Monday, April 1, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 5.17: Who the Hell Are You?

¦−⏑−⏑−−¦¦⏑⏑−−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−−   Aupacchandasaka
nara-deva-sutas-tam-abhyapcchad-vada ko 'sīti śaśaṁsa so 'tha tasmai |
nara-puṁgava janma-mtyu-bhītaḥ śramaṇaḥ pravrajito 'smi mokṣa-hetoḥ || 5.17

The prince asked him:

“Say! Who are you?”, to which he replied:

“O bull among men! Alarmed by birth and death,

I have gone forth as an ascetic striver, for the sake of liberation.

The prince asks ko 'si kaḥ (Who?) + asi (are you).

George Soros whose billions evince better-than-average understanding of the relationship between thinking and reality says that subjective happiness arises from a congruence between who I think I am and who I really am.

GS's observation when I read it struck me as very true. At the same time, the prince's question today causes me to reflect that both who I think I am and who I really am are moving targets.

A few months ago as I was cycling to the boulangerie, or the bread shop as we would call it in Birmingham, a French policeman stopped me wanting to know who I was. “Je suis un Anglais qui habite dans un petit maison la,” was my explanation. I am an Englishman who lives in a little place over there. What he had observed was some scruffy-looking bloke cycling around at 10.00 am in the morning rather than being in gainful employment, and so he might have thought I was up to no good. So my explanation of who I really was satisfied him and he sent me politely on my way.

If an English policeman stopped me in Aylesbury in similar circumstances, however, “I am an Englishman who lives in a little place way over there by the forest in France,” would be an answer only liable to lead me further into trouble. 

Equally liable to arise suspicion would be the answer that Bodhidharma gave when Emperor Wu asked who the hell he thought he was – “I don't know.”

The point is, then, that when somebody asks who we are, we don't generally take it as a stimulus for ontological self-questioning. We generally put ourselves in the questionner's shoes and supply the information that we deem it appropriate for him or her to know.

About 30 years ago when my old Karate friend Nigel used to take me with him after training to nightclubs in Tokyo, he used to get me to announce myself on the door as a fashion model with Such & Such agency, so that I could get in free. The ruse invariably worked, despite my lack of resemblance to a fashion model, largely because Nigel himself was at that time working successfully as a model in Tokyo, and nobody wanted to offend Nigel by saying "Nigel surely your friend is too ugly and unfashionable to be a model!?."  I cite it as an extreme example of telling the person who asks “Who are you?” what one deems it necessary to tell them, no matter how distantly separated the information is from the reality.

When one reflects on it, who we say we are is very flexible; but not only that, who we think we are is also very subject to change. And not only that, who we really are, also, might be subject – albeit less rapidly – to change.

The answer to “Who are you?” then, on many levels is impermanent, because there is no abiding self which makes the question properly answerable. And this situation, as George Soros recognized, is liable to give rise to a gap, or separateness, that is full of suffering.

As I sat this morning reflecting on all this, stimulated by today's verse, it occurred to me that I have spent much of the last 30 years finding congruence between who I think I am and who I really am by practising 坐禅 (Jap: ZAZEN), sitting-dhyāna. But maybe it would be truer to think, on a morning like this morning, that I was sitting in lotus and practising, less ambitiously, vipaśyana.

Just because we think we are practising dhyāna, or thinking, does not mean that we necessarily are truly practising thinking. As FM Alexander pointedly observed to his student teachers: “None of you know what thinking is!”

Who are you?

I am just a bloke who practises Zazen.

Don't kid yourself!

A couple of further points to mention about today's verse:

Firstly, both yuga-pādas begin with nara, “man” – “the prince” is nara-deva-suta (lit. “son of the man-god”) and “O bull among men” is nara-puṁgava. This repetition is lost in my translation; I am not sure if Aśvaghoṣa intended anything in partiuclar by it.

Secondly, by calling the prince a bull and speaking of being startled or alarmed by birth and death, the striver in today's verse echoes a verse in Saundara-nanda Canto 3:
Many then who were clear in mind -- alert to the agony of birth and death -- / Among mighty Śākya-born men of action, went forth into the wandering life, like bulls that had been startled by fire. // SN3.28 //

In the end, we don't know who this being who calls himself a striver or an ascetic striver (śramaṇa) is. He might not know himself. For example, does he ever sleep? If he does, is he still a striver then? In any event, when the prince asks him who he is, he tells the prince what it is useful for the prince to know – that there are traditional examples of people who were alarmed by birth and death going forth into the wandering life. So here was a traditional path that the prince might opt to follow, in pursuit of liberation.

Even if the striver thought himself to be an ascetic striver, let us forgive him for that fault, because he had the merit of telling the prince what it was useful for the prince to know. 

nara-deva-sutaḥ (nom. sg. m.): the king's son
nara-deva: m. " man-god " , a king
tam (acc. sg. m.): him
abhyapṛcchat = 3rd pers. sg. imperf. abhi- √ prach: to ask or inquire after

vada = 2nd pers. sg. imperative vad: to speak
kaḥ (nom. sg. m.): who
asi = 2nd pers. sg. as: to be
iti: “...,” thus
śaśaṁsa = 3rd pers. sg. perf. śaṁs to recite , repeat
saḥ (nom. sg. m.): he
atha: ind. and, and so, then
tasmai (dat. sg. m.): to him

nara-puṁgava (voc. sg.): O bull of men
puṁgava: m. a bull ; a hero , eminent person , chief of
puṁs: a man , a male being
gava: mfn. (for go) a man , a male being
janma-mṛtyu-bhītaḥ (nom. sg. m.): alarmed by birth and death
janman: n. birth
mṛtyu: m. death , dying
bhīta: mfn. frightened , alarmed , terrified , timid , afraid of or imperilled by ; anxious about

śramaṇaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. making effort or exertion , toiling , labouring , (esp.) following a toilsome or menial business ; m. one who performs acts of mortification or austerity , an ascetic , monk , devotee , religious mendicant
pravrajitaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. gone astray or abroad ; one who has left home to become a religious mendicant ; m. a religious mendicant or a monk
asmi = 1st pers. sg. as: to be
mokṣa-hetoḥ (gen. sg.): for liberation
mokṣa: m. emancipation , liberation , release
hetu: m. " impulse " , motive , cause , cause of , reason for (gen. " for a cause or reason " , " by reason of " , " on account of " )

問言汝何人 答言是沙門
畏厭老病死 出家求解脱 

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