Tuesday, January 15, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.45: No Regrets, Just the Buzz of Sincerity

aśoko dśyatām-eṣa kāmi-śoka-vivardhanaḥ |
ruvanti bhramarā yatra dahyamānā ivāgninā || 4.45

See [or realize] this: the sorrowless [state of an] a-śoka,

Augmenter [or expunger] of a lover's sorrow,

Where bumble bees buzz

As if being singed by a fire.

The Aśoka tree, which is indigenous to India, Burma and Malaya, flowers throughout the year but is especially famed for the beauty of the orange and scarlet clusters which it produces in January and February. 
It has romantic connotations with female beauty, for example, in the traditions that it will only flower where a woman's foot has trodden, and that a tree will bloom more vigorously if kicked by a beautiful young woman.

The a-śoka tree is so beautiful and decorative that its name means “sorrowless;” and at the same time, ironically, the a-śoka tree is known because of its very beauty to augment the sorrow of a lonely lover who looks at it – as an a-śoka tree augmented Nanda's sorrow in Canto 7 of Saundara-nanda, by reminding him of Sundarī:
He had been, for those who came to him seeking refuge, an abater of sorrow, and, for the conceited, a creator of sorrow, / Now he leant against 'the tree of freedom from sorrow,' the a-śoka tree, and he became a sorrower: he sorrowed for a lover of a-śoka groves, his beloved wife. // SN7.5 //
So in today's verse, a-śoka ostensibly means “an aśoka tree;” dṛśyatām-eṣa literally means “let this [tree] be seen” i.e., “Look at this [tree];” and kāmi-śoka-vivardhanaḥ ostensibly means “augmenting a lover's sorrow.”

In the 3rd pāda, yatra indicates the place where bumble bees buzz, that is, ostensibly, the vicinity of the flaming orange-red flowers of the tree.

And ostensibly the 4th pāda, as EHJ notes, (1) refers to the colour of the flowers, (2) suggests the fire of love, by which even the bees seem to be burnt.

In light of all the above, today's verse might simply be translated:

See this a-śoka tree, 

Augmenter of a lover's sorrow,
Where bumble bees buzz,
[Looking] as if they are being singed by a fire.

A third option that EHJ failed to consider, however, is that the last pāda (3) suggests being sorrowless as a momentary state of utter sincerity – what Dogen called 赤心 片 片 SEKI-SHIN, PEN-PEN, “red mind, moment by moment.”

The Buddha seems to point to sincerity in such terms, using the metaphor of fire, when he encourages Nanda in Saundara-nanda Canto 16:
Though your head and clothes be on fire direct your mind so as to be awake to the truths. / For in failing to see the purport of the truths, the world has burned, it is burning now, and it will burn. // SN16.43 //
Working back from that conclusion, in the 3rd pāda ruvanti, “they buzz,” expresses not so much the noise made by the bumble bees as their sincere action of making it, so that the place where (yatra) bumble bees buzz is not necessarily near a tree, but is invariably in the sorrowless state of buzzing. To buzz or not to buzz – for a bumble bee, that is not a question. 

Again, following this thread backwards, vivardhanaḥ in the 2nd pāda expresses not the augmenting of a lover's sorrow but on the contrary the expunging or eradicating of it. That is to say, the 2nd pāda, belonging to the 2nd of four phases, is an expression of coming back to what Gudo Nishijima liked to call balance of the autonomic nervous system, the state of zero.

And working all the way back to the 1st pāda, aśoko dṛśyatām-eṣa then means “This sorrowless state here and now – let it be realized.”

So in today's verse, also, I venture to suggest, under the pretext of romantic poetry, Aśvaghoṣa in four phases is turning the wheel of the Buddha's dharma.

赤心 片 片 expresses sincerity neither as an attribute of “a sincere person,” nor as the presence of something. 赤心 means red or naked mind; it expresses the momentary absence of anything.

Marjory Barlow once said to me after she had given me an Alexander lesson, “You are an inveterate worrier, aren't you? I know because I am too.”

Seventy years of Alexander work had not turned Marjory into a sincere person. She was a worrier, and worrying is the essence of insincerity.

Gudo Nishijima was always going on about sincerity, but he was largely full of shit. Mind you, he was extremely strong in the area of not worrying about good and bad – just as he was, in his own words, “strong to noise.”

Beginning to glimpse, after 13 painful years, in what respect Gudo's teaching might be faulty, I came back to England to investigate a moment of true sincerity. But I haven't become a sincere person. So to any readers of this blog who expect me to be a sincere person, and who would possibly like to come to take tea with an eccentric Zen master, my message is, in a phrase I have been known on occasions to say to my wife, “Fuck off and leave me alone.”

What I am giving people on this blog is information I would like to have had 30 years ago. Thirty years ago I believed in Gudo Nishijima who believed that Master Dogen's Shobogenzo was part of the solution to the mess the world was in, and to the mess Zen Buddhism in particular was in. I still think Shobogenzo might be part of the solution, but what I know for damn sure is that the process of our translation was part of the problem.

Marjory's teaching is part of the solution, and Aśvaghoṣa's teaching is part of the solution. A moment of sincerity might be the whole solution, and today's verse as I read it is pointing to such a moment.

It is NOT pointing to trying to be right. Trying to be right is the essence of the mess Zen is in, and I am always liable to be part of the problem. But Marjory's teaching is part of the solution, and Aśvaghoṣa's dustless, golden teaching is part of the solution. If you disagree with me on those points, I will stand my ground, and I won't back down. 

aśokaḥ (nom. sg.): m. 'not causing/feeling sorrow,' the tree Jonesia Asoka Roxb. (a tree of moderate size belonging to the leguminous class with magnificent red flowers)
dṛśyatām (3rd pers. sg. passive imperative dṛś): “Let it be beheld.”
eṣa (nom. sg. m.): this, this here

kāmi-śoka-vivardhanaḥ (nom. sg. m.): augmenter of the sorrow of lovers
kāmin: m. a lover ; m. the ruddy goose (cakra-vāka) ; m. a pigeon
śoka: m. sorrow , affliction , anguish , pain
vivardhana: mfn. augmenting , increasing , furthering , promoting (gen. or comp.) ; n. the act of cutting off , cutting , dividing ; n. growth , increase , prosperity
vi- √vṛdh: to grow , increase , swell , become large or powerful , thrive , prosper
vi- √vardh: to cut off , sever

ruvanti = 3rd pers. pl. ru: to make any noise or sound , sing (as birds) , hum (as bees)
bhramarāḥ (nom. pl.): m. a large black bee , a kind of bumble bee , any bee
yatra: ind. where

dahyamānāḥ = 3rd pers. pl. pres. part. passive dah: to burn , consume by fire , scorch , roast
iva: like
agninā (inst. sg.): m. fire

[No corresponding Chinese]


an3drew said...

this is aśvaghosa at his best and you successfully capture it's depth and ambiguity !

it sucks about nishijima and one just has to bite 10 or fifteen years of wasting our lives, we all do this in similar and different ways :-)

Mike Cross said...

Thanks. Yes there is always more to Aśvaghoṣa's words than there appears to be on the surface.

And yes I do regret the wasted time...

Gudo's Buddhist thesis was sincere action, and my contrarian anti-thesis is that he was full of shit.

And as for his four-phased system of so-called "Buddhist dialectic," I wouldn't give that the steam off of my piss!