Sunday, November 24, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 8.36: Digging Even Earth

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−   Vaṁśastha
imā hi śocyā vyavamukta-bhūṣaṇāḥ prasakta-bāṣpāvila-rakta-locanāḥ |
sthite 'pi patyau himavan-mahī-same pranaṣṭa-śobhā vidhavā iva striyaḥ || 8.36

These women are deeply to be commiserated,
who have shed embellishments,

Whose bloodshot eyes have been clouded forever by tears,

Who – though their master is still there,
standing firm on those flat Himalayan uplands
[or remaining as constant as the Himalayas or the Earth]
[or being the same as the Himalayas and the earth]
[or being as even as the snow-clad earth]
[or being as even as the ground in the Himalayas] –

Are like widows who lost their former lustre.

For anybody who likes to dig, today's verse allows a lot of digging to be done.

On the surface, Yaśodharā is describing as “to be sorrowed for” (śocyāḥ), the women of Kapilavāstu who have lost their lustre (pranaṣṭa-śobhāḥ), taking lustre in the sense defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary of
2a : a glow of light from within : luminosity;
2b  : an inner beauty :  radiance.

In that case,
  • vyavamukta-bhūṣaṇāḥ describes the women as having unfastened their jewellery;
  • prasakta-bāṣpāvila-rakta-locanāḥ describes their eyes as reddened by their constant boo-hooing;
  • sthite 'pi patyau himavan-mahī-same describes their lord and master (patyau = the prince) being apart from them, Chandaka having left him resolutely standing firm (sthite) on flat Himalayan uplands (himavan-mahī-same).

Below the surface, meanwhile, the usual metaphor is operating in which “the women” (striyaḥ) stand for us, common or garden Zen practitioners, who (ironically) are to be commiserated for having been relegated to the living of a simple life, and thereby having been deprived of our former lustre, taking lustre in the sense defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary of
3 :  a superficial attractiveness or appearance of excellence.

In that case,
  • vyavamukta-bhūṣaṇāḥ ironically describes us girls as shorn of all fripperies and embellishments;
  • prasakta-bāṣpāvila-rakta-locanāḥ might ironically describe our tear-stained acceptance of the ever-present reality of faulty sensory appreciation; and
  • the description of our master, the Buddha, as sthite 'pi patyau himavan-mahī-same opens up a great big can of worms.

But first a digression...

As I lay heavy-headedly in bed this Sunday morning, it came into my mind to tell the parable of Aśvaghoṣa's CAT. The fantasy went like this.

Aśvaghoṣa throws out cards containing three letters, C, A, and T, and asks a group of bloodshot-eyed girls to make of these letters what we can.

One girl, steeped in the ways of Rinzai Zen and thus versed in Chinese Zen koans, steps up and tells the story of Nansen's CAT.

“No,” says Aśvaghoṣa, “not that.”

Up steps another girl, one who has eschewed study of koans but who has devoted herself single-mindedly, four times every day, to moku-sho-zen, the Zen of silent contemplation, or just sitting.

“To me,” girl number two ventures, those three letters spell out TAC, that is, a needle, or a stimulus, for Zazen.

“No,” says Aśvaghoṣa, “not that.”

A third girl stands up and with iron self-confidence prostates herself three times, arranges the three letters to spell out ACT, and stands silently by her seat, detachedly awaiting Aśvaghoṣa's affirmation.

“No,” says Aśvaghoṣa, “not that either.”

“The word I had in mind,” the old Horse-whisperer says, winking, “was TACT.”

In the 3rd pāda of today's verse the enigmatic compound himavan-mahī-same is somewhat akin to the three letters A, C, and T in the above flight of fancy. What are we to make of it?

Each of the three professors took himavan (Mount Himavat/the Himalayas) and mahī (the earth) as separate elements; hence:

though their lord still stands as unshaken as the earth or Mount Himavat (EBC);
though their lord is still in existence as much as are the Himalayas or the earth (EHJ);
though their husband remains alive, like the earth or Himalayas (PO).

At the same time, EHJ recognized that there might be more than one way to understand the compound, noting that
himavan-mahī-same has several meanings, primarily as in the translation; Kapilavāstu being in the foothills, one is at liberty to imagine Yaśodharā enforcing the point with a gesture towards the snowpeaks, whose visibility to all present would back up her assertion. Secondarily it implies as C [the Chinese translation; 依止如雪山, 安意如大地 ] has it, “as reliable as the snowy mountain, as steadfast as the great earth.” It may also mean, as Formichi takes it, 'on the plain (i.e. the upland) of the Himalayas,' Chandaka having left the prince in the terai under the mountains (see BC7.39).
Following EHJ, PO noted further
The comparison probably has many facets. Siddhārtha remains steadfast and real like the earth or the Himalayas, but yet unconcerned and withdrawn. He exists, but is of no use. Alternatively, the compound himavan-mahī-same can also refer to the uplands of the Himalayas where Chanda left him.

To take the compound himavan-mahī-same word by word,
  • himavat as an adjective means “having snow” or “snow-clad” and as a noun it means the snowy mountain or mountains, the Himalayas.
  • mahī means the earth, both in the sense of planet Earth and in the sense of earth, ground, land.
  • same is the word that really opens up the can of worms, since it could mean so many things.
As a noun expressing the location of the action of sthite (standing), same ostensibly means “level ground” but it could also mean “equability, equanimity, imperturbability.”

As an adjectival suffix, same could be functioning, like iva, to indicate the making of a comparison -- the comparison in question being between sthite (remaining) and  himavan-mahī (the Himalayas and the earth). 

And as an adjective describing sthite (standing, standing firm, continuing in existence), same could mean “constant” or “even” or “normal” or “upright,” and so on.

Where to begin?

The starting point, as I was taught to think by Gudo Nishijima, is idealism. Thus, in the first phase, we might take sama as meaning “constant” or “eternal,” so that himavan-mahī-same is describing our Master, Gautama Buddha, as “constant/eternal as the Himalayas or the Earth.” The point, then, if we were Buddhists who worshipped Gautama Buddha like Jews and Christians and Muslims worship God, would be to think of our Lord Buddha as eternally present.

The second phase is antithetical to the idealism of the first phase. Thus, if the idealistic thesis is that our Lord Buddha is eternally present, the antithesis is that our Lord Buddha was an impermanent human being who, when he died, was cremated, and then the ashes were taken off in different directions. Furthermore, thinking sceptically or scientifically at the second phase, the Himalayas and the Earth – though both are relatively constant, at least in comparison with something as flimsy as a human life – are also subject in the end to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. This susceptibility to change of even the Himalayas is nowhere more dramatically illustrated than by the presence of marine fossils at the top of Himalayan peaks. At the second phase then, the master is “the same as the Himalayas and the earth,” in that he is subject, as everything else in the material world is subject, to the law of impermanence.

In the third phase, we are not here to be idealistic and not here to be materialistic. We are here to act! 
(Sounds good, doesn't it? -- a bit like big girl no. 3 in the parable. Do I sound like a Zen master? Would anybody like to embellish me with a Japanese title, like Roshi, and give me a Roshi stick?) 
Even when all the bold preachiness has been dropped off, we are still here, in the third phase, to act. We are here to sit. We are here to practice sitting-meditation. We are here to ride our bicycles, and in so riding to investigate the principle that so long as we keep pedalling we can stay in balance for miles and miles and miles, but if we stop pedalling it is very difficult to remain in balance. So in the third phase there is a close interrelation between action and balance, or between keeping moving and staying still and even.

In The Long Discourse Giving Advice to Rāhula,  the Buddha tells Rāhula (in Pali):

Paṭhavī-samaṁ Rāhula bhāvanaṁ bhāvehi.
“Develop the meditation, Rāhula, that is to be even as the earth.”
“Cultivate that work on the self, Rāhula, which is to be even as the earth.”

In this memorable phrase, samam means even, flat, balanced.

In the third phase, then, I take himavan-mahī-same as meaning “even as the snow-clad earth” – in the sense that the earth is originally even, and when it is covered in thick layers of snow it becomes even more even.

In the fourth phase, as Gudo Nishijima taught it, are combined all the elements of the three previous phases. Hence, it has been said since ancient times 諸法実相 (Jap: SHOHO-JISSO), all dharmas are real form. And to realize this truth, girls like us are required to park our arses on round black cushions, put right feet on left thighs, left feet on right thighs, and aim to drill holes in our cushions with our ischial tuberosities.

Even while being all-inclusive and all-affirming, the fourth phase demonstrates a certain antipathy towards the grasping intellect. Hence, for example:

When we express it in the further ascendant state,
just what is the Buddha-nature?
Have you fully understood?
Three heads and eight arms!

The fourth phase thus tends to be characterized by irony and by paradoxes -- but no more so than reality itself is characterized by irony and paradoxes. 

In BC8.32 Yaśodharā can be read as saying, paradoxically but truly,
me samaṁ kampate manaḥ,
“my mind wavers in a balanced manner.”

In today's verse, at the fourth phase, same can be read as expressing a still more striking paradox.

The point is that, a priori, we tend to think of wavering and being balanced, as opposite conceptions. But when we investigate in practice what it means to stay balanced, like a good surfer for example stays balanced, balance turns out to be all about wavering – as opposed, in particular, to fixing. 

Again, the Himalayas might be thought of as the last place on earth where the ground is flat. So sthite himavan-mahī-same, if we translate it as “remaining as even as the ground in the Himalayas” at first glance seems paradoxical. In some sense, then, “the ground in the Himalayas” works less well as a metaphor for balance than does the “the snow-clad earth.” But in some sense “the ground in the Himalayas” works much better than “the snow-clad earth” as a metaphor for what we are pursuing, or for what is pursuing us, in sitting-meditation. In what sense does the Himalayan landscape work better as a metaphor for samādhi? In the sense that the bumpy Himalayan  landscape is conspicuously real in its own right, and is not only a metaphor that some bright spark has thought up to make a Buddhist point. 

It is now quarter past eleven already and I have knackered myself out writing this comment.

I think the reason the parable of Aśvaghoṣa's CAT  bubbled up from my unconscious mind in my sleep is as a response to seeing myself, and at the same time not wanting to see myself, as engaged in some kind of competition with EH Johnston and Patrick Olivelle, two professors who already understood that himavan-mahī-same was a deliberately ambiguous phrase. If I have put those two professors squarely in their place, demonstrating that their puny spadework barely scratched the surface of the tortoise, have I thereby served Aśvaghoṣa?

If Aśvaghoṣa were alive today, would he pat me fondly upon the head and say, “Thank you, Mike, for being a paragon and champion of TACT”?

I somehow doubt it.

So the parable of Aśvaghoṣa's CAT might be a warning to clever dicks everywhere, and especially to anybody aspiring to be head girl because of her mighty intellect, that even when we feel very sure that we have understood Aśvaghoṣa's intention, we very probably haven't understood yet. Maybe when we have understood a tree of life in the garden, or got to the bottom of the Himalayas and the Earth, then we will be able to say that we have understood Aśvaghoṣa's intention.

imāḥ (nom. pl. f.): these [women]
hi: for
śocyāḥ (nom. pl. f.): mfn. to be lamented (n. impers.) , deplorable , miserable
śuc: to suffer violent heat or pain , be sorrowful or afflicted , grieve , mourn at or for ; to bewail , lament , regret (acc.) ; to be absorbed in deep meditation
vyavamukta-bhūṣaṇāḥ (nom. pl. f.): their ornaments unfastened
vy-ava- √ muc: to unloose , unfasten , take off
bhūṣaṇa: n. embellishment , ornament , decoration

prasakta-bāṣpāvila-rakta-locanāḥ (nom. pl. f.)
prasakta: mfn. mfn. attached , cleaving or adhering or devoted to ; continual , lasting , constant , eternal
bāṣpa: n. tears
āvila: mfn. turbid (as a fluid) , foul , not clear ; (ifc.) polluted by or mixed with
rakta: mfn. coloured , dyed , painted ; reddened, red ; excited , affected with passion or love
locana: n. " organ of sight " , the eye

sthite (loc. sg. m.): mfn. standing ; standing firm ; standing , staying , situated , resting or abiding or remaining in (loc. or comp.) ; being or remaining or keeping in any state or condition (loc.)
api: even, though
patyau (loc. sg.): m. a master , owner , possessor , lord , ruler , sovereign ; a husband
himavan-mahī-same (loc. sg. m.):
himavat: mfn. having frost or snow , snowy , frosty , icy , snow-clad ; m. a snowy mountain ; the himālaya
mahī: f. " the great world " , the earth (in later language also = ground , soil , land , country); earth (as a substance); space
sama: mfn. even , smooth , flat , plain , level , parallel ; same , equal , similar , like , equivalent , like to or identical or homogeneous with (instr. e.g. mayā sama , " like to me " ; or gen. , rarely abl.) , like in or with regard to anything (instr. gen. loc. , or -tas , or comp.) ; always the same , constant , unchanged , fair , impartial ; having the right measure , regular , normal , right , straight ; equable , neutral , indifferent ; just , upright , good , straight , honest ; full , complete , whole , entire ; m. peace (perhaps w.r. for śama) ; n. level ground , a plain (samé bhū́myāḥ , " on level ground ") ; n. equability , equanimity , imperturbability

pranaṣṭa-śobhāḥ (nom. pl. f.): having lost all lustre
pranaṣṭa: mfn. lost , disappeared , vanished , ceased , gone , perished , destroyed , annihilated
śobhā: f. splendour , brilliance , lustre , beauty , grace , loveliness

vidhavāḥ (nom. pl.): f. (accord. to some fr. vi + dhava) a husbandless woman , widow
dhava: m. (said by some to be fr. √ dhū , but more probably a secondary formation fr. vi-dhávā) a man , husband
√ dhū: to shake, agitate ; to strive against , resist
iva: like
striyaḥ (nom. pl. f.): women

此諸貴夫人 憂悴毀形好
涕泣氣息絶 雨涙横流下
夫主尚在世 依止如雪山
安意如大地 憂悲殆至死 

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