Sunday, June 22, 2014

BUDDHACARITA 11.31: When Desires are Like a Slaughter Bench (Or a Twirling Flower)

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Kīrti
vināśam-īyuḥ kuravo yad-arthaṁ vṣṇy-andhakā mekhala-daṇḍakāś-ca |
sūnāsi-kāṣṭha-pratimeṣu teṣu kāmeṣu kasyātmavato ratiḥ syāt || 11.31

For their sake, the Kurus went to their end,

As did the Vṛṣṇi-Andkhakas, and the Mekhala-Daṇḍakas.

When desires are like a butcher's knife and slaughter bench,

Who in possession of himself would delight in those desires?

EBC noted that the Chinese translation (如屠家刀机) seemed to take the first word of the 3rd pāda (which EBC read as śūla) to mean a stake for impaling criminals.

The passage quoted two posts ago from Majjhima Nikāya 22, provides evidence to support both this reading (taking sūlāsi-kāṣṭha to mean “sword-stake”) and EHJ's reading of sūnāsi-kāṣṭha.

asisūnūpamā kāmā vuttā bhagavatā …
with the simile of the butcher’s knife and block the Blessed One has stated that desires …

sattisūlūpamā kāmā vuttā bhagavatā …
with the simile of the sword stake the Blessed One has stated that desires …

bahudukkhā bahupāyāsā, ādīnavo ettha bhiyyo”ti.
provide little gratification, much suffering and despair, and that the danger in them is still more.

In an exceptionally long footnote covering more than a page, EHJ begins by asserting that the reading sūnāsi-kāṣṭha is certain, and by noting that the corresponding Pali passages use “the curious phrase” asisūnā instead. EHJ translates “knives and fuel-wood of slaughter-houses.” This struck me as odd even before I read the English translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. If sūnāsi is read as meaning a knife used in a slaughter-hourse, then to take kāṣṭha as a butcher's block, or a slaughter-bench, rather than as fuel-wood, would seem the obvious reading.

EHJ goes on to states his reasons
(a) for understanding that the three groups cited in today's verse (the Kurus, Vṛṣṇis-Andkhakas, and Mekhala-Daṇḍakas) along with the couple (Sunda and Upasunda) cited in tomorrow's verse, were brought down by devotion to the four vices of dining, wining, hunting, and women, respectively; and
(b) for reading mekhala-daṇḍakāḥ (the Mekhala-Daṇḍakas), as opposed to maithila-daṇḍakāḥ (the Maithilas and the Daṇḍakas), as per the old Nepalese manuscript and EBC.

The gist of EHJ's note is that of the seven vices peculiar to kings four are known as kāmaja [born of desire], dicing, wining, hunting and women, and these four are illustrated in this and the next verse, the Kurus for dicing, the Vṛṣṇi-Andhakas for drink, Sunda and Upasunda for women. The other therefore relates to hunting and is not to be treated as two separate instances. The question then arises of the form of the first part of the name. A's [the old Nepalese manuscript's] Maithila- is clearly wrong... I take it that C [Chinese translation] had Mekhali here. The correct form can only be determined by a consideration of the Daṇḍaka legend....when out hunting, Daṇḍaka saw a Brahman girl and outraged her, whence his kingdom was destroyed. The Buddhist accounts go back to Majjhiima 1.378 were the ṛṣis destroy the forests of Daṇḍaka, Kaliṅga, Mātaṅga and Mejjha, but the last name is doubtful; for the Sanskrit version of the sūtra treats medhya as an adjective, and the only allusion outside Pali literature to a forest of this name is a doubtful one in the Sāvitrī tale.... Reviewing the evidence, the reading indicated is clearly Mekhala and it appears that in the form of the story known to the poet the offence rose out of addiction to hunting.

Whichever reading of the 3rd pāda one goes with, the imagery has become undeniably gruesome and the search for hidden meaning correspondingly difficult, or distasteful. But this is in line with a pattern in Aśvaghoṣa's writing we have seen before, whereby we are sort of stretched little by little out of the Buddhist comfort zone – see for example the description, from BC5.47 onwards, of women sleeping in increasingly grotesque postures. This series of verses culminates in the picture painted in BC5.61, from which readers of a nervous disposition may wish to avert their eyes:

With her oral cavity open and her legs spreading out,

So that she sprayed saliva,
and made visible what normally remains secret,

One different one had dropped off, who,
rocking somewhat in her intoxication,

Did not make a pretty sight, but filled an irregular frame.

When it is understood, however, that Aśvaghośa was parodying an assortment of individuals in a meditation hall, what on first reading might sound disgusting instead becomes amusing.

I read today's verse in a similar way. On first reading, its rhetorical question sounds like it is inviting the answer: Nobody would!

But previous verses since BC11.22 have gently led us not to be satisfied with first readings. It is for that reason that I have advisedly translated kāṣṭḥa as “slaughter-bench,” in light of Freidrich Hegel's famous metaphor of “the slaughter-bench of history.”

If today's verse is reframed, then, so as to ask, “Who in possession of himself would delight in history?” then it sounds less like a rhetorical question that expects the answer “Nobody would.”

So today's verse as I read it is about history. It is about the history of nations. But more generally it is about history, in which discipline all material facts and psychological phenomena are to be studied without emotion or bias, that neutrality being aided by the distance placed between the observer and the event, by passing time.

Very shortly after I first shaved my head in 1986, the first chapter of Shobogenzo that I translated properly, from the original Japanese, was chap. 68, Udonge, The Udumbara Flower, which features the story of the Buddha holding up and twirling a flower, and Mahā-kāśyapa's face breaking into a smile. I spent a lot of time in my teacher's office working on that chapter, since at that time I was not in possession of a Japanese-English dictionary. I preferred to ask my teacher the meaning of every word I didn't know. In the course of working on that chapter, I remember my Zen teacher saying, “We can say that history is a twirling flower.”

So if we ask, “who would delight in desires like a twirling flower?”, and answer “A man in possession of himself (like Mahā-kāśyapa) could”; then equally if we ask, “who would delight in desires like a slaughter bench?”, there is an argument, following the above reasoning, for answering again “A man in possession of himself (like Gautama Buddha) could.”

In such a case, for a man in possession of himself, the truth may be not that there are no desires, but those desires lack the pull to cause a man in possession of himself to lose possession of himself.

If we are talking about sensual desires, to which the word kāmāḥ often refers, then, I can report from recent experience, even in spite of weak practice in terms of developing śīla, samādhi and prajñā, simply making old bones helps a practitioner not to be pushed and pulled too much by desires.

Yesterday afternoon on the way here I stopped at a LIDL store ten miles from home and filled up my saddlebags with provisions. As I parked my bike outside, my eyes were drawn to a LIDL poster in which a lovely smiling model with beautiful skin was kneeling in the sand advertising a black bikini. I was momentarily taken aback by how beautiful she looked, but at the same time sort of drily amused at my own response.

This, I think, has to do with the description of the first stage of sitting-meditation as kāmair-viviktam, which means separated, or secluded, or distanced from desires. It doesn't mean that desires have ceased to exist. The point might rather be that, in the first stage of sitting-meditation, the practitioner is able to maintain a certain distance, like a historian who is able to delight in historical facts, thanks to being distanced by time from the slaughter-bench of history.

Speaking of the slaughter-bench of history, I stopped for a few minutes on Friday afternoon at the Canadian War Cemetery, and it didn't take long before my eyes were streaming, as I surveyed the gravestones of soldiers aged 19, and 20, and 21. One Canadian soldier remembered as a much loved grandson, son, husband and daddy was aged 22.

My Zen teacher was never work-shy when it came to sitting, but almost as much as he liked sitting, he loved books. He liked to watch world history unfolding, and so he loved history books and philosophy books.

He was a very civilized man in many ways, and a very enlightened human being in many ways. But in some ways he was so ignorant it was difficult to believe how ignorant he was.

When people read me asserting that, they are liable to say that there must be something wrong with me, that I must be the ignorant one. In reply I say that it is not in doubt: there is something deeply wrong with me; I am the ignorant one. That is the problem I have been working on now for more than 40 years. That is the problem I thought Gudo Nishijima might lead me to solve. But as a matter of historical fact there were aspects of my ignorance which Gudo Nishijima was powerless to help with, simply because of his own ignorance, particularly in the matter of “correct posture” in sitting. Due to some kind of cosmic irony, he devoted his life to the principle of tattva-darśana, "seeing/realizing reality" while remaining in some respects blind as a bat. 

I was never much good at history at school, never much good at seeing the big picture. If I was good at anything, it was creative solving of small problems -- the kind of problems that translation work endlessly presents. 

Some very cynical people say the real reason the US invaded Iraq the second time round and caused Saddam Hussein to go to his end had nothing at all to do with democracy. The real reason, cynics say, was that Saddam was going to set a bad example of selling Iraqi oil in euros, which threatened US financial hegemony, which is centred on the role of the US dollar as the global reserve currency, which rests in turn primarily on petrodollars. 

Whether or not there is any truth in this, I don't know. History will judge, and I am no kind of historian. What I do know is that I cycled away from the Canadian War Cemetery fortified in the conviction that if, as Gudo Nishijima once assured me, "Your suffering has meaning for all people in the world," then the meaning might be related with clarifying what ignorance is, and what the means were that the Buddha taught to combat it. 

To that end, as has become increasingly evident to me in the process of translating Aśvaghoṣa, the Pali Suttas are an invaluable resource. Aśvaghoṣa, as the present series of verses demonstrates, was steeped in what the Pali Suttas teach and in what the Pali Suttas record. At the same time, as the present series of verses also demonstrates, Aśvaghoṣa was a master of the kind of irony which is not always so evident in the Pali Suttas. This kind of irony, however, fills those exchanges  that Dogen recorded in Shobogenzo between Chinese Zen Masters.  

So the Sanskrit writings of Indian patriarchs like Aśvaghoṣa and Nāgārjuna, I dare to hope, if studied and translated well, might eventually be able to form a kind of bridge.

vināśam (acc. sg.): m. utter loss , annihilation , perdition , destruction
īyuḥ = 3rd pers. pl. perf. i: to go
kuravaḥ (nom. pl.): m. the Kurus
yad-artham: ind. for which purpose

vṛṣṇy-andhakāḥ (nom. pl. m.): the Vṛṣṇis and Andkhakas
vṛṣṇi m. 'manly, strong', pl. N. of a tribe or family (from which kṛṣṇa is descended , = yādava or mādhava ; often mentioned together with the andhakas)
andhaka: m. 'blind', name of a descendant of yadu and ancestor of kṛṣṇa and his descendants
maithila-daṇḍakāḥ (nom. pl. m.): the Maithilas and Daṇḍakas
mekhala-daṇḍakāḥ [EHJ] (nom. pl. m.): the Mekhala-Daṇḍakas
ca: and

sūnāsi-kāṣṭha-pratimeṣu (loc. pl. m.): 'like the knives and fuel-wood of slaughter-houses' [EHJ]; like a butcher's knife and block
sūnā: f. (prob. fr. √ siv , " to sew " , and connected with sūci and sūtra) a woven wicker-work basket or vessel of any kind; a place for slaughtering animals , slaughter-house , butchery ; any place or utensil in a house where animals are liable to be accidentally destroyed ; a stick fixed to an elephant's hook ; killing
śūla [EBC]: mn. a sharp iron pin or stake , spike , spit (on which meat is roasted) ; any sharp instrument or pointed dart , lance , pike , spear (esp. the trident of śiva) ; a stake for impaling criminals
asi: m. a sword , scimitar , knife (used for killing animals)
kāṣṭha: n. a piece of wood or timber , stick
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

如彼鳩羅歩 弼瑟膩難陀
彌郗利檀茶 如屠家刀机
愛欲形亦然 智者所不爲
束身投水火 或投於高巖

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