Sunday, May 12, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 5.58: The Broken Statue & the Neck Sūtra

¦−⏑−⏑−−¦¦⏑⏑−−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−−   Aupacchandasaka
śithilākula-mūrdhajā tathānyā jaghana-srasta-vibhūṣaṇāṁśu-kāntā |
aśayiṣṭa vikīrṇa-kaṇṭha-sūtrā gaja-bhagnā pratiyātan'-āṅganeva || 5.58

One adorable woman, similarly, was otherwise,

Her hair being undone and dishevelled
[or her thoughts being occupied with undoing],
and decorative threads having fallen from her hips.

She had dropped off, sending her necklaces scattering
[or propagating the Neck Sūtra],

Like a statue-woman, broken by elephants.

The ostensible simile in today's verse describes a formerly lovely woman whose hair has fallen loose and become dishevelled, whose decorative clothing has slipped down from her hips, and whose necklaces have scattered all over the place, so that she looks a statue that some wild, out-of-control elephant has knocked over and trampled.

A contrary reading emerges if we take the elephant or elephants not as wild beasts but as, for example, the eight branches of the noble path to peace, which the Buddha enumerates in SN16.30-39. This is in line with the metaphor that Aśvaghoṣa uses to describe how Nanda, in advancing upon the citadel of nirvāna, drives away the elephants of fakery (mithyāṅga-nāgān), using the elephants of the true path (tathāṅga-nāgaiḥ):
Then, unsheathing a sword that the limbs of awakening had honed, standing in the supreme chariot of true motivation, / With an army containing the elephants of the branches of the path (mārgāṅga-mātaṅga-vatā balena), he gradually penetrated the ranks of the afflictions. // SN17.24 // With arrows made from the presence of mindfulness, instantly he shot those enemies whose substance is upside-down-ness: / He split apart four enemies, four causes of suffering, with four arrows, each having its own range. // SN17.25 // With the five incomparable noble powers, he broke five uncultivated areas of mental ground; / And with the eight true elephants which are the branches of the path, he drove away eight elephants of fakery (mithyāṅga-nāgāṃś-ca tathāṅga-nāgair-vinirdudhāvāṣṭabhir-eva so 'ṣṭau). // SN17.26 //

Those eight elephants are namely: 1. samyag-vāk-karma, using the voice well, 2. samyak-kāya-karma, using the body well 3. samyag-ājiva, making one's living well, 4. samyag-dṛṣṭi, proper insight (into the four noble truths), 5. samyag-vitarka, thinking straight, 6. samyag-parākrama, fully taking initiative, 7. samyak-smṛti, true mindfulness/awareness, 8. samyak-samādhi, being fully integrated.

If we understand elephants (gaja) like this, then being broken (bhagna) might suggest the gradual undermining and dismantling of former views and former certainties. Or being broken might suggest the sudden crashing to earth of entire phoney edifices of thought and habit – not least of counterfeit thoughts and habits (speaking from hard-won experience) around “right posture.”

If that is how Aśvaghoṣa, below the surface, is describing the woman in the 4th pāda, then there ought to be a hidden meaning in 1st pāda such that śithilākula-mūrdhajā describes not only a woman whose hair has come undone and is dishevelled, but also a sitting practitioner who has stopped trying to sit like a stone statue; or who, in other words, has stopped trying to do an undoing. I think that such hidden meaning resides 1. in the ambiguity of śithila (“looseness” or “being undone”) which describes not only a woman's hair on a bad hair day but also the finding of ease where before there was undue postural tension ; 2. in the ambiguity of ākula, which not only means “dishevelled” but also means “eagerly occupied;” and 3. in the ambiguity of mūrdha-ja (lit. “head-born” or “begotten from the head”) which ostensibly means the hair that grows on the head but which might also mean the thinking that is conceived in the head.

The 2nd pāda, following this sub-text, describes the ordinary attire of a sitting practitioner, in which case jaghana-srasta does not mean that decorative threads have “slipped [a few inches] down” from the hips; but rather means that decorative threads have “fallen [totally] away” from the adorable one's backside, and been replaced by totally practical non-decorative material, like for example grey track-suit bottoms.

The ambiguity in the 3rd pāda lies 1. with aśayiṣṭa which ostensibly means she lay or she slept but once again carries a hidden meaning of having gone beyond trying, or of body and mind having dropped away; and 2. with kaṇṭha-sūtra, which ostensibly means “neck sūtras” in the sense of necklaces, but can be understood as “the Neck Sūtra” in the sense of the Buddha's fundamental teaching centred on the neck. 

EHJ mentions in a footnote that one Indian editor gives kaṇṭha-sūtra the meaning it has in erotics (MW: “a particular mode of embracing”). But the hidden meaning as I read it is that a person whose body and mind has dropped off in sitting is naturally and spontaneously preaching to the universe in all directions a sūtra of letting the neck be free, without moving a muscle in his neck or uttering a word with his voice.

In the end, when a human being is sitting not like a statue but like a true human being, how vital is the neck?

Maybe too vital for words.

If, for our sins, we take a view that in sitting we are essentially a torso with a spine running up through it, then the hips and pelvis are important as the area where the legs connect, and the shoulders and upper back are important as the area where the arms connect, but the hips and shoulders are not half as important as the neck is important, as the area where the head connects.

If, alternatively, for our sins, we take a view that in sitting we are essentially a brain encased in a skull poised on top of the vertebral column, that view also does not diminish the importance of the neck, without which the head would be able neither to send air, food, and messages to the body, nor to receive air, blood, and messages from the body.

Abandoning all views about the neck, what can we say? 

Lotus, Diamond and even Golden Light Sūtras have been transmitted via black ink on white paper, and if we enter a google search for those sūtras, we will instantly be directed to translations of them in English. If we google the Neck Sūtra, however, we will be directed to websites run by people who would like to sell us necklaces.

The true Neck Sūtra of the Buddha might not be a necklace. And neither, in the final analysis, might it be a teaching that is amenable to propagation by words.

Still, in today's verse, as I read it, Aśvaghoṣa is alluding to preaching of the Neck Sūtra by a sitting-practitioner who is akin to a broken statue.

Fuck, these comments are getting to be hard work. Might the effort contribute in some small way to us taking better care of our planet? I can't help doubting it. 

śithilākula-mūrdhajā (nom. sg. f.): her hair loose and dishevelled ; her 'head-born' eagerly occupied with coming undone
śithila: mfn. loose , slack , lax , relaxed , untied , flaccid , not rigid or compact ; n. a loose fastening , looseness , laxity , slowness
ākula: mfn. confounded , confused , agitated , flurried ; confused (in order) , disordered ; filled , full , overburdened with (instr. or generally in comp.) , eagerly occupied
mūrdha-ja: m. pl. " head-born " , the hair of the head
tathā: ind. likewise
anyā (nom. sg. f.): another

jaghana-srasta-vibhūṣaṇāṁśu-kāntā (nom. sg. f.): a lovely woman whose ornaments and threads had fallen from her hips
jaghana: m. the hinder part , buttock , hip and loins
srasta: mfn. fallen, dropped, slipped off
vibhūṣaṇa: mfn. adorning; n. decoration , ornament
aṁśu: m. a filament (especially of the soma plant); thread ; cloth
kāntā: f. a beloved or lovely woman , wife , mistress

aśayiṣṭa = 3rd per. sg. aorist śī: to lie , lie down , recline , rest , repose ; to remain unused (as soma) ; to lie down to sleep , fall asleep , sleep ;
vikīrṇa-kaṇṭha-sūtrā (nom. sg. f.): with her necklaces scattered ; with neck/voice sūtras spreading out
vikīrṇa: mfn. scattered , thrown about , dispersed &c ; dishevelled (as hair)
vi- √ kṝ: to scatter , throw or toss about , disperse ; to dishevel ; to pour out , utter , heave (sighs)
kaṇṭha-sūtra: n. a necklace ; n. a particular mode of embracing
kaṇṭha: m. the throat , the neck ; the voice
sūtra: n. a thread , yarn , string , line , cord , wire; that which like a thread runs through or holds together everything , rule , direction ; a short sentence or aphoristic rule , and any work or manual consisting of strings of such rules hanging together like threads (these sūtra works form manuals of teaching in ritual , philosophy , grammar &c ; with Buddhists the term sūtra is applied to original text books as opp. to explanatory works

gaja-bhagnā (nom. sg. f.): broken by an elephant
bhagna: mfn. (√bhañj) broken
pratiyātan'-āṅganā (nom. sg. f.): a statue-woman
pratiyātanā: f. an image , model , counterpart , a picture , statue (of a god &c); (ifc.) appearing in the shape of.
aṅganā: f. " a woman with well-rounded limbs " , any woman or female
iva: like

[No corresponding Chinese] 

No comments: