Friday, October 26, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 3.30: Coming Undone

−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Indravajrā)
rūpasya hantrī vyasanaṁ balasya śokasya yonir-nidhanaṁ ratīnām |
nāśaḥ smṛtīnāṁ ripur-indriyāṇām-eṣā jarā nāma yayaiṣa bhagnaḥ || 3.30

“Ripping away of beautiful form, defeat of force,

Beginning of sorrow, ending of joys of passion,

And fading out of things remembered:
An adversary of the senses

Is this process, called 'ageing,' 
by which the one here is being undone.

Another adversary of the senses, and one that needn't take so long to cause a person to come undone, is what FM Alexander called “thinking.”

The slower you go, the more you see.

My first attempt at translating today's verse demonstrates its ostensible meaning:

“The slayer of beauty and sapper of strength,

The birthplace of sorrow and a death knell for joys,

The ender of memories,
the enemy of the organs of sense:

By this process named ageing this man is being dismantled.

The earlier version somehow sounds better does it not? Whether or not you agree that the earlier version is closer to poetry, what I can say for sure is that I put a lot of effort into trying to make it sound good, at least on the surface. Then it took me even more time to rip away the surface meaning I had striven to present so beautifully, and understood what the verse was really saying. 

When I was the age my sons are now, I was mad keen on books on Zen & the martial arts, written by the likes of Eugene Herrigel (Zen & the Art of Archery), Trevor Legget (Zen & the Ways) and Joe Hyams (Zen & the Martial Arts). Thus it was that thirty years ago I went to Japan and searched out Gudo Nishijima, who had written a book in English called “How to Practise Zazen.” From him I heard that Zen was not, as I had been led to believe, a late East Asian flowering of an original Indian root; rather, sitting-Zen was just the essence of the teaching transmitted from the time of the Buddha through many Zen patriarchs in India, China and Japan.

Thirty years ago, however, at least as far as I knew, no reliable translation of any written record of the teaching of any of these Zen patriarchs was available. Gudo Nishjima had very strong confidence in his ability to transmit the whole of the Buddha's teaching in his own English, and that confidence won me over, but in retrospect I think the confidence was misplaced. Gudo had misplaced confidence in his ability to say what he meant in English. Besides that he had misplaced confidence in his understanding of how to practise Zazen. In Gudo's Zazen there was no true opposing of the senses. One was rather a slave to the senses. 

Notwithstanding this fundamental objection to his teaching, I cannot deny that Gudo directed my energy broadly in a constructive direction, by encouraging me to sit upright, concentrating on posture, and to study his English translation of the words of the 1st Japanese Zen patriarch in his lineage, namely, Eihei Dogen. Later, he helped me study those words in their original Japanese and encouraged me further to learn Sanskrit and study the words of the 14th Indian patriarch, Nāgārjuna.

I was caused to reflect like this by asking myself what today's verse really means, and being more or less content to fail to answer my own question. Even though on first reading today's verse appeared to me to be nothing more than a cliched description of old age, I was happy enough just to learn the words and recite them to myself -- sort of like enjoying being around a person one reveres without being eager to get something out of them. 

The background to me being able to enjoy Aśvaghoṣa's writing like this, now that I am here by the forest, is those years that I spent groping around painfully in the dark without being able to read what I would like to have been able to read. I really appreciate now, when I stop and reflect on it, being able to read and study for myself any words -- even if it is only one verse of four lines that I can't understand -- so long as those words were really written by the 12th Zen patriarch in India, named Aśvaghoṣa. I appreciate it like a bloke who has known acute thirst appreciates water. 

In a similar way, because of  years of darkness spent concentrating on my Zazen posture, I really appreciate now, when I stop and reflect on it, how great is the teaching of FM Alexander which points us in sitting in the direction of un-concentrating.

Reflecting further on what I actually mean by un-concentrating, I mean, for example, letting the legs release, and letting the head release, out of a lengthening and widening torso in which two big sheets of spiral musculature are being as if torn apart from each other. 

Digging deeper, then, I finally asked myself last night as the darkness deepened, might there any connection between what I have described as un-concentrating and any hidden meaning in the word bhagnaḥ, “being dismantled”?

If we take bhagnaḥ to mean “coming undone,” it finally struck me, after several hours of failing to get the point, and of writing the gist of the above comment, this "coming undone" might be a key to unlock a hidden meaning of today's verse along the following lines:

Ripping away of outward appearances and defeating of oppressive force,

The font of [true] sorrow and a receptacle for [true] joys,

The obsolescence of whole bodies of sacred learning and codes of law, 
and the fading out of irksome memories: 
the opponent of being ruled by the senses

Is this process of maturing, called “ageing,” 
by which a person here and now comes undone.

You might think that after more than a thousand verses and counting, I would be on the lookout for the hidden meaning in a verse like today's from the outset, rather than taking all day about it. Even after 30 years, evidently, certain bitter old fruits are not fully mature.

rūpasya (gen. sg.): n. any outward appearance or phenomenon or colour (often pl.) , form , shape , figure ; handsome form , loveliness , grace , beauty
hantrī (nom. sg. m.): mfn. (the former with gen. , the latter with acc.) slaying , killing , a slayer , killer , murderer , robber , disturber , destroyer
vyasanam (nom. sg.): n. moving to and fro , wagging (of a tail); evil predicament or plight , disaster , accident , evil result , calamity , misfortune (vyasanāni pl. misfortunes) , ill-luck , distress , destruction , defeat , fall , ruin
balasya (gen. sg.): n. power , strength , might , vigour, force ; military force , troops , an army

śokasya (gen. sg.): m. sorrow , affliction , anguish , pain , trouble , grief
yoniḥ (nom. sg.): m. womb ; place of birth , source , origin , spring , fountain
nidhanam (nom. sg.): n. settling down , residence or place of residence , domicile , receptacle; n. conclusion , end , death , destruction , loss , annihilation
ratīnām (gen. pl.): f. rest, repose; pleasure , enjoyment ; the pleasure of love , sexual passion or union , amorous enjoyment

nāśaḥ (nom. sg.): m. the being lost , loss , disappearance , destruction , annihilation , ruin , death
smṛtīnām (gen. pl.): f. remembrance , reminiscence; memory ; the whole body of sacred tradition or what is remembered by human teachers (in contradistinction to śruti or what is directly heard or revealed) ; the whole body of codes of law as handed down memoriter or by tradition (esp. the codes of manu
ripuḥ (nom. sg.): m. an enemy , adversary , foe
indriyāṇām (gen. pl.): n. bodily power , power of the senses ; faculty of sense, sense organ

eṣā (nom. sg. f.): this
jarā (nom. sg.): f. aging, old age; digestion; dicrepitude
nāma: ind. by name
yayā (inst. sg. f.): by which
eṣa (nom. sg. m.): this , this here , here (especially as pointing to what is nearest to the speaker
bhagnaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. broken (lit. and fig.) , shattered , split , torn , defeated ; bent, curved

色變氣虚微 多憂少歡樂
喜忘諸根羸 是名衰老相


gniz said...

Hello Mike. I've been reading and enjoying your translations every day lately.

Possibly somewhat off-topic (but hopefully not too much)...

I called my teacher the other day, and mentioned that I felt that "self-humor" or not taking oneself too seriously was an important part of this process...

He didn't seem to get it. He talked about something else for awhile and I felt frustrated. So I rephrased my question about the importance of humor to a path of awakening, or being more conscious.

He said that humor is fine, and can be useful--and then he said so could tears and crying.

This threw me a little. As he spoke, I found myself feeling somewhat disturbed and hopeless.

Finally, I said that I could feel my mind wanting to hang onto something, wanting to come up with answers, philosophies, and that his responses tended to destroy my hope of doing that.

In any case, I guess it reminds me a little bit of what you talk about struggling with as a translator.

My mind is so intent on being smart, on getting credit, on "knowing" something important.

But as you've stated here before, the moment we think we've "got it" is sometimes the moment we're actually furthest from actualizing "it."

Mike Cross said...

Hi Aaron,

I seem to remember discerning in the past that your nationality is American but your heritage is Jewish, and maybe this is a source of conflict for you -- insofar as American culture tends to have a "be true to your school and sincerely kick ass" thread running through it, whereas in Jewish culture, which goes back a long way before America, an ironic sense of humour is highly valued.

A friend of our family recently found that an ancestor on my mother's side was called "River Jordan" -- which sounds either Jewish or black, or possibly both.

In any case I am sure I have got some Jewish blood in me from somewhere...

Anyway, Aaron, thanks for sharing.

(Yes, I am taking the piss.)

gniz said...

Mike. Yes the culture in which I was raised certainly did place an enormous value on humor though mostly it was of a differing type than I feel I have seen with my very non Jewish teacher of this practice.

Yet there is no doubt that my mind and intellect operates in a way that is congruent with my heritage. No escaping what we are born into is there? And yet...

I actually funnily enough had just been rereading some of the old verbal scraps you and I had about just this topic some time ago. How illustrative it was of just how seriously I took myself and my opinions!

I have mOre appreciation now for what u seemed
To be pointing to...

Mike Cross said...

Heard any good jokes recently?

Mike Cross said...

Many lifetimes ago the Brummie Bodhisattva visited Aśvaghoṣa in the court of King Kaniṣka.

"What did you make of that bloke from Birmingham?" the king asked Aśvaghoṣa.

"Takes himself too seriously," Aśvaghoṣa replied, "No sense of irony."

For a thumbs down from Aśvaghoṣa, the penalty in Kaniṣka's court was the guillotine, to which the humourless bodhisattva was duly led, taking his place as third in a queue of three, behind two other bodhisattvas who were fellow sufferers of irony deficit disorder. When the blade fell for the first time, however, it's razor's edge barely touched the back of the first bodhisattva's neck when the rope came to a shuddering halt.

"Praise be to the gods!" exulted the king, as gorgeous dancing girls led the first bodhisattva to the palace to be garlanded and fed heavenly food, "It is nothing less than a miracle."

When the second bodhisattva laid his head on the block, exactly the same thing happened.

"Praise be to the gods!" exulted the king again, as bodhisattva number two was led away to be feted by lotus-faced women with lotus hands.

But the Brummie Bodhisattva was not having any of it.

"I don't believe in gods," he protested, as he stepped up to the guillotine and surveyed the scene. "Sure enough. There's your problem, mate! It's got nothing to do with gods. The rope's got a knot in it!"