In Aśvaghoṣa's epic tale of Beautiful Happiness (Saundara-nanda), the Buddha tells Happiness (Nanda) to know the path as a turning back (nivartakaṃ cāpy-avagaccha mārgam; SN16.42). This might be the light in which to read all of Aśvaghoṣa's writings, but especially this Canto whose title is chandaka-nivartanaḥ, Chandaka / Turning Back. Both of Aśvaghoṣa's epic poems ostensibly chart a chronological journey, following time's arrow forward, but below the surface in every verse Aśvaghoṣa is inviting us to dig deeper and realize the Buddha's teaching of turning back – to learn, in other words, what Dogen called the backward step (of turning one's light, and it reflecting / shining).
What is this process of turning back? What is it that we turn back from, and what do we turn back to?
The final verse in the Canto, with its description of suffering pain on account of attachment/devotion (bhakti), caused me to look back and consider Aśvaghoṣa's use throughout the Canto of the terms bhakti (generally translated as “devotion”; see BC6.5, 6.7, 6.56, 6.68) and sneha (“attachment / allegiance / affection”; see BC6.6, 6.15, 6.24, 6.27, 6.44, 6.50, 6.51).
Simply thinking, what we turn back from is expectations, end-gaining, the whole gamut of unconscious attachments that are bound up with suffering. And what we turn back to is simple devotion to the good medicine of Dharma.
Here and now, as the cockerel loudly crows, I feel like I am suffering through attachment, the worst of states. And here and now, as I continue with this work, I feel like I am saved by devotion, the best of states.
But the final verse in the Canto, in its use of the word bhakti (where sneha would seem to be more consistent with what has gone before), seems to call into question this simple understanding in which there is bad attachment and good devotion.
If they are two, how in fact do the two co-exist like this? Are they like the bottom and top of a very high frequency wave? Are they like two faces on one very rapidly spinning coin, with bad attachment on one side and good devotion on the other? Is this how the worst of states seems so easily to turn into the best of states, and vice versa?
Are devotion and attachment in fact two? Or are sneha and bhakti, attachment and devotion, two words for one thing – as suggested by the MW dictionary which gives bhakti as attachment, devotion, fondness.
If they are one thing, where does salvation lie? In having it? Or in not having it?
When the prince praises Chanda's devotion (bhakti) in BC6.5 and 6.7, isn't he in fact praising Chanda's attachment? Equally, when Aśvaghoṣa describes the horse-master as suffering on account of devotion (bhakti) in BC6.68, isn't he describing a horse-master's attachment?
Conversely, when the prince tells Chanda in BC6.24, “Because of abandoning attachment (sneha), one does not suffer grief,” isn't the prince referring in context to Chanda's devotion?
Could the horse-master expect a time when, because of abandoning attachment, he might not suffer grief? If so, might that expectation itself not become the cause of grief?
The final truth that the horse-master might have been suggesting, in such a whisper that one might not notice it, is that turning back is itself an act of attachment, on account of which it is liable to be accompanied by suffering of grief and pain.... but do not call it asceticism.
Then at the instant of the rising
Of the light-producing eye of the world,
The ashram of a son of Bhṛgu
He the best of men did see.
Deer there breathed easy, in unsuspecting sleep,
Birds perched with self-assurance –
On seeing which he seemed reposed,
Like one who has been successful.
As an act of inhibition of pride,
And out of respect, yes, for ascetic endeavour,
While guarding his own submission,
He got down off the back of the horse.
Having got down he patted the war-horse,
Saying “Well done,”
And said to Chandaka, with joyful appreciation,
As if bathing him in his eyes:
This horse as swift as Tārkṣya,
O mellow man of soma, you have shown devotion to me.
This, at the same time, is your own valiant doing.
While altogether absorbed in alternative pursuit,
I am taken into the heart by you –
You who possess this allegiance to a master
And at the same time such proactive power.
Some, while uncongenial, are capable;
Some, though ineffectual, are devoted;
One of your ilk, both devoted and able,
Is hard to find on this earth.
Therefore I am gladdened
By this most magnificent action of yours.
This attitude towards me is conspicuous,
Turned away while I am from rewards.
What person would not tend to turn his face
In the direction of a person who offers promise of reward?
Even one's own people become,
on the whole, part of common humankind,
In the event of a turnaround in the opposite direction.
For the sake of continuing a line, a son is maintained;
For the sake of nurturing growth, a father is served;
Living beings cohere because of an agenda –
There is no unselfishness without a cause.
Why say much?
It is a great kindness to me
that you have, in a word, done.
Take the horse and turn back!
I have arrived where I wanted to be.”
Thus having spoken, he of mighty arm,
Desiring by his action to prevent what injures a man,
And gave them to him whose mind was inflamed with grief.
The shining pearl, which serves as a source of light,
He took into his possession, from his crown,
And firmly he stood, speaking these words,
Like Mount Mandara in the Aditi-begotten sun.
“Using this pearl, Chanda,
Bow down repeatedly,
And, without loosening your grip on fearlessness,
commune with the protector of men
commune with the protector of men
So that the fires of anguish
may be turned back and extinguished.
may be turned back and extinguished.
[Tell the king as follows:]
'For an end to aging and death,
I have entered the ascetic woods;
Not out of any thirst for heaven,
Nor disaffectedly, nor with zealous ardour.
So you ought not to grieve for me
Who thus am well and truly gone;
Since any union, for however long it has existed,
In time will cease to exist.
And since separation is certain
Therefore my mind is directed towards liberation
In order that, somehow, one might not be
Repeatedly dissevered from one's own people.
For me who has left, to leave sorrow behind,
You ought not to sorrow.
Those stuck on sorrow-causing desires –
Carriers of the taint of redness, rather,
are the ones to sorrow for.
And this, assuredly,
Was the firm resolve of our forebears!
Going, in this spirit, by a path akin to an inheritance,
I am not to be sorrowed after.
For when a man experiences a reverse and comes to an end
There are heirs to a thing of substance he possesses.
Dharma-heirs, however, on the earth,
Are hard to find, or non-existent.
Though he might be said to have gone at a bad time
To the forest,
In dharma, in truth, no bad time exists –
Life being as fickle as it is.
Therefore my conviction is that,
this very day,
The better state is there to be garnered in me.
For who can rely on lasting life
While inimical death stands by?'
With words like these and otherwise, my gentle friend,
You are to commune with a ruler of the wealth-giving earth;
And may you endeavour further,
So that he is not mindful of me at all.
Indeed, speak to the king
Of our being-without virtue.
Because of the being-without virtue,
attachment is abandoned.
Because of abandoning attachment,
one does not suffer grief."
Having heard these words,
The anguished Chanda,
With voice clogged with tears,
As he stood with hands held together in a reverent posture,
“Because of this purport of yours,
Which so exercises those who are close to you,
My heart, Master!, sinks,
Like an elephant into mud by a river.
Who would not be moved to tears
By a resolve such as this of yours,
Even with a heart made of iron?
How much more with a heart befuddled by attachment?
For where could there co-exist this softness,
Fit for a bed in a palace,
And the ground of the ascetic forest,
Covered with hard blades of darbha grass?
But when I learned from you your purpose, Master,
And I brought for you this horse,
I was caused to do it, inescapably,
By a doing which really was divine.
For how by my own will could I,
Knowing this purpose of yours,
Lead swift-going sorrow
Away from Kapilavastu?
Therefore, O man of mighty arm!
The fond old king who is so devoted to his son
You should not forsake
In the way that a nihilist forsakes true dharma.
And the queen who exhausted herself bringing you up,
Your second mother –
You should not forget her
In the way that an ingrate forgets the rendering of kindness.
mother of your young son and possessor of her own virtues,
Who is laudable as a noble lady and loyal as a wife –
You should not leave her
In the way that a sissy
abdicates a high office he has assumed.
The boy who is Yaśodhara's laudable son,
A most excellent bearer of your glory and dharma –
You should not part from him
In the way that a compulsive grafter forgoes ultimate glory.
Or else, if kith and kingdom
You are determined to renounce,
Please, Master, do not abandon me –
For your two feet are my refuge.
I am not able, with a mind that is burning,
To go to the city,
Having left you behind in the woods –
As Sumantra was unable to leave behind Raghu-descended Rāma.
For what will the king express to me
When I arrive in the city without you?
Again, what shall I express, based on seeing what is expedient,
To the ones within the battlements, who belong to you?
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?
Or, even if, with shame-tinged heart
And cleaving tongue,
I were to speak words,
Who is going to give credence to that?
One who would tell of, or have confidence in,
The fierceness of the mellow moon,
He would tell of faults in you, O knower of faults!,
Or would have confidence therein.
For one who is eternally compassionate,
Who is constantly steeped in kindness,
It is not befitting to abandon devoted friends,
Turn back, please, for me.”
Having listened to this speech
Of the grief-stricken Chanda,
Being at ease in himself,
thanks to constancy of the highest order,
The best of speakers spoke:
“Let this distress at separation from me, Chanda,
Disparate existence is the rule
Among singly-born beings who own a body.
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.
With a great desire, and attendant sufferings,
She bore me in her womb:
When her effort's fruit is naught,
Where will I be, for my mother? Where she, for me?
Just as, on a roosting-tree, birds of an egg-born feather
Flock together and then go their separate ways,
So does an association of real beings
Always have separation as its end.
Just as clouds join together
And then drift apart again,
So, as I see it, is the joining and separation
Of those who breathe.
And since this world slips away,
Each side leaving the other disappointed,
The sense that it belongs to me is not fitting
In a coming together that's like a dream.
Trees shed the redness
Of leaves generic to them;
How much surer is separation to come to pass
Between one individual and another one who is different.
It being so, O mellow man of soma,
Do not agonize! Let there be movement!
And if attachment lingers on,
Having gone away, then come again.
And say to people in Kapilavastu
Who look to me with expectation:
'Let attachment directed there be given up,
And let this purpose here and now be heard.
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.' ”
Having listened to these words of his,
Kanthaka, highest among swift-going horses,
Licked his feet with his tongue
And shed hot tears.
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:
“Do not shed tears, Kanthaka!
This the true horse-nature is proven.
Let it be.
This effort of yours will rapidly become fruitful.”
The jewelled hilt in Chandaka's hand
The prince then sharply grasped,
And from its sheath the gold-streaked sword,
Like a viper from its hole, he drew up and out.
Unsheathing that dark blue blade
– ushering out the darkness of the 'lotus petal' brand –
He cut off his patterned headdress, along with his hair,
And into the middle distance between earth and heaven,
as the unravelling muslin spread softly shining wings,
He launched it, like a bar-headed goose towards a lake.
With eager desire to worship it,
because it was so greatly to be revered,
The beings who dwell in heaven seized upon that jetsam;
And divine congregations in heaven, with due ceremony,
With special celestial honours, exalted it.
He, however, having let go of being wedded to ornaments,
Having acted to banish the crowning glory from his head,
And having seen the softly shining light
whose brightness is the best of gold,
He with firm steadfastness longed for clothing of the forest.
Then a sky dweller in the guise of a hunter of forest game,
His heart being pure, knew what was in the other's heart
And drew near, in his ochre-coloured camouflage.
The son of the Śākya king said to him:
“Your propitious ochre robe, the banner of a seer,
Does not go with this pernicious bow.
Therefore, my friend, should there be no attachment in this matter,
Give me that and you take this.”
The hunter spoke:
“This, O granter of desires, is the means whereby,
from as far away as desired,
I inspire trust in wild creatures,
only to shoot them down....
But if you have a use for this means,
O man as mighty as Indra,
Here, accept it, and render here the white.”
Then, with joy of the highest order,
He took the garment of the forest and gave away his linen finery;
But the hunter, wearing the very essence of the divine,
Went to heaven, taking that whiteness with him.
Then the prince and the horse-master (aśva-gopa)
Marvelled at his departing in such a manner;
And of that clothing of the forest
All the more highly did they think.
Then, having set the tear-faced Chanda free,
Clad in consciousness of the ochre robe and
wearing constancy and honour,
He moved majestically in the direction of the ashram
Like the moon – king among stars – veiled by a dusky cloud.
And so, as his master was retiring like this
into the ascetic woods,
Desiring nothing in the way of sovereignty
and wearing clothing of no distinction,
The preserver of the war-horse,
there and then, threw up his arms,
Cried out wildly, and fell upon the earth.
Looking again, he bellowed in full voice
And embraced the horse Kanthaka with both arms;
Thus, devoid of hope or expectation,
and lamenting over and over,
He journeyed back to the city with his body,
not with his mind.
Here he reflected, there he lamented;
Here he stumbled, there he fell;
And so keeping on, suffering pain on account of devotion,
He did without meaning to do many actions on the path.
The 6th canto, titled Chandaka / Turning Back,
in an epic tale of awakened action.
in an epic tale of awakened action.