Saturday, September 7, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 7.17: Wearing Dreadlocks & Burning Butter? Coming to the Bottom Step & Scratching the Surface? – Questions of Selection

¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Bālā)
ke-cij-jala-klinna-jaṭā-kalāpā dviḥ pāvakaṁ juhvati mantra-pūrvam |
mīnaiḥ samaṁ ke-cid-apo vigāhya vasanti kūrmollikhitaiḥ śarīraiḥ || 7.17

Some, their matted locks having been wetted in water,

Twice pour butter into the fire, with mantras.
Twice make offerings of three, with mantras.
Twice a day, with mantras, honour a person who has been purified.

Some, like fishes, go deep into the water

And there they abide,
their bodies being scratched by turtles
their bodies scratching the surface of the tortoise.

Today's verse is the fourth in a series of five verses in this monologue. The previous three verses ostensibly relate to what and how ascetics eat and drink. The first verse of the five (BC7.14) is introductory and the fifth verse (BC7.18) is conclusory. We might expect today's verse, as the fourth verse in this series, to be the most enigmatic verse, or the most difficult one to get to the bottom of – and I think it is.

First of all, is today's verse, like the three verses preceding it, related to food and drink?

It could be insofar as (a) pāvakaṁ juhvati in the 2nd pāda means “they poured butter into the fire” and (b) apah in the 3rd pāda means water. Rather than being consumed, however, this butter is sacrificed, and this water is plunged into. So something does not quite fit. The reader's brain – at least the brain of this reader – is denied the satisfaction of a last piece of a jigsaw fitting neatly into place.

In translating and commenting on the three previous verses, I was able to make a case – convincing at least myself – for an ostensible ascetic reading on the surface and a hidden reading available to those who are prepared to dig for it, or to go on the necessary journey, via descending steps. But the hidden meaning of today's verse, as I read it, is not so accessible.

The first half of the verse, i.e. the first yugapāda, is the more problematic, as the reference to dreadlocks seems to exclude anybody other than ascetic peacocks. Any hope of a hidden reading would centre on the multiple meanings of pāvakaṁ juhvati.

Since pāvaka (fire) can mean the number three (there being three kinds of fire), and √hu can mean to make an offering not only of butter but of any kind, could dviḥ pāvakaṁ juhvati suggest doing two sets of three prostrations – for example, before having one's head shaved for the first time?

Again, since pāvaka (fire) can mean a person who has been purified (as if by fire), and dviḥ can mean not only “twice” but “twice a day,” could dviḥ pāvakaṁ juhvati mean “they honour a human being who has been purified [= buddha] twice a day [at least]”? So, at a stretch, could the suggestion be that we who once had long hair which would drip with water (when we swam or when we washed it), now, having shaved our heads, honour the Buddha by our practice of sitting-meditation on a daily basis first thing every morning and last thing at night?

It is possible, but my guess is that Aśvaghoṣa did not wish to give us the satisfaction of cracking the first yugapāda with an attempt like this – a putative “right answer” of the kind provided by crossword puzzles, but not, sadly, by life.

I found myself thinking when I woke up this morning that I could have intervened to save our dog even after triggering her initial injury. The problem only became serious after I went to France in the middle of July, and my wife, being so emotionally attached to her dog, struggled to cope. If I had come back from France, I could have taken the dog to see the local osteopath who is my friend. He would have been a lot more help than the useless vets my wife visited. Again, I could have explored the homeopathic route with my friend who is a homeopath. Could have, would have, should have.... As if, all along, there was a right answer, but I in my stupidity and ignorance failed to work it out in time.

In truth, I tell myself, there never was a right answer that I could have worked out...

Or was there? 

Dogen writes in Shobogenzo – I think he is quoting Nāgārjuna – that in principle a lay practitioner can attain the truth that the Buddha realized, but in practice it is extremely difficult. If we attend to our family life, our practice suffers; and if we focus on our practice, our family life suffers. In this situation it boils down to a question of selection.

Those words a question of selection have a lot of barnacles attached to them in the murky depths of my unconscious mind. They were the words Gudo Nishijima used to describe a predicament I was in exactly 30 years ago, in the late summer and autumn of 1983. My end-gaining mind latched onto those words all too eagerly.... If it is a question of selection, OK, that is easy then. Of course, in view of My Great Mission in life, I will chose the Way to Enlightenment.

On a Saturday afternoon when I lived in Tokyo, from 1982 onwards, there would be Zazen, followed by an English lecture on Shobogenzo, followed by Zazen again, followed by a Japanese lecture. On the particular afternoon in question in September 1983 – I remember it was in Mita, not in the usual venue of Hongo-sanchome – I had alluded to my romantic predicament in a question after the English lecture and Gudo had deemed that it was a question of selection. In the following Zazen period, straightening my spine and pulling in my chin like my life depended on it, I zealously reflected on the question of selection and in my excited state wherein my pelvis and my head were hopelessly out of true alignment with each other, I latched heatedly onto the wrong conclusion. Straight after that Zazen period, and before starting his Japanese lecture, Gudo came up to me and said something to the effect of “At the same time, there is no need to deny calling your girlriend up on the telephone.” (These were the days, mind you, when a three-minute phonecall from Japan to England would cost me a day's English-teaching wages.) Evidently Gudo had reflected on his question of selection while sitting – which tended, ironically, to be much better aligned than the sitting of those students who followed his instructions most literally – and realized that a more moderate approach in the middle way might be appropriate. But I had made up my mind already, feeling my own sitting to be quite balanced, thank you very much. So I replied to Gudo something along the lines of “It is OK. The problem does not affect my balance so much.” Never was a feeling more unreliable. And never was a falser word spoken.

So it is not that there are no answers, and not that there is no question of selection. In the writings of Aśvaghoṣa there are verses as I hope to have demonstrated over the years, that can be cracked. And according to the Zen patriarchs, sometimes it does boil down to a question of selection.

At the same time, to decide too quickly that it all boils down to a question of selection – as I decided at the age of 23 that my predicament boiled down to a question of selection, before I had searched thorougly enough for a middle way – is a mistake. Sometimes it is a question of selection; and sometimes it isn't. In principle it is not necessarily so, as Nāgārjuna indicates. But in practice sometimes it is, as Nāgārjuna also suggests. 

So is it a question of selection? Or is it not a question of selection? 

Yes and No. 

This being so, it may be that Aśvaghoṣa deliberately wrote – like a novelist writing a novel with an uncertain ending – some verses that cannot be cracked. One such memorable example comes towards the end of SN Canto 17:
Thus he overcame three surges, three sharks, three swells, the unity of water, five currents, two shores, / And two crocodiles: in his eight-piece raft, he crossed the flood of suffering which is so hard to cross. // 17.60 //
Read in this light, the words mantra-pūrvam (with mantras) in the 2nd pāda take on real meaning. A mantra, from the root √man, to think, originally means “an instrument of thought.” This in itself is ironic, since a mantra, as generally understood, has come to mean a mystical sound or word that is repeated thoughtlessly as a means of transcending thought. But if a mantra means an instrument of thought, then the verse I referred to yesterday recited in praise of the kaṣāya is a mantra, since it reminds us in what direction to keep pointing our thoughts....
widely crossing over all living beings.

My tentative conclusion about the first yugapāda, then, it is that it might be a device by which Aśvaghoṣa is encouraging us to think in an open-ended or open-minded manner. The first yugapāda might itself be a kind of mantra, an instrument of thought. 

I think the second yugapāda, in contrast, is in fact a kind of riddle that can be cracked – but only by people who are accustomed to work in which the surface of the egg, or the surface of the tortoise, is scratched with the whole body abiding in stillness.

Ostensibly the man born again is describing some weird brand of asceticism which involves the ascetic practitioners' bodies being “scratched by tortoises” (EBC) or “scored by turtles” (EHJ/PO). But I am sure that, below the surface, vasanti kūrmollikhitaiḥ śarīraiḥ is a description of people sitting in a meditation hall – abiding there, with bodies that are scratching the surface of the tortoise.

In conclusion, then, today's verse can be read as I have translated it above, as replete with many possible meanings, none of which should be selected as “the right answer.” Indeed, to allow one's brain to fix upon a “right answer” might be the very thing Aśvaghoṣa wishes the reader to avoid.

Conversely, today's verse can be read as I have translated it below, the first yugapāda describing nothing but the behaviour of dreadlocked ascetics, which never even scratches the surface of the tortoise; and the second yugapāda describing the behaviour of shaven-headed Zen practitioners whose sitting-meditation does indeed scratch the surface of the tortoise.

Some, their matted coils of hair dripping with water,

Twice pour butter into the fire, with mantras.

Some, like fishes, go deep into the water

And there they abide,
their bodies scratching the surface of the tortoise.”

Read like this, today's verse seems to affirm the truth of it being, in the end, a question of selection.  The way of asceticism? Or the Buddha's way of sitting-meditation? Pay your money and make your choice. Piss or get off the pot.  

But there again, today's verse can be read like this:

Some, their matted locks having been wetted in water,

Twice pour butter into the fire, with mantras.
Twice make offerings of three, with mantras.
Twice a day, with mantras, honour a person who has been purified.

Some, like fishes, go deep into the water

And there they abide,
their bodies scratching the surface of the tortoise.

Read like this, the impenetrability of first yugapāda creates a certain tension which the cracked riddle of the second yugapāda resolves – like delusion being followed by enlightenment.

Isn't this how we would like our life of Zen practice to be? Bitter effort followed in due course by sweet reward.

In SN Canto 16, the Buddha, in exhorting Nanda to manifest heroic endeavour, seems to suggest to Nanda that this is how it is:
Just as a fruit may have flesh that is bitter to the taste and yet is sweet when eaten ripe, / So heroic effort, through the struggle it involves, is bitter and yet, in accomplishment of the aim, its mature fruit is sweet. // SN16.93 //
In principle, Nāgārjuna seems to suggest, this is how it is and how it can be, even for a lay practitioner. Even for a lay practitioner, it is possible in principle. But especially for a lay practitioner, neither the Buddha nor any Zen Patriarch ever said it was easy in practice.

In principle it is possible even for a lay practitioner to enjoy the sweetness of the mature fruit of enlightenment, or so they say. But in practice it is not easy even to scratch the surface of the tortoise  that much is for damn sure. 

ke-cid (nom. pl. m.): some
jala-klinna-jaṭā-kalāpāḥ (nom. pl. m.): their matted coils of hair dripping with water
jala: n. water
klinna: mfn. moistened , wet ; running (as an eye) ; rotted , putrefied
jaṭā-kalāpa: m. a knot of braided hair
jaṭā: f. the hair twisted together (as worn by ascetics , by śiva , and persons in mourning)
kalā: f. a small part of anything , any single part or portion of a whole , esp. a sixteenth part
kalāpa: m. (fr. √āp, to get) " that which holds single parts together " , a bundle , band ; a peacock's tail ; an ornament in general ; a zone , a string of bells (worn by women round the waist) ; the rope round an elephant's neck ; totality , whole body or collection of a number of separate things

dvis: ind. twice ; twice a day
pāvakam (acc. sg.): m. fire or the god of fire ; m. name of the number 3 (like all words for " fire " , because fire is of three kinds » agni); m. a kind of ṛṣi , a saint , a person purified by religious abstraction or one who purified from sin
agni: m. fire , sacrificial fire (of three kinds , gārhapatya , āhavanīya , and dakṣiṇa)
gārhapatya: m. the householder's fire (received from his father and transmitted to his descendants , one of the three sacred fires , being that from which sacrificial fires are lighted
āhavanīya: m. consecrated fire taken from the householder's perpetual fire and prepared for receiving oblations
dakṣiṇāgni: m. the southern fire of the altar
juhvati = 3rd pers. pl. hu: to sacrifice (esp. pour butter into the fire) , offer or present an oblation (acc. or gen.) to (dat.) or in (loc.) , sacrifice to , worship or honour (acc.) with (instr.) ; to sprinkle on; to eat
mantra-pūrvam: ind. with mantras
mantra: m. " instrument of thought " , speech , sacred text or speech , a prayer or song of praise ; a Vedic hymn or sacrificial formula ; a sacred formula ; a mystical verse or magical formula (sometimes personified) , incantation , charm , spell
pūrvam: ifc. in the sense of " with " e.g. prīti-pūrvam , with love ; mati-pūrvam with intention , intentionally

mīnaiḥ (inst. pl.): m. a fish
samam: ind. ind. in like manner , alike , equally , similarly; mfn. same , equal , similar , like , equivalent , like to or identical or homogeneous with (instr.
ke-cid (nom. pl. m.): some
apaḥ (acc. sg.): n. water
vigāhya = abs. vi- √ gāh: , to plunge or dive into , bathe in , enter , penetrate , pervade ; to be engrossed by or intent upon , ponder ; to reach, obtain

vasanti = 3rd pers. pl. vas: to dwell, live ; to remain , abide with or in (with loc. of pers. ; loc. or acc. of place ); to remain or keep on or continue in any condition (with a pp. , e.g. with channa , " to continue to be covered)
kūrmollikhitaiḥ (inst. pl. n.): being scratched by tortoises / scratching a tortoise
kūrma: m. a tortoise , turtle ; the earth considered as a tortoise swimming on the waters
ullikhita: mfn. slit , torn ; scratched , polished , &c ; painted, Bcar.
ul- √ likh: to make a slit or incision or line , tear , mark by scratching ; to scratch , scrape , cut , make lines upon ; to make a scratch or incision , cut into ; to chip , chisel ; to delineate , shape , make visible or clear ; to polish , grind away by polishing
śarīraiḥ (inst. pl.): n. body

或常水沐頭 或復奉事火

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