Sunday, March 30, 2014

BUDDHACARITA 9.73: Exemplary Disbelief, and Failing to See the Truth of a Right Direction

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−   Vaṁśastha
ihāsti nāstīti ya eṣa saṁśayaḥ parasya vākyair-na mamātra niścayaḥ |
avetya tattvaṁ tapasā śamena vā svayaṁ grahīṣyāmi yad-atra niścitam || 9.73

“As to the doubt you raise,
about existence in this world and non-existence,

I shall arrive at conviction in this matter
not by way of another's words.

Seeing the truth by the heat of asceticism,
or else by the coolness of quietism,

I will grasp for myself what, in this matter, is to be ascertained.

The asti (there is, it exists) and nāsti (there is not, it does not exist) of the 1st pāda of today's verse, and the doubt (saṁśayaḥ), seem to refer to what the counsellor said about rebirth in BC9.55:
Some say, moreover, that there is rebirth (punar-bhavo' sti) ; others assert with conviction that there is not (nāsti). / While this matter remains thus open to doubt (saṁśayitaḥ), it is only natural to enjoy whatever royal rank has come our way.//BC9.55//

The point to reflect on then, in relation to a controversy like whether or not Buddhists believe in reincarnation, is that if we really followed the Buddha we would refuse to believe one thing or the other on the basis of what anybody (including the Buddha himself) said.

I am reminded of the teaching of Marjory Barlow who would tell a new pupil in a first Alexander lesson, “I don't want you to believe a single word I say. You be the judge of whether or not I am talking out of my hat!”

Of course it is possible, for those of us of a religious inclination, to think that this story is about one special bodhisattva named Prince Sarvartha-siddha, who became the enlightened Buddha, whose words it behoves us to believe. But I for one don't necessarily read Buddha-carita like that. Before it specifically means Gautama Buddha, buddha means that which is awake in anybody. So I think the point is for every buddha-to-be, not only this one most celebrated Bodhisattva, to stand firm in his or her resolve, and for every buddha-to-be to make up his or her own mind, on the basis of practice and experience.

In the 3rd pāda I read tapasā śamena as roughly equivalent to the English phrase “by hook or by crook.” The bodhisattva is expressing his determination, one way or another, to realize whatever truth there is to be realized.

At the same time, and following on from the discussion in yesterday's comment about practice at the interface between fear paralysis and panic, tapas and śama can be taken as representing opposite approaches to the truth, each of which lacks something which the other has.

In other words, tapas can be taken as standing for what the Moro reflex orchestrates – the motivating heat of red panic. While śama can be taken as representing what fear paralysis evokes – the pallid dampening of excitement.

In fact, looking ahead to BC Canto 12, arāḍa-darśanaḥ, “Meeting with Arāḍa,” the bodhisattva does pursue these two alternative approaches of  tapas and śama, trying first the more cool and contemplative approaches of Arāḍa and Uḍraka (śama), and then rejecting their teachings in favour of fierce asceticism (tapas).

Arāḍa's approach to mokṣa (release/freedom) is somewhat philosophical and meditative, rather than rigorously practical or ascetic; and Uḍraka, as Aśvaghoṣa sums him up in SN3.3, is inclined towards quietness (upaśama-matim):

atha mokṣa-vādinam-arāḍam-upaśama-matiṁ tathoḍrakaṁ /
Then Ārāḍa, who spoke of freedom, 
and likewise Uḍraka, who inclined towards quietness,
tattva-kṛta-matir-upāsya jahāv-ayam-apy-amārga iti mārga-kovidhaḥ // SN3.3 //
He served, his heart set on truth, and he left. 
He who intuited the path intuited: "This also is not it."

sa vicārayan jagati kiṁ nu paramam-iti taṁ tam-āgamaṁ /
Of the different traditions in the world, he asked himself, 
which one was the best?
niścayam-anadhigataḥ parataḥ paramaṁ cacāra tapa eva duṣ-karaṁ // SN3.4 //
Not obtaining certainty elsewhere, 
he entered after all into ascetic practice that was most severe.

EHJ changed the at the end of the 3rd pāda to ca, translating “I will arrive at the truth for myself by asceticism and quietude...” But I think Aśvaghoṣa's suggestion, with (or else) is that the bodhisattva was already aware of two mutually exclusive approaches, each of which he would test out, one at a time, before abandoning both and coming back to just sitting.

What strikes me on perusing BC Canto 12 is that
(a) Arāḍa comes across as a Zen master, who speaks from experience of the four stages of sitting-meditation;
(b) the bodhisattva is described even while in the thick of ascetic practice as sparkling like the sea –

kṣīṇo 'py-akṣīṇa-gāmbhīryaḥ samudra iva sa vyabhāt //BC12.99//
Wasted away, and yet undiminished in the depths of his dignity and composure,
he caught the eye like the sparkling sea.”

One irony of today's verse, then, might be that the bodhisattva in the end will realize the truth neither by asceticism nor by quietism, but rather by abandoning both of those -isms.

But a deeper irony, that we may revisit in BC Canto 12, might reside in a hundredth or a thousandth of a gap in the mind of a Zen practitioner who is proud of what he thinks he understands, wherein heaven and earth are very far removed from each other. I mean, it is easy for me, sitting on an easy chair, to dismiss Arāḍa as a believer in an -ism, and easy for me to dismiss asceticism as another time-wasting -ism... but where has that got me?

One irony, again, might be that the bodhisattva now expects to grasp something, whereas as the enlightened Buddha he will point in the direction of letting go of everything. Now the bodhisattva looks forward to certainty. Later he will teach that, aside from death and taxes, there is no such thing as certainty, no nailed-down truth, no right position – but there is a right direction.

But a deeper irony, again, in conclusion, that sitting-zen makes me aware of, even as I write here about a right direction, is that what I feel to be the right direction turns out to be the wrong direction. What I feel to be up turns out to be down. 

Fundamentally, this is a vestibular problem. Blessed with a congenitally dodgy vestibular system, I have come to understand it in myself as a vestibular problem. But it turns out that it is a vestibular problem for everybody. At the most fundamental level, our sense of the right direction is influenced, or distorted, by a primitive panic reflex. And below that there is fear paralysis.

Still, even though I cannot reliably feel where it is, there is such a thing as a right direction. Or else how would the tree in the garden grow? 

Because there is such a thing as a right direction, it seems to me, even in the absence of certainties that can be grasped, and even though life hitherto has been a littany of errors, there is still worthwhile effort to be made. 

iha: ind. in this world
asti: there is
na: not
asti: there is
iti: “...” thus
yaḥ (nom. sg. m.): [that] which
eṣa (nom. sg. m.): this
saṁśayaḥ (nom. sg.): m. uncertainty , irresolution , hesitation , doubt

parasya (gen. sg.): another's
vākyaiḥ (inst. pl.): n. speech, saying, words
na: not
mama (gen. sg.): my
atra: ind. in this matter
niścayaḥ (nom. sg.): m. inquiry , ascertainment , fixed opinion , conviction , certainty , positiveness ; resolve, resolution

avetya = abs. ava-√i to look upon , consider ; to perceive , conceive , understand , learn , know
tattvam (acc. sg.): n. that-ness, the truth, the reality
tapasā (inst. sg.): n. warmth , heat ; pain, suffering ; ascetic practice
śamena (inst. sg.): m. tranquillity , calmness , rest , equanimity , quietude or quietism , absence of passion , abstraction from eternal objects through intense meditation ; tranquillization , pacification , allayment , alleviation , cessation , extinction ; indifference, apathy
vā: or
ca [EHJ]: and

svayam: ind. by myself
grahīṣyāmi = 1st pers. sg. future grah: to grasp
yat (acc. sg. n.): [that] which
atra: ind. in this matter
niścitam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. ascertained , determined , settled , decided ; n. certainty , decision , resolution , design
niś- √ ci : to ascertain , investigate , decide , settle , fix upon , determine , resolve

有無等猶豫 二心疑惑増
而作有無説 我不決定取

淨智修苦行 決定我自知

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