Monday, September 9, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 7.19: The Truth & Irony of It

¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Rāmā)
ity-evam-ādi dvipadendra-vatsaḥ śrutvā vacas-tasya tapo-dhanasya |
adṣṭa-tattvo 'pi na saṁtutoṣa śanair-idaṁ cātma-gataṁ babhāṣe || 7.19

The son of a chief among two-footed beings,
listened to words like these, and more,

Under that man steeped in painful practice

But he failed to see the truth of it, and was not satisfied.

Silently he said to himself:

I have mentioned it before along the way, but trying to understand Aśvaghoṣa's writing without a sense of irony is like going digging for gold armed with a pea shooter, or like trying to scratch the surface of a tortoise with a feather duster.

Most often Aśvaghoṣa's irony is concealed, buried below the surface so that without an effort of digging, equipped with a suitable tool, like a spade or a pick-axe, one could miss it completely. But in the 3rd pāda of today's verse, as I read it, Aśvaghoṣa is explicitly pointing out the irony, with the phrase adṛṣṭa-tattvo 'pi, which really means “even though the truth of the situation was lost [on the prince].” 

Admittedly, however, this criticism of the prince is itself somewhat ironic, not totally overt, since adṛṣṭa-tattvo 'pi could imply either 
(1) praise of the prince for not seeing the truth in a teaching that was not true, and therefore not being satisfied with it  ("[he listened to it,] even though he did not see any truth in it"); or 
(2) praise for the prince for not being satisfied with a false teaching, even though he was not yet fully enlightened ("even though he did not yet know the truth, [he was not satisified]"). 

The ironic truth of the situation, to recap, is this: The man born again is ostensibly dvi-jātiḥ, “twice-born” in the sense of being a brahmin or an āryan, and is ostensibly tapo-dhanaḥ “austerity-rich,” in the sense of being steeped in asceticism. But below the surface he has been speaking as one “twice-born” in the sense of having been, in the first place, born from a mother, and, in the second place, re-born by emerging from unconsciousness; and he is “austerity-rich” in the sense of being rich in practice which he has experienced as painful even though experience of pain was not the aim.

So the twice-born man steeped in painful practice has been presaging for the prince the teaching of buddhas – adṛṣṭa-tattvo 'pi, even though the truth of it has been lost on the prince, even though the prince has failed to see the truth of it.

And yet, even in pointing to this irony, as it were, above the ground, with the sign post adṛṣṭa-tattvo 'pi, Aśvaghoṣa camouflages his intention so that this meaning of adṛṣṭa tattvo 'pi remains invisible to those who do not see the truth of the matter, being themselves adṛṣṭa-tattvāḥ, unaware of the truth of it. To be unaware of the truth of it, in this case, means to be unaware of the irony of it. And vice versa: to be unaware of the irony of the situation is to be unaware of the truth of it. 

As a pointer to the irony of the situation, adṛṣṭa-tattvo 'pi means the prince listened to the enlightened master, though the truth was lost on him, and [so] he was not satisfied.

But if one doesn't catch the irony of the situation then adṛṣṭa-tattvo 'pi has to mean something else – leaving the translator with the options (1) and (2) listed above or (3) a neutral literal translation which makes no attempt to interpret. 

The Chinese translator went with option (3) translating adṛṣṭa-tattvo 'pi as 不見眞實義 which means "he did not see the true meaning." 

Translating from the Chinese, Samuel Beal went with option (1) and translated 不見眞實義 as “not perceiving any element of truth in them” – 

The lord of men, the excellent master, hearing all their modes of sorrow-producing penance, Not perceiving any element of truth in them, experienced no joyful emotion in his heart; (SB)

EBC, failing to catch Aśvaghoṣa's irony, referred to Samuel Beal's translation from the Chinese. Then, allowing himself to be guided by this translation, EBC tentatively went with option (1) and translated adṛṣṭa-tattvo 'pi as “even though he saw no lofty truth in it.”

The king's son, having heard this speech of the ascetic, even though he saw no lofty truth in it, was not content, but gently uttered these thoughts to himself: (EBC)

But EBC was evidently also aware of option (2), and so added in a footnote: 

or perhaps ‘though he had not himself yet attained the highest truth.'

EHJ's translation takes this latter tack, that is, option (2): 

The child of the lord of men listened to these and the like statements of the anchorites; though he had not yet reached the perception of reality, he was not satisfied and said these words in an undertone to himself: (EHJ)

PO's translation sounds more neutral, and less committed to option (2), since it omits EHJ's "yet." But the implicit gist of PO's reading is as per EHJ, and as per option (2): 

The king's son heard this and like orations from that man whose wealth was ascetic toil; yet, even though he did not know the truth, he was not pleased and whispered to himself: (PO)

I may seem to have laboured a small point, but here is why I think it matters.

The most important matter in sitting-meditation, I was taught from the age of 22, is to sit upright in the correct posture.

Once I had understood this simple principle, over the next 13 years my posture in sitting-meditation – even though my legs loosened up after a few years to the point where I was comfortable sitting for long periods in full lotus – became worse and worse. The more I practised, the worse my posture became.

Why did my posture become worse and worse? Basically because I sat without having understood the central irony that trying to sit in the correct posture makes a person, in his misguided belief in the whole concept of right posture, wronger and wronger.

Finally, at the age of 34, which is nearly 20 years ago now, I came across the teaching of FM Alexander that “There is no such thing as a right position, but there is a right direction.”

“Right position,” you may say, “or right direction – it is the same difference. What is the big deal?”

I say it is as big a deal as the difference between a reading of today's verse that recognizes Aśvaghoṣa's ironic criticism of the prince, and other readings which do not recognize this irony. 

To clarify the difference between how Gudo Nishijima taught me to sit upright and what Alexander teachers teach (at least the ones who know the score) is one way I intend to pay my rent on this earth to other two-footed beings (and also to late lamented four-footed friends, if it comes to that). 

To clarify the difference between that reading of Aśvaghoṣa's writing which takes account of Aśvaghoṣa's pervasive use of irony, and other readings, is also a way I intend to pay my rent to others on this earth. 

But in fact it is not two tasks. The task is to clarify that “There is no such thing as a right position, but there is a right direction.” But it is one hell of a long term task. After 20 years, I have barely scratched the surface of the egg even in my own practice. I am still, in Marjory Barlow's words, going around the whole time trying to be right. 

"Let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen, while sending the knees forwards and away." 

With words like these, and more; with words like these, and otherwise; with words like these and through the use of his hands, FM Alexander gave people a means to free ourselves from trying to be right, from trying to feel right, from trying to find a right position  and from all the undue tension that such trying brings with it. Alexander provided humanity with a means, for our time, really to scratch the surface of the tortoise. 

My Zen teacher, in contrast, though he gave me many things, did not give me such an effective means. "Pulling the chin in slightly to keep the neckbones straight" and thus "just sitting, keeping the spine straight vertically" does not cut the mustard. It does not scratch the surface of the tortoise. 

Is constantly and angrily pointing out the inadequacy of Gudo Nishijima's teaching any way to repay him for the decades of his own heroic effort to clarify the gist of Dogen's teaching, not least for my benefit? 

In a word, yes. 

ity-evam-ādi: ind. and so forth
dvipadendra-vatsaḥ (nom. sg. m.): the son of a chief of bipeds
dvi-pada: m. a biped
indra: ifc. best , excellent , the first , the chief (of any class of objects)
vatsa: m. a calf , the young of any animal , offspring , child ; a son, boy

śrutvā = abs. śru: to listen, hear ; learn
vacaḥ (acc. sg.): n. words, speech
tasya (gen. sg. m.): of him
tapo-dhanasya (gen. sg.): mfn. rich in religious austerities , (m.) a great ascetic

adṛṣṭa-tattvah (nom. sg. m.): being yet to realize the truth,
adṛṣṭa: unseen , unforeseen , invisible , not experienced , unobserved , unknown
api: even, though
na: not
saṁtutoṣa = 3rd pers. sg. perf. saṁ- √ tuṣ: to feel quite satisfied or contented , be pleased or delighted with , have great pleasure in

śanaiḥ: ind. quietly , softly , gently , gradually , alternately
idam (acc. sg. n.): this
ca: and
ātma-gatam: ind. to himself
babhāṣe = 3rd pers. sg. perf. bhāṣ: , to speak , talk , say , tell

兩足尊賢士 聞此諸苦行
不見眞實義 内心不欣悦
思惟哀念彼 心口自相告 

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