Saturday, May 19, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.19: Magical Realism (ctd.), Suffering Hoodies

−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti (Haṁsī)
mahoragā dharma-viśeṣa-tarṣād-buddheṣv-atīteṣu ktādhikārāḥ |
yam-avyajan bhakti-viśiṣṭa-netrā mandāra-puṣpaiḥ samavākiraṁś-ca || 1.19

Mighty serpents who, in their thirst for the choicest dharma,

Had watched over buddhas of the past,

Fanned him, their eyes exuding partiality,

And covered him in a confetti of mandāra blossoms.

The present series of verses is similiar to the 10th canto of the Saundarananda in the insight it gives into the working of Aśvaghoṣa's imagination. Here, as there,  Aśvaghoṣa's  thoughts are very much grounded in reality. Aśvaghoṣa's magical realism, a kind of thinking, is grounded in the reality which is beyond thinking (though in certain circumstances, as George Soros observantly points out, it can be greatly influenced by human thinking).

The gulf that exists between thinking and reality was at the centre of the teaching of my teacher, Gudo Nishijima. That is why when I went off to explore the work of FM Alexander, who described his work as “an exercise in finding out what thinking is,” Gudo became suspicious of what I was getting into and expressed the hope that I would “come back to Buddhism.”

From where I sit, the one who went astray in this thinking about the relation between thinking and reality was Gudo himself. He fell into what Soros calls “the enlightenment fallacy,” which is that the reasoning observer and the reality he observes must always be absolutely divorced from each other. Whereas the truth, as anybody who persists with Alexander work, or who studies market bubbles, cannot fail to realize, is that human thinking sometimes condition reality -- generally for the worse, but sometimes for the better. 

In such matters as directing the spine to lengthen without accidentally narrowing the back in process, Gudo was blind to the potential practical usefulness of thinking. Nevertheless, in his investigations of how Dogen thought about the reality which is beyond thinking, Gudo astutely recognized an implicit four-phased approach. Progress through four phases, which Gudo sometimes called “three philosophies and one reality” or “subject, object, action, reality (SOAR)” is generally implicit in the structure of four-line Chinese verses and, before them, of four-pāda Sanskrit verses like those we are studying by Aśvaghoṣa. 

Today's verse, then, as I read it, is not only humorous but also deeply philosophical. The 1st line relates to the first noble truth, i.e. to the suffering of the thirsting subject. The 2nd line can be understood as antithetical to idealism, or to religion, or to the subjective values of the suffering Buddhist subject, in that it puts big snakes (presumably slithering in big trees) above buddhas. The 3rd line relates to action, namely the action of fanning (which the serpents presumably realised by means of their hoods). And the 4th line points to a glorious reality which I for one have experienced while sitting outside in springtime under a big tree in blossom.

Instead of giving Gudo what he wanted, which was a translation into English of Nagarjuna's writings which he could call his own, I went off to France and bought a place where I could sit in springtime under a confetti of falling blossoms. I don't regret doing the latter, but in retrospect, if I had manned up and sent my knees more forwards and away, I might have been able to do the former as well. 

mahoragāḥ (nom. pl.): m. a great serpent (with jainas and Buddhists a class of demons)
uraga: m. (fr. ura = uras and ga , " breast-going ") , a serpent , snake ; a nāga (semi-divine serpent usually represented with a human face)
dharma-viśeṣa-tarṣād (abl. sg.): out of thirst for choicest dharma
viśeṣa: m. distinction , peculiar merit , excellence , superiority (in comp. often = excellent , superior , choice , distinguished)

buddheṣv (loc. pl.): buddhas
atīteṣu (loc. pl.): mfn. gone by , past
kṛtādhikārāḥ (nom. pl. m.): mfn. superintending, watching over (loc.)
adhikāra: m. authority; rule; office; prerogative; privilege

yam (acc. sg. m.): him (relative pronoun)
avyajan = 3rd pers. pl. imperfect vyaj: to fan
bhakti-viśiṣṭa-netrāḥ (nom. pl. m.): their eyes exuding attachment
bhakti: f. attachment , devotion , fondness for
viśiṣṭa: mfn. distinguished, distinct; characterized by (comp.); pre-eminent , excellent , excelling in or distinguished by (comp.)

mandāra-puṣpaiḥ (inst. pl.) mandāra flowers, flowers of the coral tree [see also SN10.16]
samavākiran = 3rd pers. pl. imperfect sam-ava- √ kṝ: to scatter completely over , cover entirely , overwhelm with
ca: and

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