Friday, June 29, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.60: Seeing Signs, Disbelievingly

−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti (Bālā)
cakrāṅka-pādaṁ sa tato maharṣir-jālāvanaddhāṅguli-pāṇi-pādam |
sorṇa-bhruvaṁ vāraṇa-vasti-kośaṁ savismayaṁ rāja-sutaṁ dadarśa || 1.60

Then the great seer observed the wheel-marked feet,

The webbed fingers and toes,

The circle of hair between the eyebrows,
And the testes drawn up like an elephant's:

Disbelievingly did he behold the son of the king.

EHJ notes: “It is still disputed whether the jāla on the fingers and toes means webbing or meshed lines.” But EBC, EHJ, and PO all went with webbing rather than meshed lines.

EHJ notes further that “the last mark mentioned [having testicles drawn up into the body like an elephant's testicles] is still considered a sign of great strength in India”

Since Aśvaghoṣa elected to list in today's verse four signs, and lists of four in the writings of buddha-ancestors such as Aśvaghoṣa and Dogen often manifest a four-phased progression:
(1) the mark of a wheel or circle may be understood as symbolizing something round, perfect, or ideal, like a golden full moon in a cloudless night sky;
(2) webbed fingers and toes may be understood as representing something unexpected, like a white crescent moon in a blue morning sky;
(3) a circle of hair between the eyebrows may be taken as indicative of the intuitive third eye, whose wisdom transcends both romantic thinking and its falsification via scientific investigation of facts; and
(4) having bollocks like an elephant's is suggestive of hidden potential and at the same time tremendous power.

The key word in today's verse, as I read it, is savismayam, which I have translated as “disbelievingly.” Aśvaghoṣa as I read him is describing Asita's attitude not as the superstitious astonishment of a religious person but rather the skeptical inquiry of an irreligious one.

By describing Asita as disbelieving, I think Aśvaghoṣa is offering us a clue to how we should approach not only today's verse but also the whole subject of Āryan signs. We should approach that subject not on the basis of religious belief but on the basis of the confidence to be had from making the Buddha's teaching of the four noble truths into one's own possession.

My teacher, Gudo Nishijima, conspicuously made the four noble truths into his own possession, to which he affixed the trademark SOAR (standing for Subject, Object, Action, Reality).

Thus, a perfect circle can be seen an example of a Subjective or idealistic conception, along the lines of a Platonic form. Webbed fingers and toes might be an Objective fact, contrary to usual conceptions of how human fingers and toes should be. A circle of hair around the area of the third eye might mark a vital centre for Action – a centre of thinking in activity. And balls like an elephant's might be symbols of power that is very Real and great.

In my 20s I tended to hang believingly on Gudo's every word, which is how I came to understand fairly well his way of thinking in four phases, and also how I began to learn, the hard way, that compared with religious belief, disbelief conduces a whole lot better to discernment of the cosmic directive.

Gudo used to say that the practice of Zazen embraces all four phases, which sounds nice in theory. In practice, from where I sit, Gudo did not clearly understand that the idealism of “right posture” is only a Subjective delusion; hence he taught his students to pursue, according to the lowly end-gaining principle, “the right posture” of a vertically straight spine.

Gudo's attitude to the discoveries of FM Alexander was that “If AT is the same as Buddhism, it is not necessary for me to study it. And if AT is not the same as Buddhism, I do not have any interest in studying it.”

“Buddhism is not a religion,” Gudo used to say, “Buddhism is a philosophy.” But when he unexpectedly met a Tasmanian being akin to a real dragon with webbed fingers and toes, Gudo preferred to believe religiously in Buddhism as he conceived it.

An irony that would not have been lost on that lover and master of irony Aśvaghoṣa is that although Gudo wrote a book titled “To Meet the Real Dragon,” when it came in practice to the vital matter of teaching others how to sit, my teacher was in some respects just a fake elephant.

It is not easy for anybody to understand how I might be serving my teacher by calling him an arrogant little twat. But his own fundamental teaching was that we sit every day, and tell the truth, letting the chips fall where they may. He was the one who said that Buddhism is not a religion -- even if he failed to understand the meaning of his own words.

cakrāṅka-pādam (acc. sg. m.): with wheel-marked feet
cakra: a wheel, a circle
aṅka: m. a hook, curve ; a curved line; a numerical figure , cipher , a figure or mark branded on an animal , &c
pāda: m. the foot
sa (nom. sg. m.): he
tataḥ: ind. then, from that
maharṣiḥ (nom. sg.): m. the great seer

jālāvanaddhāṅguli-pāṇi-pādam (acc. sg. m.): with webbed/net-covered fingers and toes
jālāvanaddha: mfn. having toe- and finger-membranes
jāla: n. a net, web
avanaddha: mfn. bound on , tied , covered with
aṅguli: f. a finger or toe
pāṇi: m. the hand
pāda: m. the foot

sorṇa-bhruvam (acc. sg. m.): mfn. having a circle of hair between the eye-brows
sa: (possessive prefix) having
ūrṇā: f. wool; a circle of hair between the eyebrows
bhruva: (ifc.) = bhrū: f. an eyebrow , the brow
vāraṇa-vasti-kośam (acc. sg. m.): his testicles withdrawn into his lower abdomen like an elephant
vāraṇa: mfn. resisting; m. an elephant (from its power of resistance)
vasti: mf. the lower belly , abdomen ; the pelvis
kośa: m. a cask ; a covering ; a treasury ; a nutshell; a testicle or the scrotum

savismayam: ind. having astonishment , surprised , perplexed , doubtful
sa: possessive prefix
vismaya: m. wonder , surprise , amazement , bewilderment , perplexity; pride , arrogance ; doubt , uncertainty
rāja-sutam (acc. sg.): m. the king's son, the prince
dadarśa = 3rd pers. sg. perf. dṛś: to see, behold

仙人觀太子 足下千輻輪
手足網縵指 眉間白毫跱
馬藏隱密相 容色炎光明

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