Monday, July 30, 2012

Buddha-carita Canto 1: The Birth of Something Beautiful

Aśvaghoṣa's poetry is written to be studied in depth by people who are devoted to sitting. When read superficially and translated by Buddhist scholars who are not devoted to sitting, Aśvaghoṣa's writing is like a big dark cloud blotting out the sun. That is not Aśvaghoṣa's fault: it is the fault of Buddhist scholars whose intellect blinds them into thinking that they might be able to understand and to transmit to others what they haven't made any effort really to experience for themselves.

Even as I write this, I feel something wrong in my criticism of the likes of EH Johnston and Richard Gombrich – two Boden professors of Sanskrit at Oxford University, whose efforts have benefitted me greatly. Is my behaviour the behaviour of what Jordan calls “a buddy fucker”? I sincerely hope not. Either way the mirror principle is doubtless at work, whereby I criticize in others a tendency that I fear in myself.

Still, the point remains that when EH Johnston translated the title of Canto 1, bhagavat-prasūtiḥ, as “Birth of the Holy One,” he opted for a perfectly literal translation which totally obsurced the deeper meaning that Aśvaghoṣa intended to convey with the words bhaga-vat “possessed of bhaga (good fortune/happiness/beauty)” and prasūtiḥ, “coming forth, birth.”

EHJ's “Birth of the Holy One,” or Patrick Olivelle's “The Birth of the Lord,” prepare our minds, even before we have read one fucking word of one fucking verse, to read something religious.

Richard Gombrich tells me that it doesn't matter whether we call the Buddha's teaching religious or not; it is only a semantic problem. But Richard Gombrich does not know whereof he speaks. It matters because when a person sits with the idea that the Buddha's teaching is a spiritual religion, that wrong idea triggers responses in the brain and nervous system which are not conducive to just sitting. And whereof I speak, I know. 

When we study Aśvaghoṣa's writing in depth and in detail, relying less upon our intellects and more upon a round black cushion, Aśvaghoṣa begins to emerge as about as keen on religion as Richard Dawkins.

So we need a translation of the canto title which, far from Birth of the Holy One, or The Birth of the Lord, is irreligious.

One such translation of bhagavat-prasūtiḥ that I have considered is “A Beautiful Birth.” But the first translation that occured to me, on a hike through beautiful scenery a few days before I began posting on Buddha-carita, and a translation of bhagavat-prasūtiḥ that, on further reflection, still seems to be the closest I can get to hitting the target, is “The Birth of Something Beautiful.” 

Something truly beautiful, as deep down we all already know, gives birth to itself. And this is why since olden times whenever an enlightened buddha has opened his or her mouth to teach, the first words to emerge have invariably been “the not doing of wrong.”

Thus, as an account of the Buddha's life, Buddha-carita begins naturally enough with a baby's birth and infancy, and the title of Canto 1 is translated naturally enough as “A Beautiful Birth.”

But as a vehicle for the transmission of the principle of the not-doing of wrong, as an epic story of awakened action, Buddha-carita naturally begins by suggesting how something beautiful tends to be born in the presence of an amateur enthusiast who likes to practise his or her own thing, without any religious or other agenda.

As an epic story of awakened action, then, Buddha-carita really begins with the description of a big strong bloke (Chinese: 大丈夫 ; Japanese: DAI-JO-BU), an individual who does not belong to any specific group, but who is devoted to sitting (āsana-stham; 1.52), and who comes and goes on the way of the wind, without the heavy baggage of views, opinions, beliefs, and other attachments.

This individual, an individual who thirsts only for the truth, is called Asita, which means dark-coloured, or black. In contrasting Asita with the aristocratic brahmins who were his contemporaries, Aśvaghoṣa presents Asita as something close to what I understand by the term white nigger. In a society where the ruling class is white and where blacks (looked down upon as “niggers”) form an underclass, a white nigger is a bloke whose skin is white but who does not belong to, or who does not enjoy the privileges associated with being a member of the white ruling class. In that sense Asita is akin to a white nigger – in the sense that in his dealings with the king he seems on the surface to be of the brahmin class, but in his behaviour he is very different from the brahmin snobs. Aśvaghoṣa describes the brahmins in many places as dvi-ja, which has both an aristocratic connotation (“twice-born”; “invested with the sacred thread”) and a religious connotation (“born again”). Aśvaghoṣa never once describes Asita as dvi-ja.

In marked contrast to Asita who tells the king the straight truth and goes away on the way of the wind, like a white nigger without anything, the brahmins, beneath a veneer of sacred learning and deep familiarity with a great body of literature, only tell the king what they think he would like to hear, and then depart bearing the treasure which, in a society dominated by brahmin thought, is deemed naturally due to them.

Whereas the brahmins are supposed to be independent men of sacred learning, with no worldly agenda, their action shows their agenda. Their agenda, as shown by their action, is to be the recipients of the king's largesse.

Another person with an agenda is the king himself, his agenda being the continuation of his royal line.

Therefore Aśvaghoṣa's description of the king's agitation and fear not only, as part of his account of the Buddha's life, sets the scene for the next canto; it also servers to underline the first point Aśvaghoṣa wishes to make about the Buddha's teaching. That point is the fundamental principle of “just sitting” -- which is devotion to sitting for the sake of sitting itself, without the agitation and fear that is invariably triggered by the presence of a religious agenda, or any other agenda.

Buddhacarita Canto 1: The Birth of Something Beautiful

Among the unshakable Śākyas there was a king,

A descendant of Ikṣvāku equal to Ikṣvāku in might,
a man of well-cleansed conduct

Who was loved by those below him,
like the autumn moon:

Śuddho-dana was his name
-- 'Possessed of Well-Cleansed Rice.'

That Indra-like king had a queen: 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Like lotus-hued Padmā in her beauty
and self-possessed as Mother Earth,

She was Māyā by name and was like Māyā,
the peerless goddess of beauty.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -

And then, like knowledge conjoined with balance,

She who was far removed from evil conceived a child.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -

She did not on that account incur any pain.

She, the queen of that god-like king,

Bearing in her womb the light of his royal line,

And being devoid of weariness, sorrow,
and the māyā which is deceit,

- - - - - - - - - - -

She, to the grove called Lumbinī,

Which, with its manifold trees,
would have pleased Citra-ratha, 

- - - - - - [there to brood] 

- - - - - - [in solitude].

Appreciating the nobility of her instinct - - - - - -,

And filled with joyful anticipation,

The master of the earth departed from the blessed city

Not because he felt like an excursion, but to please her.

In that glorious grove,

Perceiving that it was time for the birth,

The queen took to a bed covered over with an awning,

Being joyfully received
into the bosom of thousands of fellow women.

as a propitious moon passed into the asterism of Puṣya,

To that queen sanctified by the manner of her action --

Through her, for the welfare of the world -- a son was born,

Painlessly and healthily.

Just as Aurva was born from the thigh, 
Pṛthu from the hand,

Indra-equalling Māndhātṛ from the head,

And Kakṣīvat from the armpit:

Of that same order was his birth.

Having emerged from the womb gradually,

He who whose position at birth was never fixed,
shone as if he had dropped from empty space.

as one whose self had been developing over many aeons,

He was born with integral awareness,
and not in the wrong position.

With brightness he shone, and with constancy,

Like a newly-risen sun inundating the earth;

Thus he blazed too brightly to be gazed upon,

And at the same time he stole the eyes,
in the manner of the hare-marked moon.

For with the blazing light of his body,

He blotted out the light of lamps as does the sun;

And with his beautiful lustre of precious gold,

He enlightened all directions.

With even footsteps,
his feet going up like water-born lotuses,

And coming down in long stamping strides:

Seven such firm steps he took,

Looking like the Seven Seer cluster of stars. 

“For awakening I am born, for the welfare of the world;

This for me is the ultimate coming into existence.”

Surveying the four quarters, as he moved like a lion,

He voiced a sound that conveyed this gist of what was to be.

Flowing out of emptiness, as radiant as moonbeams,

Two showers of raindrops, 

with a cooling and a heating effect,

Fell upon his cool, moist, moon-like head

In order to bring ease to his body,
by intimately connecting into it.

As he lay on a bed with a glorious royal canopy,

A base of shining gold and legs of cats'-eye gems,

An honour guard of yakṣa wranglers

Stood around him, with golden lotuses in hand.

Heaven-dwellers who seemed to be concealed in the sky,

With heads bowed down at his majesty,

Held up a white umbrella,

And sang their best wishes for his awakening.

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.

Gladdened by a birth that went so well,

Those whose essence is pure
and who dwell in the clear blue yonder,

The gods, though devoid of any red taint of passion,

Rejoiced for the welfare of a world steeped in sorrow.

At his birth the earth, anchored by the king of mountains,

Shook like a ship being battered in a gale;

And a sandalwood-scented rain,
containing lillies and lotuses,

Fell from the cloudless sky.

Breezes blew that were pleasant to the touch
and agreeable to the mind,

Causing fancy clothing to fall off.

The sun shone with extra brightness,
being nothing but itself.

Fire, with a full, moon-like flame,
burned without being stirred.

In the north-eastern corner of the residence

A well of pure water spontaneously appeared;

And there the royal householders, filled with wonder,

Performed bathing practices
as if on the bank of a sacred stream.

Hosts of divine, dharma-needy beings, 

Being motivated to meet him, filled up the forest.

And such indeed was the zealous absorption,

That blossoms, even out of season,
were caused to fall from trees.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - 

[Diseases cleared up, naturally, effortlessly,
automatically, spontaneously,

And all by themselves.]

- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - 

Directions became clear - - - - - - -

- - - - - - - - - - - -

- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - 
The guru being born for the liberation of the world,
- - - - - - - - - - - -

- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -

- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -

Superstitious old women - - - - 
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -

Prayed to the gods for good fortune.

Brahmins of reputed good conduct - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - said to the king:

- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -

- - - - - - - - - - - -
“To your people, spiritual fortune will accrue.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -

- - - - - - - - - - - -
With the lustre of gold, - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
He will be either a spiritual seer or an earthly king.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -

- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -

As gold is the best of metals,
Meru of mountains,

The ocean of waters,

And as the moon is the best of planets

- - - - - - - - - - - -

- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - -

The king said to the brahmins:

“What is the cause?” - - - - - 

- - - - - - - - - - - - 

Then the Brahmans said to him:

- - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - 

“And so listen to our examples which illustrate this point:

That science of kingship which Bhṛgu and Aṅgiras,

Those two lineage-founding seers, failed to formulate,

Was created in the course of time, O Gentle Sir!,

By their sons Śukra and Bṛhas-pati.

And Sārasvata articulated again a lost Veda

Which forebears had never seen;

Vyāsa, 'the Compiler,' likewise,
arranged it into many sections,

Which Vasiṣṭha, for lack of Capability, had not done.

Vālmīki invented a metre

Which the great seer Cyavana,
in his compositions, had never used;

And that treatise on healing which Atri failed to produce

The seer Ātreya would later expound.

That rank of twice-born brahmin
which “Squint-Eyed” Kuśika never won,

O King!, the son of Gādhin did attain;

And “Poison-Possessing,” Sagara
gave the ocean a shoreline,

A boundary which formerly the Ikṣvākus had failed to fix.

The status of teacher of the method of yoga
to twice-born brahmins,

A status that nobody but a brahmin had obtained,
Janaka did attain;

And the celebrated deeds of Śauri,
“Descended from the Mighty,”

Were beyond the power of Śūra,
“the Mighty Man” himself, and his contemporaries.

The criterion, then, is neither age nor descent;

Anyone anywhere may attain pre-eminence in the world.

For, among kings and seers,
sons have achieved various things

That forebears failed to achieve.”

The king, being thus cheered and encouraged

By those trusted twice-born provers,

Banished from his mind awkward doubt

And rose to still greater heights of joy.

And so upon those truest of the twice-born,

He joyfully bestowed riches, along with hospitality,

“May the boy become a king as prophesied

And retire to the forest in his old age.”

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.”

A knower of brahma among brahma-knowers,

Ushered in him who was blazing
with brahma-begotten brilliance,
and with the glowing heat of ascetic exertion –

The king's guru,
with the gravity and hospitality due to a guru,

Ushered Asita into the king's royal seat.

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.

Then that sage who was devoted to sitting

The king fittingly honoured,
with foot-washing water and with welcoming water;

The king offered to him appropriate service,

As once upon a time Antideva did to Vasiṣṭha.

“Fortunate am I and favoured is my family

In that you, Beauty-Possessed Man, have come to see me.

Let me know, O Moonlike Man of Soma, what I should do.

Please believe in me, for I am ready to be taught.”

Being bidden like this by a ruler of men,

The sage, with his whole being, [responded] appropriately;

He whose expansive eye was,
in his state of wonderment, wide open,

Voiced words whose sound was deep and sonorous:

“This befits you, great and noble soul that you are,

Hospitable, generous, and dharma-loving,

That you should show towards me,
reflecting your character, family, wisdom and vitality,

Such affectionate appreciation.

This, moreover, is the means whereby
those seers who were rulers of men,

On garnering riches, by the subtle method,

And constantly giving those riches away,
in a principled manner,

Became flush with austerities and bereft of luxuries.

But as to my own motive in coming here,

Hear it from me and be glad:

The cosmic word, I have heard
-- on Āditi's way, on the path of the sun --

Is that your son has been born for the sake of awakening.

Listening for that directive, applying the mind to it,

And intuiting it by signs, on that basis I am arrived,

Desirous of seeing the banner of the Śākya clan

Held aloft like the flag of mighty Indra.”

Thus discerning this direction,

The king, with a joyful spring in his step,

Took the prince, who was sitting on a nurse's lap,

And showed him to austerity-rich Asita.

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.

As he watched him sitting in the lap of a nurse,

Like the son of Agni sitting in the lap of divine nymphs,

Asita's tears dangled on the ends of his eyelashes,

And, taking a deep breath, he looked up towards the heavens.

But when the ruler of men beheld Asita all teary-eyed,

Attachment to his own flesh and blood
caused the king to shudder:

Stammering, choking back astringent tears,

With his cupped hands held before him,
and his body bent low, he asked:

“On beholding him
whose form is little different from the gods,

Whose shining birth was wonderful in many ways,

And whose purpose, you said,
was destined to be of the highest order,

Why, O Steadfast Soul, would you shed tears?

Will the prince, O One Full of Fortune,
be blessed with long life?

Heaven forfend that he was born for my sorrow!

Am I in my cupped hands somehow to have gained water,

Only for Death to come and drink it?

Again, will the repository of my glory be immune to decay?

I hope the extending hand of my family is secure!

Shall I depart happily to the hereafter,

Keeping in my son, even while I sleep, one eye open?

Heaven forbid that my family's new shoot has budded

Only to wither away before opening.

Tell me quickly, O Abundantly Able One;
I have no peace,

For you know the love
that blood relatives invest in a child.”

Knowing the king to be thus agitated

By a sense of foreboding, the sage said:

“Let not your mind, O Protector of Men,
be in any way disturbed;

What I have said I have said beyond doubt.

Worried I am not about a twist of fate for him;

Distressed I am, though, about missing out myself.

For the time is nigh for me to go,
now that he is born --

The knower of the secret of putting birth to death.

Indifferent to objects, he will give up his kingdom;

Then, through exacting and unrelenting effort,
he will realize the truth;

And then,
to dispel the darkness of delusion in the world,

He will shine forth as a sun whose substance is knowing.

Out of the surging sea of suffering,
whose scattered foam is sickness,

Whose waves are old age
and whose terrible tide is death,

He will deliver the afflicted world,
which is borne helplessly along,

By means of the great raft of knowing.

The river
whose flow is the water of wisdom,
whose steep banks are sturdy integrity,

Whose coolness is balance,
and whose greylag geese, calling and answering,
are acts of obedience --

That highest of rivers,
The water of dharma flowing forth from him,

The thirst-afflicted world of living beings will drink.

To sorrow-afflicted, object-laden souls

Stuck in the scrubby ruts of saṁsāra,

He will tell a way out,

As if to travellers who have lost their way.

To people being burned in this world

By a fire of passion whose fuel is objects,

He with a rain of dharma will bring joyous refreshment

Like a great cloud with rain at the end of sweltering heat.

The door with panels of darkness and delusion
bolted shut by thirst

He will break open to let people out

By means of a thump of the highest order --

The incontestable clout of true dharma,
alongside which it is hard to sit.

For folk enswathed
in the twisted ties of their own delusion,

For folk pulled down into their misery
who lack the means to be lifted up,

He when he is fully awake
will work for them as a king of dharma

At undoing.

Therefore do not sorrow for him;

Those who deserve sorrow
are those in this human world who,

Whether through the delusion
that stems from sensual desires
or because of fervent inspiration,

Will not learn his ultimate dharma.

And since I have fallen short of that merit,

In spite of having mastered the stages of meditation,
I have failed.

Because of being a non-learner of his dharma,

I deem it a misfortune to remain
even in the highest heaven.”

Thus enlightened,
in the company of his wife and friends,

The king dismissed dejection and rejoiced;

For, thinking “Such is this son of mine,”

He saw his son's excellence as also being his own.

But then it preyed upon his mind

That his son might trace a seer's path:

Biased against dharma he surely was not,

But dread he foresaw from the ending of his line.

And so the sage Asita, having let the reality be known,

Having caused the king, who was worried about his child,
to know the inevitable reality tied to having a child,

-- While people, with varying degrees of appreciation,
looked up at his excellent form --

Went as he had come, on the way of the wind.

One who, having beheld his younger sister's son,
knew the score,

Saw to it that the sage's direction
should be listened to and given thought;

[This uncle] in many different ways, with empathy,
being himself straight and true,

Saw to this as if for his own beloved son.

Even the king, delighted at the birth of a son,

Loosened his ties to worldly objects

Whereupon, in a manner befitting his nobility,

He performed for his son, out of love for his son,
a rite of birth.

More than that, when ten days were up,

With a purified mind,
and filled with the greatest gladness,

He performed mutterings,
fire oblations, ritual movements

And other acts of religious worship,
for the ultimate well-being of his son.

Again, cows numbering fully a hundred thousand,

With strong, sturdy calves and gilded horns,

Unimpaired by age or infirmity,
yielding milk in abudance,

He freely gave to the twice-born brahmins,
with a view to his son's advancement.

With his self reined in, then, on that basis

-- After performing sacrificial acts
which were variously oriented towards his end
and which made him feel gratified in his heart --

At an auspicious moment in a good day,

He rejoicingly resolved to enter the city.

And then into a precious pallanquin
made from a tusker's two tusks,

Which was filled with the white flowers
of the White Flower, the Sita,
and had pearls for lamps,

The god-queen with her child repaired,

Having bowed down, for good fortune,
before images of gods.

Now, having let his wife enter the city ahead of him

-- Her with their offspring, and elders trailing behind --

The king also approached,
applauded by groups of townsfolk,

Like gift-bestowing Indra entering heaven,
applauded by the immortals.

Headlong into his palace, then, dived the Śākya king,

Happy as Bhava at the birth of six-faced Kārttikeya.

“Do this! Do that!”
he commanded, his face brimming with joy,

As he made arrangements
for all sorts of lavishness and splendour.

Thus at the happy development
which was the birth of the king's son,

That city named after Kapila,
along with surrounding settlements,

Showed its delight,
just as the city of the Wealth-Giver,
spilling over with celestial nymphs,

Became delighted at the birth of Nala-kūbara.

The first canto, titled “A Beautiful Birth,”
in an epic story of awakened action.

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