Thursday, February 28, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.89: Playful Communion with Transient Nature

mtyu-vyādhi-jarā-dharmā mtyu-vyādhi-jarātmabhiḥ |
ramamāṇo 'hy-asaṁvignaḥ samāno mga-pakṣibhiḥ || 4.89

A man whose substance is dying, being ill, and growing old,

Who remains unperturbed while playing around

With others whose essence is dying, being ill, and growing old,

Is as one with the birds and beasts.

In today's verse ostensibly, once again, the prince seems to be looking down on those who have yet to experience that arising of nervous excitement/agitation/perturbation (saṁvegotpatti) which is associated with awakening of the will to the truth. And once again the ironic sub-text that Aśvaghoṣa really has in mind might be a description of those who are already happily participating together in practice of the truth.

In the former reading, the 4th pāda denigrates the unenlightened individual who is dallying about with other unenlightened individuals as someone who is on the same level as animals – as subhuman, if you like.

In the latter reading a man whose substance is dying might mean a man who is not worried about losing his own body and life; a man whose substance is being ill might mean a man who does not deny his own faulty sensory appreciation (aka “sickness of clouded eyes” – see Shobgoenzo chap. 43, Kuge); and a man whose substance is growing old might mean a man who continues year after year to direct his energy in pursuit of peace – for in directed energy, undoubtedly, lie all forms of growth and development (vīrye hi sarva-rddhayaḥ [SN16.98]).

If we read behind the lines, then, with the words mṛtyu-vyādhi-jarā-dharmā Aśvaghoṣa might secretly be intending to describe a buddha as a mature man of clouded eyes who is adept at throwing away his own body and life. As such, alone and together with buddhas, he breathes out and breathes in as part of one big open system.

Speaking of such oneness with the birds and beasts, FM Alexander said:
"When an investigation comes to be made it will be found that every single thing we do in the work is exactly what is done in Nature, where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously." 
This quote relates to the problem of the relationship between thinking and reality which became a bone of contention between my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima and me. Gudo's approach to reality was just to sit in it, keeping the spine straight as an unconscious act. “Thinking” did not come into it, except as a symptom of temporary ascendancy of the sympathetic nervous system over the parasympathetic nervous system – as something that should be stopped, negated, cut out, by returning to the act of keeping the spine straight. The point was to realize the reality of action, that action being “different from thinking.” And the central point of all Buddhist philosophy, as Gudo saw it, was the gap between thinking and reality.

I am caused to reflect on this problem again not only by today's verse but also by a book titled The Alchemy of Finance that I have just started reading. The book expresses the formative thinking of George Soros, the philanthropic philosopher and billionaire fund manager.

What strikes me straight away, on first browsing, is that George Soros and my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijma were each claiming back in the 1980s (as far as I know quite independently of each other) to have resolved the conflict between Hegelian dialectic and Marxist dialectic, via a new synthesis.

Gudo called his synthesis “the reality of action,” this action being “different from thinking” or “totally cut off from thinking.”

Soros saw the synthesis in a dynamic interplay between thinking and reality, in which thinking is a function of reality and reality is a function of thinking. This interplay may involve what Soros calls “reflexivity.”

Though the dissimilarities between George Soros and myself are vast, a couple of similarities at least are that we both studied the philosophy of Karl Popper while at university (Soros from the man himself, me more superficially by reading a couple of books) and we both admit to having an absurdly inflated inherent sense of our own importance (a kind of messianic delusion that GS has come a lot closer to justifying than I have).

What value there might be in Soros' theory of reflexivity, I do not yet know, not having studied it in earnest, but certainly I do not see any grounds so far on which to falsify it. Gudo's attempted synthesis, on the other hand, having studied it in very great detail, I did falsify, at least to my own satisfaction, nearly 20 years ago now. Or rather I should say that Alexander work falsified Gudo's attempted synthesis for me. Alexander work caused me to see that my former attempts to cut thinking out of the picture were misguided. Trying to cut out thinking did not cause me in sitting to commune more closely with nature; on the contrary, it led my head, heart, and hara to get out of natural alignment with each other.

Whereas Soros has used the financial markets as a laboratory to test his thinking, the laboratory I have used to go wrong in has been the practice of upright sitting. And on the basis of work in this laboratory, I argued long and hard with Gudo, from 1994 onwards, that when Dogen described the secret of sitting-zen as  非思量 HI-SHIRYO, “non-thinking,” Dogen was not pointing to the reality of action which is totally different from thinking, as per Gudo's teaching. Dogen was rather pointing to thinking, but not thinking as people understand it.

In GS's model, thinking has a cognitive or passive function (which reflects reality), and a causative or active function (which can influence reality). In the work of “learning to do it consciously,” both kinds of thinking are vital; hence Alexander's famous phrase “This work is an exercise in finding out what thinking is.” But the latter kind of thinking -- “thinking in activity” – is recognized as something particularly difficult and unfamiliar. Alexander called it the pons asinorum (bridge of asses) of every pupil he had ever met. It certainly proved a bridge too far for Gudo. It is over this bridge, in Alexander's teaching, that we are required to walk, in order to take over where evolution left off, in the matter of using the self, badly or well.

What kind of synthesis, in the end, is embodied by the method of sitting-meditation which the Buddha transmitted? The reality of action which is totally separate from thinking and which transcends feeling? Or a dynamic interplay between thinking and reality in which the practitioner's thinking is conditioned by the reality of sitting, and the reality of sitting is conditioned by the practitioner's thinking?

The Buddha's teaching may requires us, in the final analysis, to see both views as fallacious.

Still, the dynamic interplay model, from where I sit now, seems to me to be the more fertile fallacy. I wish I had been able to read The Alchemy of Finance when it was first published, back in 1987. I wish had been able to recommend the book to Gudo who, ever the realist, would certainly have been prepared to lend an ear to somebody like George Soros whose successful falsification of the efficient markets hypothesis (the central tenet behind “market fundamentalism”) had been evidenced by the making of so much money.

In Gudo's model, when water in a glass is clouded with particles of ash, as long as we refrain from scrambling the water by thinking, the ash will drop to the bottom of the glass and the water will become clear.

In the more dynamic model, a body of calm, clear water is flowing steadily downhill. Thinking is liable to disturb or interfere with the flow, as waves would disturb the main body of flowing water. At the same time, the flow of the main body of water, while it is primarily a manifestation of release of gravitational energy according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, may in some mysterious way be influenced by thinking to flow not in that direction but rather in that one. And again, when the main body of water is flowing spontaneously in the right direction, it may be that the kind of thinking that creates interference is in some way inhibited by the strong and steady flow of direction.

So in the latter model waves of thinking disturb the reality of flowing water; conversely, the reality of flowing water may have an inhibitory effect on waves of thinking  which might be why I find it helpful to go and sit by the forest. At the same time, the flow of the reality of the water might be a function of thinking, though not thinking as thinking is generally understood – which is why I left Gudo in 1994 and came to England to investigate what FM Alexander meant by thinking. 

Both models are only models, or analogies. In the final analysis no model is true. And the former model, at a certain stage, even for me, may have been a kind of fertile fallacy. Still, I think the latter model might be closer to what Aśvaghoṣa describes ...
For, just as waves produce disturbance in a river bearing a steady flow of tranquil water, / So ideas, like waves of thought, disturb the water of the one-pointed mind. // SN17.45 //

mṛtyu-vyādhi-jarā-dharmā (nom. sg. m.): one subject to death, disease, and aging; one whose characteristic attributes are dying, sickness, and growing old
dharman: m. bearer , supporter , arranger ; n. (esp. ifc.) nature , quality , characteristic mark or attribute

mṛtyu-vyādhi-jarātmabhiḥ (inst. pl.): with ones who essence is death, disease, and aging ; with ones whose essence are dying, sickness, and growing old
ātman: m. the self ; essence , nature , character , peculiarity (often ifc. e.g. karmātman, &c)

ramamāṇaḥ = nom. sg. m. pres. part. ram: to play or sport , dally , have sexual intercourse with
hi: for ; indeed (often a mere expletive , esp. to avoid a hiatus)
asaṁvignaḥ (nom. sg. m.): unperturbed , without nervous agitation
saṁvigna: mfn. agitated , flurried , terrified , shy
saṁ- √ vij : to tremble or start with fear , start up , run away

samānaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. same , identical uniform , one ; alike , similar , equal to (instr.)
mṛga-pakṣibhiḥ (inst. pl. m): wild beasts and birds
mṛga: m. a forest animal or wild beast ,
pakṣin: m. a bird or any winged animal

非常五欲境 自身倶亦然
而生愛樂心 此則同禽獸

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.88: Towards Unexpectedly Blissful Ignorance

yadā tu jarayā pītaṁ rūpam-āsāṁ bhaviṣyati |
ātmano 'py-anabhipretaṁ mohāt-tatra ratir-bhavet || 4.88

But since growing old will drain from them

Any semblance of beauty,

Enjoyment of such, on the grounds of ignorance,

Might be an occurrence that nobody
– including the women themselves – should expect.

Today's verse, as I read it, only begins to make sense after studying the plays that Aśvaghoṣa makes in Canto 3 on the words jarā, growing old (i.e. becoming mature, developing into a true human being, beginning to understand how little one really knows), and rūpa, beauty or outward appearance (i.e. beauty that is only skin deep, or the illusion of beauty).

The ostensible gist of today's verse is that, given the impact that growing old has upon a woman's beauty, it is only out of delusion/ignorance (mohāt) that one would find enjoyment/delight (ratiḥ) therein (tatra).

In this reading, tatra means in women's beauty, and anabhipretam (which the dictionary gives as “an occurrence different from what was intended”) means a nasty shock, i.e. something unintended or unexpected that is abhorrent or repulsive, like dry wrinkly skin, broken teeth, sunken eyes, incontinence, et cetera.

But seeing that, when their beauty has been drunk up by old age, it will be abhorrent even to them, delight in it could only arise from delusion. [EHJ]
But when these lovely forms of theirs will have been consumed by old age, / They'll be repulsive even to themselves; it is a delusion to delight in them. [PO]
EBC follows a slightly different track, taking anabhipretam to mean something that cannot be approved, and ātmanaḥ to refer to Udāyin. Hence:
But since their beauty will be drunk up by old age, to delight therein through infatuation cannot be a thing approved even by thyself. [FN: or by the soul].
I think the weakness of these translations of the 3rd pāda, and the variance between the translations, reflects the fact that, especially in the 3rd pāda of today's verse, the ostensible meaning of the words is only a facade behind which Aśvaghoṣa is up to his usual trick, playing with irony.

Today's verse, as I read it, is really all about unexpected enjoyment of the path, as opposed to grimly expectant striving with constantly blistered feet and permanently gritted teeth – the former state being enjoyed from within the cloud of unknowing, the latter condition being directed from a top two inches wherein resides the arrogance of certainty. 

On this basis, being admittedly wrong, I venture to submit that whereas the past several verses are ostensibly following one thread of idealistic thinking, Aśvaghoṣa's hidden agenda, especially in today's verse, is to subvert that idealism. I think today's verse, in other words, is out to subvert the idealism whereby pursuit of the truth becomes an exercise in grimly determined striving after yonder enlightenment/realization – as opposed to honestly recognizing this ignorance/delusion.

As in BC3.30 and BC3.36, Aśvaghoṣa is suggesting how the process of growing old or maturing into a true human being (jarayā; [instrumental agent]) drinks up, or drains away, or rips away, all superficial appearance, or illusion, or pretence of beauty (rūpam). Aśvaghoṣa is suggesting how, contrary to idealistic expectations, but as an occurrence different from what was intended, or as an unexpected side-effect – in short, as a pleasant surprise – this process of being disabused of illusion might turn out not always to be a matter of grim ascetic determination, but might actually be enjoyable.

In this reading tatra does not mean “in women's beauty”; tatra means “in that process of growing old.” And anabhipretam  does not mean anything abhorrent or repulsive or not approvable; anabhipretam  describes benefits that are unexpected because they accrue indirectly, not by end-gaining for specific results. These are the kind of unexpected benefits that FM Alexander described as accruing indirectly when a person learns to use himself or herself better on a general basis.

The final point to clarify is the difference between the ostensible and hidden meaning of mohāt, which means “through infatuation” [EBC] or “from delusion [EHJ/PO]” or “on the grounds of ignorance.” In the ostensible meaning, it is only delusion or infatuation or ignorance that would cause a person to delight in women's fleeting loveliness. In the hidden meaning, which brings back to my mind Marjory Barlow's oft-quoted teaching that “being wrong is the best friend we have got in this work,” the fallible wrongness of ignorance/delusion may be the only basic raw material we have to work with.

The Buddha never asked us to try to be right. On the contrary, he asked us in the first instance not to do any wrong. And with good reason. Because not to do any wrong is a big ask. But more than being a big ask, being right might be totally impossible.

The gist of today's verse, then, at least as I read it, is that in this process of growing old, even if the wrongness of ignorance/delusion is all we have to work with, it might be possible for us – unexpectedly – to find enjoyment in that.

When we stop and reflect on it, is it not true that ignorance in the sense of not knowing, or delusion in the sense of faulty sensory appreciation, are not necessarily blocks to enjoyment? A much bigger block to enjoying this process is the ignorance/delusion of trying to be right, or the arrogance of thinking oneself already to be one who is right and who knows. 

This hidden message could hardly be more different from, or more subversive to, the pessimistic idealism of the ostensible meaning of today's verse. Wherein lies the irony. Wherein always lies the difficulty of understanding and translating Aśvaghoṣa's words.

If I add a personal note, the three years I spent at Sheffield University from 1978 - 81, purportedly studying Accounting & Financial Management, are lost in a blur of Tetley bitter and very low level karate training. But one thing I did study was the writing of Karl Popper, and one thing I do remember is Popper quoting the words of the Greek philosopher Xenophanes that "all is but a woven web of guesses." And now that I google that phrase, here is the full quote, as translated by Popper himself: 

XENOPHANES of Colophon (570-480 BC)

'The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,

All things to us; but in the course of time,

Through seeking, men find that which is the better ...

These things are, we conjecture, like the truth.

But as for certain truth, no man has known it,

Nor will he know it; neither of the gods,

Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.

And even if by chance he were to utter

The final truth, he would himself not know it;

For all is but a woven web of guesses.'  

yadā: ind. when , at what time , whenever
tu: but
jarayā (inst. sg.): f. aging, old age
pītam (nom. sg. n.): mfn. drunk , sucked , sipped , quaffed , imbibed

rūpam (nom. sg.): n. any outward appearance or phenomenon or colour (often pl.) , form , shape , figure ; handsome form , loveliness , grace , beauty
āsām (gen. pl. f.): of them
bhaviṣyati |= 3rd pers. sg. future bhū: to be, become

ātmanaḥ (gen. sg.): m. the soul; the self (ātman in the sg. is used as reflexive pronoun for all three persons and all three genders e.g. ātmānaṁ sā hanti , " she strikes herself " ; putram ātmanaḥ spṛṣṭvā nipetatuḥ , " they two having touched their son fell down ")
api: even
anabhipretam (nom. sg.) n. an occurrence different from what was intended
abhipreta: mfn. meant , intended ; accepted , approved

mohāt (abl. sg.): m. loss of consciousness , bewilderment , perplexity , distraction , infatuation , delusion ; ignorance
tatra: ind. therein
ratiḥ (nom. sg.): f. pleasure, enjoyment
bhavet = 3rd pers. sg. optative bhū: to be, become

人有老病死 彼應自不樂
何況於他人 而生染著心 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.87: Being Pleased by Desires, When Beauty Is Eternal

nityaṁ yady-api hi strīṇām-etad-eva vapur-bhavet |
doṣavatsv-api kāmeṣu kāmaṁ rajyeta me manaḥ || 4.87

For if indeed the beauty that women have here and now

Could be eternal,

Then desires, however blemished by imperfection,

Might – it is true – please my mind.

The gist of today's verse, like yesterday's, on the surface seems to me to be idealistic thinking – along the lines of “the female beauty to which I am witness now cannot be secured for anybody's enjoyment on a permanent basis, in which case there is no desire that will ever please my mind, and so I shall transcend the whole area of desires in favour of ascetic self-denial.”

And a contrarian reading, again, is that the prince's words ironically presage the Buddha's realization of that ultimate happiness, aka nirvāṇa, which is eternally beautiful. This eternally beautiful happiness is what I think Aśvaghoṣa alludes to in the title of his saundara-nando mahā-kāvyaḥ, or Epic Story of Beautiful Happiness.

In Canto 12 of that poem, we find a nice example of Nanda (Happiness) expressing a desire which seems to please the Buddha's mind.

That the desire was blemished by imperfection (doṣavat) is evidenced by SN12.10 which describes Nanda's mind as still lacking in constancy:
Because of his sensuality, however, his mind was by no means gripped by the kind of constancy / Which is shown, in all three times, by the received usage of the irregularity which is "being." // SN12.10 //
The desire in question is Nanda's desire to listen to the Buddha expounding the dharma, which he expresses as follows:
Now that I have seen through the whole world of man, with its changeability and its fixity, / It is the eradicator of all suffering, your most excellent dharma, that I rejoice in. // SN12.16 // Therefore, in detail and in summary, could you please communicate it to me, / O Best of Listeners, so that through listening I might come to the ultimate step.” // SN12.17 //
And Nanda's expression of this desire does indeed appear to please the Buddha's mind:
Then, knowing from where he was coming, and that, though his senses were set against it, / A better way was now emerging, the Realised One spoke: // SN12.18 // "Aha! This gaining of a foothold is the harbinger of a higher good in you, / As, when a firestick is rubbed, rising smoke is the harbinger of fire. // SN12.19 //

This then, is my reading of the ostensible meaning and the hidden meaning of Aśvaghoṣa's Sanskrit as presented in EH Johnston's Sanskrit text.

In the old Nepalese manuscript, however, and in the later copies thereof used by EB Cowell, the second half of the verse is sasaṁvitkasya kāmeṣu tathāpi na ratiḥ kṣamā, so that EBC's translation of today's verse is: 
Yet even though this beauty of women were to remain perpetual, still (tathāpidelight (ratiḥ)  in the pleasures of desire (kāmeṣu) would not be worthy (na kṣamā) of the wise man (sasaṁvitkasya).
The background to this large textual discrepancy appears to be that some nameless editor, copying the Sanskrit text some time after the Chinese and Tibetan translations had been done, felt the whole idea too shocking that the Buddha's mind might be pleased by desires, and so he rewrote Aśvaghoṣa's original words.

Hence, EHJ conjectured, based on the Chinese and Tibetan translations, the remarkable sasaṁvitkasya is a late falsification of the original, which was evidently felt not to be in keeping with the Buddha's character.

Though I have previously doubted the wisdom of relying on the Chinese translation as a guide, in this instance I agree with EHJ's intervention, and am grateful to be able to follow it. EHJ noted that his restoration of the 3rd pāda (replacing sasaṁvitkasya with doṣavatsv-api) was certain. This claim is indeed strongly supported by the corresponding line in the Chinese translation 愛欲雖爲過, which means “even though sexual desires are considered to be a fault.”

In restoring the 4th pāda, EHJ noted that the difficulty lay in working back from the Tibetan phyogs, which EHJ surmises was originally chags (= raj), wrongly written phyags and corrected to phyogs. The result of this restoration, EHJ concluded, is not absolutely certain, but is very probable.

What is absolutely certain, here and now, is that when a British academic wrote that “Aśvaghoṣa's poems, as Buddhist texts, are necessarily anti-beauty,” he got that wrong.

It may be that “Aśvaghoṣa's poems, as Buddhist texts, are necessarily anti-beauty,” is a concise expression of the view that caused some Sanskrit copyist in a decadent age to take it upon himself to censor what Aśvaghoṣa wrote and replace Aśvaghoṣa's words, which challenge all prejudices, with some other words that conformed better to a prejudice against desire, against beauty, and against desire for beauty.

In this commentary I have argued the case for eternal beauty. But What the hell,” a sceptic might ask, “does eternal beauty mean when it's at home?”

It struck me first thing this morning, having watched the final installment last night in a documentary series by physicist Brian Cox titled Wonders of Life, that now that I come to drink of it, eternal beauty might be a glass of water.

nityam (nom. sg. n.): mfn. continual , perpetual , eternal
yadi: if
api: even, indeed (emphatic)
yady-api: " even if " , " although " (followed by tathāpi or tad api or sometimes by no particle in the correlative clause)
hi: for
strīṇām (gen. pl.): women

etat (nom. sg. n.): this , this here , here (especially as pointing to what is nearest to the speaker)
etad: ind. in this manner , thus , so , here , at this time , now
eva: (emphatic)
vapuḥ (nom. sg.): n. form , figure , (esp.) a beautiful form or figure , wonderful appearance , beauty
bhavet = 3rd pers. sg. optative bhū: to be

sa-samvitkasya (gen. sg.): of/for one in possession of possession of consciousness
sa-: (possessive suffix)
saṁvitka: mfn. (ifc.) possessing saṁ-vid
saṁvid: f. consciousness , intellect , knowledge , understanding

doṣavatsu (loc. pl. m.): mfn. having faults , faulty , defective , blemished ; connected with crime or guilt , sinful , wicked ; noxious, dangerous
api: even, though
kāmeṣu (loc. pl.): m. wish, desire, object of desire ; pleasure , enjoyment ; love , especially sexual love or sensuality

tathāpi: ind. even so, still
na: not
ratiḥ (nom. sg.): f. pleasure, enjoyment
kṣamā (nom. sg. f.): mfn. fit , appropriate , becoming , suitable , proper for (gen.

kāmam: ind. (acc. of kā́ma ) according to wish or desire , according to inclination , agreeably to desire , at will , freely , willingly ; with pleasure , readily , gladly ; (as a particle of assent) well , very well , granted , admitted that , indeed , really , surely
rajyeta = 3rd pers. sg. optative rañj: to be dyed or coloured , to redden , grow red , glow ; to be affected or moved , be excited or glad , be charmed or delighted by (instr.) , be attracted by or enamoured of , fall in love with (loc.)
me (gen. sg.): my
manaḥ (nom. sg.): n. mind

若令諸女色 至竟無衰變
愛欲雖爲過 猶可留人情 

若: if
令: could make
諸女: women's
色: colour/sexiness

至: arrive
竟: finally
無衰: state without decay
變: change/strange [meaning unclear]

愛欲: sexual desire
雖: even though
爲: is, is considered to be
過: fault

猶: still
可: possible
留: stop/heed/attend to
人情: human feeling

CW: If one might [make fast] the beauty of the maidens, without final decay, even though desire is an error I might yet entertain my human feelings.

Monday, February 25, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.86: Enjoying Agreeable Objects

jarā vyādhiś-ca mtyuś-ca yadi na syād-idaṁ trayam |
mamāpi hi manojñeṣu viṣayeṣu ratir-bhavet || 4.86

Aging, disease, and death –

In the absence of these three,

Enjoyment might exist for me also

In agreeable objects.

On the surface today's verse expresses the awakening of the bodhi-mind as a function of idealistic thinking along the lines of “it is totally impossible for me to enjoy agreeable objects, in the face of the triple terror of aging, disease and death.”

A contrarian reading of today's verse is that it might be intended ironically to presage the Buddha's ultimate teaching of having small desire and being content (alpecchu-saṁtuṣṭa) – which is to say that a person of small desire already has nirvāṇa, in which case aging, disease and death for him have already ceased to exist in which case why not enjoy, for example, a mug of hot tea and a piece of toast?

If this suggestion of mine sounds too decadent, or too grounded in the mundane reality of an old basher from Birmingham, I refer the skeptical reader to Master Tendo Nyojo's poems celebrating the opening of the first plum flowers in the snow of early spring.

Another illustration that springs to mind is last words FM Alexander is reported to have said to an old lady at the end of the last lesson he would be giving her: “Now, my dear. See to it that you don't pull your head back. And always make sure you have something to look forward to.”

For a scriptural reference to clinch the argument, however, the best resort might be to the gold standard of Aśvaghoṣa's writing, in which we are told how enjoyable it was for the Buddha to see an object that was very agreeable to him:
And so like a young initiate who mastered the Vedas, like a trader who turned a quick profit, / Or like a royal warrior who conquered a hostile army, a success, Nanda approached the Guru. // SN18.1 // For it is pleasant, at a time when wisdom has been fully realized, for teacher to see student, and for student to see teacher, / Each thinking, "Your toil has rewarded me"; for which same reason the wish to see Nanda arose in the Sage. // SN18.2 //
Subsequently, as if to underline the point, the Buddha is quoted as saying to Nanda:
How great it is that you have reached the deepest tranquillity, like a man making it through a wasteland and gaining possession of treasure. / For everybody in the flux of saṁsāra is afflicted by fear, just like a man in a wasteland. // SN18.32 // 'When shall I see Nanda settled, given over to the living of a forest beggar's life?', / So thinking, I had harboured from the start the desire to see you thus. What a wonderful sight you are for me to behold! // SN18.33 //

jarā (nom. sg.): f. old age, aging
vyādhiḥ (nom. sg.): m. disorder , disease , ailment , sickness ,
ca: and
mṛtyuḥ (nom. sg.): m. death , dying
ca: and

yadi: if
na: not
syāt = 3rd pers. sg. optative as: to be
idam (nom. sg. n.): this
trayam (nom. sg.): n. triad, threesome

mama (gen. sg.): of/in/for me
api: also
hi: for
manojñeṣu (loc. pl. m.): mfn. agreeable to the mind , pleasing , lovely , beautiful , charming

viṣayeṣu (loc. pl.): m. objects of the senses, sensual pleasures
ratiḥ (nom. sg.): f. pleasure , enjoyment , delight in , fondness for (loc. or comp. ; ratim with √ āp , labh , upa-labh , adhi-gam , vidkṛ or bandh and loc. , " to find pleasure in ")
bhavet = 3rd pers. sg. optative bhū: to be, become

若此法常存 無老病死苦
我亦應受樂 終無厭離心

Sunday, February 24, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.85: Not Despising Objects, Knowing Impermanence

¦⏑⏑⏑−¦¦−−−−¦⏑−⏑−   navipulā
nāvajānāmi viṣayān-jāne lokaṁ tad-ātmakam |
anityaṁ tu jagan-matvā nātra me ramate manaḥ || 4.85

I do not despise objects.

I know them to be at the heart of human affairs.

But seeing the world to be impermanent,

My mind does not delight in them.

The subject of today's verse is a person, or the mind of a person, who is establishing or awakening the bodhi-mind, the will to pursue ultimate peace for the welfare of the world. Each of the four pādas has a verb – not to despise, to know [as fact], to think/deem/consider/see [as judgement], and not to delight. The objects of these verbs are (1) objects/enjoyments and (2) the world.

Today's verse is an iconic one, whose meaning I have discussed already in connection with Udāyin's assertion in BC4.82 that “You despise objects,” and whose significance was evidently not lost on the Chinese translator, who translated it line by line, not too badly.


Notwithstanding the fact that the Chinese translation of today's verse is a relatively good one, as an exercise in reflecting on how “Send reinforcements, we are going to advance” is ever liable to become “Send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance,” I thought it might be instructive to examine the Chinese translation character by character – if not for the welfare of the world, then at least for my own interest.

: not
: [think] light/thin
: fine/exquisite
境界: objects/circumstances/the world

I do not think light of exquisite objects.

: again
: [I] know
世人: people of/in the world
: enjoyment

Again, I know they are the enjoyment of people in the world.

: but
: seeing
無常: impermanence
: form, manifestation

But seeing the form of impermanence,

: therefore
: arises
: suffering
: trouble
: mind

Therefore arises the mind of suffering and trouble.

Samuel Beal's translation from the Chinese, published in 1883, without the benefit of a Sanskrit-English translation to refer to, does little justice to Aśvaghoṣa's Sanskrit:
It is not that I am careless about beauty, or am ignorant of (the power of) human joys, but only that I see on all the impress of change; therefore my heart is sad and heavy; 
Charles Willemen's translation from the Chinese, published in 2009, with the benefit of Sanskrit-English translations to refer to (for chronology, see this post), is much closer to the original Sanskrit:
I do not despise fine sense objects and I know that they give people in the world happiness, but because I see that they are characterized by impermanence, I am weary of them in mind.
Still, Willemen's translation is unable to capture several of the nuances of Aśvaghoṣa's original, through no fault of Willemen's, but because of the evident difficulty, even on a good day, of translating Sanskrit into Chinese.

The difficulty in the 1st pāda is viṣayān, whose original meaning covers both "objects (not only of sense-perception but also of attention and attachment)” and “sensual enjoyments.” 妙境界 is not a bad translation, but it rather limits the meaning of viṣayān to fine or pleasurable objects, whereas nāvajānāmi viṣayān, “I do not despise objects,” as I read it, has profound philosophical meaning in terms of whether I take responsibility for blowing my own nose, or whether I blame the stimulus.

Generally speaking, as attentive readers of this blog will have noticed, I haven't yet completely given up the tendency to blame things outside myself. 

Some people say there's an object to blame, but I know: it's my own damn fault.

The 2nd pāda literally reads “I know the world/ordinary life to consist of those [objects].” 亦知世人樂, in contrast, sounds like an apology for objects/enjoyments on the basis that people in the world find them enjoyable – hence CW: "I know that they give people in the world happiness.

What the Buddha-to-be is really saying is that he sees, already, how people's deluded chasing of ephemeral objects is what makes the world go round. This is not something that he looks upon with the detached benevolence of a father watching children enjoy themselves in a playground. It is rather something that shocks and horrifies him, more akin to children entering a burning house. So the reason the Buddha-to-be does not despise objects is not because the objects give people pleasure; the reason is rather that, when people unwittingly and madly attach to ephemeral objects, the ephemeral objects are not to blame.

For a transient object that stimulates deluded reactions in people, like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, there might be no better example than an object made of gold  like for example a golden Buddha, or a golden coin, or a gold ring, or a gold watch. One way to get a picture of the sweep of human history is to use an ounce of gold as a standard. An ounce of gold makes a good standard because since primeval times it has not changed even one atom. It could not care less how much we love it or hate it. It tends not to react. And yet it can be a very effective catalyst. It is able, just by sitting there inertly, to provoke extra-ordinarily strong reactions in human beings. 

As a teenager in the 1920s my Welsh grandfather got on his bicycle and cycled from the South Wales valley where in 1909 he was born into poverty (a poverty that intensified after his father was killed in 1918 while working in the steel mill), in the direction of Bristol, looking for work. As far as I know, he did not find any, but cycled back to Wales with empty pockets. At the time there was terrible unemployment and deprivation, not only in South Wales but all over Britain, as a result of the attachment of the powers-that-be in London to keeping Britain on the gold standard. 

Britain at that time was like the passenger on a sinking ship who rescues his bag of gold coins from his cabin, jumps overboard, and promptly sinks to the bottom of the ocean, weighed down by his yellow ballast. This apocryphal story is a recurring theme of a book by Peter L. Bernstein called The Power of Gold - The History of an Obsession. Bernstein gives  many examples of people whose desire to possess gold caused gold to possess them. 

Seeing this kind of attachment to objects, does the prince despise objects? No he does not. Again, does Aśvaghoṣa despise gold? No, he does not – he rather uses gold as a symbol of what is truly imperishable and valuable, to be extracted out of the dust of poetry.

What shocks and disgusts the prince, then, is not the ephemerality of objects. What shocks him is people's attachment to those ephemeral objects. 

In the 3rd pāda what the prince recognizes as impermanent is the world, and not only objects. The world (jagat) includes, in other words, not only pieces of eight and bars of gold bullion but also the greedy minds of Spanish conquistadors and English pirates, and the paper (or digital) promises of fractional reserve bankers.

In the 4th pāda, the Chinese translation has the prince expressing negative emotion. In SB's version, as in the Chinese characters, the negative emotion has no object (therefore my heart is sad and heavy);  in CW's version translated with reference to the Sanskrit, the object is objects  (I am weary of them in mind). But in Aśvaghoṣa's original telling of the story the prince does not express any emotional reaction one way or the other, towards objects or towards the world. The prince's disgust, as Aśvaghoṣa tells it, is directed at the deluded behaviour of the unwitting world when it behaves as if the objects it attaches to were permanent: 

For he had seen for himself an old man, a sick man, and a corpse,
After which, as with a wounded mind he witnessed the unwitting world, /
He was disgusted to the core and found no pleasure in objects
But wished totally to terminate the terror of being born and dying. // SN2.64 //

In each of the four pādas of today's verse, then, though the Chinese translator did a better job than usual, his translation of Aśvaghoṣa's eight syllables of Sanskrit into five Chinese characters, is associated with a certain amount of what is called in information theory (if memory serves) “noise.”

Still, in these four characters at least, some gold may have made it through the dust:
“Seeing the form of impermanence.”

Or, translating more freely,

“Seeing [the world] as the manifestation of the law that energy spreads out [unless prevented from doing so by activation energy barriers].”

A final thought on viṣayān:  When Udāyin speaks of viṣayān, he seems to use the term to express women as sense-objects, or as sensual enjoyments. But in the prince's lexicon, objects are objects, enjoyments are enjoyments, and women are women. That being so, the title of the present canto, strī-vighātanaḥ, which I am provisionally thinking of translating as Warding Women Away, primarily because I like the alliteration, has totally different meanings depending on who is doing the warding away. For Udāyin, Warding Women Away might mean warding away despicable objects; for the prince, Warding Women Away might mean flatly refusing to countenance one of Udāyin's many stupid conceptions – the conception of "women" as an object.  

na: not
avajānāmi = 1st pers. sg. ava- √ jñā : to disesteem , have a low opinion of , despise , treat with contempt
viṣayān (acc. pl.): m. objects, sensual enjoyments

jāne = 1st jñā: to know ; to know as , know or perceive that , regard or consider as (with double acc.)
lokam (acc. sg.): m. the world ; the earth or world of human beings ; (also pl.) the inhabitants of the world , mankind , folk , people (sometimes opp. to " king "); ordinary life , worldly affairs , common practice or usage
tad-ātmakam (acc. sg. n.): having them as its essence
ātmaka: mfn. having or consisting of the nature or character of (in comp.) ; consisting or composed of

anityam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. not everlasting , transient ; uncertain ; impermanent, inconstant
tu: but
jagat (acc. sg.): n. that which moves or is alive , men and animals , animals as opposed to men , men; n. the world , esp. this world , earth
matvā = abs. man: to think, deem, regard as

na: not
atra: ind. in this matter
me (gen. sg.): my
ramate = 3rd pers. sg. ram: to be glad or pleased , rejoice at , delight in , be fond of (loc.)
manaḥ (nom. sg.): n. mind

不薄妙境界 亦知世人樂
但見無常相 故生患累心