na bhaven-maraṇāya jīvitaṁ me viharet-svāsthyam-idaṁ ca me na rogaḥ |
na ca yauvanam-ākṣipej-jarā me na ca saṁpattim-imām hared-vipattiḥ || 5.35
My life shall not lead to death;
No breakdown shall put asunder my present state of soundness;
Growing old shall not take away my youthfulness;
And going wrong shall not impinge upon what presently goes well.”
The obvious interpretation of today's verse is that the prince is rhetorically asking the king to guarantee four things which are totally impossible for anybody to guarantee, since death/dying (maraṇa), disease/breakdown (roga), aging/growing old (jarā), and adversity/going wrong (vipatti) are all unavoidable.
But if we look for irony, irony can readily be found in the following readings of the four pādas, each of which reading retains the original negation but with a meaning which is different from the ostensible negation, viz:
(1) The prince's life did not lead to death; rather the way he lived his life led him to obtain, for himself and for everybody, amṛta, the nectar of immortality.
(2) As the enlightened Buddha, the prince realized a state of soundness or ease in himself (sva-stha) which disease could not put asunder; hence, in his epic story of Beautiful Joy, Aśvaghoṣa describes the Buddha as overcoming the grim army of Māra and awaking to the step which is happy, irremovable, and irreducible (śivam-ahāryam-avyayaṁ; SN3.7).
(3) As the enlightened Buddha, again, the prince realized youthful virtues like energy and open-mindedness that did not dim with age.
(4) Even if the Buddha's life was, as Dogen described his own life, just one mistake after another, those mistakes did not detract from the universal truth that if anybody stops doing the wrong thing the right thing tends to do itself. In other words, going wrong in no way detracts from what, as the Lotus Sutra says, is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end.
If we carry on digging, another layer of irony can be found, not far below the surface, in the following readings of the four pādas, each of which reading contradicts the original negation with an ironic affirmation, viz:
(1) The prince's life did in fact lead to his death, or his dying, in the sense of his losing his own body and life.
(2) This process of losing his own body and life invariably did involve former certainties taking a battering along the way, and breaking down, so that immature self-confidence or complacency (one meaning of sva-sthya) eventually gave way to another kind of confidence, which was Gautama being easy in Gautama's own skin (another meaning of sva-sthya).
(3) Growing old (i.e. gaining the wisdom of experience, and developing into a mature human being) did in fact take away the prince's immaturity.
(4) The prince's failure (vipatti) did in fact bring near or usher in success (saṁpatti) – “to bring” or “to carry in” being the original meaning of √hṛ. The most celebrated example of such a failure is the prince's ineffectual ascetic stumbling in the scrub, traditionally reckoned in Japan to have lasted for six years, which eventually gave way to his sitting like the king of mountains under the bodhi tree.
There may be other deeper layers, utilizing further ambiguities of the root √hṛ, that remain to be dug. But even if I did manage to dig down and uncover any deeper layers, I am afraid, the effort to leave the various meanings open would cause my translation of today's verse to become even more stilted.
In conclusion, then, so what?
What is the point of all this ambiguity?
I think the point might be to stimulate philosophical inquiry.
Apropos of which I am caused to reflect that in the 1980s there were two philosopher-businessmen endeavoring to find a synthesis between Hegel's thesis of dialectic idealism and Marx's anti-thesis of dialectic materialism. One of those philosopher-businessmen was my own teacher Gudo Nishijima; the other was George Soros, who in The Alchemy of Finance (1987), wrote:
Hegel propounded a dialectic of ideas; Marx turned the idea on its head and espoused dialectic materialism.
It is remarkable that these two men from such widely separate cultures, who had been on opposite sides in WWII, and working totally independently from each other, so evidently saw the philosophical challenge that faced them in exactly the same terms – to find a synthesis between Hegel's dialectic and Marx's dialectic.
To his proposed synthesis Gudo Nishijima gave different names at different times – the philosophy of action; realism; true Buddhism; the theory of four philosophies; three philosophies and one reality; and so on. What Gudo's proposed solution lacked, it seems to me, were precisely the elements which form the dual pillars of Soros's proposed solution, which are namely fallibility and reflexivity.
Partly because he failed to recognize the problem of fallibility, and partly because he was the archetypal post-war Japanese brahmin, Gudo tended to want to impose his One True Buddhism on others as an ideology.
And because he failed to recognize reflexivity, when Gudo's philosophy was taken into the laboratory of sitting-meditation, his teaching was discovered – primarily by yours truly – to be inadequate. Gudo's teaching was inadequate because, when it came to sitting-meditation, Gudo failed to recognize the role that thinking has to play, not only as something to be avoided and negated, but also as something to be learned and practised in the interests of directing spontaneous flow, or allowing the right thing to do itself. Because of his bias against thinking, Gudo's teaching of how to sit leaned heavily in the direction of doing based on feeling – and if one's feeling was faulty that was bad news, as I eventually discovered and understood in my own sitting practice, aided and abetted by FM Alexander.
In putting forward his proposed solution, based on the dual pillars of fallibility and reflexivity, George Soros wrote:
Now there is a new dialectic that connects the participants' thinking with the events in which they participate – that is, it operates between ideas and material conditions. If Hegel's concept was the thesis and Marxism the antithesis, reflexivity is the synthesis.
What is missing from George Soros's system, it seems to me, is a convenient laboratory that is open to anybody for safely testing out fallibility and reflexivity. George Soros used the financial markets as the laboratory for testing out his ideas, and in some respects the financial markets are a truly excellent laboratory for testing out ideas. The recent sharp drop in the price of gold, for example, has been very chastening for those of us who took an optimistic view that gold would easily go to $2000 per ounce before testing the downside. In the laboratory of the financial markets, however, there must be winners as well as losers. Whereas in the laboratory of sitting-meditation, everybody can learn, every time, by being the loser.
bhavet = 3rd pers. sg. optative bhū: to be
maraṇāya (dat. sg.): n. the act of dying , death
jīvitam (nom. sg.): n. life ; duration of life
me (gen. sg.): my
viharet = 3rd pers. sg. optative vi- √ hṛ: to put asunder ; to disperse (clouds); to cut off , sever ; to carry away, remove
svāsthyam (acc. sg.): n. (fr. sva-stha) self-dependence , sound state (of body or soul) , health , ease , comfort , contentment , satisfaction
sva-stha: self-abiding , being in one's self (or " in the self " Sarvad. ), being in one's natural state , being one's self uninjured , unmolested , contented , doing well , sound well , healthy (in body and mind ; often v.l. for su-stha) , comfortable , at ease ; relying upon one's self , confident , resolute , composed
idam (acc. sg. n.): this
me (gen. sg.): my, of mine
rogaḥ (nom. sg.): m. " breaking up of strength " , disease , infirmity , sickness
yauvanam n. (fr. yuvan) youth , youthfulness
ākṣipet = 3rd pers. sg. optative ā- √ kṣip: to draw or take off or away ; to disperse
jarā (nom. sg.): f. aging, growing old
me (gen. sg.): my
saṁpattim (acc. sg.): f. prosperity , welfare , good fortune , success , accomplishment , fulfilment , turning out well ; good state or condition , excellence
patti: f. (fr. √2 pad, to fall, go) going , moving , walking
imām (acc. sg. f.): this ; this , this here , referring to something near the speaker ; known , present
haret = 3rd pers. sg. optative √ hṛ: to take , bear , carry in or on (with instr.) , carry , convey , fetch , bring ; to take away , carry off , seize , deprive of , steal , rob ; to remove , destroy , dispel , frustrate , annihilate ; to master , overpower , subdue , conquer , win , win over (also by bribing) ; to outdo , eclipse , surpass
apāharet = 3rd pers. sg. optative apa- √ hṛ: to snatch away , carry off , plunder ; to remove
apa: ind. (as a prefix to nouns and verbs , expresses) away , off , back
ā- √ hṛ : to fetch , bring , bring near ; to fetch for one's self , take away , take , receive , get
vipattiḥ (nom. sg.): f. going wrongly , adversity , misfortune , failure , disaster ; ruin , destruction , death ; cessation, end