Sunday, June 16, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 6.4: Really Meaning “Good Job!”

avatīrya ca pasparśa nistīrṇam-iti vājinam |
chandakaṁ cābravīt prītaḥ snāpayann-iva cakṣuṣā || 6.4

Having got down he patted the war-horse,

Saying “Well done,”

And said to Chandaka, with joyful appreciation,

As if bathing him in his eyes:

Yesterday's verse finishes with the word avātarat (he got down), which is a past tense of the verb ava-√tṝ, and today's verse begins with avatīrya (having got down), which is the absolutive form of the same verb ava-√tṝ.

It doesn't take a genius of literary criticism, therefore, to spot that there was something about the meaning of ava-√tṝ that Aśvaghoṣa, by emphatically juxtaposing avātarat (he got down) and avatīrya (having got down), wished us to reflect on.

The prefix ava- expresses movement in a direction which is downward, or away from the centre. And the root √tṝ means to pass across. So ava-√tṝ expresses movement from a higher to a lower level, as in getting down off a high horse, or as in bowing one's head to the ground. 

The point Aśvaghoṣa may have been inviting us to reflect on, as he explicitly indicated to us in the 1st pāda of yesterday's verse, was that the prince was not so proud that he was above getting down from the heights of his horse and thanking Kanthaka eyeball to eyeball.

The repetition of verbs from ava-√tṝ (to get down), and the description of the prince's use of his eyes when speaking to Chandaka, convey the sense that when he expressed his appreciation for the hard work and loyal service of Kanthaka and Chandaka, he really meant it.

That being so, I think the register of nistīrṇam in the 2nd pāda is best conveyed by a simple affirmation like “Well done!” or “Good job!”

According to the MW dictionary, nistīrṇam literally means crossed over, fulfilled, saved, or accomplished. Hence “All is saved” (EBC); “Your task is accomplished” (EHJ); and “You have fulfilled your task” (PO). But those translations all sound like statements that might be delivered by somebody who is still on his high horse. So, particularly in view of the emphatic juxtaposition of avātarat and avatīrya, I think the real meaning is better conveyed by an affirmation like “Well done!” or “Good job!” which sounds less grand and which is more amenable to non-verbal communication. 

The word iti on its own (without e.g. idaṁ vakyam uvāca, “he spoke these words”), indeed, leaves it open whether the prince is being described as actually saying the word nistīrṇam, or as simply conveying the sense of “Well done!” through his hand, and through the direction of his own energy.

Either way, whether the prince actually said to the horse “Well done” or not, the point might be that he really meant it, and the horse knew it.

The point might be that if we don't really mean it, when we are talking to the likes of horses and dogs – whatever words we choose – horses and dogs recognize it even before we open our mouths.

In Japan there are verbal formulae and cultural habits that might, to some extent, help to safeguard against arrogance on the part of people of higher status. There are set phrases like ご苦労様でした go-kurosama deshita, and  お疲れ様でした o-tsukaresama deshita, which make it easy to express gratitude for services rendered, in a formulaic way. At the same time, it is understood that the action of bowing, in combination with any old noise, can speak louder than any words.

The truth might be in the end, however, that there is no cultural guarantee against insincerity. Go into a restaurant where the business-hungry owner is eager to serve and, even as a foreigner, you will be greeted by a loud irasshaimase, "Welcome!" and you will feel the guy who is saying it really means it. Go into a department store and rows of doll-like girls will say the same word irasshaimase in a robotic high-pitched whine and, even if on the outside they are bowing, you may have a strong sense that they don't really mean it at all. 

Insincerity might be something that, in the end, each one of us has to guard against on an individual basis – learning along the way from four-legged friends like donkeys and dogs.

avatīrya = abs. ava- √ tṝ: to descend into (loc. or acc.) , alight from
ca: and
pasparśa = 3rd pers. sg. perf. spṛś: to touch , feel with the hand , lay the hand on (acc. or loc.) , graze , stroke

nistīrṇam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. crossed , passed over , spent , gone through , fulfilled ; escaped , rescued , delivered , saved , accomplished ;
iti: “...,” thus
vājinam = acc. sg. m. vājin: m. a warrior , hero , man ; m. the steed of a war-chariot ; m. a horse , stallion ; mfn. swift , spirited , impetuous , heroic , warlike

chandakam (acc. sg.): m. Chandaka
ca: and
abravīt = 3rd pers. sg. imperfect brū: to speak , say , tell ; proclaim
prītaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. pleased , delighted , satisfied , joyful , glad ; pleased or delighted or satisfied with , joyful at , glad of (with instr. loc. gen. , or ifc.); kind (as speech)

snāpayan = nom. sg. m. pres. part. causative snā: to cause to bathe , wash , cleanse ; to bathe with tears, weep
iva: like
cakṣuṣā (inst. sg.): n. the eye 

下馬手摩頭 汝今已度我
慈目視車匿 猶清涼水洗

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