ākāśa-gatam ātmānaṁ saṁkṣipya tv aparo budhaḥ |
tad evānantataḥ paśyan viśeṣam adhigacchati || 12.62
The self that permeates space
Another one who is wise, in contrast,
condenses into a central mass
And, seeing even that as unbounded,
Thereby attains higher distinction.
In Saundarananda, Nanda is described as realizing that this world is empty, and that, at the same time, there is no such thing in the world as a clearly delineated self. Hence:
yataś ca saṃskāra-gataṃ viviktaṃ na kārakaḥ kaś-cana vedako vā /
And insofar as separateness is a construct,
there being no-one who creates or who is made known,
samagryataḥ saṃbhavati pravṛttiḥ śūnyaṃ tato lokam imaṃ dadarśa // SN17.20
But doing arises out of a totality,
he realised, on that account, that this world is empty.
yasmān nirīhaṃ jagad asvatantraṃ naiśvaryam ekaḥ kurute kriyāsu /
Since the throng of humanity is passive, not autonomous,
and no one exercises direct control over the workings of the body,
tat-tat pratītya prabhavanti bhāvā nirātmakaṃ tena viveda lokam // SN17.21
But states of being arise dependent on this and that,
he found, in that sense, that the world is devoid of self.
urvyādikān janmani vedmi dhātūn nātmānam urvyādiṣu teṣu kiṁ cit /
In a birth, I perceive earth and the other elements,
but in earth and those other elements, I perceive no self at all.
So today's verse might be read as somehow relating to this kind of realization about emptiness and no self. There again, since it seems to be leading to a vacuous conclusion that equates liberation with the God Brahma, I think today's verse is better read as being beside the point.
The virtue of today's verse, in that case, is that it encourages us to ask afresh what the point is.
And the point might be that, even for an iron man of Zen, the fourth dhyāna is not the ultimate point, not the highest distinction. The ultimate point, beyond the fourth dhyāna, might be true understanding – understanding synonymous with elimination of faults – of the four noble truths.
Thus, at the beginning of SN Canto 16, the Buddha teaches Nanda as follows about effort subsequent to attainment of the four dhyānas:
evaṃ mano-dhāraṇayā krameṇa vyapohya kiṁ-cit samupohya kiṁ-cit /
Thus, by methodically taking possession of the mind,
getting rid of something and gathering something together,
dhyānāni catvāry-adhigamya yogī prāpnoty-abhijñā niyamena pañca // SN16.1
The practitioner makes the four dhyānas his own,
and duly acquires the five powers of knowing:
ṛddhi-pravekaṃ ca bahu-prakāraṃ parasya cetaś-caritāvabodham /
The principal transcendent power, taking many forms;
then being awake to what others are thinking;
atīta-janma-smaraṇaṃ ca dīrghaṃ divye viśuddhe śruti-cakṣuṣī ca // SN16.2
And remembering past lives from long ago; and divine lucidity of ear; and of eye.
ataḥ paraṃ tattva-parikṣaṇena mano dadhāty-āsrava-saṃkṣayāya /
From then on, through investigation of what is,
he applies his mind to destroying the polluting influences,
tato hi duḥkha-prabhṛtīni samyak catvāri satyāni padāny-avaiti // SN16.3
For on this basis he fully understands suffering and the rest,
the four true standpoints:
the four true standpoints:
bādhātmakaṃ duḥkham-idaṃ prasaktaṃ duḥkhasya hetuḥ prabhavātmako 'yam /
This is suffering, which is constant and akin to trouble;
this is the cause of suffering, akin to starting it;
duḥkha-kṣayo niḥsaraṇātmako 'yaṃ trāṇātmako 'yaṃ praśamāya mārgaḥ // SN16.4
This is cessation of suffering, akin to walking away.
And this, akin to a refuge, is a peaceable path.
And this, akin to a refuge, is a peaceable path.
Consequently, in SN Canto 17, from verse SN17.56 onward, after progressing through the four dhyānas, with the fourth dhyāna being akin to an ally in a military campaign, Nanda is described as working further in the direction of cutting fetters and ending faults:
agni-drumājyāmbuṣu yā hi vṛttiḥ kavandha-vāyv-agni-divākarāṇām /
The action which on fire, trees, ghee and water
is exerted by rainclouds, wind, a flame and the sun,
doṣeṣu tāṃ vṛttim-iyāya nando nirvāpaṇotpāṭana-dāha-śoṣaiḥ // SN17.59
Nanda exerted that action on the faults,
quenching, uprooting, burning, and drying them up.
In a footnote to his translation of today's verse, EHJ writes:
The difficulty lies in ātmānam, which I translate mechanically [“his self”]. From the Buddhist descriptions of this trance vijñāna [consciousness] is apparently meant and the original reading might have been akāśa-gata-vijñānam. Vasubandhu, AK., I, 74, however, defends the use of ātman for citta and in Arāḍa's mouth it might stand for the mahān ātmā, the buddhi.
EHJ queries further:
Should not the reading be tam eva in c?
This latter sentence asks a fair question. If the text were amended to tam eva, the 3rd line might read “And, seeing that very self to be unbounded,” which might be clearer. For the present, however, I have not made the amendment, as the meaning is not much affected.
Any way up, I think Aśvaghoṣa's intention is that we should understand this: Whatever Arāḍa's words in today's verse might be intended to mean on the surface, Arāḍa's basic gist in this part is not compatible with what the Buddha taught around pursuit of the truth beyond the fourth dhyāna. Thus, the bodhisattva, shortly after Arāḍa has spoken these words, will decide “No, it is not that.”
I think we are required to understand that there was nothing in Arāḍa's first speech that caused the bodhisattva to make up his mind “No, it is not that.” And there was sufficient ambiguity, or irony, in Arāḍa's words up to BC12.60 for the jury to remain out. Even in yesterday's verse and in today's verse, the case for the prosecution might not be proven beyond all reasonable doubt.
Still, I suspect that yesterday's verse and today's verse mark the opening up of a gap such that the bodhisattva was able to decide about Arāḍa's teaching, “No, it is not that.”
So the previous block of four verses (BC12.57-60), as I read those verses, are compatible with effort to realize higher distinction beyond the fourth dhyāna. BC12.57 is a caution against the conceited idea that the fourth dhyāna is liberation itself. BC12.58 tempers that caution by emphasizing that the fourth dhyāna is immensely beneficial – like a powerful ally – in pursuit of higher distinction. And BC12.59 and 12.60 can be read as ironic descriptions of cutting the fetter of self-conscious aspiration (hence, giving up samādhi and letting go of meditation), and working in the direction of eliminating faults, in accordance with how the Buddha taught Nanda to go beyond the fourth dhyāna.
But the present series of verses which began yesterday do not fit so easily into the scheme of pursuit of the truth as the Buddha outlined it for Nanda, or as Nanda followed it.
The implicit message of today's verse, then, might be taken as a reminder along these lines: If you ever get as far as realizing the fourth dhyāna, then don't subsequently waste time on vacuous matters. Remember, as the Buddha told Nanda:
śirasy atho vāsasi saṃpradīpte satyāvabodhāya matir vicāryā /
Though your head and clothes be on fire
direct your mind so as to be awake to the truths.
dagdhaṃ jagat satya-nayaṃ hy adṛṣṭvā pradahyate saṃprati dhakṣyate ca//SN16.43
For in failing to see the purport of the truths, the world has burned,
it is burning now, and it will burn.
ākāśa-gatam (acc. sg. m.): mfn. coming from the air (as a voice) ;
ākāśa: m. a free or open space , vacuity; the ether , sky or atmosphere ; n. brahma (as identical with ether)
ātmānam (acc. sg.): m. the individual soul , self ; the person or whole body considered as one
saṁkṣipya = abs. saṁ- √ kṣip: to throw or heap together , pile up ; to concentrate (the mind) ; to suppress , restrain ; to dash together , destroy ; to condense , compress , contract , abridge , shorten , diminish
√ kṣip: to throw , cast , send , despatch ; to strike or hit (with a weapon) ; to put or place anything on or in (loc.) , pour on , scatter , fix or attach to (loc.) ; to direct (the thoughts) upon (loc.) ; to strike down , ruin , destroy
aparaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. other, another
budhaḥ (nom. sg.): m. a wise or learned man , sage
tad (acc. sg. n.): that
tam (acc. sg. m.): that [self]
ananta: mfn. endless , boundless , eternal , infinite
-taḥ: ablative/adverbial suffix
anantatā: f. eternity , infinity
paśyan = nom. sg. m. pres. part. behold , look at , observe , perceive , notice ; to live to see , experience , partake of, undergo , incur ; to regard or consider as , take for (acc. with acc. or adv. in vat)
viśeṣam (acc. sg.): m. distinction , peculiar merit , excellence , superiority
adhigacchati = 3rd pers. sg. adhi- √ gam : to go up to , approach , overtake , to approach for sexual intercourse , to fall in with , to meet , find , discover , obtain ; to accomplish ;