Friday, January 11, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.41: The Disgusted Contrarian

pratiyogārthinī kā-cid-ghītvā cūta-vallarīm |
idaṁ puṣpaṁ tu kasyeti papraccha mada-viklavā || 4.41

One girl, wishing to be contrary,

Seized the branch of a mango tree –

Now then! Whose flower is this?”

She demanded, bewildered by blithe exuberance.

Once more I shall dig into myself and spill my chequered experience out over the screen, if for no other reason, then at least to illustrate the point that there is more to Aśvaghoṣa poetry's than has been guessed by the three university professors who have translated Buddha-carita hitherto.

On the surface, the girl in today's verse is giddy or bewildered through her own alcoholic or romantic intoxication; hence EBC: “all bewildered with passion”; EHJ: “stuttering with intoxication”; PO: “her speech slurred by drink.”

Send three and fourpence; we are going to a dance!

To preserve the surface meaning I have translated viklavā as “bewildered by.” But what I hope to demonstrate is that the girl is not so much giddy or bewildered through her own high spirits as she is downright disgusted with blithe exuberance in general – and that is the real reason why she wishes to be contrary. 

But staying first with the ostensible meaning, the girl in today's verse is the intellectual type who likes nothing better than what Caroline Aherne's comic creation Mrs Merton use to call “a heated debate.”

In that case, the girl's overt intention might be, like some philosopher in the tradition of Aristotle, to question whether the mango flower on the branch of a mango tree belongs to the branch or to the tree, or to the rain and sun and earth which nurture the tree, or to the king who owns the royal park, or to the citizens whose taxes pay for the park, or to the questioner who is in immediate possession of the branch, and so on and so forth.

In that case, again, the girl's hidden agenda might be to attract the prince by luring him into a debate, opposing him, and then witnessing opposition turn into attraction, in accordance with the old principle that opposites attract – as per a thousand and one romantic comedies in which antagonism turns to love.

I think the kind of person Aśvaghoṣa really had in mind in today's verse, however, is a different kind of contrarian – a contrarian whose agenda was neither intellectual/philosophical nor romantic but whose agenda was practical and real, based on recognition of a flaw in conventional wisdom. Celebrated historical examples of such contrarians are, in reverse chronological order, Albert Einstein, FM Alexander (in truth not so celebrated, yet), Galileo Galilei, and Gautama Buddha.

In light of these surface and deeper meanings of the girl's contrariness, there is a surface meaning and a quite different deeper meaning of mada-viklavā, which I should like to illustrate with a metaphor. The metaphor is a variation on the ancient parable of the burning house:

A party has been in progress for two or three hours in the ballroom of a large country house with a thatched roof. Much champagne has been drunk, and everybody is on the dance floor, dancing as if entranced by the music belting out of big speakers. When a fire starts in the kitchen, an unpopular neighbour, known to dislike noise, rushes in from his own house and asks the owner of the house who is giving the party to make an announcement ending the party and initiating a calm evacuation of the building. The owner, however, having drunk a few too many glasses of champagne himself does not want to hear it, suspects the motives of the troublesome neighbour, and anyway is confident that his house meets all fire regulations and is totally fireproof. The neighbour becomes heated: “There is a fire burning in the fucking kitchen! Get everybody out of the house at once, you idiot!” “Oh get you!” interjects one of the homeowner's friends. “Listen to Mr Contrary!”

In translating today's verse I have looked for a translation of mada-viklava that describes (1) the bewilderment of the high-spirited partygoers, who are bewildered (viklava) from intoxication (mada); and also (2) the bewilderment of the bearer of unwelcome information, who is perplexed by and disgusted with (viklava) the blithe (mada) disregard of the jolly and high-spirited (mada) party-goers who are having a whale of a time and are not prepared to let any new information intrude on their fun.

The above metaphor is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

The whistle-blower, despised as he is by the blithely exuberant herd, is a particular manifestation of the disgusted contrarian. In the final analysis, does history judge him or her to have been a game-changer in the evolution of a new solution? Or is he or she more truly judged to have been a particular symptom of the old problem? I must say it is difficult to think of any whistle-blowers who are celebrated with their faces on coins and notes, or whose names are remembered on national days.

The celebrated Japanese Zen Master Dogen, who was not a whistle-blower but was another kind of disgusted contrarian, encouraged the asking of skeptical and contrarian questions. I once asked Gudo Nishijima, in the days when I believed, with blithe exuberance, that he and I were part of a grand new solution, rather than being part of a dusty old problem, what Dogen would make of some aspect of Japanese Zen. Exactly what aspect it was escapes me now. I remember Gudo's answer however, which was that Master Dogen would have been disgusted with “all things and matters” in Japanese Buddhism. It made me feel a kind of warm glow inside to reflect that the whole of Japanese Buddhism was in the wrong whereas  Gudo and I were fighting for what was right. My self-righteous feeling turned out to have been a classic example of one who was part of the problem thinking himself to be part of the solution. Bollocks!

If we ask the kind of contrary question Dogen encouraged us to ask, we might ask: “When sitting is sitting, does a mango flower belong to a mango flower?”

And we might answer contrarily: No.

Or, thoroughly disgusted with the general tendency to blithe exuberance, we might answer – at least I would like to answer – in a more starkly contrarian manner:

Bollocks! Bollocks! Bollocks!

pratiyogārthinī (nom. sg. f.): wanting to be the opposition, wishing to be contrary
pratiyoga: m. resistance , opposition , contradiction , controversy ; antidote ; cooperation , association ; the being a counterpart of anything
arthin: mfn. one who wants or desires anything (instr. or in comp.); longing for
kā-cid (nom. sg. f.): somebody; one woman

gṛhītvā = abs. grah: to seize, take
cūta-vallarīm (acc. sg. f): the branch of a mango tree
cūta: m. mango tree
vallarīm f. a creeper , any climbing or creeping plant (also fig. applied to curled hair) ; a branching foot-stalk

idam (nom. sg. n.): this
puṣpam (nom. sg.): n. flower
tu: ind. pray! I beg , do , now , then ; but; sometimes used as a mere expletive
kasya (gen. sg.): whose
iti: “...,” thus

papraccha = 3rd pers. sg. perf. prach: to ask , question , interrogate (acc.)
mada-viklavā (nom. sg. f.): bewildered from intoxication ; disgusted with blithe exuberance.
mada: m. hilarity , rapture , excitement , inspiration , intoxication
viklava: overcome with fear or agitation , confused , perplexed , bewildered , alarmed , distressed ; (ifc.) disgusted with , averse from
vi- √ klav: to become agitated or confused
√ klav: to fear , be afraid

[No corresponding Chinese]


Nigel Riley said...

Really enjoyed the contarian's humour!! Gassho.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks for the beautiful enjoyment, Nigel, and good luck with awakened action!