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


Nigel Riley said...

Thanks Mike. Such a relevant verse. Gassho.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Nigel.