Tuesday, April 9, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 5.25: Decision Time (2) – An End to Aim For

¦−⏑−⏑−−¦¦⏑⏑−−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−−   Aupacchandasaka
atha ghoṣam-imaṁ mahābhra-ghoṣaḥ pariśuśrāva śamaṁ paraṁ ca lebhe |
śrutavān sa hi nirvteti śabdaṁ parinirvāṇa-vidhau matiṁ cakāra || 5.25

Then, he of battle-cry like roaring thunder-cloud,

Listened to this cry of woe,
and experienced a calmness most profound;

For as he heard the words “perfectly contented”

He set his mind on the matter of pari-nirvāṇa
– the happiness of complete extinction.

Reflecting on the question I posed yesterday on the relation between nir-vṛta and nir-vāṇa, an image that occurred to me, given that the first definition the dictionary gives for √vṛ is “to cover,” was the image of extinguishing an oil lamp by covering the wick.

To propose a tentative answer to the question, then, the kind of happiness/extinction expressed by nir-vṛta may be symbolized by putting out a flame by covering the wick, whereas the extinction/happiness expressed by nir-vāṇa may be symbolized by cutting off, cutting out, clearing away and ultimately using up all the fuel. Hence: 
So my friend, with regard to the many forms of becoming, know their causes to be [the faults] that start with thirsting / And cut out those [faults], if you wish to be freed from suffering; for ending of the effect follows from eradication of the cause. // SN16.25 // Again, the ending of suffering follows from the disappearance of its cause. Experience that reality for yourself as peace and well-being, / A place of rest, a cessation, an absence of the red taint of thirsting, a primeval refuge which is irremovable and noble, // 16.26 // In which there is no becoming, no aging, no dying, no illness, no being touched by unpleasantness, / No disappointment, and no separation from what is pleasant: It is an ultimate and indestructible step, in which to dwell at ease. // 16.27 // A lamp that has gone out reaches neither to the earth nor to the sky, / Nor to any cardinal nor to any intermediate point: Because its oil is spent it reaches nothing but extinction (śāntim). // 16.28 // In the same way, a man of action who has come to quiet reaches neither to the earth nor to the sky, / Nor to any cardinal nor to any intermediate point: From the ending of his afflictions he attains nothing but extinction (śāntim). // 16.29 //
Though this seems obviously to be a description of the Buddha's own pari-nirvāṇa, it is noteworthy that when describing his own real experience the Buddha avoids, or at least he does not use, a term that would have been laden with Hindu barnacles. The MW dictionary defines pari-nirvāṇa as “complete extinction of individuality” and “entire cessation of re-births." These are ancient Indian conceptions that pre-date the Buddha, based on ideas that the Buddha instructed Nanda to abandon, relying on the means which is mindfulness of breathing. Nirvāna, again, is given in the dictionary in the first instance as “blowing out, extinction.” But then it is defined in line with Brahmanist thinking as “final emancipation from matter and re-union with the Supreme Spirit.”

I think it is for these reasons that Aśvaghoṣa quotes the Buddha as expressing the reality of the ending of suffering with the non-technical and irreligious word śānti, which simply means peace, cessation, or extinction.

Before he had his own real experience of the happiness of complete extinction, however, the prince who would become the Buddha picked up the ancient religious concept whose literal meaning was “complete blowing out” or “complete extinction,” and which at the same time was immediately connected in the prince's mind with the irreligious word nir-vṛta, whose dual meanings were 1. happiness and 2. extinction.

So in the beginning, there was no word. But after some struggle – after the birth of something beautiful, after some youthful explorations of sex and karma within the safe fortress of the palace walls, after some arising of undue nervous excitement, after the warding away of some pernicious Brahmanist conceptions, and after the decision to go forth into the life of the wandering mendicant – there was a word, and the word was pari-nirvāṇa, which (for all its pernicious religious associations, tied up with ascetic self-denial) seemed to the prince to have to do with completeness, with extinction, and with happiness.

Although the enlightened Buddha eschews the use of this word when enlightening the unenlightened Nanda as to what direction he should direct his energy, Aśvaghoṣa does use the word nirvāṇa in describing to us Nanda's progress in that direction:
In order to go entirely beyond the sphere of desire, he overpowered those enemies that grab the heel, / So that he attained, because of practice, the fruit of not returning, and stood as if at the gateway to the citadel of nirvāṇa (dvārīva nirvāṇa-purasya tasthau). // SN17.41 //
The method that Nanda uses to cross that threshold is nothing other than sitting-Zen:
Distanced from desires and tainted things, containing ideas and containing thoughts, / Born of separateness and possessed of joy and ease, is the first stage of meditation, which he then entered. // SN17.42 //

But what, I hear you ask, has this got to do with zebra fish? That might be a very good question.

My Alexander head of training Ray Evans used to say that for a human being being lost is one of the worst things that there is. And when he talked of being lost, Ray had in mind not only a psychological state. Ray, who sometimes described Alexander work as “vestibular re-education,” was keenly aware of the importance of the vestibular system in all human affairs. The vestibular system means the balance mechanisms located in the hall-ways, or vestibules, of the inner-ear, together with the connections (via the VIIIth cranial nerve) through to the vestibular nuclei in the brainstem, plus myriad connections with the cerebellum and other parts of the brain.

The reason being lost feels so bad, down to the level of one's heart and guts, is because being lost is always a function of the vestibular system – one of whose many connections is with the vagus nerve. Hence feeling-seasick, a vestibular issue, makes the sufferer vomit. And hence, at times of crisis in my life, I invariably suffer (as my father's father also suffered) from a gnawing pain in the stomach... until my congenitally weak vestibular system is appeased by the establishment of some clear direction, like slowly doing this translation for example. 

In beginning to understand how the vestibular system has evolved in human beings, it turns out, the zebra fish is a great ally for several reasons – one of which is that the translucence of the zebra fish embryo allows the formation of the vestibular and other sensory systems to be observed in real time.

The main point of today's verse, then, which the zebra fish is gradually helping us to understand more clearly, is that as soon as the prince heard the young princess use the word nir-vṛta, he was instantly freed from undue nervous excitement associated with feeling lost, as his whole mind and body, integrated at brainstem level by the vestibular system, directed itself towards an as yet unknown aim, represented by the word pari-nirvāṇa – like a zebra fish who focuses its attention on and moves towards a bug it wishes to eat.

atha: ind. and, then, and so
ghoṣam (acc. sg.): m. indistinct noise , tumult , confused cries of a multitude , battle-cry , cries of victory , cries of woe or distress , any cry or sound , roar of animals ; the sound of the recital of prayers ; the sound of words spoken at a distance ; rumour , report ; a proclamation ; a sound (of speech) ; the soft sound heard in the articulation of the sonant consonants (g , gh , j , jh , ḍ , ḍh , d , dh , b , bh , ṅ , ñ , ṇ , n , m , y , r , l , v , h) , the vowels , and anusvāra which with the yamas of the first 10 of the soft consonants make up altogether 40 sounds ; an ornament that makes a tinkling sound; a musquito
imam (acc. sg. m.): this
mahābhra-ghoṣaḥ (nom. sg. m.): he with roar like a great thunder-cloud
mahābhra: n. a great or dense cloud
abhra: n. (sometimes spelt abbhra , according to the derivation ab-bhra , " water-bearer ") cloud , thunder-cloud , rainy weather

pariśuśrāva = 3rd pers. sg. perf. pari- √ śru: to hear , learn , understand
śamam (acc. sg.): m. tranquillity , calmness , rest ; peace
param (acc. sg. m.): mfn. highest, deepest
ca: and
lebhe = 3rd pers. sg. perf. labh: to take , seize , catch ; to meet with, find ; to gain possession of , obtain , receive , conceive , get , receive

śrutavān = nom. sg. m. past. active part. śru: to hear , listen or attend to anything (acc.)
ca: and
sa (nom. sg. m.): he
hi: for
nirvṛtā (nom. sg. f.): mfn. satisfied , happy , tranquil , at ease , at rest ; extinguished , terminated , ceased (with √bhū, to attain nirvāṇa)
iti: “.....,”
śabdam (acc. sg.): m. sound , noise , voice ; word ; name

parinirvāṇa-vidhau (loc. sg.): the matter of complete cessation
parinirvāṇa: n. complete extinction of individuality , entire cessation of re-births
pari-nir- √ vā : to be completely extinguished or emancipated (from individual existence) , attain absolute rest
pari: ind. round ; fully, abundantly
nirvāṇa: n. blowing out , extinction ; n. extinction of the flame of life , dissolution , death or final emancipation from matter and re-union with the Supreme Spirit ; n. (with Buddhists and jainas) absolute extinction or annihilation (= śūnya) of individual existence or of all desires and passions ; n. perfect calm or repose or happiness , highest bliss or beatitude
vidhi: m. a rule , formula , injunction ; a means , expedient for ; any act or action , performance , accomplishment , contrivance , work , business (ifc. often pleonastically e.g. mathana-vidhi , the [act of] disturbing)
matiṁ cakāra = 3rd pers. sg. perf. matiṁ √ kṛ: (with loc) to set the heart on , make up one's mind , resolve , determine

若當從所願 諸集悕望斷
太子心歡喜 忽聞斷集聲
若當從所願 斯願要當成
深思斷集樂 増長涅槃心

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