aparā na babhur-nimīlitākṣyo vipulākṣyo 'pi śubha-bhruvo 'pi satyaḥ |
pratisaṁkucitāravinda-kośāḥ savitary-astam-ite yathā nalinyaḥ || 5.57
though truly they had large eyes and beautiful brows,
Did not make a pretty sight, with their eyes closed,
Like lotus ponds with their lotus buds closed
At the setting of the sun.
The ostensible meaning of the simile in today's verse is to compare other women (aparāḥ; i.e. not the beautiful ones described so far) to lotus plants, or to lotus pools (nalinyāḥ), where, as night falls, closed lotus buds are like closed human eyes. Nalinyāh can mean either lotus plants (hence, "Like lotus plants with their buds closed") or lotus ponds (hence, "Like lotus ponds where the buds of the lotuses are closed"). Though the former translation has the merit of brevity, śubha-bhruvaḥ (“having beautiful brows”), as part of the ostensible simile, might be intended to suggest the beautiful brows of ornamental ponds.
Either way, the ostensible gist is that just as a lotus flower that has contracted into itself does not display its beauty, so these women with their eyes closed, i.e. being asleep, do not show their beauty. Far from it, these women show themselves in a most unattractive light, and nobody more so than the woman described in the last verse of the series, BC5.61, who lets it all hang out as if she is drunk, genitals exposed and saliva dropping from her gaping mouth.
At the end of SN Canto 2, also, Aśvaghośa describes the prince fleeing in the night like a goose from a lake of ruined lotuses (mathita-nalināt). Mathita originally means “stirred round,” and so “ruined” might be too strong. Anyway, the ostensible point is that the prince in fleeing from the palace sees women who are originally beautiful, like lotuses, in an unattractive light, like bruised or battered lotuses.
Having focused his agitated mind on the end of becoming,
He fled the king's palace, indifferent to the most beautiful of women sleeping there; /
Determined to go to the forest, he fled in the night,
Like a goose from a lake of ruined lotuses . // SN2.65 //
So much for the simile. What of the metaphor?
Returning first to the beautiful brows of the women (and possibly also of the ponds), śubha-bhruvaḥ as part of the underlying metaphor might rather be intended to suggest "having good foreheads," or in other words being bright in the top two inches, having good thinking ability.
In general, following the metaphorical sub-text becomes more challenging from here. Hitherto Aśvaghoṣa has been describing the women, even in their sleep, as beautiful. But from here he tells us that the women na babhur (EBC: “showed no lustre;” EHJ/PO: “showed no beauty”).
The solution, I think, is to understand na babhur as expressing negation of any intention to look beautiful.
In this sense, all the women in the harem ( = sitting practitioners in the meditation hall) were different (aparā) in the same way that Bodhidharma was different, in his not going to China, and in the same way that 大祖慧可 (Daizu Huike; Jap: Taiso Eka) was different, in his not going to India.
The real gist of today's verse, then, is concentrated in its first six syllables aparā na babhur, which is in the past tense and in the feminine: Women who were different made no display of their beauty. But the intention might be to suggest as a general principle aparo na bhānti: Those who are different do not put on a show. Non-buddhas, in other words, do not always make a pretty sight.
Aśvaghoṣa, in the writings we have studied so far, nowhere enters into a philosophical discussion of the affirmation and negation of buddha-nature. But a verse like today's verse contains implicit affirmation of the buddha-nature. More than that, it suggests, as I read it, the buddha-nature as negation.
Hence, the practical usefulness of today's verse, for people who practise sitting-Zen in Dogen's lineage, might be to remind us of Dogen's instruction Do not try to become buddha.
Apopros of which, an old friend recently made me aware of the existence of a guide to successful investing, a book whose title is “Being Right Or Making Money.”
aparāḥ (nom. pl. f.): others, other women, women who were different
babhur = 3rd pers. pl. perf. bhā: to shine , be bright or luminous ; to be splendid or beautiful or eminent ; to show , exhibit , manifest
nimīlitākṣyaḥ (nom. pl. f.): with their eyes closed
nimīlita: mfn. having closed the eyes
akṣa: n. [only ifc. (f(ī). ) for akṣi] , the eye.
vipulākṣyaḥ (nom. pl. f.): large-eyed
vipula: mfn. large , extensive , wide
api: even, though
śubha-bhruvaḥ (nom. pl. f.): beautiful-browed ; having capable foreheads
śubha: mfn. splendid , bright , beautiful ; pleasant , agreeable , suitable , fit , capable , useful , good (applied to persons and things) ; eminent , distinguished
bhrū: f. an eyebrow , the brow
api: even, though
satyaḥ (nom. pl. f.): mfn. being ; real , actual , as any one or anything ought to be , true , good , right
pratisaṁkucitāravinda-kośāḥ: with lotus buds closed
prati-saṁkucita: mfn. closed
saṁkucita: mfn. contracted , shrunk , shrivelled , narrowed , closed , shut
saṁ- √ kuc: to contract , shrink , close (as a flower) ; to contract , compress , absorb , destroy
aravinda: n. a lotus
kośa: m. a cask , vessel for holding liquids ; a bud , flower-cup , seed-vessel
savitari = loc. sg. m. savitṛ: m. a stimulator , rouser , vivifier; N. of a sun-deity; the orb of the sun (in its ordinary form) or its god (his wife is pṛśni)
astam (acc. sg.): m. setting (as of the sun or of luminaries) ; m. astam- √i, astaṁ- √gam to go to one's eternal home , cease , vanish , perish , die
ite = loc. sg. m. past part. √i: to go
yathā: ind. as, in the same way as, like
nalinyaḥ = nom. pl. nalinī: f. a lotus , Nelumbium Speciosum (the plant or its stalk) , an assemblage of lotus flowers or a lotus pond
nailna: n. (fr. nala because of its hollow stalk?) a lotus flower or water-lily
[No corresponding Chinese]