Monday, June 18, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.49: Enter an Individual of Colour

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti (Kīrti)
atho nimittaiś-ca tapo-balāc-ca taj-janma janmānta-karasya buddhvā |
śākyeśvarasyālayam-ājagāma saddharma-tarṣād-asito maharṣiḥ || 1.49

Then, awoken by dint of practice of austerities
and alerted via signs

To the birth of the one who would put an end to birth,

There appeared at the palace of the Śākya king,

Driven by a thirst for true dharma,
the great seer Asita, “the Not White One.”

Patrick Olivelle in his Notes says that the identify of Asita is unclear: some scholars identify this Asita with the famous brahmin sage Asita Devala; other scholars argue that the two should be distinguished.

As an adjective, asita has two literal meanings: (1) “unbound” and (2) “dark-coloured, black.” As past participles from the root si, sita means “bound, tied, fettered,”  and its antonym asita, means “unbound." As a colour, asita, means “black” and  its antonym  sita means “white” (asita in this case being thought to be etymologically earlier than sita).

A clue to Aśvaghoṣa's intentions might be contained later in this chapter when the queen is described as mounting a palanquin which is filled with sita-sita-puṣpa, or white Whiteflowers (BC1.86). Sita in this compound obviously means white, in which case its antonym asita means not white, dark, black.

My intuition is that Aśvaghoṣa wanted to portray the great seer Asita as singularly different from the generic brahmins he has quoted hitherto, in the same way that he portrays certain trees in Saundarananda Canto 10 as different, odd, individual (anya).

Read in this light, the name Asita “Black,” or “Not White,” might be intended to convey some sense that Asita was not a bland generic bhrahmin of the kind who has just spoken, from the standpoint of religious idealism and pseudo-scientific materialism. He was more interesting than that: not a colourless generic bhramin, but a real individual with a chequered past of many trials and errors.

Reading this verse and the verses that follow it might be intended as an exercise in dropping off prejudices, or habitual reactions to trigger words. Today's verse, for example, contains the words tapas (austerities, ascetic practice) and tarṣā (thirst), both of which we have understood from reading Saundara-nanda are obstacles on the path to peace. So we might expect those words to carry a negative connotation. But that expectation also might be something to drop off.

Having prepared the above comment yesterday I memorized today's verse as I usually do, preparatory to reciting it to myself when I wake up in the night or early in the morning. This morning I could not for the life of me remember the opening words of the 4th line – saddharma-tarṣāt (out of thirst for true dharma), and so I had to look them up before going to the zendo, aka shed. I then found myself reflecting more deeply on those words, imbued as they were with the residue of my failed effort to remember them, and I found myself wanting to draw a distinction between thirst and thirsting.

Thirst, i.e., strong desire, is a painful fact, like the state of a fish in a dwindling pond. 

Thirsting is a kind of behaviour which one can learn to stop.

The distinction is important in the sense that a person like Asita who is suffering from thirst might be deserving of sympathy, whereas a person who is indulging in thirsting might be deserving of a kick up the backside, or some other form of negative feedback.

About ten years ago I was privileged to receive such negative feedback from Marjory Barlow when I described myself to her in self-deprecatory terms as an end-gainer. Marjory, halted her progress around the table on which I was lying, and said: “Listen. You either end-gain, or you follow the means-whereby. It is your choice.” 

Following the means-whereby means attending to a process. In the Buddha's true dharma, what is called “the lifeblood” is following a means-whereby, or attending to a process.

For 13 years in Japan I went for a vertically straight spine in a direct, end-gaining manner, thirsting to feel right. Marjory Barlow and other Alexander teachers saved me from such folly, by demonstrating to me how to attend to a process which, indirectly, allows the whole self to work better as a respiratory mechanism. This, and only this, have I truly understood – except when I forget.

I cuss and swear on this blog, quite apart from feeling angry about this and that, because I want people to understand that my enlightenment on this point, under the guidance of Marjory and others, has got absolutely fuck all to do with religion. My delusion on this point had a lot to do with religion. But my enlightenment on this most fundamental of all points has got fuck all to do with religion.

The reason that the url for this blog is “nothingbutthelifeblood” is because four years ago I decided that I would go back to translation work as a means of conveying just this point, to all the Buddhist dumbfucks out there who persist, as I have persisted, in thinking of the Buddha's teaching as if it were a religion. People who thirst for true dharma may eventually be caused to ask themselves how come such a foul-mouthed non-Buddhist has spent so long producing such a good translation of the Buddha's true dharma.

Last week I had an email from a university professor in India who wants to take extracts from my Saundarananda translation for a book he is writing. Some part of me thought “Oh, oh! What is this eminent professor going to think if he visits my blog and finds me using words like motherfucker?” But there again, what have I got to lose? If the professor wants to use my translation, he is welcome. If, like Ānandajoti, he can't stand my use of foul and abusive language, then fuck him.

Yesterday this professor wrote me an email in which he called me “Mr Cross.” Grrrr.. Restraining myself I replied:

Not Mr.
Not Ven.


What I wanted to write was 
As my left knee is healing up, I must admit, my language seems to be getting more colourful.

atho: ind. now, next, therefore
nimittaiḥ (ins. pl.): n. sign, omen
ca: and
tapo-balāt (abl. sg.): m. the power acquired by religious austerities
ca: and

tad (acc. sg. n.): that
janma (acc. sg.): n. birth
janmānta-karasya (gen. sg. m.): maker of an end to birth
janman: n. birth
anta: m. end, end of life, death
anta-kara: mfn. causing death , mortal , destructive
buddhvā = abs. budh: to wake up, heed, perceive

śākyeśvarasya (gen. sg.): the Śākya king
śākya: m. N. of a tribe of landowners and kṣatriyas in kapila-vastu
īśvara: m. master , lord , prince , king
ālayam (acc. sg.): house, dwelling
ājagāma = 3rd pers. perf ā-√ gam: to come, make one's appearance

saddharma: true dharma
tarṣāt (abl. sg.): thirst
asitaḥ (nom. sg.): m. “black,” name of a descendant of kaśyapa (composer of RV. ix , 5-24), named also devala or asita devala
asita: mfn. (1) unbound (2) dark-coloured , black (sita , " white " , appears to have been formed from this word , which is probably original , and not a compound of a and sita ; cf. asura and sura)
maharṣiḥ (nom. sg.): m. great seer

時近處園中 有苦行仙人
名曰阿私陀 善解於相法

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