Tuesday, March 5, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.94: Believing in a Fairy Story

ante śrad-dadhānasya saktasyādoṣa-darśinaḥ |
kiṁ hi vañcayitavyaṁ syāj-jāta-rāgasya cetasaḥ || 4.94

If a person believes in, sticks to,

And sees no fault in untruth,

What could there be worth deceiving

In a soul so redly tainted?

The anṛte (untruth) which opens today's verse as I read it (EHJ amended the Nepalese manuscript's anṛteḥ to adhṛteḥ) is as per the anṛtena and anṛtam translated in BC4.92 as "deception." I have provisionally translated it as "untruth" but it might otherwise be translated as "falsehood" or "fantasy." 

Ostensibly the prince is continuing in indignant vein, so that when Udāyin argues that it is OK to deceive women with falsehoods as a means to an enjoyable end, the prince is refuting that argument with a rhetorical question whose gist is that a woman who is so easily won over by untruth is not worth winning over.

But I think Aśvaghoṣa's real intention is to cause us to consider (a) how and why ordinary people believe in, stick to, and see no harm/fault in untruth/falsehood/fantasy/deception, (b) whether or not buddhas believe in, attach to, and see any harm/fault in untruth/falsehood/fantasy/deception, and (c) why buddhas might deem tainted minds worthy of an effort of deception.

These are questions that I think Aśvaghoṣa answers in his epic story of Beautiful Joy, with reference to a redly tainted soul named Nanda, who the Buddha evidently deems to be worthy of deceiving.

By now it will come as no surprise to anybody if I personalize this comment by splurging my guts over the screen, but before I do so I shall refer once again to something George Soros has written, in a book I have been reading recently titled The Alchemy of Financeabout how we struggle to provide our lives with subjective meaning. 
Reflexive processes are bound to lead to excesses, but it impossible to define what is excessive because in matters of values there is no such thing as normal. Perhaps the best way to approach the subject of values is to start from the position that they are rooted in fantasy rather than reality. As a consequence, every set of values has a flaw in it. We can then ask what are the elements of fantasy in a particular set of values and how the elements of fantasy and reality have interacted. Any other approach would introduce a bias in favor of our own flawed set of values.

Values are closely associated with the concept of self – a reflexive concept if ever there was one. What we think has a much greater bearing on what we are than on the world around us. What we are cannot possibly correspond to what we think we are, but there is a two-way interplay between the two concepts [sic]. As we make our way in the world our sense of self evolves. The relationship between what we think we are and what we are in reality is the key to happiness – in other words, it provides the subjective meaning of life.
These two paragraphs interest me greatly. They seem to me to express the thoughts of a person who has genuinely endeavoured to do what the Buddha asked us to do, which is to put truth before untruth, to put reality before anybody's biased values. This is the very thing that most self-proclaimed Buddhists singularly fail to do, when we take as our starting point belief in something we fancy to be supremely valuable – like compassion, or Zazen as we faultily conceive it. 

Because Soros has evidently spent a lifetime putting objectively reality first, having been trained to do so in the cruel laboratory of the financial markets, he nails the clearest explanation I have ever read of how we put subjective meaning into our lives, by closing the gap between the untruth of what we think we are and the reality of what we are.

Describing how he himself succeeded in closing, or at least narrowing, this gap, Soros continues:
I could readily provide a reflexive interpretation of my own development but I am reluctant to do so because it would be too revealing, not to say incriminating. It will come as no surprise to the reader when I admit that I have always harboured an exaggerated view of my self-importance – to put it bluntly, I fancied myself as some kind of god or an economic reformer like Keynes [each with his General Theory] or, even better, a scientist like Einstein [reflexivity sounds like relativity]. My sense of reality was strong enough to make me realize that these expectations were excessive and I kept them hidden as a guilty secret. This was a source of considerable unhappiness through much of my adult life. As I made my way in the world, reality came close enough to my fantasy to allow me to admit my secret, at least to myself. Needless to say, I feel much happier as a result.
Jiblet in his comment of a couple of days ago is not the first person to raise the accusation (or to ask the question in Jiblet's case) of whether my own self-serving narrative is symptomatic of me going round and round in circles. When somebody accused me a few years ago of going round and round in circles, my response was that I am going round and round in a spiral, so dhig-astu tat, mate – and have you looked in the mirror recently?

Sometimes I have to admit, in the middle of sleepless night, it does feel like a downward spiral, like water going down the plug-hole. But I get up and sit, and then either go back to bed or more likely come into this office and work on the translation and commentary of the next verse, wherein each word of each pāda feels like a stone in a step of a stone spiral staircase.

So this is how I fancy myself, if we are talking going round in circles or spirals. I fancy myself as somebody who is slowly going up a spiral path and in so doing is building a spiral path for others to go up. That is my story, anyway, and I am sticking to it!

anṛte (loc. sg.): n. falsehood , lying , cheating
adhṛteḥ (gen. sg. m.): mfn. unsteady.
śrad-dadhānasya (gen. sg. m./n.): mfn. having faith , trustful , believing
śrad = satya , " truth , faithfulness " ; prob. allied to Lat. credo for cred-do ; only in comp. with √ kṛ and dāna and √ dhā and its derivations)
√dhā: to place, put

saktasya (gen. sg. m./n.): mfn. clinging or adhering to , sticking in (loc.); fixed or intent upon , directed towards , addicted or devoted to
adoṣa-darśinaḥ (gen. sg. m./n.): mfn. seeing or thinking no harm ; being blind to faults

kim: (interrogative particle)
hi: for
vañcayitavyam = nom. sg. m./n. future passive participle causative vañc: to cause to go astray , deceive , cheat , defraud of
syāt = 3d pers. sg. optative as: to be

jāta-rāgasya (gen. sg. m./n.): mfn. enamoured
jāta: mfn. born ; grown , produced , arisen , caused , appeared
rāga: m. the act of colouring or dyeing; colour , hue , tint , dye , (esp.) red colour , redness ; passion, (esp.) love
cetasaḥ (gen. sg.): n. consciousness , intelligence , thinking soul , heart , mind

此心難裁抑 隨事即生著
著則不見過 如何方便隨

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