Friday, October 19, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 3.23: No Irony Intended

−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti (Indravajrā)
dṛṣṭvā ca taṁ rāja-sutaṁ striyas-tā jājvalyamānaṁ vapuṣā śriyā ca |
dhanyāsya bhāryeti śanair-avocañ-śuddhair-manobhiḥ khalu nānya-bhāvāt || 3.23

Those women, seeing the king's son,

Shining bright with beauty and majesty,

Said “Lucky is his wife!” in a soft whisper,

With pure minds and out of no other sense at all.

If progressing on the royal road in the middle way between heaven and earth requires transcendence of the paradox inherent in truly being an individual while not ceasing to belong to that great big group called humanity, then today's verse, as I read it, presents us with another paradox, which has to do with simplicity and complexity.

“Naturally to become all of a piece,” to use Dogen's phrase, might be just about the most simple thing there is. But in endeavoring in my 20s to practise the practice that Dogen thus advocates I got completely tangled up, as a result, in essence, of one complicating irony, namely this:

Trying to lengthen the spine causes the spine to shorten.

As a result of such experience (which to be honest is still not entirely a thing of the past), I hope I am not deluding myself if I claim to be more alert than previous translators have been to Aśvaghoṣa's pervasive liking for irony.

Today's verse is a stimulus to consider at least three kinds of irony, namely (1) dramatic irony, (2) verbal irony, and (3) cosmic irony.

(1) Dramatic Irony
There is dramatic irony in the women's description of soon-to-be dharma-widow Yaśodhara as dhanya, lucky, fortunate, happy. We the readers know what the women also know (because, as evidenced by tomorrow's verse, the women already know that the prince will leave his wife and head for the forest); the difference is that we are at least partially awake to the truth of impermanence, whereas the women are simply responding to a situation here and now, like a dog looking at another dog with a desirable bone.

(2) Verbal Irony
The dictionary gives anya-bhāva as “change of state,” but since anya means other or different, and bhāva can mean intention or sense, anya-bhāva “the other sense,” can be read as an expression of that sense towards which Aśvaghoṣa is always pointing the mind of his listener/reader; namely, not the literal or ostensible meaning of his words, but the other intention, the totally different sense -- that sense which is wicked, humorous, ironic, irreligious.

Thus the ostensible meaning of today's verse is that the women's minds were pure and so when they said “Lucky/privileged/happy is his wife,” they said so out of no sense of bitchy envy. Hence nānya-bhāvāt ostensibly means “from no baser feeling/motive” (EBC/EHJ) or “for no other reason” (PO).

Really speaking, however, when Aśvaghoṣa's ostensibly praises the women's minds as “pure,”  and as having "no other sense," his intention might be to mock the women for exhibiting naivety.

Why does Aśvaghoṣa do this? I think because in pursuing the ultimate aim of sitting-zen, which is a condition of utter innocence and simplicity, we are required to guard against the wrong kind of innocence and simplicity, which is naivety. We are required to guard against believing simplistically in idealistic and reductive ideas and closing our eyes to complicated reality. 

What do you think: Was Aśvaghoṣa simply, out of no other sense at all, praising the women for their pure minds? Or did Aśvaghoṣa, with a mind tainted by a wicked sense of irony, have in mind a totally different sense  (anya-bhāva)?

If you agree with me that Aśvaghoṣa is much more wickedly ironic, and much less religious, than has hitherto been written about in English, then how come a bloke who four years ago was a total beginner in Sanskrit, without any formal training in Sanskrit or in Buddhist studies, can see this other sense which eminent Buddhist scholars have not peeped, even in a dream?

(3) Cosmic Irony
The answer to my own question is that 30 years of parking my backside four times every day on a round cushion have given me, if nothing else, then at least a healthy sense of cosmic irony.

As I said before, the central irony of sitting-zen practice, which nothing highlights more clearly than Alexander work highlights it, is simply this:

Trying to lengthen the spine causes the spine to shorten.

Q. E. D.

A few days ago I watched a BBC4 science documentary on “Order & Disorder.” I watched it with my son who is in the final year of a masters degree in Chemistry. When the discussion got as far as Bolzmann's famous formula for entropy (S = k. log W), I was straining every neuron in my diminishing supply of neurons in the effort to keep up, while my son tried to allay his boredom by simultaneously playing a video game on his mobile phone, checking his email, and trying to explain to me something about microstates.

More than any hoped-for insight into the 2nd law of thermodynamics, the documentary left me pondering the karma by which Ludwig Bolzmann made such a great contribution to the advancement of science and yet died in the unhappiest of circumstances.

Bolzmann's contemporary and nemesis, Ernst Mach, according to Wikipedia, was an Austrian physicist and philosopher, noted for his contributions to physics such as the Mach number and the study of shock waves. As a philosopher of science, he was a major influence on logical positivism and through his criticism of Newton, a forerunner of Einstein's relativity.

Ernst Mach, evidently, was no fool. And yet through the second half of the 19th century when Ludwig Bolzmann strove to win acceptance for the atomic theory of matter, Mach refused to believe that there were any such things as atoms.

According to this review of a book called Boltzmann's Atom, which I might buy and read if I weren't so stingy and lazy, Boltzmann sought to explain the real world, and cast aside any philosophical criteria. Mach, along with many nineteenth-century scientists, wanted to construct an empirical edifice of absolute truths that obeyed strict philosophical rules. Boltzmann did not get on well with authority in any form, and he did his best work at arm's length from it. When at the end of his career he engaged with the philosophical authorities in the Viennese academy, the results were personally disastrous and tragic.

On 5th September 1906, history records, at the age of 62, the depressive Boltzmann hanged himself while on holiday by the seaside. Since then, all eminent physicists seem to have concurred that Boltzmann was right -- or at least that Boltzmann's atomic theory of matter was a better basis for doing chemisty and physics than was Mach's skepticism about the real existence of atoms. But was there any sense in which all this posthumous recognition did Boltzmann any good? What karma on Boltzmann's part caused the favourable recognition to come after the time when it might have cheered him up?

Conversely, is there any sense in which the current shattering and trashing of the reputation of the formerly revered British TV personality and paedophile Jimmy Saville is doing him any harm? What karma on Saville's part caused the unfavourable recognition to come not before but after his death?

I don't know. But the gap which has been very much in the news in the UK between how Saville appeared to be and how he really was, as also the gap between how valuable Mach perceived Boltzmann's work to be and how valuable Boltzmann's work really was, seems to me to be somehow profoundly connected to Aśvaghoṣa's teaching.

That is to say, below and behind all Aśvaghoṣa's uses of verbal and dramatic irony, there seems to be a highly developed sense of the cosmic irony that resides in the gap between human ideals and reality, or between intentions and actual results, or between how things seem to be and how they really are.

All this talk of irony might interest an effete literary critic, but of what possible interest could “cosmic irony” be to an iron man of Zen?

I would say in conclusion, in answer to that question, that sitting on a round cushion with the intention to go in the direction of simplicity is the ultimate laboratory for independent study of cosmic irony.

dṛṣṭvā = abs. dṛś: to see, behold
ca: and
tam (acc. sg. m.): him
rāja-sutam (acc. sg. m.): the king's son, prince
striyaḥ (nom. pl. f.): the women
tāḥ (nom. pl. f.): those

jājvalyamānam = acc. sg. m. pres. part. intensive jval: to flame violently , shine strongly , be brilliant
vapuṣā (inst. sg.): n. form , figure , (esp.) a beautiful form or figure , wonderful appearance , beauty
śriyā (inst. sg.): f. light , lustre , radiance , splendour , glory , beauty , grace , loveliness ; prosperity , welfare , good fortune , success , auspiciousness , wealth , treasure , riches ; high rank , power , might , majesty , royal dignity
ca: and

dhanyā (nom. sg. f.): mfn. bringing or bestowing wealth , opulent , rich (ifc. full of); fortunate , happy , auspicious
asya (gen. sg.): his
bhāryā (nom. sg.): f. wife
iti: “...,” thus
śanaiḥ: ind. quietly, softly
avocan = 3rd pers. pl. aorist vac: to say

śuddhaiḥ (inst. pl. n.): mfn. cleansed , cleared , clean , pure , clear , free from (with instr.) , bright , white; cleared , acquitted , free from error , faultless , blameless , right , correct , accurate , exact , according to rule ; pure, simple, genuine
manobhiḥ (inst. pl.): n. mind
khalu: ind. (as a particle of asseveration) indeed , verily , certainly , truly
nānya-bhāvāt (abl. sg.): not out of a different intention / other sense
na: not
anya-bhāva: m. change of state
anya: mfn. different, other
bhāva: m. being, state ; state of being anything , esp. ifc. e.g. bālabhāva , the state of being a child ; any state of mind or body , way of thinking or feeling , sentiment , opinion , disposition , intention ; purport , meaning , sense 

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