suvarṇaniṣṭhīvini mtyunā hte su-duṣkaraṁ yan-na mamāra saṁjayaḥ |
ahaṁ punar-dharma-ratau sute gate mumukṣur-ātmānam-anātmavān-iva || 8.77
When 'Gold-Spitting' Suvarṇa-niṣṭhīvin was borne away by death,
It was a miracle that Saṁjaya 'The Victorious' did not die.
I, however, am wishing, with the passing of a dharma-loving son,
To be rid of myself, as if I were not in possession of myself.
Separation from loved ones, so they say, is suffering. Sickness is suffering. And death is suffering. That being so, the king's lament thus far (BC8.75 - 77) puts us in mind of the Buddha's exposition, when he first turned the wheel of Dharma. of the noble truth of suffering.
In the background, might there be recognition on Aśvaghoṣa's part that a lament, or the uttering of painful moaning sounds (vilāpa), is expression of the noble truth of suffering in its rawest and most affecting form? Is this why two cantos of Saundara-nanda (SN Canto 6 & 7), and the present canto of Buddha-carita, contain vilāpa in their title?
Just as the Buddha's intention in setting forth the noble truth of suffering was not to paint this world pessimistically, as a miserable place tainted by original sin, but was rather to point the way to a way out of suffering; so Aśvaghoṣa's real intention in today's verse, below the surface, might also be to point the way to a way.
EBC referenced today's verse to the Mahābhārata XII, 31, and amended the Saṁjaya of his manuscripts to Sṛṁjaya. EHJ subsequently noted:
The name is Sṛṇjaya in the Mahābhārata, which tells the story twice, vii, 2138ff, and xii 1088ff. In both the son is brought to life again, and the reference here suggests that the poet [i.e. Aśvaghoṣa] knew only a version to which the happy ending had not been added.
The ostensible gist of the reference, either way, seems to be that when his son Suvarṇa-niṣṭhīvin was borne away by death, the grief of the father Saṁjaya (or Sṛṇjaya) was so intense that it was a miracle he did not die. So the ostensible gist of the king's lament in the second half of today's verse is that he wants to die (mumukṣur-ātmānam = lit. “wanting to be rid of the self”' EBC: “wish to yield up my soul”), because of being beside himself with grief (anātmavān-iva = lit. “as if not in possession of himself”; EHJ: “like one who has no self control”).
Ostensibly, then, the king is grieving so intensely for the loss of his son to the wandering life that he wants to die, as if only death would offer a way out of his suffering. Ostensibly, in other words, the lord of the earth, the protector of men, the Śākya king, is coming across as more like a drama queen than a king.
But if that is all there was to today's verse -- a reference to an old legend in the Mahābhārata quoted in support of a melodramatic expression of personal suffering -- then today's verse would not be worth the steam off of the piss of a bloke who sits.
So there must be more meaning buried below the surface, and we are evidently required to get out our spades and dig for it.
In the 3rd pāda, for example, might dharma-ratau sute gate, “a dharma-loving son having gone,” describe the awakening of a Zen patriarch? Or a tathā-gata realizing himself or herself as a tathā-gata?
In the 4th pāda, might mumukṣur-ātmānam, “wishing to shed the self,” relate to the teaching of ancient Zen masters that just to sit is to shed body and mind, or in other words, “to forget the self.”
In the 4th pāda, again, might an-ātmavān-iva, “being as if not possessed of self,” relate to Aśvaghoṣa's description of the world in SN Canto 17 as nir-ātmakam, “devoid of self”?
athāśuciṃ duḥkham-anityam-asvaṃ nirātmakaṃ caiva cikāya kāyam
And he perceived the body to be impure, full of suffering, impermanent, without an owner (a-svaṃ), and again, devoid of self (nir-ātmakaṃ). // SN17.16 //
anityatas-tatra hi śūnyataś-ca nirātmato duḥkhata eva cāpi...
For, on those grounds, on the grounds of impermanence and emptiness, on the grounds of absence of self (nir-ātmataḥ), and of suffering... // SN17.17 //
tat-tat-pratītya prabhavanti bhāvā nirātmakaṃ tena viveda lokam
But states of being arise dependent on this and that;
he found, in that sense, that the world is devoid of self (nir-ātmakam).//SN17.21//
Again, might an-ātmavān-iva, “being as if not possessed of self,” be another way of saying what Nanda said when he described his own realization in SN Canto 18?
urvyādikān janmani vedmi dhātūn nātmānam-urvyādiṣu teṣu kiṁ cit /
yasmād-atas-teṣu na me 'sti saktir bahiś-ca kāyena samā matir-me // 18.14 //
“In a birth, I perceive earth and the other elements, but in earth and those other elements, I perceive no self at all (vedmi... nātmānam... kiṁ cit). / On that basis, there is no attachment in me to those elements; my orientation is equal with regard to my body and outside.” // SN18.14 //
If, in conclusion, I write something other than a question, I would like to come back once more to the truth that, in a world governed by impermanence, there is no such thing as a right position, but there is a right direction.
One of the people who encouraged me to reflect on this truth, Marjory Barlow, used to emphasize in giving lessons in the Alexander Technique not to pre-judge how a pupil will be on any given day. “Give them a chance!”
That kind of open-mindedness, I must admit, goes against the grain. But going against the grain, in the final analysis, might be what today's verse is really all about.
suvarṇaniṣṭhīvini (loc. sg.): m. 'golden spitting', Suvarṇaniṣṭhīvin
suvarṇa: mfn. of a good or beautiful colour , brilliant in hue , bright , golden
ni- √ ṣṭhiv : to spit out
niṣṭhīvana: n. spitting , saliva
mṛtyunā (inst. sg.): n. death
hṛte (loc. sg. m.): mfn. carried off, borne away
su-duṣkaram (nom. sg. n.): mfn. very difficult to be done , most arduous ; rare , extraordinary ; n. difficult act , difficulty
yat (nom. sg. n.): that which
mamāra = 3rd pers. sg. perf. mṛ: to die
saṁjayaḥ (nom. sg.): m. 'completely victorious , triumphant' ; Saṁjaya ; m. N. of a chief of the yakṣas
sṛñjaya: m. N. of a son of devavāta RV. ; of various other men MBh. Hariv. &c
aham (nom. sg. m.): I
punar: ind. further , moreover , besides ; however, still, nevertheless
dharma-ratau (loc. sg. m.): dharma-loving
rati: f. pleasure , enjoyment , delight in , fondness for (loc. or comp. ; ratim with √ āp , labh , upa-labh , adhi-gam , vidkṛ or bandh and loc. , " to find pleasure in ")
sute (loc. sg.): m. son
gate (loc. sg. m.): mfn. gone , gone away , departed , departed from the world , deceased , dead
mumukṣuḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. desirous of freeing ; eager to be free (from mundane existence) , striving after emancipation ; wishing to let go or give up (acc.) ; wishing to discharge or shed or emit or shoot or hurl or send forth (acc. or comp.)
muc: to loose , let loose , free , let go , slacken , release , liberate (" from " , abl. or -tas ; A1. and Pass. with abl. or instr. , rarely with gen. " to free one's self , get rid of , escape from ")
amumukṣur [EBC]: (nom. sg. m.): 'fearing to set [my soul] free'
ātmānam (acc. sg.): m. self ; ātman in the sg. is used as reflexive pronoun for all three persons and all three genders e.g. ātmānaṁ sā hanti , " she strikes herself "
an-ātmavān (nom. sg. m.): mfn. not self-possessed; EBC: '[like] any coward'; EHJ: '[like] one who has no self control'
ātmavat: mfn. having a soul ; self-possessed , composed , prudent