Saturday, October 19, 2013

Canto 7: Entering the Woods of Painful Practice

Ostensibly in this canto the prince, being peerless in perspicacity, takes a peek into the ascetic woods and correctly concludes, on the basis of reason, that all the ascetics are barking up the wrong tree. Their aim is a sojourn in heaven which can only ever be impermanent. The prince's aim is to put an end to the suffering of becoming – to realize, in other words, that parinirvāṇa which represents the end of temporary sojourns in this and that existence.

On the surface, the epic narrative of the prince's ashram visit is like the narrative of anybody's life, as the invariably selective and self-serving human memory frames it (with me occupying centre stage as the epic hero). Thus,
  • the hero enters the ashram like the shining hero he is, by the power of whose very presence everything seems to stop (7.1 – 7.9);
  • the hero observes ascetic practices, he enquires about ascetic practices and is duly informed about them (7.10 – 7.18);
  • unimpressed, the hero expresses his doubts, based primarily on reason, about the aim of asceticism (going to heaven); and he makes to extricate himself from the woods of asceticism (7.19 – 7.34);
  • the ascetics follow and surround him and their chief asks why the hero is leaving, while also making it clear that the ascetics wish him to stay (7.35  – 7.43);
  • the hero defuses the situation by being both tactful and truthful (7.44 – 7.49) ;
  • the ascetics respect the hero all the more, and one among them, who resembles a skull-carrying “Buddhist tantric yogin” recommends the hero to visit the sage Arāḍa (7.50 – 7.57);
  • the hero departs, and the ascetics go back to their asceticism.
Ostensibly, then, the heroic prince is already wise enough to see through the various misguided practices of the ashram's devotees of asceticism.

Below the surface, however, when the prince says (in 7.12) “You are all possessed of what intention, directed towards what,” there may be more truth in his words than the prince himself is yet able to realize.

That being so, the twice-born man (dvi-jatiḥ; 7.13) who speaks to the prince about the painful practice called in Sanskrit tapas (lit. “pain”) may, in Aśvaghoṣa's mind, have been 'born again' not in the ostensible, limited Brahminical sense but rather in the wider sense that anybody who starts a new life, based on a new principle, may consider themselves to have been born again.

It is in the latter sense – to digress for a minute – that Anthony Ludovici describes himself as “born-again” in the following passage (which I happened upon a few days ago on the counter-currents website). The context is that Ludovici is relating how a course of lessons with FM Alexander had given him a new criterion by which to judge a deterioration in the physical condition of an acquaintance of Ludovici named Alfred Orage.
The deterioration in his [Orage's] physical condition seemed to me conspicuous and I felt I had every reason to congratulate myself on having escaped the rigors of Gurdjieff’s train­ing camp. What made me all the more confident of the justice of this conclusion was the fact that meanwhile—i.e., during the years of Orage’s absence from England—I also had undergone a thorough course of physical rehabilitation, or rather normalization, which had not only greatly improved my condition but had also supplied me with valuable criteria for knowledgeably assessing the physical status of my fellow-men. Instead of my judgments in this sphere being, as they had been in the past, chiefly guesswork and matters of opinion, I was now equipped to give at least valid reasons for classing a fellow-being as either able or unable to maintain his sound condition if he enjoyed such a blessing, or to improve his condition if it was faulty. This was not an assessment in the medical sense, which of course I was quite unquali­fied to attempt, but rather an estimate of a man’s chances of keeping sound if soundness and health were already present. And I owed the knowledge for such judgments to the thorough schooling in the correct use of the body which I had undergone at F. M. Alexander’s teaching center in Westminster. Indeed, I may truthfully claim that this course of training in conscious control proved to be the principal turning-point in my life and, above all, in my education. Nor do I believe that anyone who has had the good fortune to leave Alexander’s hands fully condi­tioned, as I ultimately became, to apply his methods in every kind of bodily activity, throughout every day of the year, would charge me with exaggeration or overstatement in making the claim I have made about his teaching. From the year 1925, when I first became his pupil, to the present day, I have not ceased to rejoice in the good fortune which led me to him. It resulted in my being as it were ‘born again.’ 
In 7.13 Aśvaghoṣa describes the ascetic who is going to speak as dvi-jātiḥ sa tapo-vihāraḥ, which ostensibly means “that brahmin delighting in ascetic toil (PO)” but which equally could mean “he who was born-again as an explorer of pain.” Once this ambiguity has been noted, one begins to suspect that there may be more truth than initially meets the eye in the three monologues spoken by three different ashram-dwellers (7.14 – 7.18; 7.38 – 7.43; and 7.52 – 7.57). Conversely there may be less wisdom, and less true heroism, than initially meets the eye, in the thinking, speech and behaviour of the Buddha-to-be.

So in this canto, as I read it, Aśvaghoṣa is inviting us to dig for the reality that exists not on the superficial level of the narrative, but below the surface. This is hard work, since in many places the hidden meaning is opposed to the ostensible meaning, and in some places Aśvaghoṣa may be double bluffing, i.e, including more than one layer of hidden meaning, so that the underground ante-chamber in which we are standing proudly grounded, seeing the secret light, might itself be being undermined. (BC7.48 probably provides the best example of this.) Perhaps it is a kind of training in exercising a certain skepticism with regard to all narratives, and not least our own personal one.

It is almost as if Aśvaghoṣa in this epic tale is telling us a fairy story, one of whose morals is “Don't believe in fairy stories!”

Speaking of heroes and narratives, and allowing myself to digress further, one of my heroes is the Mexican 'dog-whisperer' Cesar Millan who made it his heroic mission to make America balanced using dogs – and using in particular a charismatic pit bull terrier named Daddy. What seems to have happened, judging from this clip, is that America made the dog-whisperer imbalanced using money. 

Ah the mighty US$! What a weapon it has proved for spreading imbalance throughout the world. But that is another narrative.

I see a parallel between Cesar Millan and FM Alexander, who also went to America as a prophet from a foreign land with a mission to make America more balanced; but who was subsequently very glad to retreat back to his quieter life in England, finding that too long in America tended, on the contrary, to make him imbalanced.

Now Cesar, though it seems that following Daddy's death he went all the way down,  is still not out. So long may his narrative continue. And long may America's narrative continue, as an epic journey in the pursuit of happiness.

The conclusion to this rambling introduction to BC Canto 7, then, is that it is self-evident that Aśvaghoṣa saw the value in fairy stories, since his epic tales of awakened action (Buddha-carita) and of beautiful happiness (Saundara-nanda) are kinds of fairy stories. But what emerges from slow day-by-day investigation of this canto, above all, is the pains that Aśvaghoṣa took, below the surface, to subvert the ostensible narrative – as if to remind us, “Don't believe too quickly in fairy stories.”

having sent on his way the weeping tear-faced Chanda,

And being interested in nothing,
through a chanda (or partiality) for the forest,

Sarvārtha-siddha, All Things Realized,
overpowering the place by his physical presence,

Entered that ashram like a siddha, a realized man.

He the son of a king, moving like a lion-king,

Entered like a forest creature that arena of forest creatures;

By the majesty of his physical person,
though bereft of the tokens of majesty,

He stole the eyes of all the ashram-dwellers

For standing in precisely that manner,
rooted in their curiosity, with yoke in hand,

Were the wheel-bearers, with wives in tow;

They beheld him the equal of Indra, and did not move,

Like beasts of burden with their heads half bowed.

And inspired brahmins,
who had gone out for fuel to feed the sacred fire,

And returned holding in their hands
kindling, flowers, and kuśa grass,

Though men of formed minds
for whom ascetic practice was paramount,

Went to see him. They did not go towards their huts.

Bristling with rapture also, the peacocks let loose their cries,

As if they had seen a dark raincloud rising up;

While, letting grass fall as they turned to face him,

The deer stood still, along with the deer-imitators,
with only their eyes moving.

Seeing him, the lamp of the Ikṣvāku tribe,

Shining like the rising sun,

The cows that were milked for offerings,
though they had already been milked,

Were overjoyed, and flowed forth again.

Could this be the eighth of the good gods,

Or one of the two charioteers, alighting here?”

Calls like this went up on high,

Born of the bewilderment of the sages there, at seeing him.

For, like the physical double of Indra, bull of gods,

Like the glory of all that moves and is still in the world,

He lit up the whole forest –

As if the Sun himself had dropped by.

Then, being honoured and invited, with due courtesy,

By those ashram-dwellers,

He in return, to the upholders of a dharma, paid his respects

With a voice like rain clouds full of rain.

Through the ashram that was filled in this manner

With pious people having designs upon heaven,

He, being desirous of release, steadily walked,

Observing the various ascetic practices.

And the moon-like man of soma-mildness,
when he had observed there, in that forest of ascetic severity,

The ascetic contortions of ascetics steeped in severity,

Spoke as follows, wanting to know the truth of it,

To one of the ascetics who was walking along with him:

"Since today is my first visit to an ashram

And I do not understand this method of dharma;

Therefore, kind sir, please tell me –

You are all possessed of what intention, directed towards what.”

And so the twice-born man,
an explorer of the pleasure of painful practice,

Spoke to the bull of the Śākyas,
whose steps were the steps of a bull –

He spoke to him, in steps,

About the varieties of painful practice
and about the fruit of painful practice.

Unprocessed food – food that grows in the presence of water –

Leaves and water and fruits and roots:

This, according to tradition, is the fare of sages.

But in their painful practices there are alternative approaches, 
each being distinct.

Ones who are different live by gleaning crumbs
like movers in emptiness, or birds 

Some graze on leaves of grass
like deer –

Some, together with sitters in coils, or snakes,

As if they were ant-hills – subsist on thin air.

Ones who are different 
live by what is ground out through effort on a stone;

Some are sustained by breaking food down with their own teeth;

Ones, again, who are different, 
having done the cooking for others,

Do what is for them to do, if anything is left over.

Some, their matted coils of hair dripping with water,

Twice pour butter into the fire, with mantras.

Some, like fishes, go deep into the water

And there they abide,
their bodies scratching the surface of the tortoise.

Through painful practices such as these, accumulated over time,

They arrive, via superior practices, at heaven,
and via lowlier ones at the world of human beings.

By an arduous path they come to inhabit ease;

For suffering, they say, is the starting point of dharma.”

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:

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!

Those who abandon prestige, connections, and objects,

To observe restrictions for the sake of heaven,

Evidently, when parted from there, are destined to go

Only into greater bondage.

And he who, by the bodily travails called ascetic practice,

Desires advancement for the sake of desire

While failing to attend to the faults that fuel saṁsāra –

He by the means of suffering pursues nothing but suffering.

Though people are ever afraid of dying,

Still actively they strive for re-birth,

And just in their doing, their death is assured –

Right there, where they are drowning, in fear itself.

Some individuals go through grim exhaustion 
for an end in this world,

Others suffer the ascetic grind for an end in heaven –

Pitifully expectant,
having happiness as its end but failing to accomplish its end,

Humankind sinks into end-less disappointment.

Not to be blamed, certainly, is this effort

Which, casting aside the inferior, aims for distinction;

But the work wise men should do, exerting themselves as one,

Is that work wherein nothing further needs doing.

If causing the body pain, in contrast, is the dharma here,

The body being happy constitutes the opposite of dharma.

And yet by dharma the body obtains happiness in future?

On those grounds, the dharma here results in the opposite of dharma.

Since the body, by the mind's command,

Either carries on or stops its doing,

Therefore what is appropriate is taming of the mind.

Without the thinking mind, the body is like a wooden log.

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 also 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.

But if the cause of good is the ability to handle hardship,

Then is not the same ability to be practised with regard to happiness?

Or else, if being able to handle happiness is not the standard,

Then how can ability to handle hardship be the standard?

Those again who, with a view to purifying their karma,

Zealously sprinkle on themselves water which they feel to be sacred,

Are only, in so doing, pleasing their own heart,

For wrong will never be washed away by waters.

Whatever water has been touched by people steeped in good –

That is sacred bathing water, if such on earth is sought.

Therefore, virtues, yes, I do see as a sacred ford.

But water, without doubt, is water.”

Thus, employing many and various forms of reasoning, did he speak,

As the Brilliant One set behind the Western Mountain.

Then he went where the trees,
veiled by smoke from burnt offerings, were turning gray;

The practising of pain there having ceased, he went into the forest...

Into the flaring forest,
where the sacrificial flame was passed from fire to blazing fire;

Into the bespattered forest,
filled with seers performing their bathing rites;

Into the cooing forest,
where shrines to gods resounded with muttered prayers;

Into the forest which was like a hive of dharma,
all busy with doing.

For several nights, resembling the night-making moon,

He dwelt there, investigating ascetic practices; 

And, having embraced asceticism in the round 

and come to his own conclusion about it, 

He made to depart from that field of asceticism. 

Then the ashram-dwellers followed him,

Their minds directed on his beauty and dignity 

Like great seers following the dharma, when,

From a land being overrun by uncivil people,
the dharma is retreating.

Then those men whose capital was painful practice

He saw, in matted locks, strips of bark, and flapping rags;

So seeing, and yet feeling towards their austerities a fond respect,

He remained there standing,
at the foot of an auspicious and splendid tree.

And so the ashram-dwellers stepped near

And stood surrounding that most excellent human being,

And the most mature among them, being full of respect,

Spoke in a soft voice these gentle words:

At your coming the ashram seemed to become full,

At your going, it seems to become empty;

Therefore, my son, you should desist from leaving
this [place of painful exertion] –

Like the cherished life-force [not leaving]
the body of a man who is fighting for his life.

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

Rises a holy Himālayan mountain

Through whose closeness are augmented

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

All around us, likewise, are holy bathing places,

Which are akin to stairways to heaven;

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

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

And going further, from here,
the direction is northward

That deserves to be cultivated,
for the sake of distinction in dharma;

It ill befits a wise man to take, contrarily,

Even one step that might lead southward.

Or else, in this forest of painful practice,
you have seen one who neglects rites;

Or you have seen one who is not pure,
one who, in a commingled dharma, has fallen;

For which reason
there is in you no desire to dwell –

Then say as much, 
and be pleased to stay!

For these want as their companion in ascetic practice

You who resemble a repository of ascetic practice –

Because abiding with you, the equal of Indra,

Would be a means of lifting up even Bṛhas-pati,
'the Lord of Spiritual Growth.' ”

When he, in the midst of the ascetics,
was thus addressed by the first ascetic,

He the first in perspicacity,

Since he had vowed to end the bhava which is becoming,

Disclosed the bhāva of his own real inner feelings and thoughts:

Under dharma-upholding sages
who tend in their core towards uprightness,

And who are, in their willing hospitality, like family,

To have had shown towards me such manifestations of sincerity

Has filled me with great joy, and has opened for me a way.

By these emollient words of yours,
which seep through to the heart,

I am as if smeared all over;

And the enjoyment a beginner feels,
at newly laying hands on dharma,

Is now pulsing through me all over again.

To leave you all like this,
so devoted to all you do and so hospitable,

To leave you who have shown me such excessive kindness –

It pains me that I will leave you like this and depart,

Even as it pained me to leave my kith and kin.

But this dharma of yours aims at heaven,

Whereas my desire is for no more becoming;

Which is why I do not wish to dwell in this wood:

For a non-doing dharma is different from doing.

So it is neither displeasure in me nor wrong conduct by another

That causes me to walk away from this wood;

For, standing firm in a dharma adapted to the first age of the world,

All of you bear the semblance of great sages.”

Then, having listened to the prince's speech,

Which was both friendly and full of real meaning,

Thoroughly gracious and yet strong and proud,

Those ascetics held him in especially high regard.

But up spoke one twice-born individual there,
whose practice was to lay in ashes;

Standing tall,
clothed in bark strips and wearing his hair in a top-knot,

His eyes dark red, his nose long and thin,

Holding in one hand a bowl-shaped container,
he said these words:

O man of understanding! High indeed is the purpose

Of one who, young as you are, has seen the faults in rebirth;

For the man who,
having properly thought about heaven and about ending rebirth,

Is minded towards ending rebirth – he is the man!

For, by various acts of devotion, austerities, and restrictions,

Those who are coloured by desire's red taint,
desire to go to heaven;

Whereas, having battled with red desire as if with an enemy,

Those who are animated by the true essence,
desire to arrive at liberation.

Therefore if this is your settled purpose,

Go quickly to the region of the Vindhya Hills;

There lives the sage Arāḍa,

Who has gained insight into the ultimate good.

From him you will hear the method of the tattvas, 'the realities',

And will follow it as far as you like;

But since this mind of yours is such
you will, I am sure, progress on,

After shaking off the buddhi, or 'faculty of mental perception,'
of even that sage.

For, beneath a straight and high nose,
and lengthened and widened eyes,

With its lower lip the colour of copper,
and its large teeth, sharp and white,

This mouth, with its thin red tongue,

Will drink up the whole ocean of what is to be known.

Moreover, in view of this unfathomable depth which you have,

In light of this brilliance, and judging by these signs,

You will realize on earth that seat of a teacher

Which was obtained not even by seers of the first age.”

Very well,” said the son of a protector of men;

Then, bidding a glad farewell to that group of seers, he went out.

For their part, having duly seen him off,

The ashram-dwellers entered anew the woods of painful practice.

The 7th canto, titled Entering the Woods of Painful Practice, in an epic tale of awakened action.

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