Sunday, September 1, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 7.11: Wanting to Know the Truth of It

¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Chāyā)
tapo-vikārāṁś-ca nirīkṣya saumyas-tapo-vane tatra tapo-dhanānām |
tapasvinaṁ kaṁ-cid-anuvrajantaṁ tattvaṁ vijijñāsur-idaṁ babhāṣe || 7.11

And the moon-like man of soma-mildness,
when he had observed there, in that forest of ascetic severity,

The ascetic contortions of ascetics steeped in severity,

Spoke as follows, wanting to know the truth of it,

To one of the ascetics who was walking along with him:

The word tapas (or tapo- in compounds) appears no less than four times in today's verse. The meaning of tapas ranges from (the more neutral) "heat" to "austerity" to "severely hard practice" to "asectic practice" to (the evil -ism of) "asceticism." Tapas  is contrasted with saumyaḥ, which describes the prince as "of the soma," that is, moon-like, mild, gentle  picture a mellow Aussie, if you will, imbibing the cool amber nectar on a hot summer night. 

But the real turning words in today's verse, as I read it, are tattvaṁ vijijñāsuḥ, wanting to know the truth of it. 

Superficially, tattvaṁ vijijñāsuḥ means wanting some information that is not false, as when a jealous husband or a terminally ill patient demands “I want to know the truth!”

Below the surface tattvaṁ vijijñāsuḥ is another nominal expression like yesterday's vimokṣa-kāmaḥ (being desirous of release): it is Aśvaghoṣa describing the inner workings not only of the Śākya prince but of every bodhisattva.

That being so, tattvam means more than reliable information. Etymologically tattvam is tat (that, it) + tvam (neuter abstact noun suffix), so tattvam means “that-ness” or “it-ness.” 

Tvam is the neuter equivalent of the feminine abstract noun suffix -tā, as in buddha-tā, “awakened-ness, the Buddha-nature,” or as in śūnya-tā, “empty-ness, emptiness.”

Aśvaghoṣa nowhere discusses these famous Buddhist technical terms buddha-tā and śūnya-tā – just as Aśvaghoṣa eschews the word saṁgha as it is used by Buddhists to express a Buddhist congregation or Buddhist community or brotherhood of Buddhist monks. Tat-tvam, however, is not a technical Buddhist word. It is not a piece of Buddhist jargon familiar only to the Buddhist cognoscenti, experts who have spent years studying momentous concepts like the Buddha-nature and emptiness. Tattvam simply means the truth, reality. In the Sanskrit equivalent of Coronation Street, if Albert Tatlock had walked into the Rovers Return and said, “What the hell is going on?” he would probably have used the word tattvam. But I very much doubt that it would have been in character for Albert to engage Stan & Hilda Ogden in a discussion of the Buddha-nature, or of the relation between form and emptiness.

Linking today's verse and yesterday's verse, I think that behind the tradition of sitting-zen, vimokṣa-kāma, desire for release, has been evolving for millions of years in the direction of consciousness. But the irony might be that not even the buddhas themselves can know the ultimate truth of it. The truth might be that the ultimate truth of it can never be fathomed, even by the buddhas. But we may all be able to learn a bit along the way about falsity.

For example, if in my desire to be free I wish for my spine to lengthen vertically in such a way that I grow taller but narrower, in such a way that I grow unduly tight and rigid, that is a bit of falsity. That is a bit of turning freedom into its opposite. So this much I do know from experience, at least to some extent – the truth of not it.

When I was in my twenties I wanted to know the truth more than I wanted anything else – which for me in my twenties is saying something. But that desire to know the truth had somehow got entangled with a desire to be right, which caused me to fix and get stuck. 

I was taught in Japan that a desire to know the truth intellectually is mistaken, that one has to desire to know the truth with one's whole body and mind, primarily by sitting in lotus and keeping the spine straight vertically. So, not knowing any better, I went for this aim directly, relying on faulty sensory appreciation. This was a recipe for getting uprightness more and more confused with uptightness and for piling suffering upon suffering, on self and others.

What I also needed to be taught was how to go about the task of sitting upright in an indirect manner, using the wisdom of the indirect. I was not in fact taught this wisdom of the indirect until I met teachers who could teach it when I was in my mid-30s – which is not to say that I learned it well enough, or have applied it well enough over the past 20 years. My wife's dog, who has spent much of the past few weeks panting in pain, can testify to that.

tapo-vikārān (acc. pl. m.): the ascetic contortions
vikāra: m. (for 1. » [p= 950,1]) change of form or nature , alteration or deviation from any natural state , transformation , modification , change (esp. for the worse) of bodily or mental condition , disease , sickness , hurt , injury , (or) perturbation , emotion , agitation , passion ; contortion of the face , grimace
ca: and
nirīkṣya = abs. nir- √ īkṣ: to look at or towards , behold , regard , observe (also the stars) , perceive
saumyaḥ (nom. sg. m.): the mild man of soma, the gentle one

tapo-vane (loc. sg.): the ascetic forest ; the woods of asceticism
tatra: ind. there
tapo-dhanānām (gen. pl. m.): mfn. rich in religious austerities , (m.) a great ascetic

tapasvinam (acc. sg. m.): mfn. distressed , wretched , poor , miserable ; practising austerities , (m.) an ascetic
kaṁ-cid (acc. sg. m.): somebody
anuvrajantam = acc. sg. m. pres. part. anu- √ vraj : to go along, follow (especially a departing guest , as a mark of respect) ;

tattvam (acc. sg.): n. true or real state , truth , reality ; the being that
vijijñāsuḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. desirous of knowing or understanding
idam (acc. sg. n.): this
babhāṣe = 3rd pers. sg. perf. bhāṣ: to speak, say

種種修福業 悉求生天樂 
問長宿梵志 所行眞實道 

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