Monday, August 5, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 6.54: Rational Readings, of Palms and Horse Whispers

jālinā svastikāṅkena cakra-madhyena pāṇinā |
āmamarśa kumāras-taṁ babhāṣe ca vayasyavat || 6.54

Using a hand whose fingers formed a gapless web,
a mark of well-being,

A hand with a wheel in its middle,

The prince stroked him

And spoke to him like a friend equal in years:

When I start sitting in lotus first thing in the morning my mouth is closed but (contrary to Dogen's instructions) my upper and lower teeth generally don't touch and neither do the sides of my fingers remain in contact with their neighbours. But later on as I get better energized, it does not seem like any trouble at all to keep upper and lower teeth in light contact with each other, or to keep the sides of the fingers in contact with each other -- so that if there are any gaps between the fingers, they are only small ones. When I am up to it, I find it a useful challenge, as alluded to a couple of days ago, to consciously keep the fingers together while at the same time thinking of knuckles releasing apart from each other. The former drawing together of fingers can consciously be done with muscular effort (as for example when making a tight fist in karate) but the latter release apart of knuckles is an undoing which not even the Buddha could do – though the Buddha might have thought it (but not in the view of my teacher Gudo Nishijima who opined that any kind of thinking during sitting-Zen was to be avoided).

Any way up, it is in this light that I understand the 1st pāda of today's verse – on the basis of my own practice and experience, and on the basis of reason. I take the description of the fingers remaining in contact as the auspicious sign itself, the mark of sv-asti-ka (lit. well-being). Similarly in the 2nd pāda I take the cakra (lit. wheel or circle) in the middle to mean the middle of the hand as an energy centre, which, as I know from Alexander experience, the middle of the hand certainly can be.

If we descend into irrational religious belief, then we can easily interpret the elements of the first two pādas in terms of the “stigmata” of the kind which excite the minds of irrational religious Christians, one such stigmata being the swastika motif.

On the surface, it is true, Aśvaghoṣa does seem to be describing the prince in such motif-bearing terms. Hence:

With his hand whose fingers were united with a membrane and which was marked with the auspicious svastika, and with its middle part curved, the prince stroked him and addressed him like a friend: (EBC)

With his webbbed hand, which was marked with svastikas and bore the wheel sign on the palm, the prince stroked Kanthaka and spoke to him as if he were his comrade of like age:-- (EHJ)

With his webbed hand, swastika-marked, having the wheel-mark on its palm, the prince stroked the horse soothingly, and he spoke to him like a friend: (PO)

But I would like to go out of my way to avoid any kind of fantastical interpretation which takes the svastika and cakra to be extraneous symbols. I would like to make this effort not in the spirit of seeking a middle way between rationality and irrationality, but rather in the spirit of affirming the rational and eschewing the irrational, the religious, the superstitious.

Finally, in the compound vayasya-vat, vayas originally means “age” and so vayasya is literally “one of the same age” -- a contemporary, and by extension a friend. Vayasya-vat, then, is most simply and elegantly translated as “like a friend.” At first glimpse, EHJ's “as if he were his comrade of like age” looks inelegant and pedantic. But on further reflection there may be wisdom in EHJ's rigorous approach.

Last night on the Radio 4 obituary programme Last Word I heard about a spiritual teacher named Sonia Moriceau whose own original teacher of mindfulness meditation called himself John Garrie Roshi. The title “Roshi” is a Japanese word meaning “old teacher” or “old master” and so somebody who gives himself this title sounds like a Japanese Zen master. John Garrie Roshi also wore a black gown, again like a Japanese Zen master. But to express the Buddhist practise of mindfulness which he taught he favoured the Pali word sati (= Sanskrit smṛti), like a Theravada monk who was versed in the Pali Suttas.

When I sit first thing in the morning, with negative thoughts, bleary eyes, slack jaw, and limp fingers, do I sit like a Japanese Zen master? Not if I can help it. If I wanted to sit like a Japanese Zen master, I would just bring the teeth and fingers together at once, assuming the correct posture. But as a matter of fact I generally don't make that kind of effort these days. At least not as much as I used to. These days I prefer primarily just to notice – or if I am in particularly bad shape, I might form the intention to do a bow (ranging from a barely perceptible tilt from the hips to a deeper bow with hands joined that stretches the back), say No, think the words “head forward and up, back to lengthen and widen, knees forwards and away,” and allow the movement. This kind of noticing, I dare say, might be like Buddhist practice of mindfulness.

The point, to spell it out, is that the prince did not speak to his horse like a friend. To the prince the horse was a friend, and to the horse the prince was a friend. The prince spoke to the horse like they were equal, because they weren't equal: in reality the human was senior to the horse – either senior in terms of being older in years, or senior because of being a human being, or both.

Was Aśva-ghoṣa, the Horse-Whisperer, mindful of such niceties in describing the relation between the human prince Gautama and his excellent horse Kanthaka? You can bet your bottom dollar he was.

In conclusion, at the risk of (or, let's be honest, with a view to) offending a certain breed of radical animal rights activist, I venture to submit that Aśvaghoṣa might have had the idea that, in the final analysis, a human being is higher than a horse. Why? For one thing human beings can sit in full lotus, whereas horses can't. And for a Zen patriarch such as Aśvaghoṣa was, just sitting in full lotus was the highest thing.

jālinā (inst. sg. m.): mfn. having a net ; retiform ; having a window
svastikāṅkena (inst. sg. m.): mfn. marked with the svastika cross
svastika: m. a kind of bard (who utters words of welcome or eulogy) ; any lucky or auspicious object , (esp.) a kind of mystical cross or mark made on persons and things to denote good luck ; the majority of scholars regard it as a solar symbol ; that is , as representing a curtailed form of the wheel of the Solar viṣṇu , consisting of four spokes crossing each other at right angles with short fragments of the periphery of the circle at the end of each spoke turning round in one direction to denote the course of the Sun ; accord. to the late Sir A. Cunningham it has no connexion with sun-worship , but its shape represents a monogram or interlacing of the letters of the auspicious words su astí [svasti] in the aśoka characters
aṅka: m. a hook, a curve ; a numerical figure , cipher , a figure or mark branded on an animal , &c

cakra-madhyena (inst. sg. m.): having a wheel / cakra in the middle
cakra: n. a wheel, circle
pāṇinā (inst. sg.): m. (said to be fr. √ paṇ, to honour, praise) the hand

āmamarśa = 3rd pers. sg. perf. ā- √ mṛś: to touch; to consider, reflect upon ; to rub off , wipe away , remove
kumāraḥ (nom. sg.): m. the prince
tam (acc. sg. m.): him

babhāṣe = 3rd pers. sg. perf. bhāṣ: to speak , talk , say , tell
ca: and
vayasyavat: ind. like a friend
vayasya: mfn. being of the same age; m. a contemporary , associate , companion , friend
-vat: an affix added to words to imply likeness or resemblance , and generally translatable by " as " , " like " (e.g. brāhmaṇa-vat , like a Brahman )

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1 comment:

Rich said...

My dog of 20 years was my friend. He submitted to me more than I submitted to him. Though he had no full lotus form he did sit and lie down a lot. Maybe he had sitting mind.