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.

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