Monday, March 10, 2014

BUDDHACARITA 9.53: Mantra as Instrument of Thought? Hmmm

⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Indravajrā)
yo niścayo mantra-dharo tavāyaṁ nāyaṁ na yukto na tu kāla-yuktaḥ |
śokāya dattvā pitaraṁ vayaḥ-sthaṁ syād-dharma-kāmasya hi te na dharmaḥ || 9.53 

“This mantra-containing resolve of yours

Is not improper; but neither is it suited to the present time.

For to deliver your father in his old age into sorrow

Might not be, for one who loves dharma as you do, your dharma.

The compound I have translated “mantra-containing” is, in the old Nepalese manuscript mantra-dharo. Accepting mantra-dharo as the original reading, I think Aśvaghoṣa might be intending with the play on mantra-dhara, which as a masculine noun means a king's counsellor, but which literally means "mantra-bearing," to provoke our lazy minds into action.

We are all familiar with the Sanskrit word mantra, which has found its way already into the Merriam-Webster English dictionary:

- a sound, word, or phrase that is repeated by someone who is praying or meditating
- a word or phrase that is repeated often or that expresses someone's basic beliefs

full definition
mantra:  a mystical formula of invocation or incantation (as in Hinduism); also :  watchword 

But how did Aśvaghoṣa intend us to understand the word mantra?

As I commented in a post back in January, after a Sanskrit paṇḍit most kindly shared his insights on possible derivations of the word mantra, the derivation that most appeals to me is as per Monier-Williams' supposition that mantra is formed from the root √man, to think, with the suffix -tra indicating instrumentality, so that mantra originally means “instrument of thought.”

The line in the present Canto that originally stimulated consideration of what Aśvaghoṣa meant by mantra was at the end of BC9.4, when the veteran and the counsellor jointly tell the bodhisattva that they are not sure of themselves
śruta-grahe mantra-parigrahe ca,
In apprehending what truth is taught and in comprehending the art of thought.

Again in today's verse, then, my guess is that Aśvaghoṣa wanted to make us stop and think, in connection with the job designation mantra-dhara, “counsellor” or literally “bearer of the instrument of thought,” what thinking might be, as a practical instrument.

If that was Aśvaghoṣa's intention, however, I suspect that editors and translators through the ages have missed the point, and because they missed the point they were tempted to amend the text in various ways better to suit their understanding.

Thus, in EBC's Sanskrit text (which resumes from today's verse, counting today's verse as 9.43), the compound is mantra-varo, which EBC translates as “an excellent counsel”:

“This resolve of thine is an excellent counsel, not unfit in itself but only unfit at the present time;” (EBC)

EHJ, apparently on the basis of the Tibetan and Chinese translations (the latter having 求法, “seeking dharma”), amended his text to the locative dharma-vidhau, which EHJ translated as “for the practice of dharma.”

I don't know about the Tibetan translation, but I have read enough of the Chinese text to know that it is generally not a reliable basis on which to amend the old Nepalese manuscript. All things considered, I have preferred to stick with the reading of the old Nepalese manuscript, i.e., mantra-dharaḥ

Again then, what is Aśvaghoṣa's teaching concerning the use of mantra?

Did Aśvaghoṣa advocate the use of a mantra as an object of meditation?
Is every syllable in every verse that Aśvaghoṣa wrote in some sense a mantra?

If mantra expresses the instrumentality of thinking, was it Aśvaghoṣa's intention that a practitioner should transcend the instrumentality of thinking?
Was it Aśvaghoṣa's intention that a practitioner should utilize the instrumentality of thinking?

The teaching of my Zen teacher, as I understood it, was that we should utilize thinking at the first and second phases, but at the third phase we should transcend thinking by action, while at the fourth phase reality itself is totally cut off from thinking.

Philosophically it made sense, but there was something my teacher failed to see, in practice, about the practical instrumentality of thinking. Thinking in Alexander work, for example, is instrumental in opposing feeling when, as described yesterday, feeling is faulty.

In today's verse, according to the text of the old Nepalese manuscript, the counsellor uses the word mantra once and dharma twice. In EHJ's text the counsellor uses the word dharma three times.

And when, as English-speakers today, we heard the words mantra and dharma we sort of know what those words mean, since they have passed into the English language already and we can look them up in the dictionary. Thus, “dharma”:

Hinduism :  an individual's duty fulfilled by observance of custom or law

Hinduism & Buddhism:
a :  the basic principles of cosmic or individual existence :  divine law
b :  conformity to one's duty and nature

The mantra-bearer in today's verse, then, is evidently using the word dharma in the sense of an individual's duty, when he says “it might not be your dharma.”

But I think Aśvaghoṣa's intention might be that, utilizing the instrumentality of thought, we should closely examine our unexamined conception of what dharma means, comparing and contrasting the meaning of dharma as people used the term before the time of the Buddha's enlightenment, and the true dharma which the Buddha taught in the direction of abandoning all views.

Did the Buddha ever speak in terms of “my dharma” or “your dharma”?

Correct me if I am wrong, but in Aśvaghoṣa's record of what the Buddha taught, I don't think the Buddha ever did.

In the final canto of Saundarananda, for example, the Buddha and the newly awakened Nanda between them use the word dharma fourteen times, but not once in the sense of my dharma or your dharma.

Describing the body of work that others came to call “the Alexander Technique,” FM Alexander said “This work is an exercise in finding out what thinking is.”

Everything Alexander taught, his niece Marjory Barlow insisted, came out of his practice and experience. He was a discoverer, an explorer of hitherto uncharted territory, a scratcher, in his own words, “of the surface of the egg,” and not a philosopher.

That being so, it really meant something when Alexander said:

There is no such thing as a right position, but there is such a thing as a right direction.

In relation to today's verse, in a similar way, we might say that there is no such thing as your dharma, but there is such a thing as true dharma.

My dharma or your dharma, when we reflect on what those words mean in light of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, expresses a very fleeting and insubstantial conception of dharma – an almost romantic notion. But the true dharma has pointed, is pointing, and will forever point → towards the abandoning of all views.

In conclusion, then, I read today's verse as a signal (1) that Aśvaghoṣa wishes us to engage our grey matter in utilizing the instrumentality of thought, and (2) on that basis to be prepared to compare and contrast the thoughts and words of the so-called “mantra-bearer” with the thoughts and words of somebody, like the Buddha, or like FM Alexander, who knew what they were talking about.

yaḥ (nom. sg. m.): [that] which
niścayaḥ (nom. sg.): m. conviction, resolution, resolve, aim
mantra-dharaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. containing sacred speech, possessing a secret ; m. 'bearer of the instrument of thought'; counsellor , adviser
mantra: " instrument of thought " , speech , sacred text or speech , a prayer or song of praise; consultation , resolution , counsel , advice , plan , design , secret
dhara: ifc. holding , bearing , carrying , wearing , possessing , having , keeping (also in memory) , sustaining , preserving , observing
mantra-varaḥ [EBC] (nom. sg.) : m. “an excellent counsel”
dharma-vidhau [EHJ] (loc. sg. m.): “for the practice of dharma”
tava (gen. sg.)
ayam (nom. sg. m.): this

na: not
ayam (nom. sg. m.): this
na: not
yuktaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. fit , suitable , appropriate , proper , right , established , proved , just , due ; auspicious, unfavourable
na: not
tu: but
kāla-yuktaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. fit for the (present) time, seasonable

śokāya (dat. sg.): m. grief, sorrow
dattvā = abs. dā: to give , bestow , grant , yield , impart
pitaram (acc. sg.): m. father
vayaḥ-stham (acc. sg. m.): being in the bloom of age , grown up , full-grown , strong , vigorous ; aged , old
syāt = 3rd pers. sg. optative as: to be

dharma-kāmasya (gen. sg. m.): lover of dharma
hi: for
te (gen. sg. m.): of you
na: not
dharmaḥ (nom. sg.): m. dharma

求法法應爾 但今非是時
父王衰暮年 念子増憂悲
雖曰樂解脱 反更爲非法

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