Monday, May 6, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 5.52: In Praise of Pendulous Curves

¦−⏑−⏑−−¦¦⏑⏑−−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−−   Aupacchandasaka
avalaṁbya gavākṣa-pārśvam-anyā śayitā cāpa-vibhugna-gātra-yaṣṭiḥ |
virarāja vilambi-cāru-hārā racitā toraṇa-śāla-bhañjikeva || 5.52

Another individual slept leaning against the side of a round window,

Her slender body curved like a bow;

She shone, entrancing in her pendulous splendour,

Like the breaker of a Śāla branch, sculpted in an arched gateway.

The first task is to understand the simile presented in today's verse, and the task then is to understand how today's verse fits into the wider metaphor in which, as I understand it, sleeping women stand for a group of individual sitting practitioners.

In seeking to understand the simile, the internet is a hugely helpful resource. As a starting point, wikipedia offers this:
Salabhanjika refers to the sculpture of a woman, displaying stylized feminine features, standing near a tree and grasping a branch. The name of these figures comes from the Sanskrit śālabañjika meaning 'breaking a branch of a sala tree'. 
Here are some śālabañjika sculptures from the V&A's collection: 

A particularly famous examples of such a śālabañjika sculpture, it transpires, adorns an arched gateway to a stupa at Sanchi, which is said to be the oldest stone structure in India, commissioned by Aśoka in the 3rd century BCE. This particular sculpture is thought to have been completed in the 1st centry BCE, in which case it may well have been known to Aśvaghoṣa himself.

More detailed information on the stupas at Sanchi is provided by a webpage devoted to the site by the Archaeological Survey of India:
The first gateway (toraṇa) one encounters is the Northern one. According to an inscription on the southern gate it has been carved by ivory carvers of Vidiśā. There are four such carved gateways in four cardinal directions, depicting life scenes of Buddha and Jataka stories. These toraṇas (gateways) became so popular outside the country that it would be interesting to note that in Japan ornamental gateways are still known as 'tors'. [MC: They are called in Japanese tori-i (鳥居).] Although all these railings belong to 1st century B.C., the southern one is the earliest. The load bearing elephants of the gateways are quite interesting. In place of elephant tusks what we find is a circular hole at present. Few know that during the Aśokan period real elephant tusks were fixed in those holes. Near the elephants one can also see a salabhanjika, a beautiful lady standing under a tree holding its branches. In 5th / 6th Century A.D. four Buddha images were installed near the gate. 

This helps to clarify the simile – a woman whose side is resting against a round window is being compared to a woman in the kind of sinuous pose depicted in the above photos.

Understood only at the level of this simile, vilambi-cāru-hārā in the 3rd pāda is easily read as describing the woman in today's verse as “having a necklace (hāra) which is lovely (cāru), hanging down (vilambin).”

As part of the wider metaphor, however, I understand the 3rd pāda as having a hidden meaning which points to sitting practice not as it ought to be, on a general basis, but to sitting practice as it really is, on an individual basis.

In general, people are liable to think, a buddha practising sitting-meditation ought to sit bolt upright in the right position. But just as one black swan falsifies the hypothesis that all swans are white, it only takes one buddha sitting with a scoliosis to falsify the hypothesis that all buddhas always sit bolt upright in the right position.

Has there ever been such a buddha who sat with a lateral curvature of the spine? I don't know, but I suspect that even the Buddha Gautama might not have been perfectly symmetrical, especially not in his old age.

The reality may be even more shocking than one buddha with a pronounced scoliosis. The reality may be that there has never been any such thing as any buddha, ever, who sat in a right position. The truth may be that what buddhas sit in is never a right position but only a right direction, that direction being the direction that a śāla tree, or any other tree, grows in. 

This direction, the direction of growth, is basically up, but that does mean bolt upright at perfect right angles to the horizontal earth – as demonstrated by these photos of upward-growing śāla trees in Nepal, which are resistant not only to fire but also to immature conceptions of uprightness.

Understood on this level, as part of a metaphor examining sitting, vilambi-cāru-hārā in the 3rd pāda might be describing the woman as “entrancing (hāra) because of her pendulous splendour (vilambi-cāru).”

“Pendulous” might be a particularly apt translation of vilambin, in this context, in view of the original (archaic) meaning of pendulous as 1. poised without visible support.

Secondary meanings of pendulous are more relevant to the ostensible meaning of a necklace hanging down, viz: 2. a. suspended so as to swing freely ; b.  inclined or hanging downward.

But in the hidden, metaphorical meaning of today's verse, the tertiary meaning of pendulous comes into play, viz. 3. marked by vacillation, indecision, or uncertainty.

In Sanskrit also, vilambin, “hanging down,” carries a subsidiary meaning of “hanging around” i.e. [MW:] tarrying, delaying, slow, reluctant.

Why might a buddha's sitting practice be described, if only metaphorically, in these terms?

In my mind it relates with the teaching of wanting little and being content, as opposed to urgently trying to arrive at rightness, or certainty.

One Chinese Zen master, wanting little and being content, said that, after he finished his meal, he quietly looked forward to a nap.

Another Chinese Zen master, wanting little and being content, wrote of fishes swimming slowly and leisurely.

Dogen esteemed these words very highly, as a kind of needle that stimulates sitting-meditation; still, evidently he wasn't totally content with them. So he wrote instead of fishes swimming like fishes.

Letting fish swim pendulously; and letting backs lengthen and widen, slowly and leisurely; might be two variations on the same theme of letting fishes swim like fishes.

That being so, the practical gist of today's verse, for anybody who is worried about a scoliosis (i.e. a lateral curvature of the spine), is not to try to straighten yourself (still less others) out. On the contrary, if you stop trying – if you really totally abandon the wrong idea which is at the root of your trying – you may find that the right thing begins to do itself. But do not expect perfect geometrical symmetry.

avalaṁbya = abs. ava- √ lamb: to hang down ; to catch hold of, cling to , hang to , hold on or support one's self by , rest upon as a support
gavākṣa-pārśvam (acc. sg.): the side of a round window
gavākṣa: m. " a bull's eye " , an air-hole , loop-hole , round window
gava: bull
akṣa: eye
pārśva: n. side
anyā (nom. sg. f.): another, another woman

śayitā (nom. sg. f.): mfn. reposed , lying , sleeping , asleep
cāpa-vibhugna-gātra-yaṣṭiḥ (nom. sg. f. ): her slender body curving like a bow
cāpa: a bow
vibhugna: mfn. ( √bhuj) bent , bowed , crooked
gātra: n. " instrument of moving " , a limb or member of the body ; the body
yaṣṭi: (ifc.) anything thin or slender

virarāja = 3rd pers. sg. perf. vi- √ rāj: to be illustrious or eminent , shine forth ; to appear as (nom.)
vilambi-cāru-hārā (nom. sg. f): with her lovely necklace hanging down ; delightful with pendulous splendour
vilambin: mfn. hanging down , pendulous , hanging to or from , leaning against (loc. or comp.) ; tarrying , delaying , slow , reluctant
vi- √ lamb: to hang on both sides to (acc.) ; to hang down , hang on , be attached to (loc.) ; to continue hanging , linger , delay , tarry , hesitate ; (causative) to cause to linger or loiter , detain , delay ; to spend (time) unprofitably , waste , lose ; to put off , procrastinate
cāru: mfn. agreeable , approved , esteemed , beloved , endeared ; pleasing , lovely , beautiful , pretty ; ind. beautifully ; n. splendour ; moonlight
hāra: mfn. bearing , carrying , carrying away , stealing (e.g. kṣīra-h° , " stealing milk "); ravishing , charming , delightful; m. a garland of pearls , necklace (accord. to some , one of 108 or 64 strings)

racitā (nom. sg. f.): mfn. produced , fashioned ; placed , inserted , inlaid , fixed on or in (loc.); furnished , provided , set or studded with (instr. or comp.)
rac: to produce , fashion , form , make , construct , complete , cause , effect
toraṇa-śāla-bhañjikā (nom. sg. f. ): a Śāla-tree plucker on an arched gateway
toraṇa: n. an arch , arched doorway , portal , festooned decorations over doorways (with boughs of trees , garlands , &c ) ; a triangle supporting a large balance
śāla-bhañjikā: f. an image or figure made of Sal wood ; a kind of game played in the east of India; a harlot , courtezan
śāla: m. the Sal tree , Vatica Robusta (a valuable timber tree)
bhañjikā: f. breaking , plucking (ifc. after the names of plants to denote partic. games)
iva: like

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