Thursday, January 17, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.47: You Can't Fight the Redness

phullaṁ kurubakaṁ paśya nirbhuktālaktaka-prabham |
yo nakha-prabhayā strīṇāṁ nirbhartsita ivānataḥ || 4.47

Look at the kurubaka plant, with its red flower-heads –

It is luminous, like one that has yielded up every drop of red sap,

And yet, as if outshone, by the luminance of women's finger-nails,

It is bowing down.

The ostensible gist of today's verse is that the kurubaka, or red amaranth,  with its red flowerheads, was spectacularly beautiful, but not so beautiful that it could stand up to competition from the courtesans with their glimmering lacquered nails.

With respect to hidden meaning, today's verse looks particularly unpromising on first reading but sure enough deeper meaning is always there in Aśvaghoṣa's poetry, if one digs for it.

Though the redness of the kurubaka's flowers is not explicitly mentioned in the 1st pāda, I think it would have been understood that the first two lines related to redness, especially in view of the fact that the resin of the red amaranth was used to make red lac.

And the point that Aśvaghoṣa has in mind about redness might be that redness tends to beget redness:

In fear of fear, redness begets redness.
In fighting fear, redness begets more redness.
In greed for gold, redness begets not gold but yet more redness.
This is another way of expressing the central irony alluded to yesterday in relation to 功夫 (Jap: KUFU; Ch: kung-fu) – that irony being that going directly for the gold takes us further and further away from it, because directness of approach brings into play our faulty sensory appreciation. (When I say “us” and “our” I really mean, speaking from oft-repeated experience, “me” and “mine.”)

So the 2nd pāda, as I read it, employs the image of a red amaranth that has yielded up, or had squeezed out of it, every last drop of its red resin, as a metaphor for a person who has been so many times through the mill described above, whereby redness begets redness, that he has no more redness left with which to beget redness. In that situation, it may be that gold comes into view, at least momentarily, not because redness finally begat it, but because luminous gold was already there all the time.

The real gist of the 3rd and 4th pādas, then, could be that being dispossessed of redness and discovering gold in the above manner tends to be a deflating or humbling experience -- very far from an air-punching "Yes, I did it!" 

In translating ānataḥ as “it is bowing down,” I am mindful of the possibility that in bowing, while one is moving forward and down in space, away from the sky and towards the ground, one can at the same time keep going up within oneself. In that case, the deeper meaning of ānataḥ might better be rendered “it is bowing forward [and up].”

EBC read the past participle in the 2nd pāda as nirmukta, which means “deprived of all, possessing nothing.” EHJ read it as nirbhukta, which according to EHJ properly means “pressed with the teeth.” EHJ cross-referenced nirbhukta to Mūla-madhyama-kakārikās, 318, 3, which, EHJ notes, uses the word of a deed attesting a debt, which is nirbhukta, 'valueless,' 'with the juice squeezed out', after the debt has been repaid. Both nirmukta and nirbhukta seem to me to emphasize that every last drop of resin has been yielded up, or squeezed out, and so I have translated accordingly.

phullam (acc. sg. m.): mfn. split or cleft open , expanded , blown (as a flower) ; abounding in flowers , flowery
kurubakam = kuruvakam/kurabakam: (acc. sg.): m. red amaranth (or a red kind of Barleria) ; n. the blossom of red amaranth (or of a red kind of Barleria)
paśya = 2nd pers. sg. imperative paś: to see, look at, behold

nirbhuktālaktaka-prabham [EHJ/PO] (acc. sg. m.): with the beautiful appearance of its sap having been squeezed out
nirmuktālaktaka-prabham [EBC](acc. sg. m.): with the beautiful appearance of having yielded up all its sap
nirbhukta: mfn. “pressed with the teeth” (EHJ)
nir- √ bhuj: to bend awry , distort (mouth , eyes &c )
nirmukta: mfn. loosed , separated , sundered , liberated or saved or escaped or free from , deprived of (instr. abl. or comp.); deprived of all , possessing nothing
nir- √ muc : to loosen , free from (abl.) , liberate ; to be deprived of (instr.); to be abandoned or given up (as life &c )
alaktaka = alakta: m. (said to be for arakta) , red juice or lac (obtained from the red resin of certain trees and from the cochineal's red sap)
prabhā: f. light , splendour , radiance , beautiful appearance (ifc. often mfn.)

yaḥ (nom. sg. m.): which
nakha-prabhayā (inst. sg. f.): the beautiful appearance of finger-nails
nakha: mn. a finger-nail
prabhā: f. light , splendour , radiance , beautiful appearance
strīṇām (gen. pl.): f. women

nirbhartsitaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. threatened , menaced , reviled , abused
nir- √ bharts: to threaten , menace , rebuke , blame ; to mock , deride , (met. = ) outstrip , surpass
iva: like, as if
ānataḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. bending , stooping , bowed ; humbled , submissive , obedient

[No corresponding Chinese]


Anonymous Souls said...

So wonderful to find your blog. I really appreciate your scholarly yet playful analysis of each verse -- how you dig deep into the grammar and semantic richness of the Sanskrit in your interpretations. I find all the verses in this canto, spurious or otherwise, to be challenging but extremely rewarding, and your insights help penetrate the multiple meanings. I also particularly enjoy your preoccupation with connecting the Buddhacarita to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō -- who'd have thought?! Very cool. May I suggest that the term "nir-bhukta" is derived not from the verb root "bhuj" ("to bend"), but "bhuj" ("to eat")? Just a thought. Anyway, cheers!

Mike Cross said...

Many thanks for this encouragement. I am intending in due course to put up a website devoted to Aśvaghoṣa, Nāgārjuna and Dogen so as to help people see all the more clearly the connection you refer to.

In spite of how harshly Dogen criticized it, the view of a separate Zen trasmission outside of the teaching still seems to be remarkably widespread.

Thanks again.