Saturday, November 2, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 8.14: The Pain of Unmet Expectation

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−   Vaṁśastha
punaḥ kumāro vinivtta ity-atho gavākṣa-mālāḥ pratipedire 'ṅganāḥ |
vivikta-pṣṭhaṁ ca niśamya vājinaṁ punar-gavākṣāṇi pidhāya cukruśuḥ || 8.14

“The prince has come back again!” said the women,

As now they appeared in the rows of round windows.

But seeing the horse's empty back,

They closed the windows again and wailed.

In the present canto (whose title is Lamenting Within the Battlements) we will witness the lamenting of a cast including, individually, the prince's father (Śuddohdana), his foster mother (Gautamī) and his wife (Yaśodhara), but also, generically, the chorus line of women who now, in today's verse, arrange themselves expectantly at their windows.

I think these women, as Aśvaghoṣa describes them, in their grief and in their female beauty, might be designed to arouse in the mind of a male reader/listener feelings of pity (i.e. broadly speaking, a desire to help) and at the same time erotic feelings (i.e. sensual desire).

“Qu'est ce que vous voulez?” as my French neighbour often asks, shrugging her shoulders, at the end of some lament, for example, about the rising price of petrol. What do you want? What do you desire?

Aśvaghoṣa's recurring descriptions of women – with their breasts, hips, eyes, eyebrows, make-up, earrings, dishevelled hair and straps, girdles, tinkling anklets, painted nails, and all the rest of it – seem to me to pose the same question.

“Qu'est ce que vous voulez?”
Fulfilment of sexual desire?
Consummation of the desire to help?

On the other side, of course, is what we fear – death like an enemy with upraised sword; old age, robber of memory, looks, teeth, and vital energy. And those fears bring with them other kinds of desire – desire for immortality, desire for security.

The Buddha tells Nanda:
In whatever place of solitude you are, cross the legs in the supreme manner / And align the body so that it tends straight upward; thus attended by awareness that is directed // SN15.1 // Towards the tip of the nose or towards the forehead, or in between the eyebrows, / Let the inconstant mind be fully engaged with the fundamental. // 15.2 //  If some desirous idea, a fever of the mind, should venture to offend you, / Entertain no scent of it but shake it off as if pollen had landed on your robe. // 15.3 // Even if, as a result of calm consideration, you have let go of desires, / You must, as if shining light into darkness, abolish them by means of their opposite. // 15.4 //  What lies behind those desires sleeps on, like a fire covered with ashes; / You are to extinguish it, my friend, by training the mind, as if using water to put out a fire. // 15.5 //  For from that source they re-emerge, like shoots from a seed. / In its absence they would be no more – like shoots in the absence of a seed. // SN15.6 // 
Again, qu'est ce que vous voulez? What do you want?
Fulfilment of a desire? Or extinction of what lies behind all desires?
Something? Or a bit of nothing?

The way the Buddha explains it to Nanda, sexual desire is not the problem. Sexual desire is a symptom of the problem. The deeper problem might be a delusory desire for a lot of something, or a desire for a bit too much of anything, as opposed to a desire for a bit of nothing.

So Aśvaghoṣa's recurring descriptions of sexy women can be read as representing in their own way a challenge – as everything Aśvaghoṣa writes represents a challenge – to dig deeper. 

(For women readers who are sexually attracted to men, or for men readers who are sexually attracted not to women but to other men, I realize I should add on reflection, the same challenge might be presented by Aśvaghoṣa's descriptions of handsome Nanda in SN Canto 4, or of the shining prince Sarvārtha-siddha in BC Cantos 1 - 4.) 

What in any case is not in doubt is that Aśvaghoṣa saw fit to decorate his poetry with vivid descriptions of women who, even as they grieve, sound like they might still be very sexually attractive. And so, in this canto also, here we will go again.

But to begin with, in this first of several verses in this canto whose subject is aṅganāḥ (originally "those with well-rounded limbs," women), Aśvaghoṣa draws our attention to the basic dynamic behind human lamenting.

On 1st March 2014, Manchester United are scheduled to play Manchester City at home, at which time a 1-0 defeat could be a disastrous result for the new Manchester United manager David Moyes – it would doubtless be a cause for much lamenting on the red side of Manchester. But, at the other end of the scale, in terms of weight of expectation, when San Marino lost 1-0 to Cyprus in November 1998, that was a cause for congratulation among San Marino's relatively tiny population; it was an outstandingly good result in the history of a footballing nation for whom victory in competitive tournaments is never expected and a draw is regarded as an exceptional triumph.

The point is, then, that behind human lamenting there is always the disappointment of some idea or hope or expectation. 

How would it be if, even if only for a minute, we could just sit there without any glint of an idea or hope or expectation?

Speaking for myself, I'm not sure I know. I am not sure that I have ever really dug that deep – though I might have fooled myself on a few occasions, thinking that I truly belonged somewhere and thinking at that moment that all the earth and space totally belonged to me.

At those moments, I must admit, there has been nobody else around to affirm the experience as genuine or otherwise.

Again, you must understand how, due to this cause, because of men's faults, the cycle of doing goes on, / So that they succumb to death who are afflicted by the dust of the passions and by darkness; but he is not reborn who is free of dust and darkness. // SN16.18 //

By the ending of the duality which is exuberance and gloom, I submit, his mind is fully set free. /And when his mind is fully liberated from that duality, there is nothing further for him to do. // SN16.45 //

punar: ind. back, again ; further , moreover , besides ;
kumāraḥ (nom. sg.): m. the prince
vinivṛttaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. turned back , returned
iti: “...,” thus
atho: ind. now, next

gavākṣa-mālāḥ (acc. pl. f.): rows of round windows
gavākṣa: m. " a bull's eye " , an air-hole , loop-hole , round window
mālā: f. a wreath , garland , crown ; a row , line
pratipedire = 3rd pers. pl. perf. prati- √ pad: to set foot upon , enter , go or resort to , arrive at , reach , attain
aṅganāḥ (nom. pl.): f. "a woman with well-rounded limbs" , any woman or female

vivikta-pṛṣṭham (acc. sg.): a solitary back
vivikta: mfn. separated ; isolated , alone , solitary
pṛṣṭha: n. the back
ca: and
niśamya = abs. ni- √ śam : to observe , perceive , hear , learn
vājinam (gen. sg.): m. warrior, hero ; m. the steed of a war-chariot; m. a horse, stallion

punar: ind. back, again
gavākṣāṇi (acc. pl.): m. " a bull's eye " , an air-hole , loop-hole , round window
pidhāya = abs. pi- √ dhā (= api- √ dhā): to shut , close , cover , conceal
cukruśuḥ = 3rd pers. pl. perf. kruś: to cry out , shriek , yell , bawl , call out , halloo ; to lament, weep

城内諸士女 虚傳王子還
奔馳出路上 唯見馬空歸
莫知其存亡 悲泣種種聲 
車匿歩牽馬 歔欷垂涙還 

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