Tuesday, November 4, 2014

BUDDHACARITA 12.92: A Natural Hierarchy of Power (Or Did God Bless America?)

¦−−−−¦¦−⏑−−¦⏑−⏑−   mavipulā
te copatasthur dṣṭvātra bhikṣavas taṁ mumukṣavaḥ |
puṇyārjita-dhanārogyam indriyārthā iveśvaram || 12.92 

Those beggars saw him there

And, desiring liberation, came up to him

As sensory objects answer to the capable one

Whose material riches, and freedom from disease, are earned on merit.

In the metaphor which forms the 2nd half of today's verse, the verb upatasthur is understood from the first half, where it literally means “they came up to him,” or “they placed themselves near him,” but with a connotation of being ready to serve, or attending on, or accruing to.

What is the point of the metaphor, then? What kind of relation does upa-√sthā (to attend on, to serve) suggest between indriyārthāḥ (sensory ojectsand īśvaram (the capable one)?

And why did Aśvaghoṣa choose that particular metaphor? Because the metaphor illustrates well the relation between beggars and bodhisattva? Or, conversely, because the relation between beggars and bodhisattva illustrated well a truth of the real world?

The implicit theme running through yesterday's verse, today's verse and tomorrow's verse, is the power of the senses. Indriya in its first definition means the quality which belongs especially to the mighty Indra ; hence bodily power, power of the senses; and hence sense, organ of sense.

In today's verse it is hard to tranlate indriyārthāḥ any other way besides “objects of the senses” (EBC) or “the objects of sense” (EHJ/PO), but translating the compound this way fails to convey the connotation which indriya originally has of something materially powerful. And this connotation, of the bodhisattva being naturally powerful, seems to be to the fore in today's verse.

So as examples of “sensory objects” that accrue to capable ones, I think of sensory objects which represent power – cars with the most powerful engines, for example, which in motor sport, tend to be made answerable to the most capable drivers; or the most powerful fighter plans which in warfare tend to fly in service of the most powerful nations. 

Every once in a while when I am sitting outside by the forest in France, the silence is massively interrupted by fighter planes flying low and fast overhead. I literally have to cover my ears with my hands. The planes serve as a kind of reminder that France is still a military power to be reckoned with. Some say, on the other hand, that France's financial position is not far different from that of Greece, due to too much reliance on debt, combined with the inability to debase print its own currency. 

And so, as another sensory object with links to power, I think of physical gold which throughout human history – long before the invention of the combustion engine allowed oil to be converted into zillions of horse-power – has always tended to accrue to the most capable. I am now reading a book titled “Lords of Finance” which describes how during the First World War (even after the invention of the combustion engine) the U.S. was able to amass huge gold reserves while the powers of the old world weakened themselves by fighting each other.

The MW dictionary defines īśvaram, as a masculine noun, as master, lord, prince, king. At the same time, as an adjective īśvara means able or capable, and EHJ translates it in more general terms as “a lordly man.” So translating īśvaram as “the capable one” or “the powerful one” allows greater scope for understanding the metaphor that Aśvaghoṣa used in today's verse. For example we can think that the really capable one, or the really powerful one, for the last 100 years and counting, has been the United States of America.

In conclusion, I think Aśvaghoṣa's suggestion is that it was only natural for the five bhikṣus to approach the bodhisattva as they did – as natural as a presidential jet being at the service of a president, or as natural as an ancient city's teeming mass of horses, elephants, chariots all being answerable to one capable king.

At the same time, Aśvaghoṣa's intention, conversely, might have been to remind us that everything in the real world has got its energetic or economic basis. 

"Religious problems," my Zen teacher used to say, "are economic problems." 

From where I sit, religious problems are not real problems. But economic problems are very real. 

In any event, for those of us who lack the conspicuous sporting talent of a Lewis Hamilton, or who have failed to show the kind of right stuff that is naturally entrusted with the management of major economic resources, we may have to settle for being attended – during our more capable moments -- by sights like the moon and sounds like singing of wild birds.

te (nom. pl. m.): they
ca: and
upatasthuḥ = 3rd pers. pl. perf. upa- √ sthā: to stand or place one's self near , be present ; to place one's self before (in order to ask) , approach , apply to; to stand near in order to serve , attend , serve ; to serve with , be of service or serviceable by , attend on
dṛṣṭvā = abs. dṛś: to see
atra: ind. in this matter ; in this place , here at this time , there , then

bhikṣavaḥ (nom. pl.): m. beggars
tam (acc. sg. m.): him
mumukṣavaḥ (nom. pl. m.): desiring liberation

puṇyārjita-dhanārogyam (acc. sg. m.): having earned by good works wealth and health
puṇya: n. the good or right , virtue , purity , good work , meritorious act , moral or religious merit
arjita: mfn. acquired , gained , earned
dhana: n. any valued object , (esp.) wealth , riches , (movable) property , money , treasure
ārogya: n. (fr. a-roga) , freedom from disease , health

indriyārthāḥ (nom. pl. m.): an object of sense (as sound , smell , &c ) , anything exciting the senses ;
indriya: n. power , force , the quality which belongs especially to the mighty indra ; n. bodily power , power of the senses ; n. faculty of sense , sense , organ of sense
iva: like, as
īśvaram (acc. sg.): m. master , lord , prince , king ; mfn. able to do , capable of

五比丘知彼 精心求解脱
盡心加供養 如敬自在天 

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