Tuesday, September 18, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 2.49: Relatively Harmless Religion

−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−    Upajāti (Indravajrā)
sthitvā pathi prāthama-kalpikānāṁ rājarṣabhāṇāṁ yaśasānvitānām
śuklāny-amuktvāpi tapāṁsy-atapta yajñaiś ca hiṁsā-rahitair-ayaṣṭa || 2.49

Standing firmly on the path

Of primeval royal bulls steeped in glory,

He practised austerities with his whites still on,

And he worshipped with sacrificial acts that did no harm.

A good way to approach understanding of today's verse, as I read it, is to go back to the canto title anta-puraḥ-vihāraḥ, Exploring Within the Battlements – the fortifications in question being a symbol of the inviolable law of cause and effect.

What Aśvaghoṣa is exploring is how the king, despite being a devout follower of a religious tradition that embraced superstition, irrationality, self-mortification through ascetic practice, and animal sacrifice, nevertheless managed to do such a spectacularly good job of laying the karmic foundations for his child to develop. 

The 3rd pāda says that the king practised the austere practices of asceticism (tapāṁsi), while continuing to wear the white clothes that full-time ascetics traditionally cast off.

Asceticism as an -ism the Buddha would later abandon, along with all other -isms. Asceticism as a way of life centred on the grim practice of austerities the Buddha would shun in particular as something that involved thirsting for an object (viṣaya-tṛṣā) and was extreme (vipulam). Hence:
For ascetic practice, then, he left Kapilavāstu -- a teeming mass of horses, elephants and chariots, / Majestic, safe, and loved by its citizens. Leaving the city, he started resolutely for the forest. // SN3.1 // In the approach to ascetic practice (tapasi) of the various traditions, and in the attachment of sages to various restraints, / He observed the miseries of thirsting after an object (viṣaya-tṛṣā-kṛpaṇān). Seeing asceticism (tapa) to be unreliable, he turned away from it. // 3.2 // Then Ārāḍa, who spoke of freedom, and likewise Uḍraka, who inclined towards quietness, / He served, his heart set on truth, and he left. He who intuited the path intuited: "This also is not it." // 3.3 // Of the different traditions in the world, he asked himself, which one was the best? / Not obtaining certainty elsewhere, he entered after all into ascetic practice that was most severe (paramaṁ cacāra tapa eva duṣ-karaṁ). // 3.4 // Then, having seen that it was not the path, he also abandoned that extreme asceticism (tad-api vipulaṁ jahau tapaḥ). / Understanding the realm of meditation to be supreme, he ate good food in readiness to realise the deathless. // SN3.5 //
And yet the fact remains that hard training, that is, training which causes a certain amount of stress to the body and mind, can be very good for human development. There is evidence to suggest that temporary self-denial of food, for example, whether voluntary in the form of fasting or involuntary because of famine, can have a beneficial effect not only on the hungry person but also on future generations descended from him or her. Did my years of training for rugby and karate, and my wife's years of training for basketball, before our sons were conceived, do our sons any good? I don't know but I am sure the fact that we were in good physical shape – and my wife in particular, even before childbirth, was no stranger to physical pain -- could not have done our sons any harm.

A useful distinction can possibly be drawn, then, between the practice of austerities which in itself can be harmless or even healthy, and the practice of asceticism as a way of life -- whose symbolic insignia were dreadlocks, and covering of the skin with dirty clothes or ash. That the king practised austerities śuklāny-amuktvāpi (“even without casting off his white clothes”) seems to suggest that the king did not bring bad karma down upon himself and his family by going overboard on asceticism as a heavy-duty full-time ascetic.

Similarly the 4th pāda, as I read it, suggests that the kinds of religious worship that the king engaged in did not involve anything so karmically heavy as the sacrifice of animals, or children.

A few days ago a TV programme made by Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, in which he argued for a new partnership between religion and science, featured a head-to-head between Sacks and Richard Dawkins, in which Sacks passionately and forcefully made the point that in the Jewish tradition it was axiomatic (a) not to sacrifice children, and (b) to encourage children to ask difficult questions. Richard Dawkins had to agree that, from the standpoint of a champion of the method of science, these aspects of Jewish religion were indeed admirable.

Religious beliefs do no harm, except when people who hold them do harm. In Richard Dawkins' field, religious believers do harm when they muddy the waters in the teaching of the science of evolutionary biology. In my field, Buddhist monks and scholars muddy the waters when they get the Buddha's teaching mixed up with religious belief.

sthitvā = abs. sthā: to stand , stand firmly; to stay, remain
pathi (loc. sg.): m. a way , path , road , course (lit. and fig.)
prāthama-kalpikānām = gen. pl. m. prāthama-kalpika: mfn. (fr. prathama-kalpa) being (anything) first of all or in the strictest sense of the word
prathama-kalpa: m. a primary or principal rule
prathama: mfn. foremost, first, earliest
kalpa: m. a sacred precept , law , rule , ordinance (prathamaḥ kalpaḥ , a rule to be observed before any other rule , first duty)

rājarṣabhāṇām (gen. pl. m.): mfn. the chief of kind ; royal bulls
rājan: m. king
ṛṣabha: m. a bull (as impregnating the flock ; the best or most excellent of any kind or race
yaśasānvitānām (gen. pl. m.): mfn. beautiful, glorious
yaśas: n. beautiful appearance , beauty , splendour , worth; honour , glory , fame , renown
anvita: mfn. joined , attended , accompanied by , connected with , linked to; having as an essential or inherent part , endowed with , possessed of , possessing

śuklāni (acc. pl.): n. a white spot , white substance , anything white
amuktvā (= a + abs. muc): not having relinquished, abandoned, given up , set aside
api: even
tapāṁsi (acc. pl.): n. ascetic practice
atapta = 3rd pers. sg. perf: to be hot ; to torment one's self , undergo self-mortification , practise austerity

yajñaiḥ (inst. pl.): m. worship , devotion , prayer , praise ; act of worship or devotion , offering , oblation , sacrifice
ca: and
hiṁsā-rahitaiḥ (inst. pl.): devoid of harm
hiṁsā: f. injury , harm (to life or property) , hurt , mischief , wrong
rahita: mfn. deserted by , separated or free from , deprived or void or destitute of (instr. or comp.)
ayaṣṭa = 3rd pers. sg. perf. yaj: to worship , adore , honour (esp. with sacrifice or oblations) ; to consecrate , hallow , offer (with acc.)

猶若劫初時 仙王所住道
愛行清淨業 祠祀不害生

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