Sunday, April 28, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 5.44: Sitting Whose Substance is Gold

¦−⏑−⏑−−¦¦⏑⏑−−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−−   Aupacchandasaka
kanakojjvala-dīpta-dīpa-vkṣaṁ vara-kālāguru-dhūpa-pūrṇa-garbham |
adhiruhya sa vajra-bhakti-citraṁ pravaraṁ kāñcanam-āsanaṁ siṣeve || 5.44

Rising above, [he sat seated within]
a light-tree that blazed with golden brightness,

A womb filled with the finest fragrance of kālāguru,
'impenetrable lightness,'

And streaked with dotted lines of diamonds –

He occupied a most excellent seat
[or practised most excellent sitting], made of gold.

Today's comment is a long one, but I think today's verse is worth the effort of detailed investigation – it abundantly repays that effort.

The first question today's verse raises in my mind is exactly what is this apparent obsession of Aśvaghoṣa with gold? He can't seem to stop bringing the subject up. In today's verse, he mentions gold not once but twice, or even three or four times – since kanaka, ujjvala, and dīpta in the 1st pāda, and kāñcana in the 4th pāda, as nouns, can all mean gold.

To begin with, gold has been used since ancient times as a symbol of spiritual perfection. Gold has been associated with divine principles like the golden ratio, the golden rule and the golden mean. Silence, so they say, is golden. In dialectic terms, gold as perfection is the idealistic thesis.

The materialistic view of gold which is antithetical to the spiritual or perfectionist view is that gold is valuable as money, as filthy lucre. People who continue to value gold as money cite various reasons, one of which is that on the surface of the earth, gold is scarce. Being very dense, most of the earth's gold is thought to have sunk to the earth's core early in our planet's history. Gold, therefore, unlike paper or digital money, is a form of money that bankers cannot easily produce.

A nihilistic view of gold favoured by the economics brahmins of Balliol College and the like, is that the use of gold as money is symptomatic of primitive thinking. Hoarded by irrational gold-bugs along with uneducated Indian peasants, uncivilized Chinese, and so forth, gold is “a barbarous relic,” an asset that provides no return and is without any productive value.

The reality of gold, however, as for example studied by chemists, falsifies – at least to my satisfaction – nihilistic views of gold. It turns out that real gold is a very effective catalyst for some chemical reactions, because real gold combines two paradoxical properties, which is to say that gold is not only non-reactive, but it also has strong relativistic effects. Gold's well-known resistance to tarnishing comes from its non-reactivity. And its beautiful golden lustre comes from its relativistic effects.

Understanding like this how Aśvaghoṣa might have loved multi-faceted gold, both for the dharma that gold itself really is, and also for what gold represents in the Buddha's teaching, might be the key to catching the sub-text of today's verse, which on the surface is about a fantastic golden seat, but which is really about the wonderful reality of enlightened sitting, whose substance is the co-existence of something that does not react and something that actively shines.

Because of this ambiguity, today's verse is one of those many verses that functions as a trap for those to fall into who have no real appreciation of Aśvaghoṣa's teaching, because they are interested in Buddhism as words, and not interested in the Buddha-dharma itself, which is sitting. Aśvaghoṣa is inviting such Buddhists to make fools of themselves by understanding āsanam in the 4th pāda only to mean “a seat” – and thus either writing a literal translation from which no philosophical meaning can be extracted (as per EBC) or else getting into a terrible muddle (as per EHJ). Hence:

Having ascended, he repaired to a special golden seat decorated with embellishments of diamond, with tall lighted candlesticks ablaze with gold, and its interior filled with the incense of black aloe-wood.

Going up to a chamber which was filled with incense of the finest black aloe and had lighted candelabra glittering with gold, he repaired to a splendid golden couch inlaid with streaks of diamond.

Going up to his inner chamber filled with incense of the best black aloe, lit by candelabra glistening with gold, he sat on a splendid seat made of gold and bespeckled with streaks of diamonds.

Āsanam is originally a -na neuter noun from ā-√sad, to sit. Āsanam means sitting, and by extension, seat. This being so, the golden key that unlocks the subtext of today's verse is to realize that kāñcanam-āsanam, which ostensibly means “golden seat,” really means “golden sitting.”

Related to this point is how 坐禅 is rendered in Chinese and Japanese. If you look up ZAZEN in the online Japanese dictionarythe first entry is 座禅 and the second entry is 坐禅, both with the definition “seated Zen meditation.” Dogen, however, never wrote 座禅, in which compound the is placed under a roof , and therefore means "seat" or "seated." Dogen always wrote 坐禅, whose meaning is not “seated meditation” but “sitting-meditation.”

Thus the Chinese translator also demonstrated that he failed to understand the real meaning of today's verse when he rendered only the ostensible meaning of sitting in a seat ():
“He sat () on a seat () of the seven-jewels”

A better translation into Chinese (one that conveyed the real, hidden meaning) would be:
“He realized golden sitting.”

When I started this blog five years ago, this distinction between 坐禅 and 座禅 was at the forefront of my mind. My intention was to post translations in my own words that might help to clarify how central to Dogen's teaching was the (not the ). That is why I chose as the url for this blog – because “nothing but the lifeblood” in Dogen's teaching is 打坐 (TAZA , sitting), and 打坐 is nothing but the lifeblood.

Wishing to drive this point home, I chose as a title for the blog itself, "Treasury of the Eye of True Sitting," translating the SHOBO (lit. "True Dharma") of SHOBOGENZO as "True Sitting." 

After a few months I was inspired to start translating Aśvaghoṣa instead, and so the blog mysteriously morphed into “Mining Aśvaghoṣa's Gold.” When I chose that title “Mining Aśvaghoṣa's Gold,” I was aware that Aśvaghoṣa seemed to be incredibly keen on using gold as a metaphor, but as a metaphor for what exactly I was not clear.

That being so, today's verse is a pivotal one in clarifying, at least in my own mind, what the whole point of this translation effort is. Even if I myself couldn't clearly see the point of the effort when I embarked on it, it is as if I was guided by something else that could see the point, and the whole point is expressed in today's verse as kāñcanam-āsanam, which means sitting as gold, and gold as sitting. Mining Aśvaghoṣa's Gold means Mining Aśvaghoṣa's Sitting. And Mining Aśvaghoṣa's Sitting means extracting nothing but Dogen's lifeblood.

Having thus praised the importance of today's verse in the round, based on a sitting practitioner's reading of kāñcanam-āsanam in the 4th pāda, I shall now proceed to consider the verse line by line.

In the 1st pāda dīpa-vṛkṣam literally means “a light-tree,” which is Sanskrit for a candlestick. So describing āsanam as dīpa-vṛkṣam is ostensibly to describe a seat as “having a candlestick” or “having candlesticks.” But Aśvaghoṣa must have reflected on the compound dīpa-vṛkṣa “light-tree,” and felt that it was perfectly suited to his characteristic use of ironic expressions to point to the essence of the Buddha's teaching, since 'light-tree" combines a sense of vital energy / brightness with a sense of organic growth, upward and outward. So what Aśvaghoṣa was really intending to do, I venture, was to describe āsanam (sitting) as dīpa-vṛkṣam “a light-tree”  – a tree of life, ablaze with a vital energy that Aśvaghoṣa described as golden brightness.

Still in the 1st pāda, kanaka means gold. Ujjvala literally means blazing up, but by extension it means luminous, bright, splendid; and as a noun ujjvala means gold itself. Dīpta again literally means blazing, and by extension bright or brilliant; and as a noun dīpta also means gold itself.

Thus any number of translations of the 1st pāda are possible, but underlying them all I think there should be understanding that Aśvaghoṣa was describing sitting itself as a tree of golden light.

In the 2nd pāda, similarly, garbham originally means a womb and by extension the interior of anything. So describing āsanam with a compound ending in -garbham is ostensibly to describe a seat whose interior is described in the compound – as per EBC's translation “its interior filled with the incense of black aloe-wood.” This seemed to make no sense to EHJ who therefore took garbham to mean a chamber or room in which the fabulous seat was situated. Hence EHJ noted:

Abhiruhya [sic] requires an object, which can only be garbham, unless alternatively vimānam [palace] is supplied from the previous verse. To take this compound as referring to the couch makes nonsense; for its interior would not be filled with incense, and we should have to read something like -gandhim suggested by the Chinese translation's 'a seven-jewelled couch, fragrant [= gandhim] with the best sandalwood.' Garbha in the sense of 'room' seems unknown in classical Sanskrit... but occurs in Pali.

How did EHJ get himself into such a tangle, so that he ended up translating garbha, which in Sanskrit means not a room but a womb, as "chamber"; and ended up muddling the elements of the verse, all of which (including the -garbham compound) originally describe āsanam? Simply because EHJ failed to recognize that the real meaning of āsanam in today's verse is not a seat but the act of sitting – which, as Dogen describes it in Shobogenzo, is the sacred womb of buddhas.

Why, then did Aśvaghoṣa describe this womb of buddhas as “filled with finest incense of black aloe”? Again, I think that Aśvaghoṣa spotted  in the compound kālāguru a double-meaning which suited his ironic purposes. Kālāguru was the proper name for a kind of black aloe wood, but kālāguru  (kāla + a-guruliterally means a lightness, or not being heavy (a-guru) that is black or dark (kāla), i.e. difficult to see distinctly, impenetrable, unfathomable, difficult to get one's dirty grasping claws around. This word a-guru (not being heavy, lightness) could easily stimulate me to babble on as usual about the FM Alexander Technique as a method for discovering a non-habitual lightness in oneself in sitting... but this comment is long enough already.

In the 3rd pāda, as I have discussed already, adhiruhya (rising above; EBC: "having ascended") continues the theme of upward movement that runs through the present series of verses; and the puzzle of vajra-bhakti-citram is readily solved by anybody who has ever sewn a dharma-robe in the traditional manner, whereby, on a good day, every back-stitch is a little diamond in its own right.

The ambiguity expressed in the 4th pāda rests not only on the double-meaning of āsanam but also on the multiplicity of meanings of siṣeve, from the root sev, which can mean to occupy or sit in [a seat] or equally to practise or devote oneself to [sitting]. In an effort to preserve some of this ambiguity, I have translated siṣeve three times, as “he occupied” and [in square brackets] as “he sat in” and “he practised.” It is not a very elegant solution, but I challenge any translator to do justice to today's verse. Today's verse sits as a golden example of how Aśvaghoṣa, by playing with words, conveyed the innermost essence of the Buddha's sitting, which is so deadly serious that it is never to be taken too seriously or heavily.

kanakojjvala-dīpta-dīpa-vṛkṣam (acc. sg. n.): with candlesticks ablaze with gold ; being a gold-gold-gold light-tree; being a light-tree with the luminous brilliance of gold
kanaka: n. gold
ujjvala: mfn. blazing up , luminous , splendid , light ; burning ; clean , clear; lovely , beautiful ; n. gold
ujjvalā: f. splendour , clearness , brightness
dīpta: mfn. blazing , flaming , hot , shining , bright , brilliant , splendid; n. gold
dīpa-vṛkṣa = dīpa-pādapa: m. " light tree " , a candlestick
dīpa: m. a light , lamp , lantern
vṛkṣa: m. a tree

vara-kālāguru-dhūpa-pūrṇa-garbham (acc. sg. n.): its interior full of choicest incense of black aloe
vara: " select " , choicest , valuable , precious , best , most excellent
kālāguru: a kind of black aloe wood or Agallochum
kāla: mfn. black , of a dark colour , dark-blue
a-guru: mfn. not heavy , light; mn. the fragrant Aloe wood and tree , Aquilaria Agallocha.
dhūpa: m. incense , perfume , aromatic vapour or smoke proceeding from gum or resin , the gum and resin themselves
pūrṇa: mfn. full
garbha: m. womb, interior

adhiruhya = abs. adhi- √ ruh: to rise above, ascend, mount
sa (nom. sg. m.): he
vajra-bhakti-citram (acc. sg. n.): bespeckled with lines of diamonds
vajra: mn. " the hard or mighty one " , a thunderbolt (esp. that of indra); a diamond (thought to be as hard as the thunderbolt or of the same substance with it)
bhakti: f. a streak , line , variegated decoration
citra: mfn. conspicuous; bright ; variegated , spotted , speckled (with instr. or in comp.)

pravaram (acc. sg. n.): mfn. most excellent, best
kāñcanam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. golden , made or consisting of gold
āsanam (acc. sg.): n. sitting; sitting in peculiar posture according to the custom of devotees , (five or , in other places , even eighty-four postures are enumerated ; » padmā*sana , bhadrā*sana , vajrā*sana , vīrā*sana , svastikā*sana: the manner of sitting forming part of the eightfold observances of ascetics); seat, place, stool
siṣeve = 3rd pers. sg. perf. sev: to remain or stay at , live in , frequent , haunt , inhabit , resort to (acc.) ; to serve , wait or attend upon , honour , obey , worship ; to devote or apply one's self to , cultivate , study , practise , use , employ , perform , do

坐於七寶座 薫以妙栴檀


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

(Catching up...)

Solely re: garbha - womb or room?

In addition to its primary meaning "womb...interior of anything," I see that MW has: "an inner apartment, sleeping-room...any interior chamber, adytum or sanctuary of a temple..."

So - on the surface, at least: He went up to a womb-like interior chamber/room, and occupied/resorted to (sought refuge in?) a seat [sitting]. No?

Whatever, thanks for the thorough-going explanation of the Cross digging process.


Mike Cross said...

Thanks Malcolm.

Yes, fair point. In my excitement at bringing to the surface the hidden meaning of kāñcanam-āsanam, I was probably guilty of 1. failing to clarify the ambiguity of garbham, 2. doing EHJ and PO an injustice by overstating my case, and 3. failing to reflect in my translation the ostensible meaning, which is as you analyze it, with two verbs adhi-ruh and sev and two objects garbham and āsanam.

In my defence, however, the pattern of one object/subject (in this case, āsanam) specified in the 4th pāda, and three compounds in the three preceeding pādas which modify the one object/subject, is a very common pattern in Aśvaghoṣa's writing. And this is maybe why not only I but also EBC assumed that all three -am compounds modified āsanam.

Thanks again. Good to know that you are there, like a Health & Safety enforcer, watching out for my worst excesses with pick and shovel.