Tuesday, June 24, 2014

BUDDHACARITA 11.33: Desires as an Unkind Adversary (and as the Reality of the Enemy)

⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Sālā)
yeṣāṁ kṛte vāriṇi pāvake ca kravyātsu cātmānam-ihotsjanti |
sapatna-bhūteṣv-aśiveṣu teṣu kāmeṣu kasyātmavato ratiḥ syāt || 11.33

To water, to fire and to flesh-eaters, for the sake of desires,

Men in this world deliver up their bodies.

When desires are real manifestations of the enemy,

Who in possession of himself would delight in those unkind desires?

Today's verse, as I read it, is a difficult one. It is the final verse in the series which ends with the question Who in possession of himself would delight in those desires? But today's verse does not express any kind of definite conclusion. Maybe as befits a concluding verse, it seems to be more than usually ambiguous, not providing certain answers but raising some challenging questions:

For a start, what did the bodhisattva mean by kravyātsu, “flesh-eaters”? A flesh-eater could be, as per the dictionary, a carnivorous animal, a beast of prey. Or it could be a flesh-eating demon – a terrible ghost, something that does not really exist. There again, at the level of everyday human life, it could be one of the countless bacteria in the so-called microbiome which are working all the time to keep our flesh healthy – or, if we get out of balance, to make us more unhealthy.

EBC translated “give themselves up to ravenous beasts”; EHJ “deliver their bodies up to beasts in the wild”; and PO “deliver their bodies to predatory beasts.”

Predatory Beasties

Again, what did the bodhisattva mean by giving up one's body? Ut-√sṛj means to let go or to fling away. At the same time the ut- of ut-√sṛj literally means “up.” So is the letting go or flinging away or delivering up of one's body in this world a bad thing, or a good thing, or a thing beyond bad and good?

When Nanda, for the sake of sensual desires directed towards celestial nymphs, delivered himself up to restrictive ascetic practice, what kind of a thing was that?

But the most challenging question is posed by the 3rd pāda. In the 3rd pāda, what did the bodhisattva mean by describing desires / pleasures as sapatna-bhūteṣv aśiveṣu?

EBC translated “pleasures which are disastrous and constant enemies”; EHJ “passions, inauspicious and ever inimical as they are”; and PO “pleasures, that are, in fact, sinister enemies.”

If, following PO's reading, we translate “desires, that are, in fact, the sinister enemy,” then the sinister enemy could be taken as Māra, aka kāma-deva, God of Desire. In that case, the irony behind the rhetorical question might be that a person fully in possession of himself is able to delight in kicking the arse, and in helping others to kick the arse, of said sinister enemy.

There again, is there a sense in which aśiveṣu might mean not so much disastrous or sinister as simply unkind in the sense that any objective fact, in its objective reality, is not interested in us and is not the slightest bit compassionate, or kind, or emotional in any way – is as unemotional, in fact, as the earth, or as a mountain?

Why did George Mallory want to climb Mount Everest? Not because it was kind, or because it was malevolent, but simply, in Mallory's famous words, because it was there.

When unkind Everest is really there, as a real and present adversary, who in possession of himself would delight in that mountain?

So one way of understanding sapatna-bhūteṣu is as describing desires as “akin to an adversary,” in the same way that, to a mountaineer, Mount Everest is akin to the ultimate adversary.

But a still deeper meaning of sapatna-bhūteṣu might be related with what the Buddha tells Nanda in SN Canto 15:

yady-api pratisaṃkhyānāt kāmān-utsṛṣṭavān-asi /
Even if, as a result of calm consideration, you have let go of desires,
tamāṃsīva prakāśena pratipakṣeṇa tāñ-jahi // SN15.4
You must, as if shining light into darkness,
abolish them using opposition.

tiṣṭhaty-anuśayas-teṣāṃ channo 'gnir-iva bhasmanā /
What lies behind those desires sleeps on, like a fire covered with ashes;
sa te bhāvanayā saumya praśāmyo 'gnir-ivāmbunā // 15.5
You are to extinguish it, my friend, by the means of mental development,
as if using water to put out a fire.

te hi tasmāt pravartante bhūyo bījād-ivāṅkurāḥ /
For from that source they re-emerge, like shoots from a seed.
tasya nāśena te na syur-bīja-nāśād-ivāṅkurāḥ // SN15.6
In its absence they would be no more
-- like shoots in the absence of a seed.

Which is to say that for those of us who sit, and whose Mount Everests lie within, the ultimate enemy might be not so much desires per se as what lies behind desires. What lies behind desires, if we follow the twelve links back to avidyā, is primarily ignorance. And this ignorance, like a fire covered with ashes may be latent, not evident. Ignorance, unfortunately, is liable to be hidden from us who are ignorant. In which case desires that we can recognize may be akin to smoke or flames and in that sense sapatna-bhūteṣu, real manifestations of the enemy.

Following this line of thought, then, insofar as one who in possession of himself is one who has ceased ignorance, desires are no sort of threat or danger; desires might rather be objective realities in which to delight. In that case, ironically, the person in possession of himself or herself is just the person who would, could and should delight in desires.

For those of us not yet fully in possession of ourselves, however, the arising of desires may signal the latent presence of an enemy – ignorance – that remains to be defeated.

In SN15.4 the Buddha speaks of "using opposition" (pratipakṣeṇa). The principle of pratītya-samutpāda seems to be that ignorance is to be opposed by developing wisdom.

Insofar as ignorance is distorted perception of reality rooted in egotism, developing of wisdom might mean seeing reality as it is by means of vipaśyana meditation, or by means of forgetting oneself (dropping off body and mind) in some group or team activity.

But insofar as ignorance is unconscious misdirection of the self rooted in faulty sensory appreciation and end-gaining, developing of wisdom might mean just consciously directing the self in an upward direction, having circumvented faulty sensory appreciation and inhibited end-gaining.

The emphasis which my Zen teacher place on “correct sitting posture” has led me over the years in the direction of endeavouring to develop the latter kind of wisdom, focusing on use of the physical self (neck, head, back, legs etc.) in sitting.

Truly just to sit, however, has a mental aspect which is the absence of any agenda other than sitting. And Alexander work, to which I was led by a misguided focus on “correct sitting posture,” turns out to be, in Alexander's words, “the most mental thing there is.”

As I sat last night, at the end of a day of sittting, it occured to me that I still haven't developed much in the way of wisdom, but if I have developed any wisdom it is in the knowing of how NOT to sit. Knowing how NOT to sit means knowing NOT to sit how my teacher taught me to sit. Which does not say much for me or for the tradition to which I belong. 

Then again, translating Aśvaghoṣa, and coming across words like bhāvana and bhāvanā, has sort of forced me to reconsider what truth there might be in the former approach to developing wisdom, through means which are evidently given more emphasis in the Pali Suttas and in the Tibetan tradition than they were given in Japanese Zen as I – admittedly through the filter of my own faulty sensory appreciation – experienced it. I refer to more 'mental' means like mindfulness; contemplation of suffering, impermanence and non-self; conscious cultivation of compassion, et cetera, et cetera.

Perhaps in the final analysis, the material being the immaterial and vice versa, the distinction might ultimately be false between two approaches to developing wisdom. Which is to say that meditating on reality as it really is, in practice, might be synonymous with consciously allowing one's head to go forward and up. And learning how to use the head, neck, back, and other body parts, in practice, might mean forgetting the self.

Either way, plenty of work remains to be done....

yeṣām (gen. pl. m.): [for] whose [sake]
kṛte: ind. on account of , for the sake of , for (with gen.)
vāriṇi (loc. sg.): n. water , rain , fluid , fluidity
pāvake (loc. sg.): m. fire
ca: and

kravyātsu = loc. pl. kravyād: m. a carnivorous animal , beast of prey
kravya: n. raw flesh , carrion
ad: to eat , consume , devour
-ad: mfn. ifc. " eating "
ca: and
ātmānam (acc. sg.): m. self, person, body
iha: ind. here, in this world
utsṛjanti = 3rd pers. pl. ut- √ sṛj: to let go ; to sling , throw , cast forth or away

sapatna-bhūteṣu (loc. pl. m.): being like an enemy, inimical ; actual occurrences of the adversary
sa-patna: a rival , adversary , enemy
bhūta: (ifc.) being or being like anything, consisting of ; actually happened , true , real (n. an actual occurrence , fact , matter of fact , reality); existing, present ; n. (cf. above ) that which is or exists , any living being ; n. a spirit (good or evil) , the ghost of a deceased person , a demon , imp , goblin
a-śiveṣu (loc. pl. m.): mfn. unkind , envious , pernicious , dangerous
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

身死名倶滅 皆由貪欲故 

[Relation with Sanskrit tenuous] 

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