Saturday, August 3, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 6.52: Alternative Adventures in Emptiness

kṣipram-eṣyati vā ktvā jarā-mtyu-kṣayaṁ kila |
aktārtho nirārambho nidhanaṁ yāsyatīti vā || 6.52

Either he will come back quickly, I believe,

Having put an end to aging and death,

Or else deflated, his aim undone,

He will go to his own end.' ”

Aśvaghoṣa, so Buddhist scholars say, was primarily interested in religious conversion. No, I say, he was not. Aśvaghoṣa's writings, as I read them, are not asking us to believe anything. On the contrary, they are always asking us to look below the surface, to think things out for ourself, and, in the final analysis, to work on the self on an individual basis.

The key to working on the self is what is called in Alexander work (though some individual teachers chose to avoid the word) “inhibition.” Corresponding words in Aśvaghoṣa's writing which explicitly express the principle of cutting off at source the cause of suffering, are nirodha, and śānti. But what inhibition really is in practice cannot be conveyed directly by a specific word; therefore in Aśvaghoṣa's writing the real meaning of inhibition is rather suggested indirectly, below the surface.

If we read in today's verse the same sub-text that we have read in previous verses, that sub-text being an investigation of that practice of detachment which is rooted in inhibition, then we can observe the teaching of inhibition being suggested in several ways.

On the surface today's verse expresses a sentiment I know very well from my own bullish youth. The words I used to express that sentiment, writing them on a sheet of A4 paper on a winter's night late in 1981, after a karate training session and a couple of pints of beer, and sticking the paper on the wall as a reminder to myself, were SHIT OR BUST. That was the mind-set with which I set off for Japan in the New Year of 1982, with heart set on Zen enlightenment. In the light of painful experience, I would not recommend that approach to anybody. Equally, in the light of that experience I am suspicious of the connotation of shit or bust  which seems, on first reading, to be conveyed by today's verse:

Either he will quickly come back, having destroyed old age and death; or else he will himself perish, having failed in his purpose and lost hold of every support [reading nir-alambaḥ for nirārambho]. (EBC)

Either, he says, he will quickly come back, after destroying birth and death; or, lacking in right effort and failing to reach the goal, he will perish. (EHJ)

After destroying birth and death, he will return quickly, I'm told; or lacking initiative and failing to reach the goal, he will proceed to his death. (PO)

The first way in which in today's verse Aśvaghoṣa is encouraging us to practise inhibition, then, is by not immediately buying the obvious reading. That means holding ourselves back (= nirodha) and considering alternatives.

The presence of alternatives is suggested to me by the two (either.... or else). Below, the surface I read these two  as suggesting the existence of alternative routes – the idealistic route (represented by the hope of instant success) and another route which is different from the idealistic route.

Read in this light, the two elements of the 3rd pāda are each an ironic suggestion of the latter route, the route which is rooted not in idealism but which is rooted, on the contrary, in the inhibition of idealistic thinking.

On the surface akṛtārthaḥ means, as it is defined in the dictionary, “unsuccessful.” On the surface, a-kṛtārthaḥ (= a + kṛtārthaḥ) is the antonym of kṛtārthaḥ, successful.

Below the surface, as an indirect and ironic pointer to the truth of inhibition, akṛtārthaḥ describes the prince's aim or purpose (artha) as not doing, or undoing, or [coming] undone (a-kṛta). Below the surface, then, akṛtārthaḥ (= akṛta + arthaḥ) describes a man whose aim or purpose is not to do or to achieve a result; and the ironic suggestion is of a man who, far from being in a hurry to gain his end, sees his end as the process itself. Such a man may call the process, for example, slow Zen, or a stupid way.

On the surface, then, today's verse is the bullish expression of a young man's will to the truth, but below the surface there may be ironic recognition that nobody – not even an old buddha – can do an undoing.

This sounds good, at least to my ears. But if we stick with the inhibitory principle and say No to grasping even at this attractive alternative, it may be possible to dig deeper.

Further below the surface (it only occurred to me, I confess, after sleeping on it), akṛtārthaḥ might be an even more ironic description of a man who has been utterly successful (kṛtārthaḥ) in gaining his negative end (a-).

There may be deeper layers still, but this is as far as my own limited powers of inhibition can take me, and so for the present I am attaching myself to this reading, like a limpet on a rock, convinced that Aśvghoṣa intended akṛtārthaḥ to be another ironic description of an individual who has gained that deathless nectar which is to be obtained on the path of turning back – so that akṛtārthaḥ (being unsucessful / being successful at nothing) is on a par with nair-guṇyam (being without virtue / the virtue of being without; BC6.24) and niṣ-phala (the fruit of emptiness; BC6.45)

If we continue to dig in the same vein, nirārambhaḥ, which on the surface means “being without effort / enterprise / the spirit of adventure,” really means making effort, and being enterprising and adventurous, in the area of being without. This is truly what Alexander work is all about; and I am here to argue that this is also what the Buddha's teaching is also really all about, below the surface. But shallow people who are not able to see below the surface, because they eschew the means of digging below the surface, see only a religion called Buddhism. 

In writing this, I am aware of my own ongoing struggle not to be one of these lazy and shallow believers. To join the Buddhist club and believe is as easy as falling off a log. Being a contrarian non-Buddhist and figuring things out for oneself is hard work, like paddling one's canoe upstream.

Finally, in the 4th pāda, nidhanaṁ √yā, according to the dictionary means to die, but it might be intended here as an ironic expression of what happens when a devotee of sitting-zen turns back from endgaining and practices and experiences instead the dropping off of body and mind – in which case “he will go to his own end” might mean, in Dogen's words, HONRAI NO MENMOKU GENZEN SEN “his original features will emerge”

On a textual note, in the 2nd pāda EHJ changed jarā (aging) to janma (birth) – an amendment which he also made in BC6.15 and which in this case is supported by the Chinese translator's 越度生死海 "crossed over the ocean of birth/life and death.”

kṣipram: ind. quickly , immediately , directly
eṣyati = 3rd pers. sg. future √i: to go ; to return (in this sense only fut.)
vā: either / or
kṛtvā = abs. kṛ: to do, make

jarā-mṛtyu-kṣayam (acc. sg. m.): an end to aging and death
kṣaya: m. loss , waste , wane , diminution , destruction , decay , wasting or wearing away (often ifc.); end , termination (kṣayaṁ √ gam , √yā , √i , or upa √i , to become less , be diminished , go to destruction , come to an end , perish ; kṣayaṁ √nī , to destroy
kila: ind. (a particle of asseveration or emphasis) indeed , verily , assuredly ; " so said " " so reported " , pretendedly

akṛtārthaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. having one's object unaccomplished , unsuccessful.
nirārambhaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. not undertaking enterprises , abstaining from all work
ārambha: m. undertaking , beginning ; m. undertaking , beginning ; effort, exertion
nirālambaḥ [EHJ] (nom. sg. m.): mfn. =-avalamba ; self-supported , independent ; friendless , alone
ālamba: m. that on which one rests or leans , support , prop
lamba: mfn. hanging down , pendent , dangling , hanging by or down to (comp.) ; m. (in geom.) a perpendicular
avalamba: m. hanging on or from ; m. depending , resting upon ; m. dependance , support , a prop , a stay

nidhanam (acc. sg.): n. settling down , residence or place of residence , domicile , receptacle ;
n. conclusion , end , death , destruction , loss , annihilation
yāsyati = 3rd pers. sg. future √yā: to go , proceed , move , walk , set out , march , advance , travel , journey ; nidhanaṁ- √yā , to die
iti: “...,” thus
vā: either / or

越度生死海 然後當來還
情願若不果 身滅山林間


gniz said...

Hi Mike,

I want to say that I really appreciate, as I get older, the fact that you refuse to just be handed information and accept it at face value.

I feel as though mostly I just want to be given something that I can take easily, not to work at it myself. Not to come to my own understandings.

I just want it handed to me, and I'm always excited at the thought that I might GET IT somewhere--sometimes even from reading a line you've written.

Therefore, it occurs to me how rare it is when someone actually wants to do the work on their own, as you've been doing for years.

Thanks for being that example, it's a refreshing reminder to me.


Mike Cross said...

Thanks Aaron. Nice to know that I have impressed you so much by being a regular original know-it-all... but I refer you to tomorrow's verse, and the Gospel according to Shania quoted therein.