Friday, January 18, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.48: Don't Just Do Something, Sit There!

−−−−¦⏑⏑⏑−¦¦−⏑−−¦⏑−⏑−   navipulā
bālāśokaś-ca nicito dśyatām-eṣa pallavaiḥ |
yo 'smākaṁ hasta-śobhābhir-lajjamāna iva sthitaḥ || 4.48

Again, see [or realize] this: [the state of] a young a-śoka –

It is brimming with new shoots

And yet, as if abashed, at the hennaed loveliness of our hands,

It remains modestly standing there.

In the 1st pāda, bālāśokaḥ means (1) a young aśoka tree and (2) a novice 'no-sorrower,' that is, a new student in the classroom of having no regrets (where for many years yours truly has remained sitting, in the corner, wearing the dunce's cap).

With respect to pallavaiḥ in the 2nd pāda PO notes that the copper color of the young leaves of the aśoka tree is compared to the red coloring on the hands of the women.

If PO is correct about that, then the sense of redness may be picked up by lajjamānah which means both “being ashamed” and “blushing.”

EHJ comments: The genuineness of the verse is open to doubt; the aśoka has already been mentioned, and the second line is a weak paraphrase of 47cd.

I beg to differ. The second half of today's verse, as I read it, hints at the fundamental principle of just sitting. That principle is sometimes expressed, in humorous vein, as “don't just do something, sit there.”

Aśvaghoṣa may have intended the expression lajjamāna iva sthitaḥ, “remaining there as if blushing,” to sound at first blush like a description of weakness, but sthitaḥ carries a connotation not only of inertia but also of firmness of constancy. And so I think Aśvaghoṣa's real intention may have been to suggest just modestly remaining there, without doing anything, as the most powerful practice there is – the real power, in other words, behind Gautama Buddha's lion-throne.

Meanwhile, when I sit in the dunce's corner indulging in sorrows and regrets, this habitual tendency towards sorrow and regret is invariably associated with pulling of the head back and down into the past. To try to counter this tendency by doing something positive, like pulling in the chin, is to pull the head forward and down. In this catch 22 situation, even a bloke with a Ph. D. in anatomy and physiology might struggle to know what to do for the better in order to get his head to go not down but up.

Any ordinary bloke can pull his head back and down into himself, without even knowing that he is doing it. Equally, any old fool can pull his head forward and down, simply by pulling his chin in towards his neck, or  more subtly – by letting his head "nod" forward (that is, forward and down). But what can one do in the way of getting one's head to go forward and up?

“You cannot do an undoing,” was one of Marjory Barlow's favourite phrases.

Another favourite phrase, intimately related with "You cannot do an undoing" and with the implicit teaching of today's verse as I read it, was that “This is very modest work. Humility has got to be your middle name.”

Marjory was one who practised what she preached. She was humble, and at the same time, ironically, had very strong confidence in the principle of non-doing and in her own ability to clarify and transmit it. When I heard her say the words “Let the head go forward and up,” it always sounded like she was re-discovering the meaning of the words for herself for the first time. Even though she was in her 80s,  her voice was that of a young no-sorrower who was nicitaḥ pallavaiḥ, brimming with new shoots.

bālaśokaḥ (nom. sg. m.): a young aśoka tree
bāla: young
aśoka: m. the tree Jonesia Asoka Roxb. (a tree of moderate size belonging to the leguminous class with magnificent red flowers)
ca: and
nicitaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. piled up ; covered , overspread with , full of (with instr. or ifc.)

dṛśyatām = 3rd pers. sg. passive imperative dṛś: to see, look at, behold
eṣaḥ (nom. sg. m.): this
pallavaiḥ (inst. pl.): mn. a sprout , shoot , twig , spray , bud , blossom (met. used for the fingers , toes , lips &c )

yaḥ (nom. sg. m.): which
asmākam = gen. pl. aham: our
hasta-śobhābhiḥ (inst. pl. f.): because of the loveliness/colours of the hands
hasta: hand
śobhā: f.  splendour , brilliance , lustre , beauty , grace , loveliness ; colour, hue ; ifc. often = " splendid " , " excellent "

lajjamānaḥ = nom. sg. m. pres. part. lajj: to be ashamed , blush
lajjā: f. shame , modesty , bashfulness , embarrassment
iva: like, as if
sthitaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. standing; standing firm ; being or remaining or keeping in any state or condition ; firm , constant , invariable

[No corresponding Chinese]


Nigel Riley said...

Thank you for this series Mike. Your comments are as much a joy as the sutra.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks for the encouragement Nigel. If you enjoy my stuff, you cannot be any kind of expert on Zen. Long may it remain so.