Friday, June 13, 2014

BUDDHACARITA 11.23: Self-Possession & Letting Go

⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Indravajrā)
anviṣya cādāya ca jāta-tarṣā yān-atyajantaḥ pariyānti duḥkham |
loke tṇolkā-sadśeṣu teṣu kāmeṣu kasyātmavato ratiḥ syāt || 11.23

Desirous men, having wished for them and grasped them,

In failing to let go of them, maintain their grip on suffering.

Desires are like a torch of blazing straw.

Who in the world in possession of himself 
would delight in those desires?

Ostensibly what is going on in this Canto is the laying of blame upon desires. But I think what Aśvaghoṣa is really interested in, below the surface of today's verse and the ten following verses, is investigating what it means to be in possession of oneself.

Thus, as a starting point, in yesterday's verse, he draws the obvious contrast between (a) really possessing something, having earned it and made it one's own, and (b) borrowing something, having got it on the never never.

In today's verse Aśvaghoṣa points to a truth about self-possession that is less obvious, more ironic. The irony might be that we truly take possession of ourselves not as we are prone to think when we are young and filled with youthful optimism, by getting our dirty paws on something, but rather in the cessation of grasping.

In a well-known passage from Shobogenzo chap. 3, Genjo-koan, Dogen describes the same kind of irony:

To learn the Buddha's truth is to learn ourselves.
To learn ourselves is to forget ourselves.
To forget ourselves is to be experienced by the myriad dharmas.
To be experienced by the myriad dharmas
is to let our own body-and-mind,
and the body-and-mind of the external world,
fall away.

Having written the above yesterday and slept on it, while I was sitting this morning a couple of Aśvaghoṣa's phrases came back to me which, after six years, have gradually managed to engrave themselves upon my memory. My memory is not what it was 25 years ago when I was translating Shobogenzo, but happily here are a couple of phrases that have managed to engrave themselves on it.

The first is Aśvaghoṣa's description of the first dhyāna as
kamair viviktaṁ malinaiś ca dharmaiḥ
distanced from desires and tainted things (SN17.42)

The second is the Buddha's injunction that
ānāpāna-smṛtiṁ saumya viṣayī-kartum arhasi
sustained attentiveness while breathing out and in, my friend,
you should make into your own possession (SN15.64).

The latter phrase forms a link back again to words of the Buddha that I quoted in connection with BC11.20, from the Rāhula Sutta:

ānāpānasatiṁ Rāhula bhāvanaṁ bhāvehi....
Develop the developing, Rāhula, 
that is sustained attentiveness while breathing out and in.

paṭinissaggānupassī assasissāmī ti sikkhati, 
he trains like this: contemplating letting go I will breathe in,
paṭinissaggānupassī passasissāmī ti sikkhati....
he trains like this: contemplating letting go I will breathe out....

evaṁ bhāvitā kho Rāhula ānāpānasati evaṁ bahulīkatā
In this way, Rāhula, remaining attentive while breathing out and in
when developed like this and made much of
mahapphalā hoti mahānisaṁsā.
yields great fruit, brings great advantages.

A final reflection, which is reflected in the above translations of smṛti and sati, is that “remaining attentive” or "sustained attentiveness" might – along with Ānandajoti Bhikkhu's “reflective awareness” – be more accurate and more helpful translations than “mindfulness.”

“Mindfulness" conveys a sense of taking care which might sometimes be unhelpful. As Patrick Macdonald observed in connection with Alexander work: If you are careful in this work you will never get anywhere. If you are careless you might.

At the same time, “mindfulness” fails exactly to convey the original sense which smṛti has of the function of memory, or attention/consciousness sustained over time.

For this reason it occurred to me this morning to translate smṛti as “remaining attentive.”

Though "sustained attentiveness" is longer and more unwieldy than any one-word translation, it strikes me as being potentially helpful to me, for one, as an aid to remembering to think developmentally. 

"Think developmentally" was advice given to me 16 years ago by Peter Blythe when I was training as developmental therapist, and it remains good advice. Coming across the word bhāvana in Aśvaghoṣa's writings has caused me to reflect again on what good advice it was to think developmentally. 

"Sustained attentiveness" is something that any of us can practice, yes, right away. At the same time, "sustained attentiveness" sounds like something to be developed... and for that reason "sustained attentiveness" or "remaining attentive" might be helpful translations. Those translations might help us to remember that we are in the business of developing whatever it is we need to develop as the antidote to ignorance -- whether that ignorance be conceived as neuro-physiological in nature (e.g. rooted in vestibular dysfunction) or as psychological (e.g. rooted in selfish views). 

These verbal distinctions may sound like small potatoes, but I know from experience how easily inexact translations can throw us.

Several times in my 20s I remember my Zen teacher telling me with a smile that “we have to be cautious.” It was only years later that I realized what he meant to say – doubtless in an effort to counter any tendency to rudeness that he might have seen in me – was “we have to be courteous.”

anviṣya = abs. anv- √ iṣ: to desire , seek , seek after , search , aim at
ca: and
ādāya = abs. ā- √ dā: “to give to one's self " , take , accept ; to seize , take away , carry off , rob ; to take or carry away with one's self ; to seize , grasp , take or catch hold of
ca: and
jāta-tarṣāḥ (nom. pl. m.): mfn. thirsty, desirous, Bcar.
jāta: born; grown , produced , arisen , caused
tarṣa: m. ( √ tṛṣ) thirst , wish , desire for (in comp.)

yān (acc. pl. m.): [those pleasures] which
a- : (negative prefix)
tyajantaḥ = nom. pl. m. pres. part. tyaj: leave, abandon
pariyānti = 3rd pers. pl. pari- √ yā: to go or travel about , go round or through (acc.) ; to surround , protect , guard
paripānti [EBC query] = 3rd pers. pl. pari- √ pā: to protect or defend on every side , to guard , maintain
duḥkham (acc. sg.): n. sorrow, pain , suffering

loke (loc. sg.): m. the world
tṛṇolkā-sadṛśeṣu (loc. pl. m.): like a torch of blazing straw
tṛṇa: n. grass , herb , any gramineous plant , blade of grass , straw (often symbol of minuteness and worthlessness)
ulkā: f. a meteor ; a firebrand , dry grass &c set on fire , a torch
sadṛśa: like, resembling
teṣu (loc. pl. m.): those

kāmeṣu (loc. pl.): m. pleasures, desires
kasya (gen. sg.): of who?
ātmavataḥ (gen. sg. m.): mfn. self-possessed
ratiḥ (nom. sg.): f. pleasure , enjoyment , delight in , fondness for (loc.)
syāt = 3rd pers. sg. optative as: to be

貪欲勤苦求 得以増愛著
非常離散時 益復増苦惱
執炬還自燒 智者所不著

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