Friday, December 13, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 8.55: These Feet Were Made for Walking

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−   Vaṁśastha
sujāta-jālāvatatāṅgulī mdū nigūḍha-gulphau viṣa-puṣpa-komalau |
vanānta-bhūmiṁ kaṭhināṁ kathaṁ nu tau sa-cakra-madhyau caraṇau gamiṣyataḥ || 8.55

How will his soft feet,
with the web of the perfectly formed spreading between the toes,

Feet which, with their ankles concealed,
have the tincture of the blue lotus ('the poison flower'),

How will those feet tread the hard forest ground? 

Those two feet, bearing a wheel in the middle: how will they go?

The 1st pāda of today's verse, as I read it, expresses an idealistic thesis. The jāla membrane which was said to be visible between the fingers and toes of divine beings and godlike people is a sign of perfection, and the sense of perfection is given extra emphasis by su-jāta, which means well born or perfectly developed.

The 2nd pāda can be read as antithetical to the 1st pāda in a couple of ways. 

First, whereas signs like webbed and wheel-marked hands and feet are visible signs, concealed ankles are by definition not visible. Concealed ankles are not so much signs as non-signs

Second viṣa-puṣpa, which EBC translated as “blue lotus,” and which is given in the MW dictionary as “the blue lotus,” literally means “poison flower.”

How can the soft and beautiful blue lotus, symbol of Buddhist enlightenment, be a poison flower?

To EH Johnston, for one, it didn't make any sense. Hence EHJ wrote in a footnote: 
The viṣa puṣpa according to the PW [Sanskrit-Worterbuch, Bohtlingk und Roth] is the name of a plant Vangueria spinosa, also called piṇḍītaka, which cannot possibly be meant here; the sense 'blue lotus' is not well authenticated, though C [the Chinese translation] has 'coloured like the pure lotus.' [清淨蓮花色] I have combined A' [the old Nepalese manuscript's] and T's [the Tibetan translation's] readings; the fibres of the lotus root are often referred to for their softness.
Hence whereas EBC had translated viṣa-puṣpa-komalau as “soft as a blue lotus,” EHJ amended the text to bisa-puṣpa-komalau and translated “tender as the fibre of a lotus or a flower.”  Seventy years or so later, PO followed EHJ's lead with “tender like a flower or lotus fiber.”

This is another nice example of “send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance.” When EHJ wrote that viṣa-puṣpa-komalau “cannot possibly be meant here,” what did EHJ mean? Where was he coming from, sitting at his Buddhist scholar's desk, to sound so certain? How did he know what Aśvaghoṣa really meant? How do any of us know what Aśvaghoṣa really meant, even those of us who aspire to sit as Aśvaghoṣa sat, not believing religiously in Buddhist compassion and Buddhist enlightenment so much as sitting with our arses on a round black cushion? Sitting on our arses on a round black cushion and understanding what poison is  being caused to reflect, for example, as a veteran Alexander teacher once caused me to reflect,"For you, up is a poisoned word!" 

The 3rd pāda of today's verse belongs to the 3rd phase because it concerns the how (katham) of coping, in practice, with harsh reality.

And the 4th pāda belongs to the 4th phase because it represents the combination of the elements of the previous three pādas and at the same time the transcendence of those elements. 

The combination is suggested by
  • the allusion to the wheel-marks which, like the webbed toes, are a legendary mark of a buddha's perfection, but which also symbolize the wheel of Dharma itself; 
  • the word caraṇau, feet, which supplies the nominative dual subject to which the grammar of the previous three pādas has been pointing;
  • the word madhyau, expressing the middle – as in the middle way between opposites, or the middle ground between opposite camps, or as in the synthesis in the middle of thesis and anti-thesis.
The transcendence is expressed by the punch-line (or kick-and-punch-line?) line, caraṇau gamiṣyataḥ, “those two feet will walk.”

The reason Zen patriarchs have traditionally expressed themselves like this, in four phases – or so a Zen patriarch taught me – is because the Buddha's teaching is ultimately nothing other than harsh reality itself, which is totally cut off from our thoughts and feelings about it. So thoughts and feelings about it can be expressed in three phases, but the fourth phase points, like an earthbound finger pointing to the moon, at reality itself. 

You may feel, and I would agree with you, that this commentary is all very abstruse and philosophical.

Has all this got anything to do with the very real problem of how to alleviate very real human suffering in this world? Has this got anything to do with all the suffering that is going on right now in Greece and Spain associated with 60% youth unemployment? On that point, don't ask me, ask George Soros. He's the one advocating that we need to reconsider how we think about the relation between thinking and harsh reality.

Again, has all this got anything to do with sitting in full lotus and directing the spine to lengthen vertically upwards? On that point, don't ask me either. Because I've already been busting a gut for many years to state my case, on this and other blogs, that what the Chinese Zen patriarchs really meant by 非思量 (HI-SHIRYO), “non-thinking” is not at all what the Japanese and American Zen masters of recent ages think.

Everybody and his Zen dog believes what my own teacher believed, that 非思量 (HI-SHIRYO) is simply an expression of that reality of action which is "different from thinking." But I would stake my life on the fact – in some sense I did already stake my life on the fact – that what the ancient Zen patriarchs meant by  非思量 (HI-SHIRYO), non-thinking is what FM Alexander meant by thinking -- i.e., thinking, but not what people understand by thinking. 

What the ancient Zen patriarchs meant by  非思量 (HI-SHIRYO) is thinking in the same way that what the ancient Zen patriarchs meant by   (HI-BUTSU) is buddha, but not what people understand by buddha. What people understand by buddha, what Buddhist scholars like EH Johnston have understood by buddha, is only the idealistic thesis...

sujāta-jālāvatatāṅgulī (nom. dual): with well-born web spreading between the toes
su-jāta: mfn. well born or produced or made , of an excellent kind or nature , fine , beautiful; well grown , tall ; nobly born , noble ; really born (i.e. not born in vain)
jāla: n. a net (for catching birds , fish &c ); a cob-web ; " the web or membrane on the feet of water-birds " » -pāda the finger- and toe-membrane of divine beings and godlike personages
ava-tata: mfn. extended downwards ; overspread , canopied , covered
aṅgulī: f. a finger; a toe
mṛdū (nom. dual m.): mfn. soft , delicate , tender , pliant , mild , gentle

nigūḍha-gulphau (nom. dual m.): with concealed ankles
nigūḍha: mfn. concealed , hidden , secret , obscure (lit. and fig.)
gulpha: m. the ankle
viṣa-puṣpa-komalau (nom. dual m.): tender as a blue lotus
viṣa-puṣpa: n. a poisonous flower ; the blue lotus ; m. " having poisonous flowers " , Vanguieria Spinosa
viṣa: n. " anything active " , poison , venom , bane , anything actively pernicious ; n. water ;
n. the fibres attached to the stalk of the lotus (» bisa)
bisa [EHJ]: n. a shoot or sucker , the film or fibre of the water-lily or lotus , also the stalk itself or that part of it which is underground (eaten as a delicacy); the whole lotus plant
komala: mfn. tender , soft (opposed to karkaśa) , bland , sweet , pleasing , charming , agreeable ; of like colour

vanānta-bhūmim (acc. sg. f.): the ground of a forest
vanānta: m. " forest-region " , a wood
vanānta-bhū: f. neighbourhood of a forest
bhūmi: f. the earth , soil , ground ; a territory , country , district ; a place
kaṭhinām (acc. sg. f.): mfn. hard , firm , stiff (opposed to mṛdu) ; harsh , inflexible , cruel
katham: ind. how? (with nu it is sometimes = kimu , or kutas; e.g. katkaṁ nu , how much more! na kathaṁ nu , how much less!)
nu: indeed , certainly , surely ; (often connected with other particles , esp. with negatives)
tau (nom. dual m.):

sa-cakra-madhyau (nom. dual m.): with their wheel-marked middles
sa-cakra: mfn. having wheels , wheeled ; having a circle or discus
madhya: n. the middle , midst , centre , inside , interior
caraṇau (nom. dual): m. a foot
gamiṣyataḥ = 3rd pers. dual future gam: to go ; to go to or towards , approach

妙網柔軟足 清淨蓮花色
土石刺棘林 云何而可蹈

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