Tuesday, July 10, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.71: The Drinkable River of Dharma

−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Vāṇī)
prajñāṁbu-vegāṁ sthira-śīla-vaprāṁ samādhi-śītāṁ vrata-cakravākām |
asyottamāṁ dharma-nadīṁ pravṛttāṁ tṛṣṇārditaḥ pāsyati jīva-lokaḥ || 1.71

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.

A series of metaphors that Asita started in 1.69 by comparing the Buddha to “the sun whose substance is knowing” and continued in 1.70 by comparing the Buddha's means-whereby to “a great raft of knowing,” is continuing in today's verse which compares the Buddha's dharma to the highest of rivers.

The highest of rivers is a river whose water, sturdy banks and coolness are prajñā, śīla and samādhi – the three major elements of the noble eightfold path as classified by the Buddha in SN16.30:
A lamp that has gone out reaches neither to the earth nor to the sky, / Nor to any cardinal nor to any intermediate point: Because its oil is spent it reaches nothing but extinction. // 16.28 // In the same way, a man of action who has come to quiet reaches neither to the earth nor to the sky, / Nor to any cardinal nor to any intermediate point: From the ending of his afflictions he attains nothing but extinction. // 16.29 // A means for gaining that end is the path of threefold wisdom (prajñā) and twofold tranquillity (praśama = samādhi). / It is to be cultivated by a wakeful person working to principle -- abiding in untainted threefold integrity (śīla). // 16.30 //

To these three elements of flowing water, banks and coolness, Asita as was appropriate for one who came and went on the way of the wind, added a transcendent fourth element, namely greylag geese (Sanskrit: cakra-vāka “cyclical caller”). The male and female of that species were celebrated in ancient India for their mutual loyalty, as reflected by the cycle of calling to each other which is said to continue hauntingly through the night.

So far visitors to this blog from India are only a trickle (725 visitors at time of writing, compared to 7400 from the US and 5500 from the UK). But I hope that my translation and comments might appeal to the irreligious, rational strand within the mainly superstitious and spiritual tapestry of Indian culture, so that the trickle might eventually turn into a torrent. Far upstream in the culture of India, Aśvaghoṣa is calling like a lonely greylag goose. May many modern Indians respond with acts of obedience – which means primarily sitting in lotus, and not anything religious. Come on India -- wake up and answer the call!

One of the ways that Aśvaghoṣa’s writing is designed not so much to increase the reader's knowledge as to enhance the reader's practice, is by inviting the reader to sharpen his or her critical faculties – to sharpen, in other words, our ability and accuracy in saying “No, not that.” Thus, the challenge that Aśvaghoṣa frequently presents is to understand the irony which is at play when he quotes the words of seemingly worthy characters like the Buddhist striver in Saundarananda cantos 8 & 9, or when he seems to portray miscellaneous ascetics, brahmins, and the like in glowing terms.

When, with critical faculties thus sharpened, we examine the metaphors of the great ascetic Asita, is there anything to be criticized in these metaphors? Is Asita saying anything different from what  Aśvaghoṣa  quotes the Buddha as saying, or from what Aśvaghoṣa himself says in his role as narrator, or from what Nanda says after making the Buddha's teaching his own?

I don't see anything to which I am able to say “No, not that.” Rather, today's verse is one of those verses that seems worthy in its own right to be appreciated as four lines of poetry that distill the whole of the Buddha's teaching.

It is not that I blindly accept Asita's teaching because I am an Asita-worshipping Asita-ist who believes in Asita.

In fact I don't believe that any such person as Asita ever conceived this beautiful metaphor of the thirst-quenching river of dharma. Rather, today's verse might be just 100% pure unadulterated Aśvaghoṣa, with nothing added and nothing taken away, coming straight from the source.

prajñāṁbu-vegām (acc. sg. f.): whose stream is wisdom
prajñā: wisdom, intuitive wisdom
aṁbu: water
vega: m. shock ; a stream , flood , current (of water , tears &c ) ; rush , dash
sthira-śīla-vaprāṁ (acc. sg. f.): whose banks are unwavering integrity
sthira: mfn. firm , hard , solid , compact , strong ; firm , not wavering or tottering , steady
śīla: discipline, integrity
vapra: mn. a rampart , earthwork ; a high river-bank (also nadī-v°) , any shore or bank

samādhi-śītām (acc. sg. f.): whose coolness is balance
vrata-cakravākām (acc. sg. f.): whose greylag geese are acts of loyal service / obedience
vrata: n. (fr. √vṛ) will , command , law , ordinance , rule; obedience , service ; conduct, manner ; a religious vow or practice , any pious observance , meritorious act of devotion or austerity , solemn vow , rule , holy practice
√vṛ: to choose , select , choose for one's self
cakravāka: m. the cakra bird (Anas Casarca ; the couples are supposed to be separated and to mourn during night)

asya (gen. sg.): of this one, his
uttamāṁ (acc. sg. f.): mfn. uppermost, highest, most elevated
dharma-nadīm (acc. sg. f.): the river of dharma
nadī: f. flowing water , a river (commonly personified as a female)
pravṛttāṁ (acc. sg. f.): issued , come forth , arisen , produced ; purposing or going to ; acting , proceeding

tṛṣṇārditaḥ (nom. sg. m.): thirst-afflicted
tṣṇā: f. thirst
ardita: mfn. injured , pained , afflicted , tormented , wounded
pāsyati = 3rd pers. sg. future pā: to drink, swallow
jīva-lokaḥ (nom. sg.): m. the world of living beings (opposed to that of the deceased) , living beings , mankind

智慧泝流水 淨戒爲傍岸
三昧清涼池 正受衆奇鳥

如此甚深廣 正法之大河
渇愛諸群生 飮之以蘇息

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