⏑⏑−−¦⏑−−−¦¦−⏑−−¦⏑−⏑−sva-janaṁ yady-api snehān-na tyajeyaṁ mumukṣayā |
mtyur-anyonyam-avaśān-asmān saṁtyājayiṣyati || 6.44
Even if, while retaining the desire to be free,
I, through attachment, fail to abandon my own people,
Death, perforce, will cause us
Totally to abandon one another.
EHJ made a big change to the text of today's verse: at the end of the 2nd pāda he changed mumukṣayā (EBC: “in my desire for liberation”) to ahaṁ svayam (“of myself”). EHJ thus translated “Should affection lead me not to quit my kinsfolk of myself, still death would part us one from the other against our wills.”
EHJ made this textual intervention partly on the very dubious grounds that mumukṣayā is omitted from the Chinese translation, and partly on the grounds that the Tibetan text (according to which, in EHJ's version, svayam in the 2nd pāda and avaśān in the 3rd pāda are opposed) is stronger than the old Nepalese manuscript's text.
In my judgement, the contrast that the Tibetan translator must have highlighted is already there in the two ablatives which seem to mirror each other in the 1st pāda (snehāt, through affection/attachment) and in the 3rd pāda (avaśāt, perforce, through a force not submissive to another's will).
Retaining the text of the original Sanskrit manuscripts, then, what is its ostensible meaning and, assuming there is a hidden meaning, what is the hidden meaning?
On the surface today's verse is like leading with a trump card, the ace of spades, in opposing human sentiment with objective reality. On the surface, it is another case (as also for example in BC5.38) of using death as the ultimate conversation stopper, the weapon of choice in putting an end to post-modernist “narratives.”
A key to unlock hidden meaning might be the compound sva-janaṁ (“my own people” or “my own kith and kin”) which is the very concept that the Buddha exhorts Nanda to abandon at the end of the passage quoted yesterday from SN Canto 15.
With thoughts about close relatives, therefore, you should not enshroud the mind. /There is no abiding difference, in the flux of saṁsāra, between one's own people (sva-janasya) and people in general (janasya). // SN15.41 //
If we understand the prince's words in today's verse as thus presaging (or echoing) the teaching of the enlightened Buddha, then death is the means, or the ultimate cause, of abandonment of concepts like "my own people."
Death, in that case, might be synonymous with that spontaneous happening that Dogen called body and mind dropping off and one's original features emerging – in which happening, today's verse as I read it is suggesting, I abandon concepts and concepts abandon me.
Ostensibly, then, the prince in today's verse is thinking ahead to what would happen if he left the forest and went back to his family – he is saying that if, because of his affection for his kith and kin, he went back to rejoin his family in the palace in Kapilavastu, and remained there harbouring the frustrated desire to be free, then he and his people would inevitably be separated anyway in the end by death.
But below the surface Aśvaghoṣa as I hear him is describing what does happen when a practitioner goes to the forest to practise alone – he is describing a real situation in which a practitioner has gone to the forest with the desire to be free, and in the forest he is maintaining the desire to be free, and yet, because of deep-rooted attachments, unhelpful ideas like “my own people” continue to prove difficult to shake off...
If, though they are being shaken off, a trace persists of unhelpful thoughts, / One should resort to different tasks, such as study or physical work, as a means of consigning those thoughts to oblivion. // SN16.77 // A clear-sighted person should even sleep or resort to physical exhaustion, / But should never dwell on a bad stimulus, pending on which might be an adverse reaction. // SN16.78 //
When the practitioner persists by such means so that something else eventually takes over (an experience akin to death), the practitioner and unhelpful thoughts like “my own people” are, in that instant, abandoning each other.
From my side, by practising what is called in Alexander work conscious inhibition, or saying No to an idea, I abandon ideas and I thereby facilitate death (or “body and mind dropping off”). From the forest's side, by taking away my ears by birdsongs, by ripping away my views with the moon, and by other means too mysterious to mention, nature enforces balance on me so that something dies and ideas evaporate by themselves.
In one of the most encouraging passages that Aśvaghoṣa wrote, he has the Buddha tell Nanda:
“It may not be possible, following a single method, to kill off bad ideas that habit has so deeply entrenched; / In that case, one should commit to a second course but never give up the good work. // SN16.70 // Because of the instinct-led accumulation, from time without beginning, of the powerful mass of afflictions, / And because true practice is so difficult to do, the faults cannot be cut off all at once. // SN16.71 //
When we read today's verse in light of this teaching, we might conclude that the really vital point in today's verse is conveyed at the end of the 2nd pāda by mumukṣayā, which means having or maintaining or utilizing the desire to be free.
Without this desire to be free, there might be plentiful gainful employment for professors of Sanskrit in the field of Buddhist studies, but there is no thirst that is quenched by drinking in a forest stream while sitting, and there is no hidden meaning in a verse like today's verse.
I should add that I am much obliged to EH Johnston for his truly gargantuan efforts in Aśvaghoṣa's service – almost as much as I am obliged to Gudo Nishijima for his gargantuan efforts, in which he emphasized, in a somewhat one-sided and reductionist manner in my book, how balance of the autonomic nervous system causes thoughts to "evaporate" (Gudo's word). How balance, conversely, might be a function of thinking was, for Gudo, strictly off limits.
And so this is how I repay great workhorses of the past, by highlighting their faults and complaining about the gaps in their thinking. A hundred years from now, it is to be hoped, somebody who I helped along the way will be doing the same in regard to my faults and the gaps in my thinking.
sva-janam (acc. sg. m.): one's own people ; kith and kin
yady-api: even if , although
snehāt (abl. sg.): unctuousness; affection, attachment
tyajeyam = 1st pers. sg. optative tyaj: to leave, abandon
mumukṣayā (inst. sg.): f. (fr. Desid, muc) desire of liberation from (abl.) or of final emancipation
muc: to loose , let loose , free , let go , slacken , release , liberate (" from " , abl.)
aham (nom. sg. m.): I
svayam: ind. of or by myself, spontaneously , voluntarily , of my own accord
mṛtyuḥ (nom. sg.): m. death
anyonyam: ind. each other, one another
avaśāt (abl. sg.): mfn. unsubmissive to another's will , independent , unrestrained , free ; not having one's own free will , doing something against one's desire or unwillingly [“helplessly” EBC; “against our wills” EHJ; “even against our will” PO]
vaśa: m. will , wish , desire ; authority , power , control , dominion (vaśāt " by command of , by force of , on account of , by means of , according to ")
asmān (acc. pl.): ussaṁtyājayiṣyati = 3rd pers. sg. causative future saṁ- √ tyaj : to cause to abandon