Monday, July 9, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.70: The Raft of Knowing

−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Vāṇī)
duḥkhārṇavād-vyādhi-vikīrṇa-phenāj-jarā-taraṅgān-maraṇogra-vegāt |
uttārayiṣyaty-ayam-uhyamānam-ārtaṁ jagaj-jñāna-mahā-plavena || 1.70

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.

When I pressed the “publish” button for yesterday's verse jñāna-mayo sūryaḥ was translated as “a sun whose substance is wisdom.” A few minutes later, after I progressed to considering today's verse, and then reviewed the present series of verses going back to 1.66, I quickly decided to go back and change the translation to “a sun whose substance is knowing.”

The present series of verses is all about knowing – but not about the intellectual knowing of a scholar, and not necessarily about the wisdom, or intuitive knowing (prajñā) of a buddha.

In today's verse knowing does not necessarily reside on the far shore of enlightenment but is rather akin to a raft. What is being described is a knowing in which there is not necessarily any knowledge, but only a state of being beyond doubt.

It has been said, in connection with the penny dropping in the context of Alexander work, “It doesn't arrive with a fanfare of trumpets.”

What is it that arrives not with a fanfare of trumpets? Whatever it is, I think that Aśvaghoṣa in the present series of verses is pointing us towards it.

Thus as an introductory suggestion to his theme, Aśvaghoṣa in 1.66 has the king say to Asita vetsi, “you know.” Then in 1.67, Aśvaghoṣa describes Asita as buddhvā, “having known” the king to be agitated; and Asita describes himself as niḥsaṁśayaṁ, “being beyond doubt,” in having said what he has said. In 1.68 Asita describes the king's son as boddhā, “the knower” of the secret of ending birth. In 1.69 Asita predicts that the Buddha will shine forth as a sun whose substance is jñāna, “knowing.” And again in today's verse Asita predicts that the Buddha will deliver the world by means of a great raft of jñāna “knowing.”

Jñāna is a so-called “neuter action noun,” formed by the addition of the suffix -na to the root jñā, “to know.” So jñāna literally means “knowing.” As a translator one can be tempted to translate jñāna as “wisdom” or “knowledge,” in view of what might sound more natural to an English ear. I briefly fell into that temptation yesterday by opting to translate jñāna as wisdom.

Prajñā, literally “pre-knowing,” means intuitive wisdom. I think it has a connotation of knowing that something is going to happen. But the jñāna, “knowing,” that Aśvaghoṣa is pointing to now has much more of a connotation of knowing that something sure as hell is NOT going to happen.

An image that springs to my mind is that of a stalwart security worker at the door of a nightclub. Though not necessarily a paragon of Buddhist wisdom or a beacon of intellectual knowledge, and though he has never even heard of the FM Alexander Technique, he is an experienced martial artist who knows what fear is, and so he knows the reaction that “knees forwards and away” is intended to prevent. He is saying, and really meaning, “You are not coming in.”

duḥkhārṇavād (abl. sg. m.): out of the foaming sea of suffering
duḥkha: sorrow, suffering, hardship
arṇava: m. a wave , flood; m. the foaming sea ; mfn. agitated , foaming , restless
vyādhi-vikīrṇa-phenād (abl. sg. m.): whose foam is the throwing up of sickness
vyādhi: sickness, illness, disease
vikīrṇa: mfn. scattered , thrown about , dispersed &c
phena: m. foam , froth , scum

jarā-taraṅgāt (abl. sg. m.): whose waves are aging
jarā: f. old age, aging
taraṅga: m. " across-goer " , a wave , billow
maraṇogra-vegāt (abl. sg. m.): whose violent currents are the throes of death
maraṇa: n. the act of dying, death
ugra: mfn. powerful , violent , mighty , impetuous , strong , huge , formidable , terrible ; cruel , fierce , ferocious , savage
vega: m. violent agitation , shock; impetuosity , vehemence , haste , speed , rapidity ; a stream , flood , current

uttārayiṣyati = 3rd pers. sg. causative future ud- √tṝ: to cause to come out ; to deliver , assist , rescue
ayam (nom. sg m.): this one, he
uhyamānam = acc. sg. n. pres. part. passive vah: to carry , transport ; to bear along (water)
ārtam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. fallen into (misfortune) , struck by calamity , afflicted , pained , disturbed
jagat (acc. sg.): n. the world
jñāna-mahā-plavena (inst. sg.): with a great raft of knowing
jñāna: knowing, the higher knowledge
mahā: great
plava: a float , raft , boat , small ship

衆生沒苦海 衆病爲聚沫
衰老爲巨浪 死爲海洪濤
乘輕智慧舟 渡此衆流難


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

A thought or two about the suggestion that the etymology of prajñā shows that the word specifically refers to intuition, or some form of preconceptual understanding.

Monier-Williams clarifies that 'pra', when prefixed to a verb - primarily a verb of motion – means 'before, forward, in front, on, forth' etc, but its use is not confined to that sense. When prefixed to adjectives (and so perhaps, by extension, when prefixed to substantives/nouns) it can, and usually does, act as an intensive meaning 'excessively/very/much'. So 'pracaNDa' (from the root 'caND', meaning to be 'fierce, cruel') means excessively violent, furious; 'pramatta' (from the root 'mad', meaning to gladden, exhilarate) means 'drunken, intoxicated, insane'. This is the ‘pre’ of ‘pre-eminent’ – an eminence that is to the fore, in front of, meaning chief, principal, best (similar to the use of ‘ – mukha’ in compounds). And so the translation of prajñā as 'wisdom', 'intelligence’, ‘discrimination’, ‘judgement' - with all the ambigious baggage those terms carry – seem to me perfectly acceptable.

Of course, it's very possible to argue that wisdom is a form of intuition or preconceptual understanding - and vice-versa - but I think it's a mistake to support that argument with what is, in this case I think, dubious etymology.

I’m not sure why this bee is in my bonnet, but it is and has been for a while!


Mike Cross said...

Dubious etymology, you say?

OK, fair enough. I am sorry that I misjudged the whole situation. I was wrong. So, yes, you can come in. I've changed my mind. But just this once. And please don't tell anybody.