Monday, September 30, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 7.40: A Stairway to Heaven (Designed to Make Us Really Wonder)

¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Indravajrā)
tīrthāni puṇyāny-abhitas-tathaiva sopāna-bhūtāni nabhas-talasya |
juṣṭāni dharmātmabhir-ātmavadbhir-devarṣibhiś-caiva nṛparṣibhiś-ca || 7.40

All around us, likewise, are holy [or wholesome] bathing places,

Which are akin to stairways to heaven
[or which, at the level of the air, consist of steps];

They are frequented by seers whose essence is dharma
and by seers who are full of the essence –

By divine seers and by seers who are protectors of men.

The reference to stairs or steps (sopāna = stairs, steps, stairway) conjures images in the mind of steps leading down to the Ganges, and indeed googling “sacred bathing places, India” causes vague images in the mind to be replaced by more concrete images right there on the screen.

The 2nd pāda of today's verse also inevitably brings to mind the words of an old folk song written by a bloke like me who emanated out of the west middle-earths. Robert Plant, Wikipedia confirms, was born in West Bromwich and went to school in Stourbridge – not a million miles from where I was born. If we had stuck to our original career-paths, he might have ended up mentoring me in chartered accountancy.

The 2nd pāda of today's verse, then, sopāna-bhūtāni nabhas-talasya, which might be translated “akin to a stairway to heaven” on the face of it confirms that puṇyāni in the 1st pāda is describing the bathing places, or fords, as sacred or holy, leading to heaven.

That being so, tīrthāni puṇyāni sopāna-bhūtāni nabhas-talasya ought to be translated in such a way as to emphasize the heavenward orientation of the sacred bathing places; hence:
holy spots of pilgrimage, which become ladders to heaven (EBC)
holy pilgrimage places, very stairways to the sky (EHJ)
sacred fords, which are true stairways to the heavenly plane (PO).

But this is not the only way to understand bhūta (which means both “being like” and “being/consisting of”) and tala (which means “level/plane” [as per PO's translation], but which can be understood as pleonastic, and hence not necessary to be translated [as per EBC/EHJ's translations], and which at the same time can mean something as concrete and basic as “the sole of the foot”).

When we think in concrete material terms what a place called a tīrtha (a sacred bathing site, a sacred ford, a place of sacred waters) really is, it can never be nothing but holy water. A place that consisted only of holy water might be a suitable place of pilgrimage for a fish, but not for a human being  unless equipped with scuba-diving gear. When we think in these terms, sceptically, irreligiously, it is evident that a sacred bathing place where human beings bathe, at the level of water, must consist of water, but at the level of the air it must consist of steps. 

Thus, on further reflection, I think Aśvaghoṣa deliberately constructed the 2nd pāda both of today's verse and of yesterday's verse to be amenable to be read as an expression of something religious, spiritual and sacred, and, on the contrary, as an expression of something natural, material and concrete – possibly as a kind of test of our mental flexibility.

That being so, I have not only used square brackets in today's verse but have also gone back to yesterday's verse and added an alternative translation of puṇyaḥ himavān śailaḥ in square brackets, so that the 2nd line now reads:

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

If we read the first two pādas of today's verse in this light, as expressions of the sacred and the concrete being combined together, then the 3rd pāda can also be read like that, and the 4th pāda can also be read like that.

On the surface, then, the veteran ascetic is again simply trying to persuade the Buddha-to-be that this ashram will be a good place for him to stay and practise. But below the surface, I think Aśvaghoṣa has put into the mouth of the veteran practitioner words that are designed to really make us wonder.

In conclusion, what has a verse like today's verse got to do with sitting in lotus? Not much, you might think – except that sitting with the body and sitting with the mind are mutually antithetical conceptions.

A boat is a boat. Whether it is powered and directed by oar or by sail, the movement of a boat is the movement of a boat. If a person uses a boat to get from A to B for years and years only by rowing, and then he puts a sail up and starts to sail from A to B, the movement from A to B is still the movement from A to B, and the boat is still the boat. But moving the boat by one's own muscular doing, and sailing the boat using the power of the wind, are totally different approaches.

So it is, as I see it, with sitting with the body and sitting with the mind.

And thus, I hope, I passed Aśvaghoṣa's test of mental flexibility, not so much because of being a bright spark, but rather because of having spent several hours a day for the last thirty years investigating what the hell it is to sit in full lotus and yet fail to drop off body and mind. 

tīrthāni (nom./acc. pl.): n. a passage , way , road , ford , stairs for landing or for descent into a river , bathing-place , place of pilgrimage on the banks of sacred streams , piece of water
puṇyāni (nom./acc.. pl. n.): mfn. auspicious , propitious , fair , pleasant , good , right , virtuous , meritorious , pure , holy , sacred
abhitaḥ: ind. near to , towards ; (with acc.) on all sides , everywhere , about , round
tathā: ind. likewise
eva: (emphatic)

sopāna-bhūtāni (nom./acc. pl.): being / being like a stairway
sopāna: n. stairs , steps , a staircase , ladder to (gen. or comp.)
bhūta: (ifc.) being or being like anything , consisting of
nabhas-talasya (gen. sg.): n. " sky-surface " , firmament
nabhas: n. mist , clouds , vapour (esp. of the soma); the sky or atmosphere (du. heaven and earth AV. )
tala: n. surface , level , flat roof (of a house) ; the part underneath , lower part , base , bottom ; mn. the palm (of the hand) ; mn. the sole (of the foot) ; n. the root or seed of events

juṣṭāni (nom./acc. pl. n.): mfn loved, frequented, visited
dharmātmabhiḥ (inst. pl. m.): mfn. religious-minded , just , virtuous , dutiful ; m. a saint , religious person
ātmavadbhiḥ (inst. pl. m.): mfn. having a soul ; self-possessed , composed , prudent
ātman: m. breath ; the soul , principle of life and sensation ; the individual soul , self , abstract individual ; essence , nature , character , peculiarity (often ifc. e.g. karmā*tman , &c )

devarṣibhiḥ (inst. pl.): m. a ṛṣi , a saint of the celestial class
ca: and
eva: (emphatic)
nṛparṣibhiḥ [old Nepalese manuscript] (inst. pl.): m. a royal sage, Bcar.
nṛ-pa: m. (√3. pā) protector of men , prince , king , sovereign
√pā: to watch , keep , preserve ; to protect (a country) i.e. rule , govern ; to observe , notice , attend to , follow
maharṣibhiḥ [EBC/EHJ] (inst. pl.): m. a great ṛṣi , any great sage or saint
ca: and

衆多諸學士 由此路生天

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