Friday, May 11, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.11: Embryonic Truth of Evolution

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti (Mālā)
krameṇa garbhād-abhiniḥstaḥ san babhau cyutaḥ khād-iva yony-ajātaḥ |
kalpeṣv-anekeṣu ca bhāvitātmā yaḥ saṁprajānan suṣuve na mūḍhaḥ || 1.11

Having emerged from the womb gradually,

He who whose position at birth was never fixed,
shone as if he had dropped from empty space.

as one whose self had been developing over many aeons,

He was born with integral awareness,
and not in the wrong position.

None of the many translations of this verse hitherto, from Sanskrit into English, and from Sanskrit into Chinese and thence into English, has caught the irony that Aśvaghoṣa intended, or sensed that he was talking about a real human birth along the lines that nature – working via evolution through natural selection -- intended.

Translators hitherto have thought that Aśvaghoṣa was describing something miraculous in the religious or fantastic or unnatural sense of a miracle. But what Aśvaghoṣa was really describing was the miracle of a normal or natural birth.

In that light, the first word to understand is krameṇa which means gradually.
EB Cowell:  in due time
EH Johnston:  in due course
P Olivelle:  in due course
Chinese translation:  漸漸 (gradually)
S Beal:  gradually
C Willemen:  in due course

Gradual progress down the birth canal is desirable from the point of view of the baby's development, for example, in terms of exercising the tonic labyrinthine reflex in extension and the asymmetric tonic neck reflex. So the point of krameṇa as I read it is to emphasize that the Buddha's birth was not precipitous. In that case, the translators I agree with are the Chinese translator and S. Beal. A case could be made that Aśvaghoṣa was also suggesting that the birth was on time, not premature or late, in which case “in due time” would fit. But still I think krameṇa describes a labour that was neither precipitous nor prolonged, but gradual.

When EHJ, PO and CW translated  krameṇa  as “in due course,” what kind of course did they mean? EHJ in a footnote to his translation answers my question for himself, confirming that he for one got the wrong end of the stick: “This and the next verse are relative sentences depending on tasya in 10, and explain why the birth was miraculous. Krama means 'the ordinary course of events', Buddhas naturally being born in a supernatural way.”

But where not only EHJ but all previous translators really got hold of the wrong end of the stick is in their understanding of what Aśvaghoṣa meant by describing the Buddha as yony-ajātaḥ. The phrase yony-ajātaḥ is deliberately ambiguous, meaning (1) “not born of/through/from the female organs of regeneration,” or (2) “not born into a station fixed by birth.”

All translators fell into Aśvaghoṣa trap by going for the former intrepretation, thus:
EBC: he who had not been born in the natural way
EHJ: he did not come into the world through the portal of life
PO: he did not emerge through the birth canal
Chinese translation: 不由於生門 (not through the birth gate)
SB: not through the gates of life
CW: he did not pass through the portal of birth.

Understood like that, Aśvaghoṣa is guilty of an absurd contradiction – saying in the 1st pāda that the Buddha emerged gradually from the womb and in the 2nd pāda that he was not born naturally from the womb through the birth canal, but was born by some other unnatural means.

I think the reason Aśvaghoṣa presented the reader with what, on the surface, appears to be an absurd contradiction is that he wished us to adopt a questioning attitude, to dig below the surface appearance and excavate his real intention – which might be less religious and more scientific than any translator hitherto has ever suspected, even in a dream.

If I seem to be strident in saying this, it is not because I know the right position, because I don't. But I do have some insight, on many levels, into what the wrong position is. I know what it's like to be totally arse over tit in trying to understand the Buddha's teaching -- under a teacher whose teaching was totally arse over tit, who taught that the Buddha's teaching was philosophy, not religion, and yet who referred to himself as “Reverend Nishijima.” And so, from my own religious experience of being arse over tit, I have no hesitation in asserting that the translations done by the aforementioned Buddhist scholars are all totally arse over tit.

EHJ considered that in the final pāda saṁprajānan which means “knowing totally” (see SN17.50, in which context its object is the ease of the 3rd dhyāna) was also worthy of comment: “probably it means 'remembering his previous births' in this connexion.”

Does it fuck mean "remembering his previous births." 

My understanding of saṁprajānan is informed by the fact that at brainstem level the human vestibular system plays the fundamental role of integrator of all the senses, and by around 6 months after conception the vestibular part of the VIIIth cranial nerve joining the ear and the brainstem is already wired up; and so in that sense a healthy baby already knows before it is born all that it needs to know about where up is and where down is. Such a baby tends not to present itself arse over tit in the breech position.

Having written the above comment, I intended to say something along the lines that “not arse over tit” might be rendered in Sanskrit as na mūḍhaḥ. At that point, I re-checked the MW dictionary and found that included among the definitions of mūḍha is indeed: “wrong, out of the right place (as the fetus in delivery).”

Since nobody would deny that today's verse relates to the delivery of a fetus, one might have thought that EBC or EHJ or PO would have been awake to this meaning of mūḍha. But not a bit of it:

EBC: not foolish
EHJ: not ignorant
PO: not oblivious
Chinese translation: 不死 (lit. not dead) or variant reading (lit. not confused).
SB: not foolish
CW: without any confusion

It is difficult to criticize SB and CW, as they were just replicating the inaccuracy of the original Chinese translator, who would have better translated na mūḍhaḥ as 不倒 (not upside down). I reserve my crticism for the Sanskrit-English translators who – not understanding that the Buddha's teaching is not primarily religious and not primary psychological – ignored the dictionary definition of mūḍha that was obviously most relevant to today's verse.

Here for the moment I rest my case. Aśvaghoṣa had real understanding of the faculties, centered on the vestibular system, with which evolution has furnished a baby, so that a healthy natural birth can take place. Aśvaghoṣa was therefore talking in terms that make sense to a modern evolutionary biologist or to a neuro-developmental therapist -- but evidently not to a Buddhist scholar who thinks the Buddhacarita is a religious text about supernatural or unnatural miracles.

krameṇa (ind. instr. krama): in regular course , gradually , by degrees
garbhāt (abl. sg.): m. the womb, interior
abhiniḥsṛtaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. issued or issuing from (abl.)
san = nom. sg. m. pres. part. √as: to be

babhau = 3rd pers. sg. perf. bhā: to shine , be bright or luminous ; to shine forth , appear , show one's self
cyutaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. come forth from , dropped from ; fallen from any divine existence for being re-born as a man
khāt (abl. sg.): m. the sun ; n. a cavity , hollow , cave , cavern , aperture ; vacuity , empty space , air , ether , sky ; heaven ; brahma (the Supreme Spirit)
iva: like, as if
yony-ajātaḥ (nom. sg. m.): not born from a womb; not born into a station fixed by birth
yoni: mf. the womb , uterus , vulva , vagina , female organs of generation ; family , race , stock , caste , the form of existence or station fixed by birth (e.g. that of a man , Brahman , animal &c ; ifc. = belonging to the caste of)
ajāta: mfn. not born

kalpeṣu (loc. pl.): m. a fabulous period of time
anekeṣu (loc. pl. m.): mfn. not one, many
ca: and
bhāvitātmā = nom. sg. m. bhāvitātman: mfn. " one whose soul is purified by meditating on the universal soul " or " whose thoughts are fixed on the Supreme Spirit " , meditative , devout , holy , a sage , saint
bhāvita: mfn. (fr. Caus. bhū) caused to be , created , produced , obtained , got ; (ifc.) made to become , transformed into ; cherished, protected , fostered , furthered , promoted ; cultivated , purified (» comp. below); soaked, steeped in
ātman: m. the breath; the individual soul , self ; essence , nature , character , peculiarity (often ifc. e.g. karmātman, one whose character is action)

yaḥ (nom. sg. m.): [he] who
samprajānan = nom. sg. m. pres. part. sam-pra- √ jñā: distinguish, discern, know accurately or perfectly (see also SN17.50).
suṣuve = 3rd pers. sg. perf. √sū: to beget
na: not
mūḍhaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. stupefied , bewildered , perplexed , confused ; stupid , foolish , dull , silly , simple ; wrong , out of the right place (as the fetus in delivery)

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