Tuesday, September 3, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 7.13: Steps in Painful Practice

¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (ddhi)
tato dvi-jātiḥ sa tapo-vihāraḥ śākyarṣabhāyarṣabha-vikramāya |
krameṇa tasmai kathayāṁ-cakāra tapo-viśeṣāṁs tapasaḥ phalaṁ ca || 7.13

And so the twice-born man,
an explorer of the pleasure of painful practice,

Spoke to the bull of the Śākyas,
whose steps were the steps of a bull –

He spoke to him, in steps,

About the varieties of painful practice
and about the fruit of painful practice.

Dvi-jātiḥ sa tapo-vihāraḥ

Adhering strictly to the dictionary, the nominative subject of today's verse could be translated
1. “the Aryan/brahmin who took pleasure in bodily mortification” or
2 (a) “the man born again who explored pain”; or even
2 (b) “the man born again who enjoyed exploring asceticism.”

So the same words, depending on how they are translated, could be suggestive of
1. some kind of sado-masochistic Nazi, or
2 (a) an enlightened Zen master who, in the physical sphere, followed his own injunction to “Enjoy the pain in your legs!”; or even
2 (b) an enlightened master who, in the philosophical sphere, enjoyed the work of examining, elucidating, abandoning, and helping others to abandon all -isms.

Which of these did Aśvaghoṣa have in mind? My guess is that Aśvaghoṣa was deliberately pitching his poetry, as it were, in steps, so that his words might be read at each of these levels, and probably other levels too that I have failed to twig.

In the coming series of five verses from BC7.14 to BC7.18, this twice-born man is going to describe, at least ostensibly, various forms of ascetic observance. I haven't translated those verses yet or examined them in detail, but I notice that the word anye features in them several times. This word anye has proved in the past to signify that Aśvaghoṣa, below the surface, wishes to consider individuals who are other, different, odd, individual, not conforming to easy assumptions or stereotypes – individuals who, in short, are anya. The memorable recent example was the sleeping beauties in Canto 5 who on the surface (or on the top step) were women in deformed and contorted poses but who seemed below the surface (or on lower steps) to symbolize true, non-stereotypical individuals  dropping off body and mind together in a Zen meditation hall. 

In the 2nd and 3rd pāda of today's verse, two words from the root √kram, to step, may be a pointer towards meaning hidden in such layers, or steps, in the coming series of verses.

In the 2nd  pāda, vi-krama means step, and by extension, valour or prowess, so that ṛṣabha-vikramāya means “having the valour of a bull” (EBC/EHJ: a very bull in prowess; PO: who had the valour of a bull), but before that ṛṣabha-vikramāya  means “having the step of a bull.” 

In the 3rd pāda, krameṇa literally means “going by steps,” and hence “in order” (EBC), “in due order” (EHJ) or “step by step” (PO). I take this krameṇa as a signal that the reader should mind the steps in the coming series of verses; in other words, that we should look out for more than one level of meaning.

What has such discussion of levels of meaning got to do with the one great matter which is the sole concern of the iron man of Zen? 

Not much – unless his sitting-meditation is something, let's say, like the sea, which invariably has 
(1) its superficially reflecting level, the surface of the sea; 
(2) its body,  the sea under the surface; and 
(3) its bottom, the sea-bed. 
Even under the sea-bed, some form of life, like a floundering fish or a primitive worm, may be lurking.

Using today's verse as a stimulus for reflection on my superficial self, I reflect on how easy it is, once one has clearly understood that the Buddha's teaching is not any kind of -ism, and certainly not any kind of asceticism, to feel comfortable, or smug, in one's understanding of a verse like today's verse -- and, indeed, in one's understanding of a Canto like the present Canto, which I had thought to give an ironically disparaging title like “Entering the Woods of Asceticism.”

But going down this road, it occurs to me, might be like putting up on facebook a populist slogan whose basic gist is “up with Buddhist compassion” or “down with killing children with sarin gas”  or "let's not hate all Muslims just because of the actions of a few disaffected youths who call themselves Islaamic jihadists." Scrolling down a list of likes garnered by such means, one can feel that yes, we who subscribe to this view are the good guys, the ones who are right. We can confirm each other in our right view, and feel that we all belong to the same Buddhist saṁgha. But what kind of practice is that? Is that the direction that Aśvaghoṣa's teaching is pointing us in?

Reflecting along these lines, I decided to opt for a translation that errs on the side of describing not 
1. an Aryan/brahmin proponent of that brand of falsity which is asceticism; but rather 
2. a born-again knower of falsity.

Because, to answer my own questions, negating the false views of others is a relatively easy and comfortable practice – at least it comes easily to me. But knowing falsity, primarily in oneself, is hard and painful practice. I think Aśvaghoṣa's writing is always inviting us, if we want to, to forego the path of easy and comfortable understanding and to dig deeper, which is liable to be painful, whether we like it or not.

Insofar as today's verse represents the negation of asceticism, it corresponds to the opening sentences of Dogen's instructions for sitting-meditation – originally the truth is all around already, and so who needs to make a big effort? To that extent today's verse is an invitation not to do anything other than to recognize and to understand what can be recognized and understood: the Buddha's teaching is not asceticism.

Insofar as today's verse corresponds to the concluding sentence of Dogen's instructions, it is a different kind of invitation altogether. It might be an invitation to sit with one's legs continuously crossed until one's legs become painful and then to ask – not in a spirit of expectant asceticism but rather in a spirit of detached observation or exploration (vihāra) – just what is this tapas, this pain?

The good thing about exploring consciously self-induced pain in this manner is that, unlike the devoted ascetic, one is always free to stop this exploration whenever one wants and engage in some other painless recreation, like pottering about the garden or making a pot of tea. 

tataḥ: ind. then, from that, thence
dvi-jātiḥ (nom. sg.): m. 'twice-born'; an Aryan , esp. a Brahman
sa (nom. sg. m.): he
tapo-vihāraḥ (nom. sg. m.): delighting in asceticism
tapas: pain, suffering ; religious austerity , bodily mortification , penance , severe meditation , special observance
vihāra: m. walking for pleasure or amusement , wandering , roaming ; sport , play , pastime , diversion , enjoyment , pleasure (" in " or " with " comp. ; ifc. also = taking delight in)

śākyarṣabhāya (dat. sg.): the bull of the Śākyas
ṛṣabha-vikramāya (dat. sg.): with the step/valour of a bull
vikrama: m. a step , stride , pace; going , proceeding , walking , motion , gait ; valour , courage , heroism , power , strength

krameṇa: ind. instr. in regular course , gradually , by degrees
krama: m. step ; going , proceeding , course ; uninterrupted or regular progress , order , series , regular arrangement , succession
tasmai (dat. sg.): to him
kathayāṁ-cakāra = 3rd pers. sg. periphrastic perf. kath: to tell , relate , narrate , report , inform ,

tapo-viśeṣāṇ (acc. pl. n.): different ascetic practices
viśeṣa: m. a kind , species , individual (e.g. vṛkṣa-v° , a species of tree , in comp. often also = special , peculiar , particular , different , e.g. chando-v° , " a particular metre " , viśeṣa-maṇḍana , " a peculiar ornament " ; argha-viśeṣāḥ , " different prices ")
tapasaḥ (gen. sg.): n. ascetic practice
phalam (acc. sg.): n. fruit
ca: and

爾時彼二生 具以諸苦行
及與苦行果 次第隨事答

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