Thursday, May 16, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 5.62: Absolutely Beautiful Diversity

¦−⏑−⏑−−¦¦⏑⏑−−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−−   Aupacchandasaka
iti sattva-kulānvayānurūpaṁ vividhaṁ sa pramadā-janaḥ śayānaḥ |
sarasaḥ sadśaṁ babhāra rūpaṁ pavanāvarjita-rugna-puṣkarasya || 5.62

Thus, each in accordance with her nature and her lineage

That company of women – all reposing in diversity –

Bore the semblance of a lotus-pond

Whose lotuses had been bent down and broken by the wind.

The ostensible meaning of the simile is that the women, manifesting diverse forms of postural distortion, where as unappealing to the eye as a muddy pondful of battered and bruised lotuses.

Judging from a first glance at the next three verses, this is how the prince himself saw the women – for, Aśvaghoṣa tells us in BC5.63, sa vigarhayām babhūva,  the prince felt moved with scorn (EBC), or he is moved to disgust (EHJ), or he gave vent to his utter contempt (PO).

The contrarian reading, however, is that Aśvaghoṣa's intention has been to describe the beauty that actually resides – contrary to Platonic conceptions of ideal forms – in diversity.

Adolf Hitler, one supposes, would not have approved of this contrarian reading; and nor would the emperor-worshippers who championed Japanese nationalism during WWII.

On the political agenda in Britain last week was discussion of the appropriate ratio of child-minders to children under supervision – would it be reasonable for the ratio to change from 1:3 to 1:4? Watching this on the news my wife laughed and pointed out that in Japan a ratio of 1:15 would be no problem at all.

So undeniably there are advantages, as well as disadvantages, to living in a society where social conformity and uniformity tends to be cherished above diversity.

The hidden meaning of today's verse, as I read it, in any case, is not to come down on the side of diversity, in a uniformity vs diversity debate. The jana of pramadā-janaḥ ("the company of women") works as a collective noun; in a compound jana means "people" and at the same time "people as a group." So implicit in today's verse, as I read it, is affirmation of both uniformity and diversity. 

Thinking about uniformity and diversity in nature, the 2nd law of thermodynamics would seem to be a universal constant, but this uniformity has not obstructed what we celebrate as beautiful biodiversity. On the contrary, if energy gave up its constant desire to spread out, and the sun stopped shining, where would the beautiful diversity of our planet be? 

In the metaphorical meditation hall which Aśvaghoṣa has conjured up for us, similarly, all the practitioners are practitioners who have dropped off together under the same roof, and yet he has described them as individuals, each filling his own frame, or each cutting her own figure; each being relaxed in his or her own skin in accordance with his or her own [buddha]nature;  and each being relaxed in a robe of one or another lineage  be it a yellowy red robe or a ruddy yellow robe or a blue or black or brown robe.

So, speaking of lineages, Aśvaghoṣa, as I hear him, is not suggesting that those who practise sitting-meditation in lineage A are true whereas those who practise in lineage B are not true. Nor is he negating the existence of different lineages.

I think Aśvaghoṣa's intention might be to suggest – presaging the Chinese Zen Master who famously described the whole universe in ten directions as one bright pearl – that a lotus-pond whose individual lotuses have been damaged in a strong wind, is still one perfectly beautiful pond.

In other words divergence from an idealistic norm does not necessarily detract from the beauty of nature. On the contrary, myriad divergences from an idealistic norm might be the very nature of beauty.

Reflecting on uniformity and diversity in the light of practical experience, I have given Alexander lessons over the years to Theravada monks and Zen practitioners, businessmen and women, school-teachers, dyslexic and dyspraxic children and their parents, professional sportsmen, therapists of various stripes, office workers, retirees, people with disabilities, musicians, yoga practitioners, and so on – a wide diversity of customers of all shapes, sizes, creeds, races and ages. But what I have endeavoured to transmit to every one of them in the way of Alexander's teaching is only what was transmitted to me, which is understanding of what to want, all of the time. And the thing to want, all of the time, is simply to keep trending in the right direction. 

Alexander deemed that the closest he had got to putting that right direction into words was something like “To let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen, while sending the knees forwards and away.” 

The point of every Alexander lesson, FM Alexander's niece Marjory Barlow impressed upon me, was to put a bit more meaning into those words which, for any AT student or teacher, at any stage in his or her development, are the same. The right direction, which is mainly up (not down), does not change, any more than a broken mirror repairs itself or any more than fallen flowers climb back onto the branches of trees.

The Buddha's instruction that, when lying down to go to sleep, we should think of light, always wishing to be awake, as I have come to understand it in the few years since I first read it in SN Canto 14, is related with the overarching existence of this right direction, which is the direction of light, or the direction of being awake.

When we go to sleep, we temporarily go in the other direction, in the direction of darkness; but the tendency, or orientation, or alignment remains the same. In that case, going to sleep might be compared to a cat flexing its leg muscles before it extends them in a pounce. But a truer demonstration, though not easy to understand, is provided by maintaining a direction in Alexander work that is opposite to a movement. This happens, for example, when we continue to think up whilst lowering the body by bending the knees – a preparatory step in sitting-meditation that I have come increasingly to see as vital. One of these days I may post a video on you-tube to help clarify the point. 

Notwithstanding the undeniable importance which sleep thus has on the way to being awake, when Aśvaghoṣa describes the women in today's verse as śayānaḥ, which ostensibly means asleep, I don't think what he really has in mind is temporary regression into the land of nod. Ironically, he is describing sitting practitioners who are very much awake, each having dropped off his or her own body and mind, and in that uniform state of being very much awake, each is reposing, or relaxing, or luxuriating, in diversity.

iti: thus
sattva-kulānvayānurūpam: ind. according to their disposition and noble descent ; in accordance with their own true nature and their lineage
sattva: n. true essence , nature , disposition of mind , character
kulānvaya: m. noble descent
kula: n. a race , family , community , tribe , caste , set , company ; a house , abode ; a noble or eminent family or race
anvaya: m. following , succession ; connection , association , being linked to or concerned with ; descendants , race , lineage , family
anurūpam: ind. ifc. conformably , according

vividham: ind. variously ; mfn. of various sorts , manifold , divers
sa (nom. sg. m.): that, the
pramadā-janaḥ (nom. sg. m.): m. womankind , the female sex
pramadā: f. a young and wanton woman , any woman
jana: often ifc. denoting one person or a number of persons collectively
śayānaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. lying down , resting , sleeping

sarasaḥ (gen. sg.): n. " anything flowing or fluid " , a lake , large sheet of water , pond , pool , tank
sadṛśam (acc. sg. n.): like , resembling , similar to
babhāra = 3rd pers. sg. perf. bhṛ: to bear
rūpam (acc. sg.): n. any outward appearance or phenomenon or colour (often pl.) , form

pavanāvarjita-rugna-puṣkarasya (gen. sg.): whose lotuses had been bent and broken by the wind
pavana: m. " purifier " , wind or the god of wind , breeze , air
ā-varjita: mfn. inclined , bent down , prone ; poured out , made to flow downwards ; humbled
rugna = rugṇa: mfn. broken , bent , shattered , injured , checked
ruj: to break , break open , dash to pieces , shatter , destroy ; to cause pain , afflict , injure
puṣkara: n. a blue lotus-flower , a lotus

[No corresponding Chinese]  

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