Thursday, July 26, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.87: Docile Elders & Sycophantic Sanghas

⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−−¦¦⏑⏑⏑⏑−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−− Puṣpitāgrā
puram-atha purataḥ praveśya patnīṁ sthavira-janānugatām-apatya-nāthām |
nṛ-patir-api jagāma paura-saṁghair-divam-amarair-maghavān-ivārcyamānaḥ || 1.87

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.

EBC translates “Having made his wife with her child enter first into the city, accompanied by the aged attendants...,” with a footnote to the effect that apatya-nāthām (“with their offspring”) might also mean ‘having her child as her protector.’

EHJ translates “The king then made the queen, attended by aged women and accompanied by her child, enter the city in front of him...,” with a footnote saying that this translation followed the Chinese and Tibetan translations in taking sthavira-janam (“elders”) as feminine (“aged women”).

How are we to decide? Going to visit Zen temples in Kyoto is no help whatsoever, as Jordan has recently confirmed, except in bringing about a certain emptiness in the wallet. No, there is nothing for it but to sit as an individual on the same round cushion as Aśvaghoṣa and to work out (in both senses of the word) his real message.

Visits to Zen temples (I know whereof I speak) can be a totally meaningless experience. A much better way to commune with the ancient masters of Zen is to study the words that they took the trouble to write, and to work out for oneself what those words might really mean.

The two buddha-ancestors whose words I have studied in detail are Dogen and Aśvaghoṣa. Dogen, of course, as any Buddhist scholar knows, was the founder of the Soto Sect in Japan. But to which school did Aśvaghoṣa belong? For a Buddhist scholar like EH Johnston, this was question number one. Hence, in an 85-page introduction to his translation of Buddha-carita, EHJ writes of Aśvaghoṣa “The Buddhist” (as separated from Aśvaghoṣa “The Scholar” and Aśvaghoṣa “The Poet”) as follows:
“Our first task is obviously to determine the sect or school to which he [Aśvaghoṣa The Buddhist] belonged. That he was a follower of the Hinayāna is certain, and to him perhaps any further inquiry would have savoured of impertinence; he is not a fanatical adherent of any school and avoids, as if of set purpose, all mention of those disciplinary details and philosophical subtleties which had split the community into sections...”
The first two propositions that EHJs states here are utterly false premises. The last 30-odd words of this quote I agree with. Twelve turgid pages later, however, EHJ concludes:
“To sum up a difficult enquiry, I would hold, till further light is shed on the dark places, that the best opinion is to consider Aśvaghoṣa as having been either a Bahuśrutika or an adherent of the [Mahāsaṅgika] school (the Kaukulikas?) from which the Bahuśrutikas issued.”
26th July, 2012 
Dear Professor Johnston, 
Here is some light I would like to invite you to shine into your dark places: Neither Dogen nor Aśvaghoṣa were the adherents of any sect or school. They were individual buddha-ancestors in the one-to-one transmission of the practice and experience of positioning one's dark places on top of a round black cushion. So the best opinion for you to hold on Aśvaghoṣa's sectarian affiliation, might be no opinion.
All the best, 

The Right Irreverend Mike Cross

Mostly, as EHJ correctly suggests, Aśvaghoṣa's intention as regards sectarian divisions can be inferred from what  Aśvaghoṣa avoided discussing, by what he did NOT write. But in a verse like today's Aśvaghoṣa may also have been providing one or two clues by what he did write. Because under a camouflage of bunting and frippery surrounding a beautiful birth, today's verse contains two terms which are very pertinent to what EHJ thinks of as “our first task.” Those two terms are sthavira-jana, “elders,” and saṁghaiḥ, “groups, sanghas, sections of the community.”

The significance of the juxtaposition in today's verse of sthavira and saṁgha is suggested by the following passage from The Wonder that was INDIA, by A. L. Basham:
A second general council is said to have been held at Vaiśāli, one hundred years after the Buddha's death. Here schism raised its head, ostensibly over small points of monastic discipline, and the Order broke into two sections, that of the orthodox Sthavira-vādins (Pāli Thera-vādī) or “Believers in the Teaching of the Elders,” and that of the Mahā-saṅgikas or “Members of the Great Community.”
My decision, then, taking this into account, is to translate sthavira as “elders” and saṁgha as “group.”

And the means-whereby I arrived at this decision is sitting in lotus as the abandonment of that idea which EHJ, in all the ineffable stupidity of the devoted Buddhist scholar, expressed when he wrote “Our first task is obviously to determine the sect or school to which [Aśvaghoṣa] belonged.”

If I paraphrase in my own words the gist of what Aśvaghoṣa as I hear him has been saying in this and the last few verses:

Religion is all a load of irrational old nonsense; believing in the teaching of so-called “elders,” and following the herd instinct as part of a “saṁgha,” are part and parcel of that old nonsense; and sychophantic kow-towing, in the hope or expectation of being rewarded with gifts from on high, is the saddest and most laughable manifestation of that old nonsense.

puram (acc. sg.): n. the city
atha: and, then
purataḥ: ind. before (in place or time) , in front
praveśya = abs. causative pra- √ viś: to cause to enter into (acc.)
patnīm (acc. sg.): f. mistress, wife

sthavira-janānugatām (acc. sg. f): accompanied by elders
sthavira: mfn. broad, thick, strong; old , ancient , venerable ; m. (with Buddhists) an " Elder " (N. of the oldest and most venerable bhikṣus)
jana: m. person, people
anugata: mfn. followed by , having anything (as a skin) hanging behind
apatya-nāthām (acc. sg. f.): furnished with the offspring; having the offspring as refuge/protector
apatyan. (fr. ápa, away, off, down) offspring , child , descendant
nātha: n. refuge , help ; m. a protector , patron , possessor , owner , lord (often ifc. , esp. in names of gods and men; but also mf(ā)n. possessed of occupied by , furnished with cf. sa-)
nāth: to seek aid , approach with prayers or requests (loc.); to ask , solicit , beg for ; to have power , be master

nṛ-patiḥ (nom. sg.): m. " lord of men " , king ,
api: also
jagāma = 3rd pers. sg. perf. gam: to go , set out ; to go to or towards , approach
paura-saṁghaiḥ (inst. pl.): by/with groups of citizens
paura: m. a townsman , citizen
saṁgha: m. " close contact or combination " , any collection or assemblage , heap , multitude , quantity , crowd , host , number (generally with gen. pl. or ifc. , e.g. muni-saṁgha , " a multitude of sages"); any number of people living together for a certain purpose , a society , association , company , community

divam (acc. sg.): n. heaven, sky
a-maraiḥ (inst. pl.): m. “not dying,” a god , a deity
magha-vān (nom. sg. m.): mfn. possessing or distributing gifts , bountiful , liberal , munificent (esp. said of indra and other gods): m. N. of indra
magha: m. ( √ maṁh) a gift , reward , bounty
maṁh: to give , grant , bestow
iva: like
arcyamānaḥ = nom. sg. m. causative pres. part. ṛc: to praise

然後昇寶輿 婇女衆隨侍
王與諸臣民 一切倶導從
猶如天帝釋 諸天衆圍遶


Jordan said...

Hey Mike,

Religion is all a load of irrational old nonsense; believing in the teaching of so-called “elders,” and following the herd instinct as part of a “saṁgha,” are part and parcel of that old nonsense; and sychophantic kow-towing, in the hope or expectation of being rewarded with gifts from on high, is the saddest and most laughable manifestation of that old nonsense.

I rarely ask your permission when I steel your stuff for the occasional class, but I would like to ask your permission to use this repeatedly and often. With due credit given to your Unholy irreverenceness of course.

Semper Fi,

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Jordan.

I don't know if its just me getting less tolerant of religion in my grouchy old age and seeing Aśvaghoṣa through the jaundiced eyes of my own prejudice.

Can Aśvaghoṣa's message really be as subversive towards religious belief as we seem to agree that it is?

If so, you would think a lot of people in the world of Buddhism, and Buddhist studies in particular, would be shocked or at least interested.

But when I sent an article to Prof. Richard Gombrich arguing that Saundara-nanda is NOT as generally assumed "a story of religious conversion," RG suggested that I was just getting bogged down in semantics.

Like Japanese Zen priests who invite tourists to rub the Happy Buddha's belly to earn merit, and drop a couple of coins in the collection box, eminent Buddhist scholars don't really want the status quo to be challenged.

A paradigm-shifting new interpretation on the meaning of some obscure technical Sanskrit term as used by some obscure old Indian sect? Yes, please.

An article that questions the whole basis of Buddhist studies as practised as an academic discipline at such brahmin-led institutions as Balliol Colloge Oxford? Thanks awfully for trying, old chap, but no thanks.

Jordan said...

Here are two things I have learned from the experience of working with the best and brightest of America.

1. Human beings (even the well educated and naturally intelligent ones) are made of 70-80% water.

2. Water will take the path of least resistance.
Smart people do the dumbest things because that is the way they have learned or because everyone else does it that way or because someone in a position of authority said too.

I have heard that the Buddha went against the stream and going against the stream
is a hard thing to do. It takes courage and self confidence. Maybe even a little bit of a sense of wonder.

Do you know this professor? Has he displayed these traits? Given you some reason to expect from him not to behave differently from any other sleeper?

It might be better to focus your efforts on informing those withe only a little shit in their eyes, and leaving a record for future generations of seekers.

And try to pick out someone for me to encourage, be encouraged by, and learn from when you are gone.

Semper Fi,

Mike Cross said...

I expect people to do their best to practise what they preach.

Prof. Gombrich I think is a man of integrity. He evidently has a very strong reputation in the world of Sanskrit for being incredibly helpful to students and colleagues. In the past I have asked him one or two questions by email and he has totally justified that good reputation. So yes, I do know Prof. Gombrich well enough to conclude that he is basically a very good egg.

It is possible to bring a scientific approach to the study of say, ancient texts. One scholar puts forward a hypothesis; others endeavour to falsify the hypothesis on the evidence of what the texts say, sometimes backed up by archeological and historical evidence et cetera. Thus science inches forward by degrees, against, as you indicate, the prevailing stream of ignorance.

I think Prof. Gombrich is not only a man of integrity but also a kind of scientist. So he genuinely welcomes contributions that challenge the conventional wisdom -- up to a point.

However, the hypothesis he has been working on all his academic life is that Buddhism is a religion. Prof. Gombrich himself does not consider himself a Buddhist. I think he sees himself as a student of Buddhism, which he sees as a religion that is very different from other religions. But he sees Buddhism as a religion, which he studies from the outside, using scientific method.

So what I wrote in my article is a very great challenge to Prof. Gombrich's own view. If he is true to his principle, and he recognizes that the evidence is overwhelming that Saundara-nanda is NOT a story of religious conversion, and neither was the Buddha's teaching ever a religion in the first place, then that might be akin to accepting that the earth is round when one has spent one's life assuming and teaching that the earth is square.

Yes, it is expecting a lot and asking a lot. But I do expect that and do ask it. Come on Prof G. -- practise what you preach!

Jordan said...

Sorry, I forgot for a moment what an optimist you can be. Do you buy lottery tickets?

Semper Fi,

Mike Cross said...

When I say "expect" I don't mean that I believe it's likely.

Sometimes doesn't a US Marine front up even when the odds are stacked massively against him?

Or does the Semper in Semper Fi mean, say, 55% or 90% or 99.5% of the time?

Maybe "demand" is a better word. Apparently Nelson originally went with "confide"....

But you are right. I haven't totally abandoned optimism and pessimism yet. Still a work in progress...

Jordan said...

In an assault, it is better to out number your opponent by three to one or greater. So if you are going to go around demanding things, it might be best to have a bit of leverage.

Semper fi might translate to always faithful, but it really just means I am here for you.

Mike Cross said...

Said the mountaineer who calculated the odds against his own survival and cut the rope on the end of which his mate was dangling.

Jordan said...

Ha! We call that semper I.

Mike Cross said...

In this originally shattered world nobody is the beloved of anybody. / Held together by cause and effect, humankind is like sand in a clenched fist. // 15.35 //

Certainly not very romantic. And on the surface it sounds pessimistic, but really it is not. It might be the truest possible basis for not cutting the rope.

The truth is that I am karmically indebted to a lot of people, and one of them is Richard Gombrich. Without RG there would be no Clay Sanskrit Library. Without the CSL translations of Aśvaghoṣa there wouldn't be this blog.

Semper I.


Jordan said...

That looks more like semper interdependence.

Semper fi,

Mike Cross said...

By "I," I mean this big smelly bloke who is just now getting round to going to the shed at the bottom of the garden to sit.

(Not at all a Buddhist saint who has transcended his own ego.)

Semper I,


Jordan said...

Mike, I see where you are going with this but I think you misunderstand the usage of Semper I. It is a derogatory expression used towards those individuals deserving of the blue falcon award. A person who deliberately cuts the Achilles tendon of his buddy in order to get over or above in some way or form. Not only a guy who is in if for himself, but a down right buddy fucker.

While you may not have transcended the smell of your own shit, I don't see you as that bad of a guy either. If I did, I would not be hanging around here.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Jordan.

But let's not form a mutual admiration society and make a scapegoat out of buddy fuckers -- as if we had never heard of the mirror principle.

Jordan said...


Mike Cross said...

I suppose the US Marine Corps might be the tightest of saṁghas where the orders of elders have to be obeyed. So it is ironic, or paradoxical, that follower no. 1 of this blog has been a US Marine. But I like irony and like paradoxes. Sending the head forward and up without arching and narrowing the back is a paradox. How to sit in lotus as an act of allowing the head to go forward and up while the back keeps tending in a lengthening and widening direction... that might be the universal paradox, or koan.

Yours impermanently. (That is for damn sure)