Sunday, September 29, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 7.39: A Vicious or a Virtuous Circle?

¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Sālā)
brahmarṣi-rājarṣi-surarṣi-juṣṭaḥ puṇyaḥ samīpe himavān hi śailaḥ |
tapāṁsi tāny-eva tapo-dhanānāṁ yat-saṁnikarṣād-bahulī-bhavanti || 7.39

For near to us,
inhabited by brahmin seers, king-seers, and god-seers,

Rises a holy Himālayan mountain 
[or a pleasant snow-clad peak] 

Through whose closeness are augmented

Those very investments of painful effort 
of people whose capital is painful effort.


To recite these words at the end of a session of sitting-meditation, even if it is a solitary one, is a reminder of belonging to an effort that is bigger than oneself...

All buddhas in the ten directions and of the three times,
All venerable bodhisattvas and maha-sattvas,
The great transcendent accomplishment which is real knowing –

Is the veteran practitioner who is speaking today's verse a venerable maha-sattva expressing the mahā-prajñā-pāramita

Or is he a pitiful devotee of asceticism talking the religious nonsense of a believer in holy mountains? 

Is he one of us? 

Or is he one of them? 

Puṇyaḥ himavān śailaḥ, translated as “the holy mountain Himavat” (as per EBC and EHJ) or “the holy Himālaya mount” (as per PO), tends to suggest the latter. But “a pleasant snow-clad rock,” which is an equally literal translation of puṇyaḥ himavān śailaḥ, tends to suggest something much less religious – something maybe more appealing as a venue for a skiing holiday. I have translated puṇyaḥ as “sacred” partly for conformity, because puṇyāni is repeated tomorrow in connection with tīrthāni, sacred bathing places. But the point is that the original Sanskrit is more ambiguous than our English translations are wont to be.

A clue that the veteran practitioner who is speaking today's verse might in fact be a maha-sattva speaking real wisdom, is contained in the order of the four elements of 
1. brahmin seers (representing something spiritual), 
2. king-seers (embodying material power), 
3. god-seers (suggesting something transcendent), and 
4. a magnificent Himālayan mountain (being conspicuously real).

So ostensibly in today's verse the veteran ascetic is expressing a kind of religious belief which is born of an ascetic dharma, and which is tied up with specifically Indian culture; but the veteran practitioner's words also can be read as expressing, below the surface, a universal truth born of experience of a kind of circle whereby painful effort begets further painful effort – and not necessarily in a vicious way, but sometimes in a virtuous way.

The truth may be that, whether for better or for worse, whether as part of a virtuous circle or a vicious one, effort tends to beget effort, practice tends to beget practice. Hence the old adage that if you want something doing, ask a busy man. 

And equally, if you want some doing stopped, ask a man or a woman who is devoted to non-doing. Or better still, leave him or her alone, and practise the stopping for yourself.

A virtuous circle is something I definitely experienced when I came back from Japan to England nearly 20 years ago and began training to be a teacher of the FM Alexander Technique. I experienced a virtuous circle whereby stopping the things I had got into the habit of doing (like pulling in my chin to keep my neck bones straight) caused me to become more aware, and the more aware I became the more I saw what was to be stopped. So it was a virtuous circle of stopping and becoming aware, and I was struck by it as such with a force commensurate with the degree to which I had previously been caught in the monkey trap of unconscious doing. Early experiences of Alexander work are liable to be like that, but as one persists with the work there is less to sense in the way of that kind of dramatic change. The monkey is liable to forget what it was like to have his wrist caught in the neck of the bottle, unable to withdraw his fist as long as it was closed around a desired peanut. 

For a closer illustration of the virtuous circle which I think today's verse is pointing to, whereby enjoyment of painful practice begets further enjoyment of painful practice, I remember the words of Master Tendo Nyojo quoted in Shobogenzo chap. 30, Gyoji:
At places where I hung my traveling staff, I never entered or saw inside a hut or dormitory. How much less could I expend effort on outings and jaunts among the mountains and waters? Besides practising sitting-zen in the Cloud Hall and the common areas, I would sit at quiet and convenient places, going alone to an upper floor or in search of some secluded spot. I always carried a round cushion inside my sleeve, and sometimes I would even sit at the base of a crag. I always felt I would like to sit through the Diamond Seat – that was the end which I hoped to gain. There were times when the flesh of my buttocks swelled up and burst. At these times, I liked sitting-zen all the more.
What Dogen's teacher is expressing here is not asceticism. But neither is it the easy negation of asceticism by somebody sitting in an academic easy chair. Hence the difficulty of the present Canto, which is not presenting a one-sided view, and which Aśvaghoṣa might have intended us to understand on more than one level.

The ostensible meaning of the second half of today's verse is that enduring ascetic practices in the presence of a holy mountain augments the merit of those ascetic practices. EBC's translation makes this explicit:

by whose mere presence the merit of these penances becomes multiplied to the ascetics.

EHJ also understood that what is augmented is the efficacy of austerities:

and by its neighbourhood those very austerities of the ascetics become multiplied in efficacy.

PO's translation is a much better reflection of the original:

Because it is near, those very austerities of men rich in austerity are amplified.

PO's translation is much better than EBC's and EHJ's translation for three reasons. Firstly, “men rich in austerity” conveys the original sense of tapo-dhanānām meaning men whose wealth, money, capital, or currency was ascetic practice – because, for many of those men, ascetic practice was the money by which they hoped to buy sex with celestial nymphs, as Nanda hoped in SN Canto 11. Secondly, PO's translation retains the original meaning that what was amplified was the austerities themselves, or the ascetic efforts themselves (hence tāny-eva), and not the merit or efficacy thereof. And thirdly, the sense of something other than the mountain being amplified by the grandeur of the mountain is rather poetic, romantic, and beautiful, and is elegantly conveyed as such in few words. 

In view of the financial connotation of tapo-dhanānām, and possibly reflecting my past life as a student of accountancy and financial management, I considered a translation along these lines, bringing out the financial metaphor:

Through whose proximity, when people whose capital is painful effort make investments of painful effort, those very efforts accrue to them in abundance.

Compared with this translation, however, PO's translation struck me as not only briefer and more elegant, but also – at least insofar as "austerities" includes the sense of practice itself, or effort itself  as truer to Aśvaghoṣa's original:

Because it is near, those very austerities of men rich in austerity are amplified.

The point I want to be clear about, in conclusion, is that ostensibly the veteran ascetic is expressing a principle which, as translated by PO, sounds beautiful – one's practice of pain becomes all the greater, all the more painful, from being done in the presence of a magnificent Himālayan mountain.

For a Buddhist who is in touch with his reason, however, asceticism is asceticism – a viewpoint which, however elegantly, beautifully and romantically it is expressed – we are here coldly to shun.

But, there again, if we dig deeper below this great big snow-clad rock, it may be possible – maybe after having dug for an hour or two and then turned our backs on the rock and walked away from it – to hear other, deeper echoes too.

brahmarṣi-rājarṣi-surarṣi-juṣṭaḥ (nom. sg. m.): loved/frequented by brahmin seers, royal seers, and divine seers
brahmarṣi: m. " Brahmanical sage " , N. of a partic. class of sages supposed so belong to the Brahman caste (as vasiṣṭha &c )
rājarṣi: m. a royal ṛṣi or saint , ṛṣi of royal descent , that holy and superhuman personage which a king or man of the military class may become by the performance of great austerities
surarṣi: m. a divine ṛṣi , a ṛṣi dwelling among the gods
juṣṭa: mfn. liked , wished , loved ; frequented , visited , inhabited

puṇyaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. auspicious , propitious , fair , pleasant , good , right , virtuous , meritorious , pure , holy , sacred
samīpe (= loc. samīpa): in the vicinity , near , close at hand , beside , in the presence of , at the time of , before , at , towards "
himavān (nom. sg. m.): mfn. having frost or snow , snowy , frosty , icy , snow-clad ; m. a snowy mountain ; m. the himālaya
hi: for
śailaḥ (nom. sg. m): mfn. made of stone , stony , rocky ; m. a rock , crag , hill , mountain

tapāṁsi (nom. pl.): n. austerities, ascetic practices
tāni (nom. pl. n.): those
eva: (emphatic)
tapo-dhanānām (gen. pl. m.): of/for those rich/steeped in austerities

yat: which
saṁnikarṣāt (abl. sg.): m. drawing near or together , approximation , close contact , nearness , neighbourhood , proximity , vicinity
bahulī-bhavanti = 3rd pers. pl. bahulī-√ bhū: to become widespread , spread , increase (intrans.) ; to become public or known

此處諸梵志 王仙及天仙
皆依於此處 又隣雪山側
増長人苦行 其處莫過

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