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 //