Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Canto 5: Getting Well & Truly Out

The 5th Canto in Aśvaghoṣa's epic tale of Awakened Action can be read as a meditation on what it means to get out, culminating in the metaphor of enlightenment in which thunderclouds part and the moon shines through, so that where previously there was only the odd moment of illumination provided by lightning flashes, this precarious light is replaced by the cooler, milder, mellower and more constant light of the golden moon.

The Canto begins with the prince making an initial excursion, riding on the good horse Kanthaka, to the edge of a distant forest. On this trip, sanctioned by the king, he shakes off his companions, sees and comes into good contact in various ways with mother earth, and accidentally experiences the first dhyāna, which is viveka-jam, born of separateness. In this state of separation, ironically, the prince reflects that we are all  all of us here on planet earth  in the same big boat. Disavowing "the other" is not on. 

Up creeps a wandering mendicant, then, as if as a reward for the prince's virtuous reflections, and the beggar gives the prince further hints as to what is possible in the way of freedom and equanimity. Duly inspired, the prince is ready to go forth at once, but again he remains mindful of the likely effects of his actions on people at large and so he reluctantly postpones his entry into solitude. On his way back to the city he overhears a woman using the colloquial word nirvṛta, “happy, contented,” and decides that the goal he must pursue is the cognate concept of pari-nirvāṇa, the happiness of complete extinction.

The king is not impressed by his son's readiness to relinquish his earthly inheritance all for the sake of a concept. He tries to reason with the prince but when reasoned argument does not work the king turns increasingly to force. Ostensibly the king is thus portrayed in an unflattering light, but Aśvaghoṣa may have wished us also to see wisdom in the king's denial of the prince's youthful idealism.

Sorrowfully then the prince ascends to the heights of the palace where the finest of women devote themselves to entertaining him with beautiful music. Such is the fixity of purpose of the glum prince, however, that he is not amused by the beautiful music. The gods are well acquainted with such mental rigidity. Under their influence all the women instantly drop off.

Many verses follow which ostensibly describe formerly beautiful women who have now ceased to be beautiful, after sleep has transported them into ugly and deformed poses. Hidden meanings can be found in each of these verses, however, if the scene is taken as a metaphor for a meditation hall in which various individuals have dropped off their own body and mind. In this case, when he describes an individual as vikṛta, Aśvaghoṣa seems to mean “deformed” but what he really means by vikṛta is “irregular” in the sense of not conforming to a generic stereotype. Each irregular individual in the group who has dropped off her own body and mind has not ceased to be an individual. On the contrary, she is nothing but herself.  Not trying to make a pretty sight, she is showing the irregular beauty of her own original features. The idealistic young prince, however, fails to appreciate such irregular beauty.

Scornfully then, and in a state of doubtlessness, complete with religious feelings of quiet certainty, the prince descends from the heights of the palace, and summons the stableman Chandaka hastily to bring the horse Kanthaka, because he wishes to flee at once from this place.

In the story as conventionally told, the prince is the hero and the king, the group of generically beautiful women, along with Kanthaka and Chandaka, are bit players. But in the story as Aśvaghoṣa thus tells it, at least when we make the effort to read between the lines, the prince can be seen as already noble-minded but as yet lacking the kind of real wisdom that is manifested, below the surface, by the wandering mendicant, the king, each of the women individually, and last not but least the good horse Kanthaka upon whose noiseless and fearless feet the prince eventually rides, noiselessly and fearlessly, into the dawn.  

The suggestion seems to be that what getting well and truly out  (abhiniṣkramaṇaḥ)  has to do with, ultimately, is going into movement in such a way that distinctions like palace and forest, subject and object, body and mind, horse and rider, all spontaneously drop off. 

Though enticed in this way by most costly sensual enjoyments
[or by most worthy objects]

The son of the Śākya king

Neither partook of pleasure nor obtained relief –

Like a lion pierced in its heart by a poisoned arrow.

Then one day, attended by sons of ministers

Whose diverse chatter would make them suitable companions,

Since, in his desire for tranquillity, he wanted to visit the forest,

With the king's permission he set off out.

Onto the good horse Kanthaka,
decked with bridle-bit and small bells of new gold,

With waving plume, and with lovely golden harness,

He climbed, and rode forth,

Like a star among trees, or a star among lotuses, on a shooting star.

To the edge of a more distant forest,

He rode, by dint of his impatient yearning for the woods,
and on the grounds of the merit inherent in the Earth;

And there indeed,
where tracks of ploughs had turned the soil to waves,

He saw the bountiful earth being tilled.

As the ploughs tore and scattered tufts of young grass over the soil,

And littered the soil with dead worms, insects, and other little creatures,

He saw that soil like that,

And felt intense sorrow, as if at the killing of his own human relatives.

Again, seeing the men ploughing,

Their complexions riven by the wind, the sun's rays and the dust,

And seeing the oxen unsteady from the exhaustion of drawing,

The most noble one felt extreme pity.

Then, getting down off the back of his fleet-footed steed,

He slowly moved over the ground, overtaken by sorrow.

And as he reflected on how life comes into existence and perishes,

Hurting, he uttered, “How pitiful this is.”

And desiring to be alone with his thoughts,

He fended away those amicable hangers on

And drew close to the root of a solitary rose-apple tree

Whose abundant plumage fluttered agreeably all around.

There he sat upon the honest, verdant earth

Whose horizons shimmered like emeralds;

And, while reflecting how the living world arises and perishes,

He dangled on the path of standing firmly upright,
which is of the mind.

In stumbling upon firm upstandingness of the mind

He was instantly released from worries,
such as those associated with desires for objects;

He entered the first peaceful stage,
in which there are ideas and thoughts,

Of the meditation whose essence
is freedom from polluting influences.

But then, 
having experienced that most excellent state of joy and ease,

Born of separateness, which is integration of the mind,

He proceeded to give consideration to the following evident fact –

Since, by means of the mind, 
he had clearly seen the way of the world.

O how pitiable it is that human beings,

While being ourselves at the mercy of sickness, aging and death,

Should tend, in our ignorance and wanton blindness,

To disavow the other,
who is afflicted by old age, or who is diseased or dying.

For if I here, being like that myself,

Should disavow another in the same condition,

That would not be worthy of me,

Or conduce to my knowing this most excellent dharma.”

While he, for his part, 
was properly seeing through faults of the living

Associated with sickness, aging, and death,

The high spirits that had once intoxicated him,
arising from his strength, youth and life,

Instantly evaporated.

He felt neither thrill nor pang;

Into intellectual striving, or lassitude and sleepiness, he did not fall;

He was not reddened by passion for sensual desires,

And neither did he hate, or look down upon, the other.

Thus did this dustless mind, this mind which is cleansed,

Develop in him whose nature was great;

Whereupon, unseen by the other men,

Up crept a man who was dressed in beggar's garb.

The prince asked him:

Say! Who are you?”, to which he replied:

O bull among men! Alarmed by birth and death,

I have gone forth as an ascetic striver, for the sake of liberation.

Desiring liberation in a world marked by decay,

I pursue that happy step which is immune to decay.

I am even-minded towards my own people and other people;

Turning back from objects,
I have allowed the stain of redness to fade away.

Dwelling anywhere – at the root of a tree,

Or in an abandoned house, or on a mountain, or in the forest,

I wander here and there, with no possessions and no expectations,

Subsisting, for the sake of ultimate riches,
on whatever scraps I chance to get from begging.”

He uttered these words,
while the son of the king looked powerlessly on,

And then he vanished into the clouds;

For he was a sky-dweller who,
peeping the prince's mind conflicting with his body,

Had come to help him towards mindfulness.

When he had gone, like a bird into the sky,

The foremost of men was full of gladness and wonder;

And having thus received a hint of dharma,

He set his mind on the matter of marching forth.

And so, powerful as Indra, 
with the powerful horses of his senses tamed,

He mounted his highest of horses, wishing to get started.

But then, having regard for people, 
he turned [his horse] around again,

And did not repair directly to the longed for forest.

Desiring to put an end to aging and dying,

He had – while remaining mindful – 
directed his thinking towards living in the forest,

And yet he reluctantly re-entered the city,

Like a mighty elephant from the jungle entering a ring.

Made happy, alas, and perfectly contented, is the woman

Whose husband is such as you are here,
O one of lengthened eyes!”

Thus, on seeing him entering, did a young princess exclaim,

As she watched by the road with her hollowed hands joined.

Then, he of battle-cry like roaring thunder-cloud,

Listened to this cry of woe,
and experienced a calmness most profound;

For as he heard the words “perfectly contented”

He set his mind on the matter of pari-nirvāṇa
the happiness of complete extinction.

Then, statuesque as a golden mountain peak,

With the arms, voice, and eyes
of an elephant, a cloud, and a bull,

Ardent desire having been aroused in him
for [or by] something imperishable,

He of moon-like faces and lion's paces entered the palace.

And so, going with the gait of a king of beasts,

He approached the lord of men attended by his coveys of ministers,

Like “Fresh Prince” Sanat-kumāra in the third heaven

Approaching shining Indra among his retinue of storm-gods.

Bowing down with hollowed hands joined, he said:

Grant me, O god among men, proper assent!

I desire to go wandering, for the sake of liberation,

Since, for a man such as I am, the invariable rule is separation.”

The king, hearing these words of his,

Shook like a tree assaulted by an elephant;

He grasped the hands that were folded like a lotus

And spoke, in a voice choked with tears, as follows:

Put off this idea, my son;

It is not time for you to be united with your dharma.

For early in life when the mind is changeable

There are, they say, many pitfalls in the practice of dharma.

When his curious senses reach out to objects,

When in the face of wearying observances he lacks fixity of purpose,

When, above all, he is not accustomed to separateness,

The mind of one who is young veers away from the wasteland.

For me, O lover of dharma! it is time for religious dharma –

After I have surrendered to you, the apple of my eye,
the apple of my royal power. 

But for you, O firmly striding force!

After you have forcibly forsaken your own father,
religious dharma might turn into irreligion.

Therefore give up this fixity of purpose

And be, for the present moment,
devoted to the dharma that abides in living at home;

For when a man has already experienced the joys of vernal energy,

His entry then into the ascetic's grove is something to delight in.”

Having heard these words of the king,

He with the voice of a kalaviṇka bird spoke his reply:

If in four things, O king, you will be my guarantor,

I will not go to the ascetic grove  –

My life shall not lead to death;

No breakdown shall put asunder my present state of soundness;

Growing old shall not take away my youthfulness;

And going wrong shall not impinge upon what presently goes well.”

To the son who had expressed such a difficult purport

The Śākya king told his command:

Abandon this idea, which goes too far!

A way of high-flown fancy is ridiculous.”

Then he who had the moment of Meru 
addressed his momentous relative:

Whether or not this turns out to be a way, 
I ought not to be held back;

For when a house is being consumed by fire

It is not right to stop a man who seeks a way out.

Again, since for the living world 
separation is the immutable constant,

Is it not better for the separation 
to be willingly done for dharma's sake?

Will not death, whether I like it or not, separate me,

Leaving me unsatisfied, 
the doing of my own thing being unfinished?”

A lord of the earth, thus perceiving

The fixity of purpose of his freedom-seeking son,

Declared “He shall not go!”

And provided him with an increased guard,
along with the most exquisite objects of desire.

Apprised, following protocol, by ministers

With great respect and affection
and with reference to sacred books;

While forbidden by his father, with falling tears,

He went then into his lodging quarters, sorrowing.

Women whose swaying ear-rings lightly kissed their mouths,

And whose deep sighs caused their breasts to tremble,

Watched him with skittish eyes,

Like young does, looking up.

For he with the luminance of a golden mountain,

He who unhinged beautiful women's hearts,

Carried away their ears, bodies, eyes, and souls,

With his speech, sensitivity, handsome form, and excellent qualities.

Then, when day was done,

Blazing like the sun with his handsome form,

The one who would by his own brightness dispel darkness

Ascended the palace, like the rising sun ascending Meru.

Rising above, [he sat seated within]
a light-tree that blazed with golden brightness,

A womb filled with the finest fragrance of kālāguru,
'impenetrable lightness,'

And streaked with dotted lines of diamonds –

He occupied a most excellent seat
[or practised most excellent sitting], made of gold.

Then the upmost of women, 
accompanied by musical instruments,

Waited in the night on him the upmost man, 
a man to rival Indra,

Like cumuli of celestial nymphs 
waiting on the son of the Lord of Wealth

Up upon a moon-white Himālayan peak.

But even those ultimate instruments,
on a par with heavenly harps,

Gave him no pleasure nor any joy.

His desire, as a sincere man going straight for his goal,
was to get out, in pursuit of the happiness of ultimate riches;

And therefore he was not in the mood for play.

At that juncture, the a-kaniṣṭha gods,
the doyens of asceticism 'of whom none is youngest,'

Being acquainted with his fixity of purpose,

Visited, upon all the young women at once, deep sleep,

And upon their bodies and limbs, irregular poses.

There was one girl there, for instance, who slept

With her cheek resting on a precarious hand,

Her cherished lute, brightly decorated with gold-leaf,

Lying by her lap as if cast aside in anger.

Another individual, clasping her bamboo flute in her hand,

As she slept with a white robe slipping down from her breast,

Resembled a river where a line of orderly bees is visiting a lotus  –

A river where foam from the water is giving the shore a white smile.

With her two arms 
as soft as the sepals of young lotuses,

With her two arms 
whose blazing golden bands had merged together,

Slept an individual who thus was different,

Embracing, as if it were a beloved friend,
nothing more or less than a drum.

Other individuals who, similarly, were different,

Who, wearing their peerless yellow garments,
lent beauty to new-found gold from gold-rich Hāṭaka,

Dropped down helpless (alas!) under the influence of sleep,

Like Karṇikāra branches broken by an elephant.

Another individual slept leaning against the side of a round window,

Her slender body curved like a bow;

She shone, entrancing in her pendulous splendour,

Like the breaker of a Śāla branch, sculpted in an arched gateway.

With its streaks of scented make-up nibbled by jewelled ear-rings,

The bowed lotus-face of one, again, who was different,

Looked a picture, like a lotus of many petals, 
with its stalk half rounded,

That had been pecked and dunked by a perching duck.

Other individuals, having dropped off as they sat,

Their bodies bowing down under the troy weight of their breasts,

Shone forth, as they drew each other into a protective embrace,

Using the leashes of their arms, with golden cuffs.

One woman, who was far gone,

Embraced a large lute as if it were her confidante;

She rolled about, her golden strings trembling,

And her face shining with the golden radiance
of fastenings fallen into disarray.

Another young woman had close to her a portable drum,

Whose impeccable strap 
she had let slip down from her shoulder. 

As if the drum were her breathless beloved,
at the end of playful enjoyment,

She had brought it into the open space between her thighs,
and dropped off.

Different women,
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.

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.

Contrary ones, meanwhile, helplessly and shamelessly,

Possessed though they were 
of self-command and personal graces –

Exhaled, in their repose, 
in a manner that was extra-ordinary and unreasonable;

And, in irregular fashion, their arms moving impulsively, 
they stretched out.

Different individuals,
leaving trinkets jettisoned and garlands trashed,

Unconsciously, in robes of undone knots,

With their bright, motionless eyes open,

Displayed no beauty,
reposing there like women who had breathed their last.

With her oral cavity open and her legs spreading out,

So that she sprayed saliva,
and made visible what normally remains secret,

One different one had dropped off, who,
rocking somewhat in her intoxication,

Did not make a pretty sight, but filled an irregular frame.

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.

Beholding them dropped off in irregular fashion, 
in this way and that,

Seeing the lack of constraint in the movement of their limbs,

Perfectly beautiful though those women were in their form,
and beautifully dulcet in their speech,

The son of the king was moved to scorn:

"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.

If a man reflected on women's original nature,

And on how such change is wrought by sleep,

Surely by these means he would not be making intoxication grow.

Smitten by a notion of excellence, however, he is moved to redness."

When he had seen this deficiency in the other,

The desire sprang up in him to escape in the night;

Whereupon, under the influence of gods,
who were steeped in this mind,

The entrance of the palace was found to be wide open.
[Or the way to freedom from existence was seen to be wide open.]

And so he descended from the palace heights

Scorning those women who were asleep,

And thus, having descended, being quite without doubt,

He went directly into the outer courtyard.

He woke that ready runner of the fleet of foot,

The stableman Chandaka, and addressed him as follows:

Bring me in haste the horse Kanthaka!

I wish today to flee from here,
in order to obtain the nectar of immortality.

Since there has arisen today in my heart
a certain satisfaction,

Since strenuous fixity of purpose has settled down
into a contented constancy,

And since even in solitude
I feel as if I am in the presence of a protector,

Assuredly, the valuable object to which I aspire is smiling upon me.

As the women, abandoning all shame and submission,

Relaxed in front of me;

And as the doors opened, spontaneously,

It is doubtless time to depart, in pursuit of wellness.”

He acquiesced, on those grounds, in his master's wisdom 

 –  Though he knew the meaning of a king's command – 

And he made the decision,
as if his mind were being moved by another,

To bring the horse.

And so one whose mouth was filled with a golden bit,

One whose back was overspread
by the instant refuge of a light covering of cloth,

One endowed with strength, spirit, quickness and pedigree –

A most excellent horse he brought out for the master.

His tail, supports, and heels formed spreading triangles;

The mane around his crown and ears was closely cropped,
in an unassuming manner;

The curves of his back, belly and sides
wound downward and wound upward;

His horse's nostrils expanded, 
as did his forehead, hips and chest.

He whose chest was broad reached up
and drew him to himself;

Then, while comforting with a lotus-like hand,

He bade him with a song of soothing noises,

As a warrior might when preparing to go,
where banners fly, into the middle:

"Often indeed has a lord of the earth expelled enemies

While riding in battle on you!

So that I too might realise the deathless step,

O best of horses, act!

Readily indeed are companions found when the battle is joined,

Or in the happiness at the gaining of the end,
when the booty is acquired;

But companions are hard for a man to find

When he is getting into trouble 
or when he is turning to dharma.

There again, all in this world who are companions,

Whether in tainted doing or in devotion to dharma,

Living beings without exception – as my inner self intuits –

Are entitled to their share of the prize.

Fully appreciate, then, this act of mine, 
yoked to dharma, of getting out,

Proceeding from here, for the welfare of the world;

And exert yourself, O best of horses, 
with quick and bold steps,

For your own good and the good of the world.”

Having thus exhorted the best of horses,
as if exhorting a friend to his duty,

And desiring to ride into the forest,

The best of men with his handsome form, bright as fire,
climbed aboard the white horse,

Like the sun aboard an autumn cloud, up above.

And so, avoiding the noise that stridently attacks slumber,

Avoiding the noise that makes people all around wake up,

Being through with sputtering, 
the fires of his neighing all extinguished,

That good horse, with footsteps liberated from timidity, set off.

Bowing yakṣas, their wrists adorned with golden bands,

Their lotus-like hands seeming to emit sprays of lotus flowers,

Their lotus-petal fingertips coyly trembling,

Then bore up that horse's hooves.

Primary pathways were blocked by gates with heavy bars
[or by gates whose bars were gurus],

– Gates not easily opened, even by elephants –

But as the prince went into movement,

Those major arteries, noiselessly and spontaneously, became open.

The father who doted on him, a son who was still young,

The people who loved him, and an incomparable fortune –

With his mind made up and without a care, 
he had left them all behind,

And so, on that basis, from the city of his fathers, 
away he went.

Then he with the lengthened eyes of a lotus
one born of mud, not of water –

Surveyed the city and roared a lion's roar:

Until I have seen the far shore of birth and death

I shall never again enter the city named after Kapila.”

Having heard this asseveration of his,

The yakṣa cohorts sitting around Kubera, 
Lord of Wealth, rejoiced;

And jubilant sanghas of gods

Conveyed to him the expectation 
that a resolution must be carried through to the end.

Sky-dwellers of a different ilk, with fiery forms,

Knowing how difficult his resolution was to do,

Produced on his dewy path a brightness

Like moon-beams issuing through chinks in the clouds.

But while he with his horse
[or while he being a horse]
as quick as the bay horse of Indra

Moved swiftly on, as if being spurred in his mind,
[or being spurred, as if in his mind,]

He rode into the dawn sky,
where ruddy Aruṇa tarnishes the stars,

And a good many miles he went.

The 5th canto, titled Getting Well & Truly Out,
in an epic tale of awakened action.

No comments: