Saturday, July 20, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 6.38: Back to the Buddha-Nature

yad-apy-ātthāpi nairguṇyaṁ vācyaṁ nara-patāv-iti |
kiṁ tad-vakṣyāmy-abhūtaṁ te nir-doṣasya muner-iva || 6.38

Though you have said that the being-without virtue

Is to be communicated to a ruler of men,

How am I to communicate what in you is absent –

As is absent in a faultless sage?


All you want is a little bit of nothing 
– but the trouble with all you people

is that you all want something. 

And that something is your habit.

Freedom is not something. Freedom is a bit of nothing. Therefore my teacher Marjory Barlow (another one of Alexander's Marjories) used to say that she would take up what Alexander called “a position of mechanical advantage” (in the Buddha's teaching, think sitting in lotus) and think of doing nothing. “And then,” Marjory added, “I ask myself: What kind of nothing am I doing?”

If I understand the intention behind today's verse, I understand it partly because of learning under Gudo Nishijima how Dogen understood the Buddha-nature to be. But more than that, I understand it because of what I discovered for myself, under the guidance of Marjory Barlow and other Alexander teachers, about something and nothing. 

When I showed Marjory how I had been taught to sit in Japan, concentrating on keeping the spine straight vertically, pulling in the chin “slightly” to keep the neck bones straight, and all the rest of it, the ever-indirect Marjory took one look and told me straight: “There is no freedom in it.”

So I do know here what I am talking about. I don't know what a bit of nothing is. But I know from plentiful experience what a whole lot of something is.

The ostensible meaning of today's verse is like this:

Though you have said that I must tell the king that you are without virtue, how can I tell an untruth about you? To do so would be like telling a lie about a faultless sage!


As for what thou saidst, "thou must repeat my unworthiness to the king" — how shall I speak what is false of thee as of a sage without a fault? (EBC)

As for your saying that I am also to tell the king of your lack of virtue, am I to say what is untrue about you, as about a sinless sage? (EHJ)

You say that I should even tell the king that you lack any virtue; But how can I tell a lie about you, as about a faultless sage? (PO)

The key to unlocking the hidden meaning, again, is to understand the irony of nair-guṇyam, which on the surface means “being without virtue” but which really means "having the virtue of being without" -- an ironic pointer to the Buddha-nature, which is not something but is rather a bit of nothing. The Buddha-nature, in other words, is the absence of anything superfluous and the absence of any lack. This is the fundamental point of sitting-meditation as Dogen teaches it in Shobogenzo – to sit as the bloke, or as the woman, one originally is, with nothing added and nothing taken away. And this, I venture to submit, is what Aśvghoṣa really had in mind when he made these plays on the words nair-guṇyam (the virtue of being without) and tad.... a-bhūtam (that which has never existed [EBC: what is false; EHJ: what is untrue; PO: a lie]).

Because the Buddha-nature is like this, Zen patriarchs like the Indian Horse-Whisperer Aśvaghoṣa and like the Japanese hero Dogen asked themselves the question that Chandaka asks in the second half of today's verse: how shall I go about transmitting what the Buddha had – that non-quality which is absence.

Understood in this context nara-patau in the 2nd pāda, which ostensibly means “to the ruler of men” i.e. to the king, might really mean “to a ruler of men” i.e. to somebody who can take responsibility for transmitting to future generations the virtue of being without. The Buddha himself evidently posed himself the question that Chandaka poses in today's verse, and the Buddha's success in solving that problem was embodied by the enlightened Nanda: 
Having attained to the seat of arhathood, he was worthy of being served. Without ambition, without partiality, without expectation; / Without fear, sorrow, pride, or passion; while being nothing but himself, he seemed in his constancy to be different. // SN17.61 //

All you’ll get is the absence of what you had.

yad-api: ind. even if, although
āttha = 2nd pers. sg. perf ah: to say
api: even (emphatic)
nairguṇyam (nom. sg.): n. want of good qualities or excellencies ; 'endowed with the virtue of being without'; 'endowed with un-virtue'
naiḥ: " without " , " destitute of " , " free from " , " un- "
guṇya: mfn. endowed with good qualities or virtues

vācyam (nom. sg. n.): mfn. to be said or communicated
nara-patau (loc. sg.): m. " man-lord " , a king
pati: a master , owner , possessor , lord , ruler , sovereign
iti: “....,” thus

kim: ind. what? how? why? (interrogative particle)
tad (acc. sg. n.): that
vakṣyāmi: = 1st pers. sg. future vac: to say
abhūtam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. whatever has not been or happened

te (gen. sg.): of you
nir-doṣasya (gen. sg. m.): faultless
muneḥ (gen. sg.): of a sage
iva: like

太子向告我 隨方便形毀
牟尼功徳所 云何而虚説

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