Sunday, October 21, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 3.25: Reading the Royal Road

−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti (Indravajrā)
kīrṇaṁ tathā rāja-pathaṁ kumāraḥ paurair-vinītaiḥ śuci-dhīra-veṣaiḥ |
tat-pūrvam-ālokya jaharṣa kiṁ-cin-mene punar-bhāvam-ivātmanaś-ca || 3.25

On his first reading of the royal road

Which was filled like this with obedient citizens
ostensibly displaying purity and steadfastness,

The prince was thrilled

And somewhat conscious of himself being as if reborn.

The key word in today's verse is the word at the end of the 2nd pāda whose reading, inconveniently, is most open to doubt. The old Nepalese manuscript has śuci-dhīra-ceṣīḥ, corrected to śuci-dhīra-ceṣaiḥ. Since there is no such word as ceṣa, this was amended to śuci-dhīra-veṣaiḥ, presumably by Amṛtananda. EBC, EHJ and CSL all have śuci-dhīra-veṣaiḥ, which EBC translated as “dressed in white sedate garments,” EHJ as “clad in cleanly sober guise,” and PO as “dressed in clean and dignified clothes.” In addition to meaning “item of clothing,” however, veṣa also means “artificial exterior,” or “assumed appearance” or (as per EHJ) “guise.”

Another possible amendment is to śuci-dhīra-ceṣṭaiḥ, in which case the phrase suggests “gestures which display purity and steadfastness.”

Either way, I think the point is that the citizens, having been purified or cleansed by the removal of the downtrodden and disabled, were lined up in such a way as to put on a convincing outward show of true behaviour, as opposed to truly enlightened behaviour. And the young impressionable prince, not yet having developed the sense of cosmic irony that Aśvaghoṣa would like us all to develop, was almost taken in by this impressive show.

The phrase punar-bhāva, translated in the 4th pāda as “coming into being,” also means “re-birth” or “becoming,” with which meaning it appears in the following four verses in Saundara-nanda, in each case as something to be avoided or ended. 
Even in the face of a precarious immunity to rebirth (apunar-bhāve) and notwithstanding inconsistencies in their time-honoured texts, / There and then, as if seeing with their own eyes, the great ascetics practised asceticism. // SN1.14 //
Having focused his agitated mind on the end of becoming (apunar-bhave), he fled the king's palace, indifferent to the most beautiful of women sleeping there; / Determined to go to the forest, he fled in the night, like a goose from a lake of ruined lotuses. // SN2.65 //
In this world which likes what is close to home, a fondness for non-doing is rare; /For men shrink from the end of becoming (apunar-bhāvāt) like the puerile from the edge of a cliff. // SN12.22 //
Sprung free from pernicious theories, seeing an end to becoming (paryantam-ālokya punar-bhavasya), / And feeling horror for the consequences of affliction, Nanda trembled not at death or hellish realms. // SN17.35 //
The suggestion is then, that when we aim for what we should aim for, our aim is not to become something. But before that time, when we are immature and gullible (speaking from experience as a still young and impressionable 52-year old), we are liable to think and feel as if our self ought to become something.

To sum up, today's verse on first reading ostensibly describes the prince as on the verge of some kind of self-realization, but digging below the surface it really describes the essence of delusion, which is to think and feel I have become something.

This is how I seem to end up summarizing most of Aśvaghoṣa's verses, is it not? On first reading today's verse ostensibly means such and such, but...

Thus having dug deeper into what might lie below the surface of today's verse, I decided to translate tat-pūrvam-ālokya as “on his first reading,” and veṣaiḥ as “ostensibly displaying.” The “but” (tu) comes at the beginning of tomorrow's verse.

All Aśvaghoṣa's writing is designed to lead the reader or listener onto the royal road. Today's verse reminds us not to trust our first reading of it.

The point is rather to be alert to the irony which is ever present in the words and in the cosmos.

The point, in particular, might be to watch out for teachers who are ostensibly on the royal road but who are liable to turn the Buddha's path of liberation into its opposite. I think my own Zen teacher was somewhat like that. I also have unquestionably been like that in the past, and I could easily be like that at every moment of the present.

One of the big stars in the Alexander firmament, a teacher named Patrick Macdonald, was working with another Alexander teacher who had her hands on a pupil. Macdonald let her know that whereas she thought her hands were conveying an upward direction to the pupil, the direction was in fact a downward direction. "That is down," observed PM. The other Alexander teacher expressed her shock and disbelief that she was taking the pupil down when she thought she was taking the pupil up. "Yes, I know," Macdonald replied, "For the first thirty years I was taking everybody down." 

This same Alexander teacher, many years later, in 1998, just after I had received the Dharma from Gudo Nishijima, was sitting opposite me at a long dining table listening to me express my understanding of the Buddha's teaching and the fundamental meaning of sitting-Zen. "You are lying to yourself," she told me. And she was absolutely right. I was. And doubtless still am. 

kīrṇam (acc. sg. m.): scattered , thrown , cast ; filled with , full of (instr.)
tathā: ind. thus, in this manner
rāja-patham (acc. sg. m.): the king's highway , a main road , public road or street ; the royal road
kumāraḥ (nom. sg.): m. the prince

pauraiḥ (inst. pl.): m. townsfolk
vinītaiḥ (inst. pl. m.): mfn. led or taken away , removed &c; tamed , trained , educated , well-behaved , humble , modest
vi- √ nī: to lead or take away , remove , avert ; to train , tame , guide (horses) ; to educate , instruct , direct
śuci-dhīra-veṣaiḥ (inst. pl. m.): with the exterior appearance of brilliant whiteness and good breeding
[EBC: all dressed in white sedate garments EHJ: clad in cleanly sober guise]
śuci: mfn. shining , glowing , gleaming , radiant , bright ; brilliantly white ; clear , clean , pure (lit. and fig.) , holy , unsullied , undefiled , innocent , honest , virtuous
dhīra: mfn. intelligent , wise , skilful , clever ; steady , constant , firm , resolute , brave , energetic , courageous , self-possessed , composed , calm , grave ; well-conducted , well-bred
veṣa: m. work, activity, management ; dress , apparel , ornament , artificial exterior , assumed appearance (often also = look , exterior , appearance in general)
ceṣṭa: n. moving the limbs , gesture ; n. behaviour , manner of life

tat-pūrvam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. happening for the first time
ālokya = abs. ā- √ lok: to look at
jaharṣa = 3rd pers. sg. perf. hṛṣ: to thrill with rapture , rejoice , exult , be glad or pleased
kiṁ-cid: ind. somewhat, a little

mene = 3rd pers. sg. perf. man: to think , regard as ; to think one's self or be thought to be , appear as , pass for (nom. ; also with iva)
punar-bhāvam (acc. sg.): m. new birth; becoming ; renewal
a-punar-bhāvam (acc. sg. m.): m. not occurring again ; exemption from further transmigration , final beatitude ; the end of becoming
punar: ind. again , once more (also with bhūyas) ib. (with √ bhū , to exist again , be renewed)
bhāva: m. ( √ bhū) becoming , being , existing , occurring , appearance ; purport , meaning , sense
iva: like, as if
ātmanaḥ (gen. sg.): m. the breath ; the soul , principle of life and sensation; the individual soul , self
ca: and


gniz said...

"The point is rather to be alert to the irony which is ever present in the words and in the cosmos."

This seems very apt to me today.

Earlier, while on the phone with my good friend, I began chastising him for a difference of opinion. The conversation started to get heated, and then he said to me, "You're getting so serious. This doesn't feel like a serious problem to me."

And despite my shame at acknowledging what an idiot I'd been being, I had to own up to it. I was being ridiculous. The problem wasn't even remotely serious. I was (yet again) behaving like an ass.

What is the connection between "seriousness" and unconsciousness?

I think the connection is strong.

Why does keeping my sense of humor and seeing my own ridiculousness seem to help me be more aware and conscious, yet when I start to think i KNOW something, I become serious and stupider than ever?

I wish I could feel why it is that I frequently become so serious, and why I can't just laugh more at myself and the condition I continuously end up in...maybe I can. Even now, I feel the weight I am placing on these stupid words, hoping you'll give me a gold star for my insight...

It really is the height of absurdity.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Aaron,

When somebody who is deadly serious slips on a banana skin it tends to be funnier than when an actor or clown who is pretending to be serious slips on a banana skin.

I don't know why that is. Maybe in the former case the gap between a person's unconscious expectation and reality is highlighted more vividly.

Today's verse as I read it is somehow related with that gap -- the gap between (a) ostensible display of everything in the city being pure and rosy, and (b) the reality of aging, sickness and death that the king has has tried to sweep under the carpet; and, again, between (a) self-consciousness of being somehow important, of finding ones mojo, of expressing oneself, of finding a way to make one's mark and (b) forgetting oneself, losing oneself in some work or practice.