Wednesday, September 18, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 7.28: Outsiders Reap the Fruit, Having Gone Against the Indian Law of Karma

¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Indravajrā)
āhāra-śuddhyā yadi puṇyam-iṣṭaṁ tasmān-mgāṇām-api puṇyam-asti |
ye cāpi bāhyāḥ puruṣāḥ phalebhyo bhāgyāparādhena parāṅmukhārthāḥ || 7.28

If the good is to be got through purity of food,

It follows that there is good in even the creatures of the forest;

As well as there are human beings who,
through the reaping of fruits, subsist as outsiders –

Human beings who, because of contravening destiny,
are turned away from wealth.

Today's verse is a difficult one. It seems ostensibly to be ridiculing the idea that “holy purity” or “religious merit” (puṇyam) can be got by eating wholesome and pure food, and it seems to do so with reference to outcasts who, though they are excluded from the advantages of human society and live out in the wilds, eking out an existence from nature in the raw, are nonetheless conspicuously lacking in religious merit – as a result of reaping evil karma whose seeds they sowed in past lives.

If ever a verse was calling out to have its hidden meaning dug for, then, it is today's verse – because on the face of it, today's verse sounds like a bit of Āryan nonsense that would not be worthy of the Śākya prince even before he became the Buddha.

A good place to start digging is bāhyāḥ phalebhyaḥ in the 3rd pāda.

The nominal plural bāhyāḥ (being outside [nom. pl.]) can mean, with the ablative phalebhyaḥ (fruits/enjoyments/rewards), “they are situated outside of enjoyments/rewards,” hence EBC translated bāhyāḥ phalebhyaḥ as “outcasts from all enjoyments”; EHJ as “excluded from the rewards of dharma”; and PO as “excluded from such rewards.” In these readings phalebhyaḥ are the enjoyments, benefits, or rewards of civilized society from which outcasts due to their bad karma are excluded.

EHJ clarifies this reading in his translation and footnote:
If merit is held to derive from purity of food, then merit accrues also to the deer and even to those men who are excluded from the rewards of dharma and on whom by some fault of their destiny wealth has turned its back. (EHJ)
FN: I take the reference in c to be to those who under the rules of caste could not practise the higher forms of Brahmanical religion. The implication, explicitly stated by C [the Chinese translator], is that they are too poor to afford anything but food such as hermits live on.

PO brings out and spells out this ostensible meaning of today's verse even more clearly in his own translation and footnote:
If you seek merit through the purity of food, then even by the deer merit should be acquired! So also should men excluded from such rewards, who, due to some misfortune, are bereft of wealth.
FN: If merit comes from the purity of one's food, then the deer should acquire a lot of merit, because they eat only grass, leaves, and berries, which are all pure food. And if simple poverty or lack of wealth is meritorious, then even outcastes and other people normally excluded from religion should acquire merit because they are poor from birth or due to some misfortune.

If we stop and consider what EHJ and PO think the Buddha-to-be is saying, why on earth would Aśvaghoṣa put such words into the mouth of the Buddha-to-be? To suggest that the prince, although he had established the will to the truth, was still harbouring arrogant prejudices based on a determinist / Brahmanist understanding of karma?

No, as with yesterday's verse, I think Aśvaghoṣa intention is to encourage us to smash through the surface meaning with a sharp spade and dig out the hidden meaning below.

So in the first half of the verse, the prince is ostensibly saying something absurd as a rhetorical device, suggesting that it is ridiculous to think that eating natural food conduces to goodness, virtue, or religious merit. But Aśvaghoṣa's ironic recognition may be that, yes, the creatures of the forest do indeed benefit from eating those natural foods – as opposed to the processed foods eaten by human beings in towns and villages.

In the second half of the verse, the ablative phalebhyaḥ can be read as meaning “because of fruits,” so that bāhyāḥ phalebhyaḥ, which ostensibly means “they were excluded from fruits/benefits/enjoyments” can also mean “they were outsiders, because of fruits.” This might be intended to suggest a literal meaning (phalebhyaḥ = on the basis of [harvesting and eating] fruits) as well as the more obvious metaphorical meaning (phalebhyaḥ because of the results of their actions, because of reaping the fruits of what they sowed).

The 3rd pāda can thus be read as a description of those who, far from being unfortunate outcasts, are true human beings who have taken themselves outside of human society and into the forest – people who, in other words, have got themselves well and truly out, as per the title of BC Canto 5, abhiniṣkramaṇaḥ, “Getting Well & Truly Out.”

In that case, in the 4th pāda bhāgyāparādhena (EBC: by the fault of their destiny; EHJ: by some fault of their destiny; PO: due to some misfortune) is an ironic expression of the exercise of individual autonomy. On the surface bhāgyāparādhena means something like bringing misfortune upon oneself by offending (aparādha) Lady Luck (bhāgya). But below the surface contravening (aparādha) destiny (bhāgya) means refusing to accept karma as karma has been understood since time immemorial by superstitious and irrational Indians. Rather, bhāgyāparādhena (contravening so-called destiny) means understanding karma to be a function of those actions for which each individual is able to exercise individual responsibility here and now. The latter affirmation of the true law of karma might be an out-and-out violation of the law that Narendra Dabhoklar (who was assassinated in August as a result of offending Indian holy men) observed his superstitious countrymen blindly clinging to – the karma which he called a law for sheep and slaves.

And finally parāṅmukhārthāḥ (EHJ: on whom wealth has turned its back; PO: are bereft of wealth) on the surface suggests the kind of misfortune to which outcastes are subject – the misfortune of being shunned (parāṅmukha) by wealth (artha). But the expression parāṅmukhārthāḥ leaves it open whether ye puruṣāḥ (those human beings who...) are the shunned or the shunners; and artha is a term whose many meanings (including wealth and aims, purposes, ends) Aśvaghoṣa is always playing on. So below the surface parāṅmukhārthāḥ could describe buddhas as great human beings of small desire who shun opulence, or it could equally describe Zen practitioners as human beings who keep their attention turned away from ends, because with both eyes fixed on the destination one is liable to veer off the road.

Having written the above and then sat, I ask myself, not for the first time: if Aśvaghoṣa really did intend such deliberate ambiguity and irony – and in a verse like today's the surface meaning is so open to criticism that I cannot see how he didn't – then why? Why did he go to all this trouble? Why did he make his intention so inscrutable as to be totally missed by three generations of professors of Sanskrit? 

At the same time, since Aśvaghoṣa has been revered for nearly two thousand years as a founding Zen ancestor, one wonders what the heck a verse like today's verse has got to do with the one thing Zen ancestors are supposed to be devoted to, which is sitting-dhyāna, sitting-Zen?

And the first answer that I keep coming back to is based on my own experience over the last 30-odd years of a great big cosmic irony. For more than ten years I understood that sitting-Zen was mainly about physically doing something that I felt to be right – “a kind of physical gymnastics” in Gudo Nishijima's words. But for the last 20 years, in a totally ironic twist, I have been investigating sitting based on the opposite conception. I have been investigating, bit by bit, what happens in sitting when we learn NOT TO DO what feels right but is actually wrong. I would not claim to have got very far yet along this path, which requires the individual to open himself or herself to the very thing we tend to fear – our own wrongness. In any event, this sort of dramatic irony which may be inherent in anybody's zealous pursuit of the truth of non-doing, and Aśvaghoṣa's pervasive use of verbal irony, seem to me to be all entangled with each other. So I suspect that verbal irony was Aśvaghoṣa's way of pointing us to the kind of dramatic irony, or cosmic irony, in which sitting-dhyāna is liable to entangle the zealous practitioner.

In recent comments I have written of the difference between knowing the Buddha's teaching, as those who sit know it, and knowing about the Buddha's teaching, as academics know about it. In this also there may be an irony, in that really to know the Buddha's teaching, by sitting, is to enter into uncertainty itself. So this may be another, albeit related, answer to the question of why Aśvaghoṣa so evidently favoured inscrutability of expression. Aśvaghoṣa's intention may have been to save us from the sin of certainty.

Finally, having asked myself the above why question in preparing this comment yesterday, and then slept on it, and sat again, I remembered that Aśvaghoṣa in several places in his epic poems describes the joy of the first stage of sitting-zen as viveka-jam (born of solitude/separateness; e.g. SN17.42; BC5.11). And so truly to be an outsider might be related in Aśvaghoṣa's mind with this kind of separateness, which in fact is not so easy to come by. It is not always easy to separate oneself, for example, from emotional, familial, financial, and professional commitments. Some monks in the Theravada tradition seem in many ways to be paragons of such separation, though they tend to be tied to the Theravada rule book, and even they – if they are living as a foreigner in a Southeast Asian country – are liable to run into visa problems and the like. Perhaps the greatest freedom is afforded by being paid to do a job that one loves doing, though there again the law of impermanence is liable to apply.

Thus, when I reflect on today's verse in light of my own experience, including at some times a deep sense of the joy of separation, and at other times frustration at being caught up in involvements, I think the real turning word in today's verse might be phalebhyaḥ. Those human beings who are outside (ye bāhyāḥ puruṣāḥ) are truly outside because of fruits (phalebhyaḥ) – because of reaping what they sowed.

Today's verse, then, is really saying something about karma. But what it is really saying about karma is totally different from what it appears to be saying on the surface.

āhāra-śuddhyā (inst. sg.): by purity of diet
āhāra: m. food ; taking food
śuddhi: f. cleansing , purification , purity (lit. and fig.) , holiness , freedom from defilement
yadi: if
puṇyam (nom. sg.): n. the good or right , virtue , purity , good work , meritorious act , moral or religious merit
iṣṭam (nom. sg. n.): mfn. sought, wished, desired ; regarded as good , approved
iṣ: to endeavour to obtain , strive , seek for ; to desire , wish , long for , request

tasmāt: ind. from that, therefore
mṛgāṇām (gen. pl.): m. creatures of the forest, deer
api: even, also
puṇyam (nom. sg.): n. the good or right , virtue , purity ,
asti (3rd pers. sg. as): there is

ye (nom. pl. m.): [those] who
ca: and
api: even, also ; api api or api-ca , as well as
bāhyāḥ (nom. pl. m.): mfn. (fr. bahis) being outside (a door , house , &c ) , situated without (abl. or comp.) , outer , exterior ; not belonging to the family or country , strange , foreign ; excluded from caste or the community , an out-caste
puruṣāḥ (nom. pl.): m. man
phalebhyaḥ (abl. pl.): n. fruit (met.) , consequence , effect , result , retribution (good or bad) , gain or loss , reward or punishment , advantage or disadvantage; benefit , enjoyment

bhāgyāparādhena (inst. sg.): because of going against fate / fortune
bhāgya: mfn. ( √ bhaj) to be shared or divided , divisible; entitled to a share ; lucky , fortunate ; n. sg. or pl. (ifc. f(ā). ) fate , destiny (resulting from merit or demerit in former existences) , fortune , (esp.) good fortune , luck , happiness , welfare ; n. reward
aparādha: m. offence , transgression , fault; mistake
apa- √ rādh : to miss (one's aim , &c ) ; to wrong , offend against (gen. or loc.)
parāṅmukhārthāḥ (nom. pl. m.): shunning wealth / being shunned by wealth
parāṅmukha: mfn. having the face turned away or averted , turning the back upon ; averse from , hostile to , regardless of , shunning , avoiding (loc. ; gen. ; acc. with prati , or comp.) ; unfavourable , unkind (as fate &c )
artha: mn. aim, end, purpose ; utility ; substance , wealth , property , opulence , money
parāṅmukhatvāt [EBC]: because of the state of being shunned' ; EBC: 'through being estranged'

食淨爲福者 禽獸貧窮子
常食於果葉 斯等應有福 

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