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 

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