Saturday, May 18, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 5.64: Buddhist Views on Beauty

¦−⏑−⏑−−¦¦⏑⏑−−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−−   Aupacchandasaka
aśucir-viktaś-ca jīva-loke vanitānām-ayam-īdśaḥ sva-bhāvaḥ |
vasanābharaṇais-tu vañcyamānaḥ puruṣaḥ strī-viṣayeṣu rāgam-eti || 5.64

"Impure and impaired –

Such, in the living world of men, is the nature of women.

And yet, deceived by clothes and accoutrements,

A man is reddened with love for a woman's sensual charms.

Read at the most superficial level, today's verse seems to be expressing the kind of view known in Sanskrit as strī-dveṣin, "women-hating,” misogynist.

The Buddhist striver in SN Canto 8 makes the same case that women are inherently unattractive, but they succeed in attracting men through deceptive deployment of clothes (vasanaiḥ) and jewels or – more accurately – accoutrements (ā-bharaṇaiḥ):
Day after day, by means of ablutions, garments, and jewels (vasanaiś-cābharaṇaiś), they prettify an ugliness / Which you, with eyes veiled by ignorance do not see as ugliness: you see it as beauty. // SN8.48 //
Again, it is somewhere around this level of understanding that Sanskrit scholar David Smith, in an article on beauty for the Oxford Journal of Hindu Studies, makes the bold, eye-catching statement:
“Aśvaghoṣa's poems, as Buddhist texts, are necessarily anti-beauty.”
The modern-day British scholar, the ancient Indian striver, and the prince who would be Buddha as quoted by Aśvaghoṣa, thus appear on the surface all to be singing from the same grubby hymn-sheet.

The case for the prince's defence, at this level, would be that he is expressing an unenlightened view simply because he is not yet enlightened.

The unenlightened view, that women are originally ugly by nature, is a general proposition or hypothesis which is readily falsfied by the existence of any woman who is not originally ugly. Aśvaghoṣa has given us one such conspicuous example in SN Canto 4 where he describes Nanda's wife Sundarī as follows:
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 //
Enough said, then, about the view which the prince seems to be expressing on the surface. It is a view to be ripped away and discarded. 

Read at a deeper level, the prince's words are expressing not a prejudiced view against women but a real insight, in the real world of living beings (jīva-loke), into the stupidity of the minds of men. The prince's words, then, are not a false view but are a true recognition of how we disappointed men, when our romantic illusions have been dashed,  can't help seeing the nature of women as impure (aśuciḥand impaired  (vi-kṛtaḥ). In this case the scorn or contempt the prince is expressing is not scorn or contempt for women, but rather scorn or contempt for the gullibility of men who so readily form romantic views and who are therefore so easily deceived and infatuated.

Read at a deeper level still, the prince's words might after all be saying something about women, not in generic terms but about women as real individuals who exist independently of anybody's views. The prince, even if it is unbeknowns to himself, might be expressing the insight that those individual women in the palace were not (a-) "pure" (śuci), and that they were not immune to being changed for the worse (vi-kṛta) by such inevitabilities as aging, sickness and death.

But going further, when we approach today's verse from the standpoint of sitting, or the sitpoint of standing, sitting on the same round cushion that Aśvaghoṣa sat on, and standing on the surface of the same planet that Aśvaghoṣa stood on, Aśvaghoṣa's real intention may not be to promote investigation of how beautiful women in general originally are or aren't, or to promote investigation of how stupid men in general originally are or aren't, or even to promote consideration of how those individual women in the palace originally were or weren't. 

Aśvaghoṣa's real intention, at least as yours truly has gleaned it this morning, is that – primarily by sitting on the same round cushion that Aśvaghoṣa sat on – each one of us, on an individual basis, should investigate how we ourselves originally are.

Are we originally pure or are we originally impure? 

Are we originally fallen from grace or do we originally have the buddha-nature? 

Are we originally free from the befouling faults or are we originally fouled by the befouling faults?

There should be, Dogen taught, thousands and tens of thousands of questions like these, asked on a round cushion.

For those of us who are prone to think we know the right answer – e.g. a resounding "No!" – there may be something to meditate upon in the title of a book on successful investing written by Ned Davis. I haven't yet read the book but, in recent weeks, as the price of gold has dropped, I have been keenly reflecting on the truth of the title, which is Being Right Or Making Money.

Last night on BBC2 there was a documentary about the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Before the event some conservationists expressed the view or fear that wolves would or might cause declines in the population of some species of rare native deer. In fact what happened is that the presence of the re-introduced wolves deterred elk from lingering about on river banks feeding on saplings and trampling new growth under their heavy hooves. So trees grew back, beavers moved in, new land got flooded, silt flowed away, and bio-diversity increased – all thanks to the wolves giving the elk something new to think about, simply by being their normal wolvishly hungry selves.

Is it too fanciful to think that I might be helping to save the planet just by sitting there being myself? I don't know, any more than anybody knew whether re-introducing wolves to Yellowstone was going to be a step in the right direction.

What I do know, from experience – or at least, what I should have learned by now, from bitter experience – is that forming a view and trying to prove oneself to be right in that view is always a mug's game.

In the world of science, any view we form on mother Nature is always a wrong view. This is Richard Feynman's testimony, eloquently bequeathed to us on you-tube. The most intimate workings of Mother Nature, whether we call her beautiful, or whether we call her full of ugly suffering, are ultimately too weird for even the smartest of scientists to get their heads around.

In the world of finance, similarly, the smartest money-makers seem to be those with the keenest awareness of human fallibility. It may be fortunate for the rest of us who are not so smart that the best interests of those guys who have the money and power are also, broadly, our own best interests. If the actions of smart individuals like Warren Buffet, George Soros, and Bill Gates prove to be steps in the direction of saving the planet for the benefit of their children and grandchildren, we and our children also stand to benefit.

And it is not that in material worlds like finance and science trying to be right is a flawed strategy whereas in the transcedent sphere of Buddhist practice trying to be right is a golden rule. No. On the contrary. The universal rule seems to be that trying to be right, anywhere and for anybody, is a mug's game. The reason it is so may be that there is no such thing anywhere as being right – though there might be such a thing as taking steps in the right direction, like re-introducing wolves to Yellowstone.

"There is no such thing as a right view or a right position. But there is a right direction."

Just because I keep repeating it doesn't mean that I have really understood it yet. Still working on it...

aśuciḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. impure , foul
vikṛtaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. transformed , altered , changed &c ; (esp.) deformed , disfigured , mutilated , maimed , unnatural , strange , extraordinary ; ugly (as a face)
vi- √ kṛ: to make different , transform , change the shape (or the mind) , cause to alter or change (esp. for the worse) , deprave , pervert , spoil , impair
ca: and
jīva-loke (loc. sg.): in the world of the living

vanitānām (gen. pl.): f. a loved wife , mistress , any woman ; mfn. solicited , asked , wished for , desired , loved
ayam (nom. sg. m.): this
īdṛśaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. endowed with such qualities , such
sva-bhāvaḥ (nom. sg.): m. native place ; own condition or state of being , natural state or constitution , innate or inherent disposition , nature

vasanābharaṇaiḥ (inst. pl.): by clothes and ornaments
vasana: n. clothes
ā-bharaṇa: n. ornament , decoration (as jewels &c )
tu: but
vañcyamānaḥ = nom. sg. m. passive causative pres. part. vañc: to be caused to go astray , deceived

puruṣaḥ (nom. sg.): m. a man
strī-viṣayeṣu (loc. pl.): m. " women's sphere " , sexual connexion
strī: f. a woman , female , wife
viṣaya: m. scope , compass , horizon , range , reach (of eyes , ears , mind &c ); special sphere or department , peculiar province or field of action; anything perceptible by the senses , any object of affection or concern or attention , any special worldly object or aim or matter or business , (pl.) sensual enjoyments , sensuality
rāgam (acc. sg.): m. colour , hue , tint , dye , (esp.) red colour , redness; any feeling or passion , (esp.) love , affection or sympathy for , vehement desire
eti = 3rd pers. sg. i: to go

女人性如是 云何可親近
沐浴假縁飾 誑惑男子心

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