Sunday, January 20, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.50: Calm Submission

dśyatāṁ strīṣu māhātmyaṁ cakravāko hy-asau jale |
pṣṭhataḥ preṣyavad-bhāryām-anuvṛtyānugacchati || 4.50

Let it be realized, with reference to females of the species, 
what greatness is.

That greylag gander in the water over there, for instance :–

Trailing behind his mate like a slave,

He follows.

“See the greatness in women” is the ostensible meaning, and also a literal meaning, of dṛśyatāṁ strīṣu māhātmyam. Hence “See the imperial power of females” (EBC); “Consider the mighty power of women” (EHJ); “Look at the greatness of women!” (PO).

But by making strīṣu locative (rather than genitive) Aśvaghoṣa allows for an altogether different reading of the 1st pāda, namely, “When it comes to females, let it be realized what greatness is.”

In the former reading, the greatness is in the female of the species, i.e. the greylag goose who swims out in front. In the latter reading, the greatness is in the calm, submissive attitude of the gander who follows behind.

So what Aśvaghoṣa is really doing in today's verse, as I read it, is subverting a recurring romantic motif of Sanskrit romantic literature, and turning it to his own dispassionate purpose.

Aśvaghoṣa alludes to the romantic stereotype of the cakra-vāka goose in his description in Saundara-nanda of Nanda and Sundarī:
For joined with his wife like a greylag gander with a greylag goose, and fitted for love, / He turned his thoughts neither to Vaiśravaṇa nor to Śakra: how much less, in that state, did he think about dharma? // SN4.2 //
As noted in a footnote to that verse, the Sanskrit name cakra-vāka arises from the way greylag geese call to each other, the male gently honking, the female responding, the male replying, and so on; a cycle or 'wheel' (cakra) of song. Their gentle, musical 'aang aang aang' is said to be one of the most enchanting calls in the natural world.

So ostensibly the woman who in today's verse is still speaking, is citing an example from the natural world as corroboration of the view that the female of the species is deadlier, at least in romantic matters, than the male, and so, therefore, it is only natural for the prince to yield to the attractions of the beautiful courtesans the king has sent to tempt him.

But in the hidden or contrarian reading, the decisive word is once again the last word of the verse – anugacchati, “he follows.” “He follows” might be intended to mean, in other words, “his own body and mind have dropped off.”

Therefore, like ānataḥ, “bowing down,” in 4.47 and like sthitaḥ, “remaining standing there,” in 4.48, anugacchati, “he follows,” in today's verse ostensibly describes weak or subservient behaviour, but Aśvaghoṣa is really using irony to highlight that in the world of dispassionate practice – as opposed to the world of romance and mating games – true greatness, or magnanimity, or majesty, or dignity (māhātmyam) sometimes resides in humility, and in calm forebearance, and in obedience.

Lest this talk of humility and obedience smacks of religiosity, I would like to quote the words of the hyper-practical Cesar Milan, whose lifelong interest has been not gods but dogs.

In a section of his book Cesar's Way titled “Calm-Submissive Energy,” Cesar writes:
The proper energy for a follower in a dog pack is called calm-submissive energy... The word submissive carries with it negative connotations, just as the word assertive does. Submissive energy doesn't means pushover. It doesn't mean you have to make your dog into a zombie or a slave. It simply means relaxed and receptive. It's the energy of a group of well-behaved students in a classroom, or of a church congregation. When I give my dog-behaviour seminars, I always thank my audience for being in a calm-submissive state – that is, open-minded and able to converse easily with one another. When I learned how to be calm-submissive to my wife, it improved my marriage 100 percent!
That last sentence may be particularly germane to the present discussion. Cesar expands on what he meant in an earlier section of his book:
I had met my future wife, Ilusion, who was only sixteen when we started dating. When a friend of mine told me that in the United States there was a law against an older guy dating a girl that young, I flipped out. I was terrified of being deported and I dumped her flat. She was heartbroken. Convinced that I was “the one,” she came knocking on my door the day she turned eighteen. We had a rocky relationship during the first years of marriage, and after our son Andre was born. I was still stuck in my old-world, macho Mexican ways. I believed that the only thing that mattered was me – my dream, my career – and she'd better put up or shut up. She did neither. She left me. Once she was gone and I realized she meant it, I had to look myself in the mirror for the first time in my life. I didn't want to lose her. I didn't want to see her remarry – and watch another man raise our son. Ilusion would come back to me on only two conditions – that we go to couples therapy and that I sincerely commit to being a full partner in the relationship. Reluctantly, I agreed. I didn't think I had that much to learn. I was wrong. Ilusion rehabilitated me in the same way I rehabilitate unbalanced dogs. She made me see what a gift a strong partner and family is, and that every member of a family needs to pull his or her own weight.
The implicit point of today's verse, as I read it, is that true greatness – whether it is realized by the female of the species or the male – is invariably a function of what Cesar calls calm submissive energy. 

In his rules of sitting-zen for everybody, Dogen wrote:
When we review the past,
Those who transcended the ordinary and transcended the sacred,
And those too who died while sitting or standing up,
Were wholly reliant on this power.

KONO CHIKARA, this power, means the power of calm submission, and I think it primarily means submission to mother nature.

Devotees of Zen practice who are laymen calmly submit, like Cesar, to their wives. And even the mighty bulls who live in the Theravada monasteries of Southeast Asia calmy submit to the women of the communities who support them, holding out their begging bowls. But people in both groups, if their teachers are any good, practise sitting and breathing as calm submission to mother nature.

In these situations, I think Aśvaghoṣa's idea is that greatness resides not so much in wives, nor in merit-making female believers, nor even in mother nature herself, but greatness resides rather in calm submission itself.

That said, when I was a teenager, lying there with mouth gaping innocently, I submitted all too calmly to dental treatment which, in retrospect, cannot have been necessary. Dentists and doctors have a vested interest in intervening with their drills and drugs. In my 20s, similarly, I submitted all too readily to the teaching of Gudo Nishijima around right posture – pulling in the chin, hyper-extending the lumbar spine, and all the rest of it – which turned out to be downright false.

So I hope that nowadays I am more choosy about who or what I submit to. Dogen wrote words to the effect that if you can't meet a true teacher, it might be better not to bother hoping to understand the Buddha's teaching at all. 

Islaam seems to be a religion strongly centred on the principle of calm submission  calm submission to the will of a God who, when originally thunk up by Jews, was somewhat more permissive of argumentative wrangling. 

There might be the wisdom and greatness of calm submission in saying and really meaning “Thy will be done” – and there might be endless human stupidity and arrogance in the holy warriors who think they know better than others what “Thy will” is. (Mirror principle?)

Nowadays most people where I live end their lives in hospital in calm submission to medical authorities. In that regard I take my inspiration from the example of FM Alexander who died at home, sitting up in bed, having refused medical intervention that might otherwise have kept him alive. As FM's niece Marjory Barlow put it, “He wanted to let nature take its course.”

Cause and effect being what it is, I fear I shall end my days listening to the bleep of a life-support machine, before my prospective re-birth as a dung beetle. But I would hope to be sitting up, doing what today's verse, as I read it, is suggesting we all do – follow mother nature as she takes her course.

dṛśyatām = 3rd pers. sg. passive imperative dṛś: to see
strīṣu (loc. pl.): f. (perhaps for sūtrī , or sotrī , " bearer of children " , fr. √sū ; accord. to some connected with Lat. sator) a woman , female , wife ; the female of any animal
māhātmyam (nom. sg.): n. (fr. mahātman) magnanimity , highmindedness ; exalted state or position , majesty , dignity ; the peculiar efficacy or virtue of any divinity or sacred shrine &c
mahātman: " high-souled " , magnanimous , having a great or noble nature , high-minded , noble ; highly gifted , exceedingly wise ; eminent , mighty , powerful , distinguished ; m. the Supreme Spirit , great soul of the universe ; m. the great principle i.e. Intellect

cakravākaḥ (nom. sg.): m. the cakra bird (Anas Casarca ; the couples are supposed to be separated and to mourn during night); the ruddy sheldrake
hi: for
asau (nom. sg. m.): that, a certain
jale (loc. sg.): n. water

pṛṣṭha-taḥ: ind. from or on or behind the back , behind (with gen. or ifc.)
preṣya-vat: ind. like a slave
preṣya: m. 'to be sent,' a servant , menial , slave
bhāryām (acc. sg.): f. a wife (or the female of an animal)

anuvartya = abs. anu-√vṛt: to go after ; to follow , pursue ; to attend ; to obey , respect
anuvartī [EHJ] = nom. sg. m. anuvartin: mfn. following , compliant , obedient , resembling
anugacchati = 3rd pers. sg. anu- √ gam: to go after , follow , seek , approach , visit , arrive ; to practise , observe , obey , imitate

[No corresponding Chinese]


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

Contrary to appearances, I don't follow your work only hoping to find and correct trivial mistakes (or do I?), but sometimes they get noticed...

The first four syllables (dśyatāṁ strī) should be -⏑--, not ⏑−⏑⏑.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Macolm. Have now corrected it.

Due to a formatting issue that I don't understand, after copying my open office file onto the blog, I have to re-input the first four syllables of each yugapāda. When doing so for dṛśyatāṁ strī I got the long and short the wrong way round. I would like to put the blame on a residual asymmetrical tonic neck reflex.