domfront I had allowed myself three hours. Even though I was carrying a couple of bags, there was no cause to hurry. I had thought that I would take my time and attend to letting my neck be free, et cetera, in process of walking. But when it actually came to putting one foot in front of the other, because of the difficulty of keeping the bags in balance, the walk was largely a matter of grim determination. Never mind about letting the neck be free, I concluded. Several thousands steps need to be taken. Just get on with it, step after step.

After about an hour of grim-faced plodding like this, on automatic pilot, the translation of the title of Buddhacarita Canto One bhagavat-prasūtiḥ, presented itself to my consciousness as The Birth of Something Beautiful.

The literal meaning of the name of Nanda, the hero of Saundara-nanda, is Joy. So saundara-nanda literally means Beautiful Joy.

Out of ugly suffering, it seems, beautiful joy is born. When I was young nothing was more beautiful and joyful to me than a good game of rugby, played with and against big bruisers with broken noses and cauliflower ears. The blue lotus opens in fire.

Over the past ten years I have found the place by the forest in France to be, notwithstanding various ups and downs, an excellent place for growth and healing. My sons I am sure went through growth spurts in the months they spent there during their summer holidays. And two frozen shoulders I suffered while in Aylesbury, first on the left then on the right, each cleared up while I was in France. So also now my injured left knee seems to have benefitted from the four weeks in France, so that I have just been able to sit this morning for 45-minutes in full lotus. And this again feels like the birth, or at least re-birth of something beautiful.

On Friday  night, at the bus station in Caen, while waiting for the bus to the ferry, I memorized the first verse of Buddhacarita (as reconstructed by EH Johnston) in the distinctive Upajāti metre with 11-syllables in each of the four pādas; and this also struck me, truly, as the birth of something beautiful.

−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti (Sālā)
aikṣvāka ikṣvāku-sama-prabhāvaḥ śākyeṣv aśakyeṣu viśuddha-vṛttaḥ |
priyaḥ śarac-candra iva prajābhyaḥ śuddhodano nāma babhūva rājā || 1.1

EHJ judged that Aśvaghoṣa wrote the Buddhacarita first and then the Saundarananda and it also seems to me that it must have been this way round. From somewhere Aśvaghoṣa found the inspiration to compose a biography of the Buddha in the form of a beautiful mahā-kāvya poem. This, I am sure, was his first inspiration, beginning with a canto titled bhagavat-prasūtiḥ, The Birth of Something Beautiful.

Monday, April 23, 2012

BUDDHACARITA: Chronology and Merits of Various Translations

The Buddha is thought to have died shortly before 480 BCE. The 28th patriarch in India, Bodhidharma, is thought to have arrived in China some time between 502 and 550 CE (during the reign of Liang Dynasty emperor Wu). Given that Aśvaghoṣa was the 12th patriarch in India, the law of averages should put him on the BCE side, whereas modern scholarship puts him in the 1st or 2nd century CE. In summary, it is probably safe to say that Aśvaghoṣa wrote the Buddhacarita no later than around 150 CE.

As mentioned in the previous post, we only have the first thirteen and a bit of the original twenty-eight chapters of the Buddha-carita in Sanskrit. But we do have translations of all twenty-eight chapters in Tibetan and in Chinese.

In chronological order, then, here are the versions of Buddha-carita that have appeared, in the original Sanskrit, then translated into Chinese, Tibetan, and English.

Before CE 150
Buddha-carita mahā-kāvya
crafted by the crafty crafter of epic Sanskrit poetry,  Aśvaghoṣa. 

c. CE 420
translated (or in many places paraphrased) from Sanskrit into Chinese probably by the Chinese monk Baoyun (376–449). Text in Chinese characters (Taisho Daizokyo Vol. 4. No. 192) available online,04,0001a02&key=192&ktn=&mode2=2

c. 1270
buddha tsa ri ta ma h’a k’a bya
translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan, probably between 1260 and 1280 (see D. P. Jackson, “On the Date of the Tibetan Translation of Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita,” Studia Indologiczne 4 [1997]: 54). Text in romanized Tibetan available online through University of Oslo.

“A Life of Buddha” by Aśvaghoṣa Bodhisattva translated from Chinese into English by Samuel Beal, Sacred Books of the East Vol. 19. Text available online

The Buddha-Carita or The Life of Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa, translated from Sanskrit into English by EB Cowell, Clarendon Press, Oxford. Text with metrical analysis and translation available online through Ānandajoti Bhikkhu's website.

The Buddhacarita or “Acts of the Buddha,” translated from Sanskrit into English by EH Johnston, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. (Part I : Sanskrit Text, Sargas I-XIV. Part II : English Translation Cantos I-XIV. Part III English Translation of Cantos XV-XXVIII from Tibetan and Chinese Versions.)

Life of the Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa, translated from Sanskrit into English by Patrick Olivelle, Clay Sanksrit Library. (Translation into English from the Sanskrit of Cantos 1 – 14, with romanized Sanskrit text on facing page, together with summary of Cantos 14 – 28 based on EHJ's work.)

The Chinese Buddhacarita, “In Praise of Buddha's Acts,” translated into English from the Chinese by Charles Willemen; Available online through Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Of the three Sanskrit-English translations, each has its own merits.

EB Cowell's translation was the first (the Editio Princeps) and was published sufficiently long ago to allow it now to be in the public domain. Plus Cowell, as a noted self-taught translator of Persian poetry, evidently had a natural way with words.  Unfortunately for Cowell the Sanskrit text on which he based his 1895 translation was found to be less reliable than the much older manuscript on which EH Johnston was able to base his 1936 translation.

EH Johnston's text and translation of the Buddhacarita, as also of the Saundarananda, are monumental works of scholarship.

Patrick Olivelle's translation for the Clay Sanskrit library also seems to me, on first reading, to be an excellent job of work. One of the particular merits of this last translation is the four-line format which preserves where possible the order of the original four pādas, while at the same time reading naturally in English – a difficult balancing act to pull off, as I know from trying to do it in translating the Saundarananda.

I must confess that over the past few weeks I have asked myself how much anybody (except maybe me) stands to benefit from me doing another translation.

On the other hand, the first chapter of Aśvaghoṣa's Buddha-carita is titled bhagavat-prasūtiḥ, which EH Johnston in 1936 translated as “Birth of the Holy One,” and which Patrick Olivelle in 2008 translated as “the Birth of the Lord.” (The canto titles do not appear in EB Cowell's translation.)

The Chinese translation, interestingly, simply has “Birth, Chapter No. 1” (生品第一). It would be interesting to know how the canto title was rendered into Tibetan.

The translation of  bhagavat-prasūtiḥ into Chinese as one character,   , Birth, has the merit of avoiding terms like "Holy" and "Lord" that are laden with religious baggage. The Chinese translation totally fails, however, to translate  bhagavat, and so in that sense something is missing from the Chinese translation.

EB Cowell noted in 1894: “The Tibetan version appears to be much closer to the original Sanskrit than the Chinese; in fact from its verbal accuracy we can often reproduce the exact words of the original, since certain Sanskrit words are always represented by the same Tibetan equivalents, as for instance, the prepositions prefixed to verbal roots. I may here express an earnest hope that we may ere long have an edition and translation of the Tibetan version, if some scholar can be found to complete Dr. Wendzel's unfinished labour.

EH Johnston added in 1934, in the Preface to the publication of his Sanskrit text: “Since the beginning of the [20th] century the use of Tibetan translations for the correction of faulty Sanskrit originals has also come to be much better understood, and lately the translation of the Buddhacarita has been made accessible to students in an edition by Dr. Friedrich Weller, constant use of which has convinced me of the high standard of excellence it attains.”

Dr. Friedrich Weller, I fear, was writing in German, which does not help me. But if anybody knows of any translation of any part of Buddhacarita from Tibetan to English, I would be grateful to hear about it.

Considering the political situation today in China, the competing merits of the Tibetan and Chinese translations seem to take on added significance.

The powers that be in China today seem to regard Tibetan Buddhism with suspicion, as being full of religiosity and superstition. I also regard Tibetan Buddhism, along with other forms of Buddhism, with that kind of suspicion. But on the evidence of the Chinese translation of  bhagavat-prasūtiḥ  as simply , have the Chinese exhibited a tendency in the historical evolution of their own civilization to throw the baby out with the bath water? Aśvaghoṣa included the word  bhagavat  in his title for a reason.

The dictionary indicates that  bhagavat  can indeed mean “holy” (applied to gods , demigods , and saints as a term of address). But from where I sit, Johnston's translation of Aśvaghoṣa's  bhagavat as “the Holy One” and Olivelle's translation “the Lord” are, if not literally wrong, nevertheless highly unsuitable to the transmission of the Buddha's teaching in the 21st century. Those translations come down without good reason on the side of the irrational, the non-scientific, the spiritual, the religious.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, so Christians say, was born as the son of God. But from where I sit, what Christians say (what for some reason BBC Radio 4 Long Wave pays Christians to say on the daily bloody service when I would much rather be listening to Book of the Week) about virgin birth, resurrection, and all the rest of it, is pure crap, with no basis in reality.

bhagavat can mean “holy,” but originally  bhaga-vat  means possessing  bhaga, i.e., good fortune, happiness, welfare, prosperity; or dignity, majesty, distinction, excellence, beauty, loveliness.

I have never witnessed the birth of a Holy One, or the birth of the Lord. So I remain totally sceptical that there ever was any such thing. But on two occasions I have witnessed the miraculous, majestic birth of an excellent, incredibly perfectly formed human baby.

So, on the basis of what I know to be true, and not on the basis of what religious people think and say, I shall translate the title of Buddhacarita Canto One along the lines of “The Birth of a Beautiful Baby” or “The Birth of a Splendid Baby” or, more simply, “A Splendid Birth” or “Majestic Birth.”

In this way  I shall aim to produce, if nothing else, a translation that at least does not offend irreligious readers and listeners like me, who is sick to death of hearing Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Muslims and the rest talk and act as if their religious delusions had some basis in reality. Isn't nature miraculous enough by itself, without Holy Lords poking their oar in?

Aśvaghoṣa, we have seen in Saundarananda, liked ambiguity. By using a word like  bhagavat, whose original meaning is irreligious but which religious people can imbue with religious meaning if they want to, Aśvaghoṣa steered a course which allowed him to get his message across without offending religious types in his audience.

But the age in which we live is a different age. It is an age in which -- so long as I avoid visiting outposts of religious fundamentalism -- it is more or less safe for me to express the irreligious thoughts which I have expressed above. The only oppressing force that has stopped me from expressing such thoughts more clearly hitherto has been my own ignorance.

I hope, therefore, to produce a translation which, unlike the Chinese non-translation of  bhagavat, is true to what Aśvaghoṣa wrote in Sanskrit; and at the same time, if I can produce a translation that, unlike previous translations, causes maximum offence to the religious and the superstitious, then so much the better.

Recently Jordan drew my attention to a facebook page titled “I fucking love science.”

Me too.

In that sentence, “I fucking love science,” I venture to submit, is the essence of the Buddha's four noble truths, viz:

1. “I” the suffering subject.
2. “Fucking” a word which negates religious idealism.
3. “Love,” expressing affirmation of something that really exists.
4. “Science” – a method for abandoning ideas and discovering the truth. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

BUDDHACARITA: An Epic Story of an Awakened Man in Action

The task now at hand is a translation from Sanskrit into English of the Buddha-carita of Aśvaghoṣa. In this work the challenge of not end-gaining -- that is to say, attending to a process without thirsting after an object -- might be aided by the fact that, literally, no end is in sight. Not only the end but the entire second half of the Sanskrit text of Buddha-carita is missing. There are only thirteen and a bit out of the original twenty-eight cantos to aim at. 

So in some sense what is required is to make the best of a bad job. Not an easy thing for anybody who has developed the fault of perfectionism.... reflecting on which causes me to remember something the Buddha tells Nanda about rebirth in Canto 16 of the Saundarananda:  

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 //

Insofar as the specific desire exists to do this or that, an action like going or sitting happens; /
Hence, in just the same way, by the force of their thirsting living creatures are reborn -- as is to be observed: // 16.19 //

See sentient beings in the grip of attachment, dead set on pleasure among their own kind; /
And, from their habitual practice of faults, observe them presenting with those very faults. // 16.20 //

Just as the anger, lust, and so on of sufferers of those afflictions give rise in the present to a personality trait, /
So too in new lives, in various manifestations, does the affliction-created trait develop: // 16.21 //

In a life dominated by anger arises violent anger, in the lover of passion arises burning passion, /
And in one dominated by ignorance arises overwhelming ignorance. In one who has a lesser fault, again, the lesser fault develops. // 16.22 //

Seeing what fruit is before one's eyes, one knows, from past knowledge of that fruit, the seed it was in the past. /
And having identified a seed before one's eyes, one knows the fruit it may be in the future.// 16.23 //

In whichever realms of existence a man has ended faults, thanks to that dispassion he is not born in those realms. /
Wherever he remains susceptible to a fault, that is where he makes his appearance, whether he likes it or not. // 16.24 //

So my friend, with regard to the many forms of becoming, know their causes to be [the faults] that start with thirsting /
And cut out those [faults], if you wish to be freed from suffering; for ending of the effect follows from eradication of the cause. // 16.25 //

Note to self. Possible title for future autobiography: "Learning to Make the Best of a Bad Job." Or "Repeatedly Throwing the Toys Out of the Pram and Spitting the Dummy, Instead of Learning to Make the Best of a Bad Job."

buddha-carita mahā-kāvya

buddha is the past passive participle of the verbal root budh, to wake up. So buddha means one who is awakened, enlightened, conscious – as opposed to one who is more or less asleep, kept in the dark by unconscious thirsting after ends or objects. At the same time, “the Buddha,” is used as an epithet, or title, for a son born to a certain King Śuddodhana (the chief of an ancient Indian tribe called the Gautamas) who devoted himself for several years to extreme practice of asceticism (known in Sanskrit as tapas), but who then recognised asceticism to be a mug's game and gave it up. Just in the abandonment of ascetic striving, he experienced an awakening on which basis he thereafter advocated not asceticism but a form of practice (yoga) centred on conscious awareness (smṛti) and good balance and coordination (samādhi).

If we think religiously – as opposed to scientifically – the Buddha, Lord Buddha, is the founder of a faith called Buddhism.

But verily, brethren, I say unto you: No, sod that for a game of cards.

Seriously. Away with Buddhism, along with every other -ism and -ity and -aam and -ology that human sheep subscribe to in lieu of thinking things out for themselves, with all due scepticism, as an individual.

Away with religion. Away with the whole idea of striving to be right. What was it that King Śuddodhana's son gave up, if not religious striving to be right?

So in the title buddha-carita, I am not going to translate buddha as “the Buddha.” For the present, I am going to translate buddha as “an awakened man.”

carita is the past passive participle of the verbal root car which means to to move one's self, go, walk, move, roam; and hence to behave, conduct one's self, act, live. So as a past participle carita means gone; at the same time, as a noun carita means going, moving, course; and hence acting, doing, practice, behaviour, acts, deeds, adventures. Because buddha-carita is ostensibly the biography of the son of King Śuddhodhana, it might be natural to translate carita as “career” or “life” or “acts” or “deeds.” But the original word is singular, and at the same time it has a sense of dynamism that “career” or “life” fail to convey. So for the present I am going to translate  carita  as “in action.”

mahā means great or epic, and kāvya is defined in the dictionary as a poem, a poetical composition with a coherent plot by a single author. For the present I am going to translate mahā-kāvya as “an epic story,” opting for the indefinite article, "a," because this work by Aśvaghoṣa, even if he is a Zen ancestor, is a poetical composition by a single author. It isn't something that was revealed as absolute truth; it is a poem thunk up by a human being, based on a transmission through twelve generations that was mainly non-verbal but, to the extent that it was verbal, relied on spoken words, and not on anything inscribed in stone tablets.

buddha-carita mahā-kāvya
An Epic Story of an Awakened Man in Action

Friday, April 20, 2012

Retour à la Source

What in the end is the Buddha's true gold? 

Wanting little, knowing satisfaction. 

In Chinese/Japanese:


In Sanskrit (see Saundarananda 16.38):

alpecchatā tuṣṭiḥ

Friday, April 13, 2012

Trust that the Dust Must.... Bear Gold

[Below is a draft of an Introduction I have been asked to write for the Saundarananda translation. I intend to start work soon on the translation of Buddhacarita.] 

Aśvaghoṣa wrote two mahā-kāvya, or epic poems. The poem whose translation follows is the Saundarananda-mahā-kāvya, An Epic Story of Nanda, the Beautiful. The other, better known work is Buddhacarita-mahā-kāvya, An Epic Story of the Buddha's Life.

The Buddhacarita was translated into Chinese (as also into Tibetan), and is highly revered in Japan. The story of the Buddha's enlightenment as it is commonly told by good Zen teachers in Japan – who emphasize how the Buddha gave up ascetic grasping for an imagined truth and consequently realised the unfathomable enlightenment of just sitting -- is drawn from the Chinese translation of the Buddhacarita.

But Aśvaghoṣa is revered in Japan as much more than a biographer of the Buddha. In a line of fifty-one Zen patriarchs – of whom Mahākāśyapa was the first in India, of whom Bodhidharma was the first in China, and of whom Dogen was the first in Japan – Aśvaghoṣa is number twelve.

Hence, in the fifteenth chapter of Master Dogen's Shobogenzo, titled 仏祖 BUSSO, “the Buddha-Ancestors,” Dogen records that the Great Master Śākyamuni Buddha transmitted his Dharma to the Great Master Mahākāśyapa (1), who transmitted it to the Great Master Ānanda (2), who transmitted it to the Great Master Śāṇavāsa (3), who transmitted it to the Great Master Upagupta (4), who transmitted it to the Great Master Dhītika (5), who transmitted it to the Great Master Micchaka (6), who transmitted it to the Great Master Vasumitra (7), who transmitted it to the Great Master Buddhanandhi (8), who transmitted it to the Great Master Baddhamitra (9), who transmitted it to the Great Master Pārśva (10), who transmitted it to the Great Master Puṇyayaśas (11), who transmitted it to the Great Master Aśvaghoṣa (12).

In the Japanese Zen tradition, therefore, Aśvaghoṣa's writing could hardly be more important: it is revered as the first written record of the Buddha's teaching that we have authored by a Zen patriarch writing under his own name.

The fifty-first Zen patriarch, Zen Master Dogen, born in Japan in the year 1200 CE, though a native speaker of Japanese, was precocious in his ability to read and understand Chinese poetry. Even before he left Japan for China as a young man he was thoroughly versed in Chinese Buddhist texts, especially the Chinese translation of the Lotus Sutra. On his return to Japan, Dogen set about distilling, in his native Japanese language, what he had understood in China of the Buddha's teaching. The 95 chapters of Master Dogen's Japanese Shobogenzo, therefore, can be read as a distillation of teaching that had percolated into a vast body of Chinese Buddhist literature.

In a similar way, Aśvaghoṣa's Sanskrit epic poetry can be read as a distillation of the vast body of the Buddha's teaching that had been preserved prior to Aśvaghoṣa's time through memorization and recitation of the Pāḷi Suttas.

It is easy to make the mistake of assuming that this distillation might be concentrated in the second half of the Saundarananda, in which the Buddha lays before Nanda a blueprint for liberation. Some commentators who have made this mistake have argued that the earlier cantos are more concerned with poetry while the later cantos are more concerned with doctrine. These are the same commentators who have discussed whether Aśvaghoṣa was primarily a poet or a monk.

From the standpoint of Dogen's teaching, Aśvaghoṣa was primarily neither a poet or a monk; as indicated above, Aśvaghoṣa was Dogen's Zen ancestor. As such, his primary task was neither literary nor religious: his primary task was just to sit. Knowing this, though evidently not well enough, and fearing that I might not live long enough to get through all eighteen cantos of the Saundarananda, I began by translating the part of Canto 17 that relates directly to sitting-meditation, and left till later the cantos which seemed less relevant to sitting, like the tirade against women in Canto 8. In retrospect, I see that this approach was mistaken. The truth may be that devotees of Zen sitting practice who wish to hear Aśvaghoṣa's message should read the earlier chapters if anything more attentively than the later ones. Why? Because what Aśvaghoṣa clarifies for us above all in the Saundarananda is how NOT to sit.

As I gradually began to see this point, as a result of reading the Saundarananda as a whole, I realized that Aśvaghoṣa's primary emphasis on the negative tallies with personal experience, insofar as I do not know how to sit any better than I did thirty years ago; but I have garnered some clues along the way – with help, I would like to add, from FM Alexander – about how NOT to sit.

Saundarananda-mahā-kāvya means, on the face of it, “The Epic Poem 'Handsome Nanda.'” It is a poem, on the face of it, that celebrates the heroic doings of the Buddha's half-brother Nanda who was called 'Handsome Nanda' because he was so strikingly good-looking. But more than that, the Saundarananda is an ode to the beauty of non-doing; it is a story of rediscovering what was beautiful in us before we started striving after anything – hence “An Epic Story of Nanda, the Beautiful.”

Nanda, which means Joy, is everyman. The Saundarananda is the story of how the beauty that is joyfully inherent in every man and every woman may be realized by every man and every woman, through gradual elimination of those befouling faults – greed, anger, delusion, and the rest – which we trigger into action by thirsting after objects.

You are beautiful. (No matter what they say.) The message is not difficult to understand. The difficulty is in the realization. The difficulty is in crossing for oneself the fathomless sea of faults which the Buddha crossed.

You are beautiful. The fathomless sea of faults which is so hard to cross, you can cross.

But not by thirsting. Not by thirsting for any object, even if the valuable object for which you thirst is a spiritual one, like the far shore of enlightenment.

The beautiful practice of Buddha is to accept the golden treasure of oneself and to use it well. This is a very different thing from practising the ugly asceticism of self-denial.

In highlighting this difference, however, Aśvaghoṣa is invariably circumspect: he relies on irony and eschews anything that might constitute a direct affront to his Sanskrit-loving audience, whose values were most likely rooted in the ascetic traditions of Brahmanism. This, again, is why the earlier cantos require such attentive reading, so as not to miss Aśvaghoṣa's irony.

An Idealized Picture of Kapilavastu (Cantos 1-3)

The first three cantos of the Saundarananda set the scene, portraying in glowing terms the city of Kapilavastu (Canto One), the King of Kapilavastu (Canto Two), and the King's son Gautama who came back to Kapilavastu as the One Thus Come, the Realised One, the Tathāgata (Canto Three).

In Canto One Aśvaghoṣa seems on the surface to portray the Brahmanical religious ideal of ascetic practice as a noble pursuit, but if one reads the chapter carefully, keeping one's ears open for Aśvaghoṣa's irreligious use of irony, then Canto One takes on the opposite meaning. Canto Two is mainly devoted to singing the praises of Gautama's father, the King. Among the virtues emphasized are lack of conceit and reverence for dharma. Since the dharma in question is a non-Buddhist dharma, Aśvaghoṣa in this canto seems to be saying something about the universality of the principle of reaping what is sown. The message might be that one doesn't have to be a Buddhist to be, as the Buddha's royal father is glowingly portrayed to be, a very good person, blessed by cause and effect with two good sons – namely, Gautama and Nanda. Canto Three is a condensed account of the Buddha's path to enlightenment and his subsequent edification of Kapilavastu, whose citizens under the Buddha's benevolent influence enjoy a golden age.

Nanda & Sundarī: Two Real Individuals (Cantos 4 – 7)

If the first three cantos are thus idealized visions of the history and reality of Kapilavastu around the time of the Buddha, the next four cantos can be read, on the contrary, as a description of the concrete, discrete non-ideal side of reality.

There is nothing abstract about the descriptions in Canto Four of how handsome Nanda and his beautiful wife Sundarī cavort with each other in their palace penthouse. In the drama of this canto the Buddha makes a brief appearance as a character without a speaking part: while upstairs Nanda and Sundarī are making passionate love, downstairs the Buddha on his alms round stands in silence.

In Canto Five, in which Nanda is caused reluctantly to go forth into the wandering life, the Buddha again appears as a man of action before words: when Nanda invites him to eat the midday meal at his house, the Buddha silently declines with a gesture. Again, as a tactic to prevent Nanda from going home, the Buddha silently entrusts his bowl to Nanda. When the Buddha eventually does speak, his first words are to remind Nanda that death is an ever-present danger and to advocate the pursuit of peace.

Thus exhorted by the Buddha to go forth, Nanda consents; but then he changes his mind and announces that he won't go forth after all. This causes the Buddha to speak to Nanda more sternly, telling him to abandon the net of delusions he calls “my love.” And so the depressed Nanda finally has his head shaved by Ānanda. As his hair is being banished, Nanda's tearful downcast face resembles a rain-sodden lotus in a pond with the top of its stalk sagging down.

Cantos Six and Seven can be read as individual case-studies in grief – studies in the psychology of grief and also in the detailed physiology of grief, including vivid depiction of facial pallor or redness, arhythmic breathing, changes in postural tone, involuntary movements of arms and hands, and so on.

In Canto Six Sundarī takes centre stage, surrounded by her women, one among whom, senior in years, and good with words, holds Sundarī from behind in a firm embrace, wipes her tears away, and tells Sundarī in so many words to pull herself together. This direct approach, however, does not pass the pragmatic test of truth: it doesn't work. Sundarī only begins to come back to herself when another woman tells her, more intimately, what she wishes to hear: that Nanda will soon disrobe and return to her side. Here is a case, then, when denial of reality proves to be a truer course, in practice, than accurately foretelling the future.

In Canto Seven Nanda exhibits the kind of negative thinking against which the Buddha will later caution him. In so thinking, Nanda repeatedly refers to examples in ancient myths of Brahmanical heroes whose ascetic pursuit of religious ideals was scuppered by desire for women. Some commentators have suggested that through such references to Brahmanical tradition, Aśvaghoṣa sought to present the Buddha's teaching as the culmination of Brahmanism. Such a view arises from failing to catch Aśvaghoṣa's irony. The real point to take from Canto Seven is that when Nanda keeps harking back pessimistically to the examples of failed ascetics, he is demonstrating to us how NOT to think. This demonstration continues through the next four cantos.

How Not to Think, Continued: The Misogynist Striver (Cantos 8 - 9)

Canto Eight marks the appearance of an eloquent Buddhist striver who, while ostensibly acting for Nanda's benefit, actually continues in the same vein of demonstrating how NOT to think. Like the eloquent woman who took firm hold of Sundarī and encouraged her to get a grip, this Buddhist striver tries ineffectually, going for the direct approach, to straighten Nanda out. Though the striver has a good way with words, neither he nor Nanda can see the flaw in his argument which puts the blame for men's suffering on the women who are the objects of men's desire.

The way to enjoy this Canto, then, is with a sense of the ironic humour which is at play. The same applies to Canto Nine, in which the striver, who evidently has a high opinion of his own insight, takes Nanda to task for being vain and conceited.

How Not to Think, Continued: Nanda Is Inspired to Practice Asceticism (Cantos 10 – 11)

Canto Ten, titled “A Vision of Heaven,” gives us the clearest insight of any canto into the working of the mind of Aśvaghoṣa himself. Being pure fantasy, it provides a blank canvas on which Aśvaghoṣa can allow himself to paint, which he does in vivid colours, like beryl-blue and blazing red and untarnished gold.

In the vision of heaven that is presented, vivid individual things have philosophical meaning, if one looks for it. Why, for example, are particular trees and particular birds described as different from other trees and birds? And why are blue lotuses described as blue, red lotuses as red, and gold lotuses as gold?

More pertinently to the narrative of Nanda's redemption, in this canto Nanda spies the one-eyed she monkey, and sets eyes on the unspeakably gorgeous celestial nymphs, the apsarases. In the beauty stakes, Nanda has to admit, the gap between the nymphs and poor old Sundarī is greater than the gap between Sundarī and the monkey.

“Practice asceticism,” the Buddha tells Nanda – taking a long view which ultimately proves to be correct, but not in the way that Nanda imagines – “and you and the nymphs will be one.”

Thus is Nanda caused really to know, with his whole body-mind, what it means to thirst for an illusory object. And thus, at the beginning of Canto Eleven, as a result of his ascetic self-restraint in pursuit of the celestial nymphs, formerly handsome Nanda is described as having become extremely ugly.

Finally, having been encouraged by the Buddha to go to the outer limit of ascetic thirsting for an object, Nanda is then able to begin his journey back home, not to the Sundarī who once represented for him the female embodiment of beauty, but rather back home to the beauty of being himself. In making this about turn, Nanda is aided first by Ānanda's teaching of impermanence, and then by his own sense of shame, i.e. by his consciousness of having gone wrong, of having been led astray by the wrong kind of thinking.

The Buddha Preaches the Buddha-Dharma (Cantos 12 – 16)

Cantos Twelve through Sixteen take the form of a long monologue by the Buddha, interspersed with a few verses of Aśvaghoṣa's commentary. The key words in Canto Twelve are śraddhā (belief, confidence) and śreyas (better, a better way, a higher good): the Buddha praises Nanda for believing in better, for exhibiting confidence in a better way – a way that is better, for example, than hedonistic enjoyment of sensuality, and better than ascetic thirsting after objects.

A better way than thirsting after objects out there, the Buddha teaches Nanda, is elimination of the faults in here. To that end, the practice that the Buddha keeps coming back to, in Canto 13, Conquering the Senses through Integrity, in Canto 14, Stepping into Action, and in Canto 15, Abandoning Ideas, is smṛti (mindfulness, awareness, vigilance).

The importance of Canto 16, Exposition of the Noble Truths, can be gauged by its length: at 98 verses it is by far the longest of the Saundarananda's eighteen cantos. The Buddha's great monologue finishes, at the end of Canto 16, with him singing the praises of vīrya, directed energy. In the final analysis, evidently, understanding the teaching intellectually is never enough. In order to eliminate those faults which the Buddha compares to impurities in gold, it is necessary for each person to mobilize his or her own energy, like a diligent dirt-washer sifting for gold-dust or like a skilled goldsmith working at a furnace.

Nanda Makes the Teaching His Own (Canto 17)

Canto 17, therefore, is Aśvaghoṣa's account of how Nanda goes to the forest by himself and mobilizes his own energy in pursuit of liberation. Sitting upright with his legs crossed in the traditional manner, Nanda finds the body to be full of suffering, impermanent, and devoid of self, and thus he causes the tree of afflictions to shake. Then he gradually penetrates the ranks of the afflictions, cuts the three lower fetters, and obtains stream-entry, the first fruit of dharma. By reducing to a minimum love and hate, the fourth and fifth of the five lower fetters, he obtains the second fruit of dharma, And by going entirely beyond love and hate, he obtains the third of the four fruits of dharma. At this point in Nanda's progress Aśvaghoṣa describes how Nanda passes through four stages of sitting-meditation (dhyānas), by seeing faults at subtler and subtler levels and abandoning those faults. Even at the level of the fourth dhyāna, however – advanced Zen meditators take note – it still remains for Nanda to cut the five upper fetters, including spiritual ambition and conceit. This he duly does: like a lamp going out when all its oil is spent, Nanda comes to the utmost quiet, attaining the fourth and ultimate fruit of dharma, the worthy state of the arhat.

Affirmation (Canto 18)

In Canto 18 Nanda approaches the Buddha, expressing his realisation as “being present in the world without being of the world,” and prostrates himself on the ground with his whole body. Booming at Nanda like a thundercloud, the Buddha addresses him as “Conqueror of yourself” and asks him to stand up. “What a wonderful sight you are for me to behold!” the Buddha tells Nanda, “For even an unlovely sort is a sight to behold when he is well-adorned with his own best features. But a man who is full of the befouling faults, strikingly beautiful man though he may be, is truly ugly.” “How could I possibly repay you?” Nanda asks. “Among beings who are wandering in the night, their minds shrouded in darkness,” the Buddha replies, “let the lamp of this transmission be carried.”

In the final verse of the Saundarananda Aśvaghoṣa tells the reader that he has crafted a kāvya poem only as a pretext. What is paramount for him is not poetry but liberation, next to which elegant Sanskrit is so much dust. But out of the dust, with well-directed effort, Aśvaghoṣa encourages the reader, gold will emerge.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Striking Gold

Against the statement that the Saundarananda is "a story of religious conversion," I have argued that it is rather a story of individual transformation.

Since the title "Handsome Nanda" has already been chosen, by Linda Covill, an alternative title to distinguish this translation from that one, might be "The Story of Striking Nanda." If it does not sound too odd to use "striking" as synonymous with "handsome," then this title would have the merit of suggesting obliquely what kind of story Saundarananda is -- the story of Nanda hitting the target of himself.

Nobody can say what the transformation is whereby an individual is transformed into whoever the hell he or she originally is. But Zen masters through the ages who were also poets have said what it is like to hit the target of being oneself -- like being, for example, a dragon in its watery natural element, or like a tiger in its mountain stronghold.

Dogen memorably compares it to the moon being reflected in a body of water, in which case a pond, or a dewdrop, can reflect the whole moon in space; and in which case the moon does not change the water at all, and neither does the water wet the moon -- so that even "transformation" might be a misleading word, much less "religious conversion."

In the Saundarananda, equally memorably, the transformation is compared to a lamp going out:

A lamp that has gone out reaches neither to the earth nor to the sky, /
Nor to any cardinal nor to any intermediate point: Because its oil is spent it reaches nothing but extinction. // 16.28 //

In the same way, a man of action who has come to quiet reaches neither to the earth nor to the sky, /
Nor to any cardinal nor to any intermediate point: From the ending of his afflictions he attains nothing but extinction. // 16.29 //

A means for gaining that end is the path of threefold wisdom and twofold tranquillity. /
It is to be cultivated by a wakeful person working to principle -- abiding in untainted threefold integrity. // 16.30 //

Using the voice well and the body well in tandem, and making a clean living in a suitable manner: /
These three, pertaining to conduct, are for the mastery, based on integrity, of one's dharma-duty. // 16.31 //

Noble insight into suffering and the other truths, along with thinking straight, and initiative: /
These three, pertaining to know-how, are for dissolution, based on wisdom, of the afflictions. // 16.32 //

True mindfulness, properly harnessed so as to bring one close to the truths; and true balance: /
These two, pertaining to practice, are for mastery, based on tranquillity, of the mind. // 16.33 //

Integrity no more propagates the shoots of affliction than a bygone spring propagates shoots from seeds. /
The faults, as long as a man's integrity is untainted, venture only timidly to attack his mind. // 16.34 //

But balance casts off the afflictions like a mountain casts off the mighty torrents of rivers. /
The faults do not attack a man who is standing firm in balanced stillness: like charmed snakes, they are spellbound. // 16.35 //

And wisdom destroys the faults without trace, as a mountain stream in the monsoon destroys the trees on its banks. /
Faults consumed by it do not stand a chance, like trees in the fiery wake of a thunderbolt. // 16.36 //

Giving oneself to this path with its three divisions and eight branches -- this straightforward, irremovable, noble path -- /
One abandons the faults, which are the causes of suffering, and comes to that step which is total well-being. // 16.37 //

In the above series of verses, then, the noble eightfold path is described as a means of abandoning faults. And the ending of faults, or afflictions, is compared to a lamp going out because it has run out of oil.

So in the metaphor of the lamp going out it is not a question of something being converted into something else; it is more a matter of something else coming to an end.

Again, in the metaphor of mining and refining gold, the transformation that is being pursued is not the kind of transformation of which the alchemists dreamt. It is not a transformation, or supernatural conversion, of base metal into gold. It is rather the elimination of all stuff other than gold, so that what remains is nothing but gold.

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, as he wishes and wherever he wishes. // 15.69 //