Friday, May 4, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.4: Elephants and Likenesses of Elephants

[?]−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦[?]−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti (?)
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* * * * * * * * * * * na tan-nimittaṁ samavāpa tāpam || 1.4

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She did not on that account incur any pain.

In Saundarananda Canto 2 Aśvaghoṣa acknowledges the tradition that Māyā in a dream saw an elephant entering her womb:

In a dream during that period she saw entering her womb /
A white six-tusked elephant, mighty as Airāvata.// 2.50 //

The evidence that Buddhacarita 1.4 relates to the same story is contained in EHJ's translation from the Tibetan, and also in the Chinese translation – though not in the English versions of that Chinese translation.

In the Chinese-English translations of Beal and Willemen, the character 象 is taken to mean “likeness” or “resembling.” This character , also written as  , does indeed mean a statue or image, and hence a representation or likeness. But originally  means elephant.

In his instructions for sitting-zen, Fukan-zazengi, Dogen cautions us not to doubt the real dragon (  , SHINRYU), having spent a long time studying under a fake elephant (, MOZOU).

 (MO) means to copy or imitate. And  (ZOU) means elephant, or statue/likeness. So (模象, MOZOU) means an imitation elephant, or more generally any statue/likeness which is not real – including for example the likeness of a dragon, as opposed to a real dragon.

Here are those four characters (, MOZOU, fake elephant) and ( , SHINRYU, real dragon) taken from a facsimile of Fukan-zazengi Shinpitsu-bon thought to be written in Dogen's own hand.

I spent a number of years in Japan banging my head painfully against a brick wall in process of discovering that re-writing Gudo Nishijima's English translation without referring to the text on which, very loosely, it is based, is not a good modus operandi. One person in particular, by the name of Gabriele Linnebach, was wise enough to learn from my end-gaining trials and tribulations, and to do from the beginning the job that needed to be done, going back to Dogen's original words in order to accomplish her own translation of Shobogenzo into German. Various other people came along later, however, and reverted to the half-baked modus operandi of re-writing or translating somebody else's translation. 

The above discussion perhaps serves to illustrate and underline the dangers of relying on anybody else's translation of words by which Zen ancestors pointed, like fingers pointing at the moon, towards the Buddha's original teaching.

The danger, always, is that the message “Send re-inforcements. We are going to advance,” after several transmissions, turns into “Send three and fourpence. We are going to a dance.”

In view of this danger, I feel increasingly less inclined to study the Tibetan translation of Buddhacarita. Even if the Tibetan translation is closer to the original Sanskrit than is the Chinese translation, it is still a translation into Tibetan and not the original Sanskrit that Aśvaghoṣa wrote.

Tibetan Translation:
| mṅal daṅ ñe bar ldan pa ñid kyi sṅon rol du |
| de ni gñid soṅ glaṅ po’i dbaṅ po dkar po źig |
| raṅ ñid la ni rab tu źugs sogs mthoṅ gyur la |
| de yi mtshan ma ñam thag pa nas thob ma yin |

EHJ's translation (from the Tibetan/reconstructed Sanskrit):
4. Before she conceived, she saw in her sleep a white lord of elephants entering her body, yet she felt thereby no pain.

Chinese Translation:
於彼象天后 降神而處胎
母悉離憂患 不生幻僞心

S. Beal's translation (from the Chinese):
4. On her in likeness as the heavenly queen descended the spirit and entered her womb. A mother, but free from grief or pain, (she was) without any false or illusory mind.

C. Willemen's translation (from the Chinese):
4. In that godlike queen a spirit descended and dwelled in her womb. The mother was completely free from sorrow. She did not have any illusory thoughts.

na: not
tan-nimittam (acc. sg. n.): because of that, on that account
nimitta: n. cause , motive , ground , reason (in all oblique cases = because of , on account of)
samavāpa = 3rd pers. sg. perf. sam-ava-√āp: to meet with , attain , gain , obtain , incur
tāpam (acc. sg.): m. heat; pain (mental or physical) , sorrow , affliction


Jordan said...

Hi Mike,
I must have gotten confused along the way.
Is there not a Tibetan translation that was made off of the original Sanskrit? That would seem preferable to me if the Sanskrit was not available. But if it is a Tibetan translation of the Chinese rendering, I think it is a bit of a shot in the dark. Or at least very low light without night vision goggles.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Jordan,

Yes, there is a Tibetan translation made off of the original Sanskrit, and I have been thinking that maybe I should study Tibetan for the purpose of translating that Tibetan translation into English -- as if a translation of a translation might be better than nothing. But the other way of looking at it is that nothing might be better than a translation of a translation.

Thinking about these two opposite possibilities, I am open to being guided by the old adage: If in doubt, do nowt.

Thanks for still being there, by the way, holding your tea-cup attentively in both hands!

All the best,