Thursday, May 10, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.10: The Miracle of a Natural Birth is Nothing Partial

−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti (Bālā)
ūror-yathaurvasya pṛthoś-ca hastān-māndhātur-indra-pratimasya mūrdhnaḥ |
kakṣīvataś-caiva bhujāṁsa-deśāt-tathāvidhaṁ tasya babhūva janma || 1.10

Just as Aurva was born from the thigh,
Pṛthu from the hand,

Indra-equalling Māndhātṛ from the head,

And Kakṣīvat from the armpit:

Of that same order was his birth.

As is usually the case when Aśvaghoṣa alludes to Brahmanical legends, on the surface he seems to affirm the fantastic old fairy stories, or at least to tolerate them agnostically, but truly his words are intended to subvert common-sense understanding of the old religious nonsense.

On the surface, Aśvaghoṣa is accepting the fantasy of the old legends and saying that the Buddha's birth, like the birth of Brahmanical heroes, was an unnatural miracle of the sort in which religious people believe. But was it fuck an unnatural miracle. Aśvaghoṣa is describing birth not as an unnatural miracle but as a miracle of nature. 

How could Aśvaghoṣa be saying that the Buddha's birth was something unreal, using Brahmanical legends as the standard? No, his gold standard was the reality of the Buddha's birth, through the real means of the whole of the Buddha's mother Māyā, as described in 1.9 – by the real means of her side, her thighs, her hands, her head, and her armpits, these elements having been sanctified, or perfected, or made whole, by the manner of her action.

Below the surface, what Aśvaghoṣa is really doing is describing the fact that no human birth is ever partial, just as no human act is ever partial.

As Sir Charles Sherrington (1857-1952, Neurophysiologist, Nobel Prize for Medicine 1932) wrote in praise of FM Alexander:

"Mr. Alexander has done a service to the subject [of the study of reflex and voluntary movement] by insistently treating each act as involving the whole integrated individual, the whole psychophysical man. To take a step is an affair, not of this or that limb solely, but of the total neuromuscular activity of the moment, not least of the head and neck." (The Endeavour of Jean Fernel [1946]).

The truth might be that when a woman gives birth well, she uses her whole self well. She uses her side well, and her thighs, and her arms from her armpits to her fingertips, and above all she uses her head and neck well. And this is a universal principle, equally applicable to the imagined births of tiresome Brahmanical heroes and to the truly miraculous births of ordinary human beings.

My grandma used to have a stone bird-bath into which the words had been carved “GOD IS IN THE GARDEN.” The bird-bath I believe passed to my sister, and as far as I am concerned she can keep it. The truth is that birds are in the garden. Trees are in the garden. Weeds are in the garden. Life is in the garden. The real miracle which is the birth of life is in the garden. And on a good day I am in the garden, sitting in full lotus, letting the neck be free to let the head go forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen, so that the legs are released out of the hips. On a good day I am content just to sit in the garden allowing myself, in Dogen's words, to naturally become all of one piece:

自 成 一片

God, originally, does not come into it. But since translators like EH Johnston approached Aśvaghoṣa's teaching as if Aśvaghoṣa were out to propagate a religion, complete with belief in unnatural miracles, the non-issue of God needs to be addressed. Since people like my grandma needlessly let God into the garden, it might be necessary for me to kick the bugger out. 

Irrational belief in unnatural miracles informed Brahmanist thinking before the time of the Buddha, and Aśvaghoṣa addressed these whacko beliefs in a manner suitable to his age, in which it may have been wise to be circumspect, using irony and indirectness to undermine Brahmanist thoughts. 

Irrational belief in God, unnatural miracles and the like still evidently informs the thinking of many people of the present age. But things have progressed, at least in the parts of England and France where I live, so that I am not endangering my life by asserting bluntly that irrational belief in unnatural miracles is never the Buddha's teaching at all, and that if you think that in a verse like today's verse Aśvaghoṣa was demonstrating an agnostic attitude towards unnatural miracles, then you haven't peeped Aśvaghoṣa even in a dream.

EB Cowell's translation of the 4th pāda was: “thus too was his birth (miraculous).”

EH Johnston, similarly, asserted that in this section Aśvaghoṣa was explaining why the Buddha's birth was miraculous.

Patrick Olivelle, as a step in the right direction in his translation per se, just translated the words and said nothing about miracles one way or the other. In his Introduction, however, PO  writes: "Gods are a third level of authority within the Brahmanical tradition, and at every step of Siddhartha's life gods affirm his uniqueness and facilitate his path toward Awakening. Miracles abound at his birth....  Even more significant, however, is the implicit undercurrent of the entire text that compares the Buddha to significant Brahmanical figures of the past. Thus, his extraordinary birth is compared to that of other famous kings of the past who had unusual births [1.1o]."

Anyway, I would like to go further than agnosticism and nail my colours to the mast of a-theism -- which is not to say that I subscribe to the ism of athe-ism. I am not inclined to join  Richard Dawkins' club and join him on a jolly jaunt into the countryside with other atheists. But I would like as far as possible to strip away any lingering belief in God, unnatural miracles and the like, which might continue to prevent Aśvaghoṣa's true message from emerging. 

America is in danger of electing a Mormon as president. Why? Because of an attitude, enshrined in the American constitution, to respect other people's belief in their God.  But speaking for myself, I don't respect anybody's belief in such things as unnatural miracles. If your belief in God causes you to believe in unnatural  miracles, whereby cause and effect is defied by divine intervention, then I don't respect your belief. In my book you are just a religious nutter. I wouldn't vote for you any more than if your name was Tony Blair. 

ūroḥ (abl. sg. m.): from the thigh
yathā: ind. just as
aurvasya (gen. sg.): m. Aurva (in later mythology he is called aurva bhārgava as son of cyavana and grandson of bhṛgu ; he is the subject of a legend told in MBh. i , 6802 ; there it is said that the sons of kṛtavīrya , wishing to destroy the descendants of bhṛgu in order to recover the wealth left them by their father , slew even the children in the womb ; one of the women of the family of bhṛgu , in order to preserve her embryo , secreted it in her thigh [ūru] , whence the child at its birth was named aurva)
pṛthoḥ (gen. sg.): m. Pṛthu, name of a son of veṇa.
ca: and
hastād (abl. sg. m.): from the hand

māndhātuḥ (gen. sg.): m. Māndhātṛ. See SN11.43: Having attained half of Indra's throne as a veritable earth-lord of the old school, / Māndhātṛ when his time with the gods elapsed came back down again. // 11.43 //
indra-pratimasya (gen. sg. m.): Indra-equalling
pratimā: f. the part of an elephant's head between the tusks; (ifc. like , similar , resembling , equal to)
mūrdhnaḥ (abl. sg. m.): from the forehead , head in general , skull

kakṣīvataḥ (gen. sg.): m. Kakṣīvat = Kākṣīvat, name of a renowned ascetic rṣi. See SN1.1: A sage named Kapila Gautama, an outstanding upholder of dharma, / Became as consumed in ascetic practice as was Kākṣīvat Gautama. // 1.1 //
kakṣa: m. lurking place, hiding place; mf. the armpit (as the most concealed part of the human body)
ca: and
eva (emphatic)
bhujāṁsa-deśāt (abl. sg.): from the shoulder-place; from the armpit
bhuja: arm
aṁsa: the shoulder , shoulder-blade ; corner of a quadrangle
deśa: m. spot, place, part

tathā-vidham: ind. likewise, in like manner
vidhā: f. division , part , portion ; form, manner, kind
tasya (gen. sg. m.): of him
babhūva = 3rd pers. sg. perf. bhū: to be
janma (nom. sg.): n. birth

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