Wednesday, January 9, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.39: Catch Up with / Get a Load of Me!

pīna-valgu-stanī kā-cidd-hāsāghūrṇita-kuṇḍalā |
uccair-avajahāsainaṁ sa-māpnotu bhavān-iti || 4.39

One girl, whose breasts were big and beautiful,

And whose earrings whirled round as she laughed,

Taunted him from above,

As if to say, “Catch up with me, mister!”

I think the girl described in the first half of today's verse is intended to represent an individual in the world of Zen who is bursting with an enormous natural endowment of vitality, and is full of good humour.

In the 3rd pāda, uccaiḥ can be understood as meaning “loudly,” or “from above.” If we translate the 3rd pāda as “She laughed at him loudly,” that suggests something about the girl in today's verse in the same vein as the first two pādas. If we translate as “She taunted him from above” that adds more of a political dimension to the relation between the girl and the object of her laughter.

EB Cowell read the 4th pāda as sa-māpnotu bhavān-iti (taking the verb to be √āp and its object to be ). EBC therefore translated: as if saying, ‘Catch me, sir, if you can!’

EH Johnston pointed out that the Sanskrit could be read either as per EBC or (as suggested by Sovani, taking the verb to be sam-√āp and the object to be understood) samāpnotu bhavān-iti. Opting for the latter reading, EHJ translated: saying 'Finish it, Sir.' EHJ added in a footnote, unconvincingly, that he took this to mean “Cap that, if you can,” or “Improve on my joke.”

Patrick Olivelle felt, as I also feel, that the former reading (in CSL style : sa m” āpnotu bhavān iti ) fit the context better. PO translated: saying, 'Catch me, sir!' and added in an endnote: The very ambiguity of the expression may have been deliberate, inviting multiple readings. One can read it to say, “Seize (these earrings)!” or “Seize (me).”

The irony in PO's note might be that he hasn't noticed what the real context is, in which case, even if PO senses that Aśvaghoṣa is inviting multiple readings, PO has not realized the half of it.

The real context is that Aśvaghoṣa is using the behaviour of would-be seductresses in some cases to exemplify and in some cases to parody the actual behaviour of individuals, both teachers and students, which Aśvaghoṣa observed in his day and which we can observe among would-be followers of the Buddha's teaching today.

Behind the many possible meanings that Aśvaghoṣa allowed his words to convey, the real context is that he was primarily concerned – in this canto of Buddhacarita as much as in, say Canto 16 of Saundara-nanda – with one thing and with one thing only.

Insofar as that one thing is absence of befouling faults, we can call it Beauty. Insofar as that one thing is absence of suffering, we can call it Happiness. Insofar as that one thing is absence of the darkness of ignorance, we can call it enlightenment or Awakening. Insofar as that one thing is just sitting as embodiment of the principle of not doing the wrong thing but allowing the right thing to do itself, we can call it Action.

It is for these reasons, I venture to suggest, that Aśvaghoṣa called his two epic poems saundara-nando mahā-kāvyaḥ, an epic story of Beautiful Happiness, and buddha-carito mahā-kāvyaḥ, an epic story of Awakened Action. It is one story told under two guises.

Understood in this context, I am not sure whether the girl in today's verse represents an example of enlightened behaviour or a parody of unenlightened behaviour.

Are there instances when an enlightened master seems to put himself on a high horse and taunts one below him  – as if to say, “See if you can catch up with, or even surpass me, mister so and so!” – as a skillful means to promote growth in a student?

I read somewhere that Chogyam Trungpa said it was the teacher's job to insult the student.

Is this the kind of thing that Aśvaghoṣa has in mind in today's verse? I am not sure. Such a path, if it can be a true one, is surely a dangerous one to go down. I am not sure that Aśvaghoṣa would have seen Chogyam Trungpa's brand of crazy wisdom as a good example – and especially not if it involved male teachers having a string of sexual relationships with female students. But this might only be me interposing my own fear-centric value judgements. 

In any event, whether or not Aśvaghoṣa intends to affirm or negate such skillful or unskillful means in a normative sense – and there is little evidence to suggest that he likes making such judgements, one way or the other – I think today's verse can be read as (1) affirming Aśvaghoṣa's recognition that such behaviour on the part of Zen teachers has existed in the past, does still exist in the present, and will exist in the future; and (2) at least raising the question of whether such behaviour is truly enlightened or not.

In general, I don't think it is Aśvaghoṣa's style to be direct or preachy or to make sweeping value judgements. He is rather one of those teachers – like FM Alexander, or Michel Thomas to cite two modern-day examples – who encourages each of us to think things out for ourself, on a case by case basis. 

Having said all that, today's verse might equally well (if somewhat colloquially) be translated, as follows, in which case it would be better understood as parodying the attitude not necessarily of a teacher but of any attention-seeking individual....

One girl, whose breasts were big and beautiful,

And whose earrings whirled round as she laughed,

Laughed at him loudly,

As if to say, “Mister! Get a load of me!”

pīna-valgu-stanī (nom. sg. f.): having full, beautiful breasts
pīna: mfn. swelling , swollen , full , round , thick , large
valgu: mfn. handsome , beautiful , lovely , attractive
stanin: mfn. having a breast or udder
stana: m. (derivation doubtful , but prob. connected with √ stan , from the hollow resonance of the human breast) , the female breast (either human or animal) , teat , dug , udder
√ stan: to resound , reverberate
kā-cid (nom. sg. f.): somebody; one of the women

hāsāghūrṇita-kuṇḍalā (nom. sg. f.): her earrings whirling with her laughter
hāsa: m. laughing , laughter , mirth
āghūrṇita: mfn. whirled round , fluctuating
kuṇḍala: n. a ring , ear-ring

uccaiḥ: ind. aloft , high , above , upwards , from above ; loud , accentuated ; intensely , much , powerfully
avajahāsa = 3rd pers. sg. perf. ava- √ has: to laugh at , deride
ava-: ind. (as a prefix to verbs and verbal nouns expresses) off , away , down
enam (acc. sg. m.): him

samāpnotu = 3rd pers. sg. imperative sam- √ āp : to acquire or obtain completely , gain ; to accomplish , fulfil ; to reach
sa: used to denote emphasis , with bhavān [e.g. sa bhavān vijayāya pratiṣṭhatām ]
mā (acc. sg.): me
āpnotu = 3rd pers. sg. imperative √ āp : to reach , overtake , meet with , fall upon ; to obtain , gain , take possession of
bhavān (nom. sg.): your honour , your worship , your lordship or ladyship , you (lit. " the gentleman or lady present ")
iti: “....,” thus

[No corresponding Chinese] 

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