Wednesday, June 20, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.51: An Exceptional Ascetic (Not Your Typical Striver)

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti (Upendravajrā)
sa pārthivāntaḥ-pura-saṁnikarṣaṁ kumāra-janmāgata-harṣa-vegaḥ |
viveśa dhīro vana-saṁjñayaiva tapaḥ-prakarṣāc-ca jarāśrayāc-ca || 1.51

He entered the intimate surroundings
of the women's quarters of the palace,

Bristling with a rush of joy at the prince's birth,

But steady, seeing the harem as if it were a forest,

Through his exceptional practice of austerities
– and thanks also to old age.

As a general rule, as documented by Nanda at length in Saundara-nanda Canto 7, ascetics in the Brahmanical tradition tended to suppress their sexual desire for years at a time before succumbing to sex with wives, prostitutes, nymphs, outcastes, et cetera. So today's verse as I read it describes Asita's ascetic practice as exceptional or extraordinary in the sense that he was not liable to succumb in the time-honoured manner to hedonistic pursuit of sexual enjoyment. At the same time, in the closing words of the verse it seems that Aśvaghoṣa, who was generally out to undermine the whole idea of asceticism, couldn't resist adding a sardonic note.

Digging deeper, there are two words in today's verse derived from the root √kṛṣ, to drag: namely, saṁnikarṣam (intitmate surroundings) in the 1st pāda and prakarṣāt (because of being exceptional) in the 4th pāda. Saṁ-ni-√kṛṣ, etymologically, suggests being “dragged together and down/in,” and pra-√kṛṣ suggests something or somebody being “dragged forth.”

So what? I think an implicit suggestion might be intended that hedonism and asceticism are two faces of one coin. Hedonistic indulgence in sensual pleasure drags us off the middle way to one side, and in ascetic indulgence of asceticism we drag ourselves off the other way.

This kind of veering off the middle way, however, is not a sin akin to stabbing your buddy in the back, or cutting the rope and leaving him half-way up the mountain.

When we reflect on Nanda's story, hedonistic indulgence was his starting point, and the Buddha deliberately caused him to go to the ends of asceticism. Those experiences of opposing -isms did not ultimately prevent Nanda from experiencing for himself the ultimate peace of which the Buddha spoke.

What is more seriously sinful than indugling in some -ism, in the value system of buddha-ancestors as I understand it, is to peddle some -ism, as if it were the Buddha's teaching, for one's own fame and profit. This is what the priests in Sung China were doing to incur such vehement wrath from Dogen. This is what Buddhist fortune tellers do in Thailand today. And this is what academic Buddhist scholars are ever liable to do, perhaps because the academic system to which they belong encourages -ism peddling.

Nanda, for all his faults, and despite his excursions into hedonism and asceticism, was able in the end to make the nectar of deathlessness into his own possession.

There is no record of the enlightenment of the striver, however, whose fault was the hypocrisy of preaching what apparently he lacked the will to practise.

The great thing is to be sincere about sitting. And Aśvaghoṣa as I read him is portraying Asita as somebody who, despite a certain ascetic tendency, was sincere about sitting. That sincerity put him a cut above the typical ascetic brahmin striver. Praise be to the Seven Ancient Buddhas! 

sa: (nom. sg. m.): he
pārthivāntaḥ-pura-saṁnikarṣam (acc. sg. m.): the vicinity of the king's gynaeceum; the vicinity of the women's quarters of the king's palace
pārthiva: m. a lord of the earth , king
antaḥ-pura: n. the king's palace , the female apartments , gynaeceum
antar: interior, inner
pura: n. fortress; the female apartments , gynaeceum
saṁnikarṣa: m. neighbourhood , proximity , vicinity
saṁ-ni- √ kṛṣ: (Pass.) to come into close or immediate contact with

kumāra-janmāgata-harṣa-vegaḥ (nom. sg. m.): with a rush of joy at the birth of the prince
kumāra:m. child, son, prince
janman: n. birth
āgata: mfn. having come, advent
harṣa: m. bristling; joy , pleasure , happiness
vega: m. shock; a stream , flood ; rush; outbreak , outburst (of passion) , excitement , agitation , emotion

viveśa = 3rd pers. sg. perf. viś: to enter
dhīraḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. steady , constant , firm , resolute , brave , energetic , courageous , self-possessed , composed , calm , grave
vana-saṁjñayā (inst. sg.): conceiving it to be a forest, with consciousness that it was a forest
vana: n. forest
saṁjñā: f. consciousness , clear knowledge or understanding or notion or conception;
eva: (emphatic)

tapaḥ-prakarṣāt (abl. sg.): from his pre-eminence in ascetic practice
tapas: n. ascetic practice
prakarṣa: m. pre-eminence , excellence , superiority , excess , intensity , high degree (often ifc. e.g. adhva-pr° , a great distance R. ; kāla-pr° , a long time Sus3r. ; guṇa-pr° , extraordinary qualities)
pra- √ kṛṣ: to draw or stretch forth , drag along or away
ca: and
jarāśrayāt (abl. sg.): thanks to being endowed with old age
jarā: f. old age
āśraya: mfn. ifc. depending on , resting on , endowed or furnished with
ca: and

梵行相具足 時王大歡喜
即請入宮内 恭敬設供養
將入内宮中 唯樂見王子
雖有婇女衆 如在空閑林


Fred said...

"was able in the end to make the nectar of deathlessness into his own possession.

There is no record of the enlightenment of the striver, however, whose fault was the hypocrisy of preaching what apparently he lacked the will to practise."

Mike, you have interpreted the texts. What did the Buddha have to
say about karma if anything?

Mike Cross said...

Hi Fred,

For example, the cause of suffering is the faults that are triggered into action by thirsting.

Forgive the short answer but I have just got back from France and the old brain is tired after a long day travelling.