Sunday, July 27, 2014

BUDDHACARITA 11.66: Gentle Assertion of an Absolute

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−   Vaṁśastha
bhavec-ca dharmo yadi nāparo vidhir-vratena śīlena manaḥ-śamena vā |
tathāpi naivārhati sevituṁ kratuṁ viśasya yasmin param-ucyate phalam || 11.66

And even without dharma
as an alternative code of conduct

Involving a vow of practice, moral discipline,
or calming of the mind,

Still it would never be right to carry out a sacrifice

In which a reward is said to follow
from slaughtering another creature.

When it comes to the philosophy of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis, where the synthesis goes on to form a new thesis, and so on, it may be true to say that there are no absolutes, but all is but a woven web of guesses. Again, when science is understood as a method in which propositions are at best accepted as "not falsified, yet,"  then when it comes to scientific progress also, it may be true to say that there are no absolutes, but all is but a woven web of guesses. Still, today's verse as I read it reminds us, in the realm of actual practice, or in reality, there are absolutes of a sort.

Absolutes, of course, reside easily in the realm of religious moral certainty. But, the bodhisattva seems to be saying in today's verse, even without that kind of moral certainty associated with observance of vows, morality and contemplative practice, still there are absolutes.

The bodhisattva tells us in the 1st pāda that he sees dharmaḥ (EBC: “true religion;” EHJ: “the true dharma”; PO: “dharma”) as aparo vidhiḥ (EBC: “quite another rule of conduct;” EHJ: “a different rule of life”; PO: “a different process.”

Aparaḥ can mean (when derived from the prefix apa, “away”) other, another, different. Following this meaning, dharma might be a rule for human conduct / life which is different from blind following of animal instincts -- as an already well-fed cat follows its instinct when it kills birds and mice seemingly for no particular reason.

Aparaḥ can also mean (as para prefixed by a-) “having nothing above it.” Following this meaning, dharma might be a law above which there is no higher authority, the rule of the Universe.

But the 2nd pāda seems to confirm that what the bodhisattva has in mind is dharma as an alternative or countervailing code – a code or set or rules which causes the conduct of human life to be something other than blind following of animal instincts.

Even leaving aside this higher rule for living which stands opposed to instinctive blood lust, the bodhisattva seems to be appealing to an a priori criterion, a criterion that precedes anybody's conception of dharma – a criterion akin to 2 + 2 = 4. In these terms, to equate animal sacrifice with future reward might be to act on the basis that 2 + 2 = 5 .

Beyond moral judgements of right and wrong, in other words, some actions are just plain wrong – like killing a cat for no good reason, or like wearing shoes on one's head.

In terms of four phases, this interpretation puts today's verse, as the third verse in a series of four verses about sacrifices, in the 3rd phase – because at the first phase, right and wrong is affirmed; at the second phase, there is nothing right or wrong, but thinking makes it so; and at the third phase the whole point is simply NOT TO DO wrong. In other words the first two phases are thesis and anti-thesis, but the third phase is just practical. To do or not to do – that is the question.

And at the fourth phase, as indicated by the verses of Nāgārjuna's that I have been quoting a lot recently, there is a very intimate relationship between not doing and reality:

saṁsāra-mūlaṁ saṁskārān avidvān saṁskaroty ataḥ |
avidvān kārakas tasmān na vidvāṁs tattva-darśanāt ||MMK26.10||

The doings which are the root of saṁsāra

Thus does the ignorant one do.

The ignorant one therefore is the doer;

The wise one is not,
because of reality making itself known.

avidyāyāṁ niruddhāyāṁ saṁskārāṇām asaṁbhavaḥ |
avidyāyā nirodhas tu jñānasyāsyaiva bhāvanāt ||MMK26.11

In the ceasing of ignorance,

There is the non-coming-into-being of doings.

The cessation of ignorance, however,

Is because of the bringing-into-being of just this act of knowing.

In the 4th pāda, incidentally, EBC took param with phalam (“the highest reward”). EHJ, following Gawronski, took param to mean “another” i.e. another living creature, as in yesterday's verse. The latter reading does indeed seem on first glance to be the obvious one and, EHJ informs us, it accords with the Tibetan translation. Still, in the same way that apara in the 1st pāda could be taken to mean “having nothing above it,” param in the 4th pāda could be taken to mean “highest” so that paraṁ phalam meant “the highest reward.” So even in a verse like today's verse, whether Aśvaghoṣa intended it or not, words with their multiple meanings make for ambiguity and uncertainty.

Such is poetry; and Aśvaghoṣa is regarded as a poet, a crafter of high poetry. But the ultimate point of Aśvaghoṣa's poetry, as was also the case with Dogen, is always to point us towards just this act of knowing.

Just this act of knowing might be a kind of absolute certainty.

Sometimes I like to watch Mike Tyson's early fights, when he would use to devastating effect a right hook to the body followed by an unseen right uppercut to the chin. His reign as heavyweight supremo was impermanent, of course, but while it lasted there was something absolute about it. He knew he was going to win, and win he certainly did.

My paternal grandfather, a steelworker, would have loved it if I had been a champion boxer. In the 1960s his big hero was Howard Winston – I think he took me when I was very young to watch Howard Winston train. “Got to be tough, see?” he would frequently remind me. I'm not sure if dogged perseverance in translating difficult poetry would necessarily have met his criterion for toughness. I suspect it wouldn't.

Again a martial artist friend of mine from 30 years ago, who persisted in devotion to many kata (forms) after I decided to devote myself to only one, told me of sparring with some great bruiser and knowing, with utter calmness, that he could do anything he wanted to the big bruiser, but the big bruiser could not touch him at all. For him, he told me, that inner quietness was the closest he had come to anything that might be called enlightenment. 

I think that is the kind of knowing that Nāgārjuna is talking about. 

If I relate it to the sitting that I have just been practising this morning, what it means to let the neck be free, I do not know. But I know it is nothing specific. What it means to let the head go forward and up, I do not know. But I know it is not any kind of arrangement of the head on top of the spine, and especially not by “tucking in the chin slightly.” What it means to let the back lengthen and widen, I do not know. But I know it is not to worry about symmetry. What it means to send the knees forwards and away, I do not know. But I know it does not mean to create extra tension in the lower abdominal region (the hara or tanden) such that abdominal breathing has to be practised as more of a conscious effort.

Tucking the chin in makes sense for a sumo wrestler whose opponent would like to slap it; and tensing the abdominal obliques makes a lot of sense for a martial artist who is liable to be kicked or punched in that area, but those arenas are arenas of great muscular effort, great physical doing. When it comes to just sitting upright in the lotus posture, as the practice of non-doing, the main task is knowing, absolutely, what not to do.

bhavet = 3rd pers. sg. opt. bhū: to be
ca: and
dharmaḥ (nom. sg.): m. dharma
yadi: if
na: not
aparaḥ ( m.): 1. (a-para) mfn. having nothing beyond or after , having no rival or superior; 2.(fr. apa) , posterior other, another ; different ; distant, opposite

vidhiḥ (nom. sg.): m. a rule , formula , injunction , ordinance , statute , precept , law , direction ; method , manner or way of acting , mode of life , conduct , behaviour
vratena (inst. sg.): n. a religious vow or practice , any pious observance , meritorious act of devotion or austerity , solemn vow , rule , holy practice
śīlena (inst. sg.): habit , custom , usage , natural or acquired way of living or acting , practice , conduct ; with Buddhists śīla , " moral conduct " , is one of the 6 or 10 perfections or pāramitās [q.v.]
manaḥ-śamena (inst. sg.): m. tranquillity of mind
vā: or

tathā: ind. likewise, so
api: even
na: not
eva: (emphatic)
arhati = 3rd pers. sg. arh: to ought
sevitum = infinitive sev: to resort to (acc.): to devote or apply one's self to , cultivate , study , practise , use , employ , perform , do
kratum (acc. sg.): m. a sacrificial rite or ceremony , sacrifice (as the aśva-medha sacrifice) , offering , worship (also personified R.

viśasya = abs. vi- √ śas: to cut up , dissect , cut down , slaughter , immolate , kill , destroy
yasmin (loc. sg.): in which, wherein
param [EBC] (nom. sg. n.): mfn. superior , best , highest , supreme , chief
param [EHJ] (acc. sg.): m. the other [EHJ: another; PO: another being]
ucyate = 3rd pers. sg. passive vac: to say
phalam (nom. sg.): n. fruit, result

若無戒聞慧 修禪寂靜者
不應從世間 祠祀設大會

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