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.

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