Sunday, January 6, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.36: It's All Too Beautiful

kā-cit-padma-vanād-etya sa-padmā padma-locanā |
padma-vaktrasya pārśve 'sya padmaśrīr-iva tasthuṣī || 4.36

One girl, from out of a bed of lotuses,

Bearing a lotus and looking through lotus eyes,

Came and stood by the side of the lotus-faced one,

Like Śrī, the lotus-hued goddess of beauty.

A lotus flower, to begin by stating the obvious, is a symbol of beauty – a concrete and vivid symbol. Today's verse contains both the Sanskrit word for lotus (padma) and for beauty (śrī), but the scales are weighted heavily in favour of the vivid and the concrete, in a ratio of 5 : 1.

At the end of chapter 17 of Shobogenzo, Hokke-ten-hokke (The Flower of Dharma Turns Itself), which I mentioned in commenting on yesterday's verse, Dogen wrote:
The past was exhalation and inhalation, and the present is exhalation and inhalation. This we should maintain and rely upon, as the Flower of Dharma [aka, the Lotus Universe, the beautiful reality celebrated in the Lotus Sutra] which is too fine to think about.
In these two sentences, as I read them, a relationship is hinted at between appreciation of beauty and non-doing.

Dogen is not asking us to do any kind of breathing exercise. On the contrary, he is just stating as a bare fact that our whole life has been and continues to be exhalation and inhalation. To maintain it as such, as something unthinkably beautiful, does not require us to fiddle about with this or that, like a flower arranger, pushing ground and sky with knees and head, continually breathing out like a mooing cow, pulling in the chin to straighten the neck, or other such nonsense. On the contrary, the point might be to stop fiddling about with anything. Not to do. To allow.

In the Buddha's teaching, the universe is originally unspeakably beautiful. We fail to experience it as such because of the befouling faults (doṣair malinī-karaiḥ; SN18.34), which are activated by the idea of doing something.

Would anybody like to have a discussion along these lines about Buddhist aesthetics? I hope not.

This work, let us remind ourselves, let me remind myself at least, is not about trying to be right. It is not even about trying to be free from wrongness, aka, the befouling faults. Rather, “Being wrong is the best friend we have got in this work.” How so? Because wrong-doing is our basic raw material, the thing we have to work with.

When David Smith wrote in the Oxford Journal of Hindu Studies that “Aśvaghoṣa's poems, as Buddhist texts, are necessarily anti-beauty,” he was totally and utterly wrong. But by expressing a wrong view so clearly and succinctly he was really doing everybody a favour – like an Alexander pupil who conspicuously fails to inhibit his idea of getting out of a chair and thereby provides an opportunity for teacher and pupil to revisit one of FM Alexander's main discoveries, which is that the root of all troubles is the idea of doing something.

When David Smith wrote “Aśvaghoṣa's poems, as Buddhist texts, are necessarily anti-beauty,” that was Māra speaking, through the innocent mouth of an unwitting academic. Māra is the king of fear, and when people like the striver in Saundara-nanda espouse a jaundiced view of women's beauty, what they are really expressing is only their own fear  fear of their own reactions. It is the fear of our own reactions which causes deluded Zen practitioners to try to 'do' the right thing. I know whereof I speak. 

Gullible people listen to the words of sincere but deluded veteran practitioners, like the striver, and accept those words as if they were the Buddha's own teaching. As a result, confusion reigns as to what the Buddha's teaching really is. One way out of that mess is for people to study, each for himself or herself, what Aśvaghoṣa actually wrote, and each making up his or her own mind, in a non-gullible manner. That is what David Smith, even though he knows Sanskrit, singularly failed to do. But that is what I am facilitating on this blog. Don't take my word for anything! 

In the same way that the title of the present chapter, strī-vighātanaḥ, could be translated as Eschewing 'Women', an argument could be made that Aśvaghoṣa's poems, as antithetical to all views and opinions, are necessarily opposed to aestheticism. In other words, they eschew discussion of 'beauty.' 

But Aśvaghoṣa's writing is never anti-beauty. On the contrary, one way of reading today's verse is that Aśvaghoṣa went out of his way not to discuss beauty in the abstract, eschewing talk of beauty (śrī) in favour of the lotus (padma). The strong impression one is left with at the end of the verse, however, is that five petals can't help but make a flower...

1, 2, 3, 4, 5 petals.... a flower.

padma, padma, padma, padma, padma.... śrī.

lotus, lotus, lotus, lotus, lotus.... beauty.

Much closer to the truth of today's verse than any opinion about alleged Buddhist aestheticism, is the gospel according to the 60s mod-band the Small Faces. Neither Steve Marriot nor Ronnie Lane made old bones, and both were doubtless ingesting too many drugs even in their pomp. Still, even if theirs was an unduly psychedelic dharma, they succeeding in seeing what any of us is liable to see when, even if only for a moment, we really give up all idea of getting anything or getting anywhere – It's all too beautiful.

kā-cit (nom. sg. f.): somebody ; one of the women
padma-vanāt (abl. sg. n.): from the lotus grove
vana: n. a forest , wood , grove , thicket , quantity of lotuses or other plants growing in a thick cluster
etya = abs. ā- √i: to come near or towards , go near , approach

sa-padmā (nom. sg. f.): mfn. having a lotus
padma-locanā (nom. sg. f.): mfn. lotus-eyed
locana: n. " organ of sight " , the eye
loc: to see, behold

padma-vaktrasya (gen. sg.): lotus-faced
vaktra: n. " organ of speech " , the mouth , face
pārśve (loc. sg.): side
asya (gen. sg.): of him

padma-śrīḥ (nom. sg.): f. " beautiful as a lotus flower ", N. of avalokiteśvara
padmā: f. " the lotus-hued one " , N. of śrī / lakṣmī (as goddess of prosperity or beauty)
iva: like
tasthuṣī = nom. sg. f. perfect active participle sthā: to stand

[No corresponding Chinese] 

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