Sunday, November 17, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 8.29: Wheels Within Wheels

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−   Vaṁśastha
kara-prahāra-pracalaiś-ca tā babhur-yathāpi nāryaḥ sahitonnataiḥ stanaiḥ |
vanānilāghūrṇita-padma-kampitaiḥ rathāṅga-nāmnāṁ mithunair-ivāpagāḥ || 8.29

Again, as their conjoined and upturned breasts
trembled under the barrage from their hands,

Those women also resembled rivers

Whose lotuses, sent whirling by the forest wind, 
shook into movement

Pairs of rathaṅga geese  geese called after a wheel.

Stopping unconscious behaviour makes for awareness, and awareness makes for stopping of unconscious behaviour. 

This being so, it is possible, on a good day, to get inside a virtuous circle of stopping and becoming aware – a fact, or a truth, upon which Alexander work is largely based. The same truth is evident in the work of dog and horse whisperers. A truth of inhibition. A truth of cessation of suffering. No need even to discuss Buddhism, as if the Buddha's teaching were some kind of religion based on belief.

My tentative conclusion about today's verse, this misty Sunday morning, on which I woke, again, too tense and too early, having spent the best part of Saturday baffled, is that in Aśvaghoṣa's world everything points towards this virtuous circle, and so in particular what points in today's verse towards this virtuous circle is the beautiful upturned breasts of a bi-laterally well integrated woman.

The pointing, oblique though it is, might be there in the word sahita (conjoined), suggesting the coming together of two elements, like left and right eye, or left and right hand and arm, or left and right leg, or left and right lung, or left and right breast; or like stopping and awareness; or like body and mind. 

The pointing, oblique though it is, might be there in the word unnata (upturned), suggesting an upward orientation that might run through the whole body, including both left and right sides, and that might run through the whole self, including both body and mind.

To paraphrase Dogen:
Turn back and up with body. 
Turn back and up with mind. 
Turn back and up as dropping off body and mind.

The pointing, oblique though it is, might be there in the word rathaṇga, which is the Sanskrit name for the bird we call in English “the bar-headed goose,” but which is given in the dictionary as meaning “a chariot's wheel” (ratha = chariot; aṇga = subordinate part), and which could also means “the body/limb of love” (ratha = love; aṅga = limb/body). The aṅga of rathāṅga might even be heard as an onomatopoeia, since the reason the bar-headed goose, as an iconic element of Sanskrit romantic poetry, is normally called the cakra-vāka (lit. "calling in a circle"), is because of the circular nature of call and response between male and female, that call being a sound like aṅg, aṅg.

Yesterday in my baffled state, purely in the interests of Buddhist research (and if you believe that you will believe anything), I googled “upturned breasts,” and found indeed that there is a blog devoted to this particular topic, with some eye-catching photos. The blog did not provide any leads with regard to philosophical meaning that might be buried below the surface of today's verse. But my googling did in the end help me to form a picture of the kind of thing that Aśvaghoṣa might have had in mind.

The ostensible gist of today's verse, then, is a simile in which,

  • the women's lotus-like hands are represented by lotuses;
  • the women themselves are represented by rivers;
  • the emotional turmoil of grieving is represented by the forest wind;
  • and, most evocatively of all, the women's breasts are represented by pairs of bar-headed geese – i.e. cakra-vakas, which, as icons of Sanskrit romantic poetry, are intimately associated with erotic intimacy, or in short, love.

But below the surface, I tentatively conclude, after much sleepless digging, and with one eye also on tomorrow's verse, the nāmnām (named) of rathāṅga-nāmnām (of geese whose name is 'rathāṅga') is a clue that Aśvaghoṣa would like us to reach for our spades, and do our own digging for what lies below a name. That digging, as always, is ultimately digging for a bit of nothing.

Yesterday, in my baffled state, I thought that there ought to be such a pointer to a bit of nothing, but I could not find it. All I could see was a simile pointing to beautiful pairs of conspicuous somethings.

I was thus caused to reflect on the irony of finding myself disappointed by the absence of any hint of nothing. In BC8.28 I was able to focus attention on the nir- of nir-antaraiḥ and the a- of a-bhūṣaṇaiḥ, but in today's verse no help is forthcoming in the form of an a- or an an- or a nir- or a nair- or a niṣ- or a vi- or a vīna- or a vīta-.

So, reflecting on today's verse in terms of something and nothing, I reflected that what is being described is women who are really something, grieving because Kanthaka came back bearing nothing.

And this is one kind of suffering that we are all familiar with. (1) We desire something but have nothing. Some of us know what it is like to madly desire a woman with upturned breasts but to have nothing.

Conversely, another kind of suffering is (2) to desire nothing but to have something. An example of this that easily springs to my mind is my desire to sit beneath clear and silent skies – skies which in fact are all too often full of the sounds of something, as light aircraft and helicopters buzz around. But for another example, bringing a woman with upturned breasts back into the picture, there is the scene that Aśvaghoṣa paints in SN Canto 17:
Though his judgement had been tempered and his soul inspired, now a vestige of desire, arising out of habit, / Made his mind turbid -- like lightning striking water in a monsoon. // SN17.7 // Being instantly aware of incompatibilities, he saw off that authoress of the dharma's downfall, / As a man whose mind is seized by anger shoos away a loved but excitable woman, when he is trying to concentrate. // SN17.8 //
Then there is the happiness of (3) desiring something and having something – for a heterosexual bloke, that might mean, for example, the girl with upturned breasts being in his bed. Or it might mean the coffee I can smell brewing being in a mug right in front of me. 

But reflecting on something and nothing in this way leads us to conclude that in the end there might be no greater happiness than the peace of (4) desiring nothing and having nothing.

Read like this, today's verse, with its focus on conjoined and upturned breasts seems to ask me a question that my French neighbour has often caused me to ask myself – Qu' est-ce que vous voulez? What do you really want? A bit of something, like contact with conjoined and upturned breasts? Or a bit of nothing?

The honest answer is probably that what I want is very changeable. When I have something I am liable to want nothing, and when I have nothing I am liable to want something. That being so, the swing of saṁsāra continues mainly to travel between (1), (2) and the odd moment of (3).

The penny that seemed to drop this morning, however, is that – more deeply below the surface than usual – Aśvaghoṣa has buried in today's verse, in the wheel of rathaṅga, a clue to lead the reader in the direction of that virtuous circle which is central to the means-whereby a bloke might be able to get himself off the swing of saṁsāra and into the happiness of (4), desiring and having nothing; or, to be more exact, not wanting much and being content with whatever is or isn't there.

kara-prahāra-pracalaiḥ (inst. pl.): shaking under the blows from their hands
kara: m. 'doer', the hand
prahāra: m. striking , hitting , fighting ; a stroke , blow , thump , knock , kick ; m. a necklace
pra- √hṛ: to offer (esp. praise) ; to thrust or move forward ; to strike , hit , hurt , attack , assail
pracala: mfn. moving , tremulous , shaking ; what goes well or widely
ca: and
tāḥ (nom. pl. f.): those women
babhur = 3rd pers. pl. perf. bhā: to shine , be bright or luminous ; to shine forth , appear , show one's self ; to be splendid or beautiful or eminent ; to appear as , seem , look like , pass for (nom. with or without iva)

yathā: ind. in which manner or way , according as , as , like
api: again, also
tathāpi [EHJ]: even thus , even so , nevertheless , yet , still , notwithstanding
nāryaḥ (nom. pl.) f. woman
sahitonnataiḥ (inst. pl.):
sahita: mfn. 1. borne , endured , supported ; 2. joined , conjoined , united (du. " both together ") ; attached or cleaving to
unnata: mfn. bent or turned upwards , elevated , lifted up , raised , high , tall , prominent , projecting , lofty ; (figuratively) high , eminent , sublime , great , noble
stana: m. the female breast ; teat , the nipple (of the female or the male breast)

vanānilāghūrṇita-padma-kampitaiḥ (inst. pl.)
vana: n. forest
anila: m. air or wind
āghūrṇita: mfn. whirled round , fluctuating
ā- √ ghūrṇ: to whirl, fluctuate
ghūrṇ: to move to and fro , shake , be agitated , roll about
padma: mn. a lotus
kampita: mfn. trembling , shaking ; caused to tremble , shaken , swung

rathāṅga-nāmnām (gen. pl. n.): of [geese] named “limb of love”
rathāṅga: n. any part of a chariot ; a chariots-wheel ; a discus (esp. that of kṛṣṇa or viṣṇu) ; m. the Anas Casarca or ruddy goose (= cakra-vāka ; m. the cakra bird ; the couples are supposed to be separated and to mourn during night)
ratha: m. ( √ṛ) " goer " , a chariot ; m. ( √ ram) pleasure , joy , delight ; affection , love
aṅga: n. the limb, member ; a body
āṅga: n. a soft delicate form or body
nāman: n. a characteristic mark or sign , form , nature , kind , manner ; (often ifc. = named , called)
mithunaiḥ (inst. pl.): n. pairing , copulation ; n. a pair or couple ; n. the other part , complement or companion of anything ; n. honey and ghee
iva: like
āpagāḥ (nom. pl.): a river , a stream

[No corresponding Chinese] 

1 comment:

Mike Cross said...

The MW dictionary gives cakra-vāka as Anas Casarca or ruddy goose, but I came to the conclusion in process of translating Saundara-nanda that a cakra-vāka means a greylag goose.

So the discussion of bar-headed geese in this comment was my mistake. It is greylag geese that are famed for their circular calls of aṅg-aṅg.

Bar-headed geese feature in SN4.4, where they are referred to as haṁsāḥ.