Saturday, June 14, 2014

BUDDHACARITA 11.24: Self-Possession vs Utter Loss

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Mālā)
an-ātmavanto hdi yair-vidaṣṭā vināśam-archanti na yānti śarma |
kruddhogra-sarpa-pratimeṣu teṣu kāmeṣu kasyātmavato ratiḥ syāt || 11.24

People not possessed of themselves, being bitten in the heart by them,

Veer in the direction of utter loss and do not arrive at security.

Desires are like fierce angry snakes.

Who in possession of himself would delight in those desires?

Once again the ostensible gist is to condemn desires, but the hidden meaning has to do with self-possession. 

But what exactly is that hidden meaning? And how many layers of it might there be?

The main clue in today's verse is in the repetition of ātmavat in the 1st and 4th pāda, firstly with an ostensibly negative connotation and then with an ostensibly positive connotation.

The superficial sense, as in BC11.21 and other previous verses, is that desires are a great terror of the world, something for everybody to be afraid of, causing people who succumb to them to arrive at an evil end.

But when we examine exactly the reasoning contained in the bodhisattva's words, what he is saying is not that.

In today's verse, first of all, the bodhisattva is precisely not saying that desires are something for everybody to be afraid of. He is saying that desires are dangerous to people who are not in possession of themselves. To people who are in possession of themselves, the implication might be, desires are not necessarily dangerous – in the same way that people who know snakes well (herpetologists, zoo keepers, snake charmers and so on) are not liable to be bitten even by hooded cobras, rattlesnakes, bushmasters, and black mambas.

Second of all, vināśam archanti, “they veer towards utter loss” (like dur-gatim-abhyupaiti, “he passes in the direction of difficulty” in BC11.21) need not be understood as expressing arrival at a final destination. "Veering towards utter loss" might rather be understood as describing a developmental process – a developmental process in which the idea of arrival at a place of security (aka “fixing”) is truly death and destruction.

Read in that light, vināśam archanti, “they veer towards utter loss,” might describe the directed action of bodhisattvas on their way to dropping off body and mind.

So when we read today's verse like this, when it asks the question, "Who would delight in those desires?", the answer to this question might be, for example:  a non-buddha, an icchantika, one who does whatever he likes, a loser of the sort described in Shobogenzo chap. 28:
Zen Master Koboku tells the assembly: "Once we know of the matter of the buddha-ancestors going on up, then we can talk. Tell me, Zen do-gooders, just what is this matter of a buddha-ancestor going on up? There is, born to a human family, a child deficient in the six sense organs and imperfect in the seven kinds of consciousness. He does whatever he likes, and is without a seed of the buddha-nature. Meeting with buddha, he kills buddha. Meeting with ancestors, he kills ancestors. Heaven cannot accept him, and even Hell has no gate that would take him in. Do you lot know this person or not?"
He pauses a good while and says: "You are facing one who is not quick at anticipating others' wishes, who sleeps a lot and talks a lot in his sleep." 

The main reason these comments tend to be unduly long is that there is so much more buried in them than initially meets the eye. That is the objective reason, or my excuse.

On the subjective side, one of the reasons these comments tend to be unduly long is that I write them on the day before publishing each post, and then wake up realizing that my comment has totally failed to do the verse justice. 

When I went to bed last night, the opening sentence of this comment read:
Once again the ostensible gist is to condemn desires, but the hidden agenda is to cause us to aspire to be in possession of ourselves.
Fortunately something caused me to realize in my sleep that a lot more is buried in today's verse than that. 

This morning I didn't wake up feeling like a bloke in possession of himself, or even feeling like a bloke who aspires to be in possession of himself. On the contrary, I woke up as I often wake up, feeling like a bloke who, in his ignorance, when tempted by various kinds of desires, has allowed himself too many times to be deeply bitten.

Feeling like this when I woke up, feeling bad, I nevertheless seemed to have been thinking developmentally in my sleep. I woke up thinking about the dictionary's two definitions of śarman, viz. 1. shelter, safety, security; and 2. joy, happiness.

FM Alexander was thinking developmentally when he famously asserted: “There is no such thing as a right position, but there is such a thing as a right direction.”

This life of mine is going to end in death. That is for damn sure. And I don't believe in reincarnation, at least not any kind of reincarnation that violates the principle of psychophysical unity. So if there is any drop of the nectar of immortality in my hands, anything truly worth getting out of bed for, anything in prospect bearing even a faint resemblance to the happy ending of a fairy story, it might be totally contained in Alexander's credo that there is such a thing as a right direction.

Assuming then that Aśvaghoṣa no less than Alexander was one who thought developmentally, I woke up thinking that the true essence of the 2nd pāda might be like this:

There is no such thing as arriving at śarma, but there might be śarman in veering in the direction of utter loss.

There is no such thing as arriving at security, but there might be happiness in veering in the direction of utter loss.

When I went to bed last night, the opening sentence of this comment had read:
Once again the ostensible gist is to condemn desires, but the hidden agenda is to cause us to aspire to be in possession of ourselves.
But what, in any case, does it mean “to aspire to be in possession of ourselves”? 

Was Aśvaghoṣa encouraging us to try to become buddha?

If he was so encouraging us, I think it was in the spirit of an elephant hunter preparing a great big elephant trap (into which this fat elephant promptly walked).

Was Aśvaghoṣa really encouraging us not to aspire to something but, on the contrary, to veer in the direction of losing everything?

Maybe, below the surface, that is exactly what he was always encouraging, not only in today's verse but throughout his writing. 

Thus, when Aśvaghoṣa describes the awakened Nanda truly having found himself, the description is conspicuously in the negative:

arhattvam-āsādya sa sat-kriyārho nirutsuko niṣpraṇayo nirāśaḥ /
Having attained to the seat of arhathood, he was worthy of being served.
Without ambition, without partiality, without expectation;
vibhīr-viśug-vītamado virāgaḥ sa eva dhṛtyānya ivābabhāse //SN17.61
Without fear, without sorrow, without pride, without passion;
while being nothing but himself, he seemed in his constancy to be different.

The final thought stimulated in me by today's verse, when I finally dragged my miserable self out of bed and sat, was the question of who Aśvaghoṣa was writing all this for anyway?

Was Aśvaghoṣa writing for great arhats who, being already in full possession of themselves, could smugly recognize in his poetry the working of a like awakened mind?

Or was he writing for the likes of me and you, the not-yet-self-possessed and the non-self-possessed?

Seeing the target audience to be the latter, more than anything else, is the fuel that gets me – veering ineptly in the direction of utter loss – up and out of bed.

an-ātmavantaḥ (nom. pl. m.): those not in possession of themselves ; those who are not self-possessed ; the non-self possessed
hṛdi (loc. sg.): n. heart
yaiḥ (inst. pl. m.): by those [desire]
vidaṣṭāḥ (nom. pl. m.): mfn. bitten

vināśam (acc. sg.): m. utter loss , annihilation , perdition , destruction , decay , death , removal
archanti = 3rd pers. pl. ṛ: to go towards , meet with , fall upon or into , reach , obtain
na: not
yānti = 3rd pers. pl. yā: to go to ; to go towards or against , go or come to , enter , approach , arrive at , reach
śarma (acc. sg.): n. shelter , protection , refuge , safety ; Joy , bliss , comfort , delight , happiness

kruddhogra-sarpa-pratimeṣu (loc. pl. m.): like angry fierce snakes
kruddha: mfn. irritated , provoked , angry with; fierce , cruel
ugra: mfn. powerful , violent , mighty , impetuous , strong , huge , formidable , terrible ; cruel , fierce , ferocious , savage
sarpa: mfn. creeping ; m. a snake , serpent , serpent-demon
pratimā: ifc. like , similar , resembling , equal to
teṣu (loc. pl. m.): those

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

愚癡卑賤人 慳貪毒燒心
終身長受苦 未曾得安樂

貪恚如蛇毒 智者何由近

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