−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti (Indravajrā)
duḥkhātmakaṁ naika-vidhaṁ tapaś-ca svarga-pradhānaṁ tapasaḥ phalaṁ ca |
lokāś-ca sarve pariṇāmavantaḥ sv-alpe śramaḥ khalv-ayam-āśramāṇām || 7.20
“Asceticism in its various forms has suffering at its core;
At the same time, ascetic practice has heaven as its chief reward;
And yet every world is subject to change –
All this toil in ashrams, for so very little!
Today's verse is the first in a series of twelve verses, from here to BC7.31, in a monologue in which the prince considers whether asceticism is reasonable or not.
In such an investigation, based a priori on human reason – rather than on practice and experience – the natural place to start might be the truth of impermanence.
To put this investigation on the basis of reason into context, however, it might be worth stepping back and looking ahead to BC Canto 12 where, having visited the sages Arāḍa and Udraka, and learned the philosophical systems that they taught, the Buddha-to-be sees that their teaching is not it either, and he decides after all to practice and experience extreme austerities. This period of ascetic practice, which centred on fasting, and which lasted for six years, is described in the sketchiest of detail in five or six verses from BC12.94. It is covered in even less detail in the final pāda of SN3.4:
For ascetic practice, then, he left Kapilavāstu -- a teeming mass of horses, elephants and chariots, / Majestic, safe, and loved by its citizens. Leaving the city, he started resolutely for the forest. // SN3.1 // In the approach to ascetic practice of the various traditions, and in the attachment of sages to various restraints, / He observed the miseries of thirsting after an object. Seeing asceticism to be unreliable, he turned away from it. // 3.2 // Then Ārāḍa, who spoke of freedom, and likewise Uḍraka, who inclined towards quietness, / He served, his heart set on truth, and he left. He who intuited the path intuited: "This also is not it." // 3.3 // Of the different traditions in the world, he asked himself, which one was the best? / Not obtaining certainty elsewhere, he entered after all into ascetic practice that was most severe (paramaṁ cacāra tapa eva duṣ-karaṁ). // 3.4 //Then, having seen that it was not the path, he also abandoned that extreme asceticism. / Understanding the realm of meditation to be supreme, he ate good food in readiness to realise the deathless. // SN3.5 //
So Aśvaghoṣa does not dwell on descriptions of the extreme ascetic practices with which the Buddha persevered for six years, presumably lest we in our stupidity are inspired to follow that ascetic example.
But the point remains that in the coming series of verses the Buddha-to-be is going to present an intellectual rationale against asceticism, and yet, however watertight his arguments are, proceeding as they do from that great universal truth which is described by the 2nd law of thermodynamics, these arguments will ultimately not stop the Buddha-to-be from devoting six years to finding out for himself whether ascetic practice might actually work after all.
So in BC12.94 the Buddha-to-be asks himself of ascetic practices:
mṛtyu-janmānta-karaṇe syād-upāyo 'yam
Might this be a means whereby dying and being born is brought to an end?
And then, really to answer that question to his own satisfaction, notwithstanding the intellectual rationale against asceticism which he himself has already set out,
duṣkarāṇi samārebhe tapāṁsy-anaśanena saḥ
He undertook, using the means of fasting, arduous ascetic practices.
The content of today's verse, then, may be important, as the starting point of a reasoned argument against asceticism, which we ought to know and understand. But even more important might be where Aśvaghoṣa positions this argument in the overall scheme of things. The overall positioning is such, it seems to me, as to remind us how weak the power can be of even the best of reasoning.
So being unreasonable is certainly not it. But the Buddha's teaching in the end, even more than it is a matter of being reasonable, is a matter of being practical.
The present Canto is titled tapo-vana-praveśaḥ, which I originally thought to translate, with a certain irony, “Entering the Woods of Asceticism.” But in light of the words of the twice-born man whose teaching, below the surface, seems to contain wisdom born of painful practice and experience, on second thoughts I veered more towards a translation with a less pejorative connotation, like “Entry into the Forest of Painful Practice” – because, whatever one says about the irrationality and potential harmfulness of ascetic practice, practice at least has the merit of being practice.
Reflecting as above on today's verse, however, causes me to wobble back towards “Entering the Woods of Asceticism” – because, in a sense, with the twelve-verse monologue that the prince is now beginning, he is entering into the realm of intellectual discussion of asceticism as an -ism, without feeling drawn to suck it and see. Whereas at the end of BC Canto 12, in contrast, what is described is nothing intellectual and nothing discursive, but just the wisdom of a recognition, and the wisdom of a decision to abandon six years of ascetic practice at once.
duḥkhātmakam (nom. sg. n.): mfn. whose essence is sorrow
naika-vidham (nom. sg. n.): mfn. manifold, various
tapaḥ (nom. sg.): n. ascetic practice
svarga-pradhānam (nom. sg. n.):
pradhāna: n. a chief thing or person , the most important or essential part of anything ; (often also ifc. e.g. indra-pradhāna , (a hymn) having indra as the chief object or person addressed)
tapasaḥ (gen. sg.): n. ascetic practice
phalam (nom. sg.): n. fruit, result, reward
lokāḥ (nom. pl.): m. world
sarve (nom. pl. m.): mfn. all
pari-ṇāma-vantaḥ (nom. pl. m.): mfn. having a natural development
pari-ṇāma: m. change , alteration , transformation into (instr.) , development , evolution ; result , consequence , issue , end
sv-alpe (loc. sg.): mfn. very small or little , minute , very few , short
śramaḥ (nom. sg.): m. fatigue; exertion , labour , toil , exercise , effort either bodily or mental , hard work of any kind
khalu: ind. (as a particle of asseveration) indeed , verily , certainly , truly
ayam (nom. sg. m.): this
āśramāṇām (gen. pl.): mn. ashram, hermitage, abode of ascetics