nava-hāṭaka-bhūṣaṇās-tathānyā vasanaṁ pītam-anuttamaṁ vasānāḥ |
avaśā vata nidrayā nipetur-gaja-bhagnā iva karṇikāra-śākhāḥ || 5.51
Other individuals who, similarly, were different,
Who, wearing their peerless yellow garments,
lent beauty to new-found gold from gold-rich Hāṭaka,
Dropped down helpless (alas!) under the influence of sleep,
Like Karṇikāra branches broken by an elephant.
What I wrote yesterday about the reading of tathāparā that I passed over in yesterdays' verse, I would like to apply to tathānyā in the 1st pāda of today's verse. Which is to say that I think tathā expresses sameness or similarity, and anyā expresses otherness or individuality.
To say that we are all the same and yet each of us is different is not original or earth-shaking. But we sometimes forget that we are all the same, most spectacularly, in a war, in demonizing the other side – the sub-human yellow peril, or conversely the white devils. (Demonization of the other in these terms is memorably documented in the book War Without Mercy by John W. Dower.) Conversely, we sometimes fail to respect individual differences, most spectacularly in totalitarian regimes like in Germany and Japan during WWII, or like in North Korea today, where a ruling elite holds a country hostage. (Two books which woke me up, at least partially, to this tendency are The Informed Heart by Bruno Bettelheim ["Men Are Not Ants"], and The Enigma of Japanese Power, by Karel von Wolferen.)
I think the group of individual women described in today's verse, each of whom is different, is a metaphor, in the fourth in the present series of verses, for what might be, at the fourth of four phases, the realest thing there is – a group of sitting buddhas sitting together in the formal setting of a vihāra or a Zendo, a meditation hall.
Hence the peerless yellow garment (vasanaṁ pītam-anuttamam) means a kaṣāya, a traditionally sewn and dyed robe whose Sanskrit name means “a dull or yellowish red garment or robe.”
Once that part of the metaphor is understood, it becomes apparent that while on the surface the women are being described as “decked with new golden ornaments” (EBC), “decked with ornaments of fresh gold” (EHJ), or “decked with jewelry of new gold” (PO), what Aśvaghoṣa is really suggesting is that to practise golden sitting, among buddhas wearing the yellow robe, was more valuable and beautiful to him than the physical gold that was mined in the country of Hāṭaka. Hāṭaka is one of very many Sanskrit words that mean gold – pītam (“yellow”) in the 2nd pāda is another one. The choice in the 1st pāda of this particular term, hāṭaka, i.e. “that which comes out of the ground in Hāṭaka,” seems to emphasize the physicality of gold as a material substance, the point being that the action of this group of individuals was such as to outshine physical gold.
The use of bhūṣaṇāḥ in today's verse thus brings to mind Aśvaghoṣa's description of the beautiful Sundarī in SN Canto 4 as vibhūṣaṇānām-api bhūṣaṇaṁ sā, “the adorner of her adornments”:
Wishing to cherish his beloved, he bedecked her there in finery, but not with the aim of making her beautiful -- / For she was so graced already by her own loveliness that she was rather the adorner of her adornments. // SN4.12 //
The difficulty in translating the 1st pāda arises from the fact that bhūṣaṇāḥ can equally correctly be understood as describing the women as "having ornaments" [of new gold] or as "adorning" [new gold]. I considered a translation that reflected this ambiguity like "being resplendent with the beauty of" [new gold]. But the real meaning, as I read it, is stronger than that. The real meaning is that the practice of the group was not as beautiful but was more beautiful than physical gold.
The 3rd pāda of today's verse contains that central irony with which we are all familiar by now, in the writings of Aśvaghoṣa and Dogen, and hopefully also in our own practice of non-doing, that irony being that the best of experiences are generally most amenable to being described by words like “breathing one's last” or “growing old” or “realizing that one is terminally sick” or “losing everything” or “being totally helpless.”
Avaśā vata nidrayā nipetur, “They dropped down helpless (alas!) under the influence of sleep,” can thus be read as an ironic expression of body and mind spontaneously dropping off – as in Dogen's famous proclamation in his instructions for sitting-zen for everybody: “Body and mind spontaneously drop off, and one's original features emerge.”
As I have pointed out many times before, Aśvaghoṣa seems to eschew explicit use of the word saṁgha in the conventional Buddhist sense, as defined in the MW dictionary as any number of people living together for a certain purpose, a society, association, company, community, (esp.) the whole community or collective body or brotherhood of monks. I think this notable omission on Aśvaghoṣa's part implicitly reflects emphasis on the principle of constructive conscious control of individual.
That said, in a verse like today's verse, as I read it, Aśvaghoṣa is presenting a metaphor which seems implicitly to recognise that there is nothing more valuable or beautiful than a group of individuals coming together to sit for the purpose of dropping off their own bodies and minds, in a manner which is not necessarily always consciously directed but which might sometimes be as natural, or spontaneous, or unconscious as, say, water flowing down a hill. This, I think, is the hidden meaning of nidrayā, which means “with sleep” or “by sleep” – and therefore, in the present context, under the influence of unconsciousness.
Sleep in the Buddha's teaching is equated with darkness, and darkness means unconsciousness. In some sense, then, sleep / unconsciousness is our enemy – at least in those moments when we ought to be conscious, like when driving a car on a motorway, for example, or when dealing with some difficult customer. On the other hand, to deprive oneself of sleep is not the Buddha's teaching but a form of asceticism. And spontaneous flow of the sort suggested by “body and mind spontaneously/naturally dropping off” is an unconscious process, arising from the inherent tendency that energy has to spread out, unless prevented from doing so.
One way of understanding the role of consciousness or thinking in sitting-zen is thus by reference to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. An effort of thinking or consciousness – along with the effort involved in physical activities like bowing, and standing up again, then walking, or working – is generally necessary in order to remove the blocks to spontaneous flow. These blocks correspond to what chemists call “activation energy barriers.” Ironically, therefore, the battle is to make a conscious effort to oppose unconsciousness in such a way that the unconsciousness of spontaneous flow can take over.
In at least a couple of senses, then, sleep / unconsciousness is not our enemy but our friend and ally under whose benevolent influence we sit. Sleep / unconsciousness is our friend in the sense that the unconsciousness of spontaneous flow is what we are hoping for; and sleep / unconsciousness is our friend in the sense that sleep refreshes body and mind, energizing us for the battle to drop them off.
nava-hāṭaka-bhūṣaṇāḥ (nom. pl. f.): bearing adornments of new Hāṭaka gold; adorning new Hāṭaka gold
nava: mfn. new
hāṭaka: m. (said to be fr. √ haṭ ; perhaps connected with hiraṇya) N. of a country and people; n. " found in hāṭaka " , gold
bhūṣaṇa: mfn. decorating , adorning (ifc.); n. embellishment , ornament , decoration ;
tathā: ind. similarly
anyāḥ (nom. pl. f.): others, other women
vasanam (acc. sg.): n. cloth , clothes , dress , garment , apparel , attire
pītam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. yellow ; n. gold
an-uttamam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. unsurpassed , incomparably the best or chief , excellent
vasānāḥ = nom. pl. f. pres. part. vas: to wear
avaśā (nom. pl. f.): mfn. not having one's own free will , doing something against one's desire or unwillingly
vata = bata: an interjection expressing astonishment or regret , generally = ah! oh! alas! (originally placed immediately after the leading word at the beginning of a sentence , or only separated from it by iva ; rarely itself in the first place ; in later language often in the middle of a sentence)
nidrayā (inst. sg.): f. sleep
ghana-nidrayā (inst. sg.): with deep sleep
ghana: mfn. compact , solid , material , hard , firm , dense; ;thick ; dark ; deep (as sound ; colour)
nipetur = 3rd pers. pl. perf. ni- √ pat : to fall down
gaja-bhagnāḥ (nom. pl. f.): broken by an elephant
iva: like, as if
karṇikāra-śākhāḥ (nom. pl. f.) the branches of a karṇikāra tree
karṇikāra: the karṇikāra tree ; Pterospermum acerifolium
śākhā: f. branch;