Saturday, January 24, 2015

BUDDHACARITA 13.52: When Belief Is a Bubble that Bursts

¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Mālā)
tarakṣu-siṁhāktayas tathānye praṇedur uccair mahataḥ praṇādān |
sattvāni yaiḥ saṁcukucuḥ samantād vajrāhatā dyauḥ phalatīti matvā || 13.52

Others who, likewise, were different,
having the semblance of hyenas and of lions,

Howled with loud laughter and roared mighty roars,

At which beings on all sides made themselves small,

Deeming heaven, struck by the thunderbolt, to be bursting.

Today's verse contains no simile. It can be read, however, as continuing to develop the metaphor.

In that case MW's definition of praṇāda is meaningful, and especially the part in parenthesis:
a loud sound or noise (esp. expressive of approbation or delight).

Read in that light, the laughter of hyena-like beings might be the laughter of those who saw the irony of it all – not only the verbal irony but also, behind the verbal irony, the cosmic irony.

And the mighty roars of lion-like beings might be the roars of those who, having heard the lion's roar, were able to roar the lion's roar.

Because of these roars, beings felt small in comparison to, say, the height of a star, or the depth of the Buddha-wisdom.

And in the 4th pāda the thunderbolt might be a forerunner of David Hume's wrecking ball – namely the principle of treating as unfounded any idea that we cannot trace back to sense impressions.

“But,” the devout Buddhist may protest, “what about the textual evidence of SN Canto 10, in which the Buddha flies Nanda up to Indra's heaven to meet the celestial nymphs who put Sundarī's beauty to shame?”

And yes, it is true that Aśvaghoṣa did tell that story. But if you believe that, you might believe anything.

One of the lessons of reading Aśvaghoṣa is not to take anything he writes literally. Even though Aśvaghoṣa is the 12th patriarch in a line from the Buddha Śākyamuni, what he writes is sometimes clearly designed, on detailed investigation, NOT to be taken literally.

For translations that fail to take account of Aśvaghoṣa's liking for irony, we need look no further than the translations of EBC and EHJ, which continue to paint a kind of apocalyptic picture: 
Others, wearing the forms of hyenas and lions, uttered loudly fierce howls, which caused all beings round to quail with terror, as thinking that the heavens were smitten with a thunderbolt and were bursting. (EBC) 
Others again, assuming the forms of hyenas and lions, loudly roared mighty roars, from which living beings cowered away on every side, thinking the sky had been split by the blow of a thunderbolt. (EHJ) 

As I sat down this morning to sit, I found myself asking myself a question: What does it mean for the world? How does this translation of Aśvaghoṣa fit into world history? 

This caused me to reflect, for a start, where the question comes from. For example, does the question arise from a lingering desire in me to be somebody? Would I like to be a Mr. Big, like my Dad's uncle, Sir Eugene Cross, play-making rugby player and big beast of the early trade union movement in the South Wales valleys? Or am I really more like the only male ancestor I knew on my mother's side, Bill Haworth, Mr. Nobody, a clog-wearing labourer in a Blackburn paint factory, who liked on his days off to go for long solitary walks and read poetry? 

If the former is the case -- if am still cherishing the desire, which my Zen teacher seemed to encourage, that I should be an effective player in world history -- then it hardly sits easily with the 3rd pāda of today's verse, as I read it. 

Setting aside such self-doubt and coming back to the question, what does today's verse mean for the world here and now? 

If in the world here and now believers in freedom, under a banner like Je suis Charlie, are lined up against the evil forces of Islaamic extremism, then one way of reading today's verse is being on the side of freedom; hence the suggestion of bursting of the bubble of "We-are-right" fundamentalist religious belief. 

It is true that, following recent events in Paris, I felt the urge to identify myself on the side of the Je suis Charlies. But something -- I hope it was some kind of wisdom -- caused me to resist that impulse, and not to trust it. In general, since giving up playing rugby aged 18, I have tended to steer clear of taking sides, preferring more individual pursuits like karate-do, zazen, and Alexander work. 

So another answer, I think a truer answer, that then presented itself, was that today's verse, and Aśvaghoṣa's irony in general, can be taken as a kind of warning not to trust official narratives. 

So if a war is indeed raging in the world right now between the West and Islaam, who started that war? 

In the official narrative, the war started in earnest when freed0m-hating Islaamic fnndamentalists staged the 9-11 attacks. But the official version of events on that day have not yet convinced me of their veracity. The twin towers, in particular, coming down so soon after planes flew into them, do look very similar to buildings being demolished from below. 

And when it comes to engineering attacks on America as a causus belli, the powers-that-be in America certainly seem to have form, with Pearl Harbour. 

It strikes me that if what has really been going on since 11th September 2001 has been the taking away of individual freedoms by states purportedly fighting in the name of freedom, that is just the kind of bitter irony that Aśvaghoṣa would have appreciated. 

tarakṣu-siṁhākṛtayaḥ (nom. pl. m.): with forms of hyenas and lions
tarakṣu: m. a hyena
siṁha: m. a lion
ākṛti: f. a constituent part ; form , figure , shape , appearance , aspect
tathā: ind. likewise, again
anye (nom. pl. m.); others; ones who were different

praṇedur = 3rd pers. pl. perf. pra-√nad: to resound , begin to sound or roar or cry
uccaiḥ: ind. aloft , high , above , upwards , from above ; loud , accentuated ; intensely , much , powerfully
mahataḥ (acc. pl. m.): mfn. great, mighty
praṇādān (acc. pl.): m. a loud sound or noise (esp. expressive of approbation or delight) , shout , cry , roar , yell , neigh &

sattvāni (nom. pl.): n. beings
yaiḥ (inst. pl.): by which
saṁcukucur = 3rd pers. pl. saṁ- √ kuc: to contract , shrink , close (as a flower); to contract , compress , absorb , destroy
kuc: to sound high , utter a shrill cry (as a bird) ; to contract ; to be or make small (cf. √ kuñc.)
kuñc: to make crooked ; to bend or curve , move crookedly : Caus. kuñcayati, to curl
samantāt: ind. on all sides

vajrāhatā (nom. sg. f.): mfn. struck by a thunderbolt
vajra: mn. " the hard or mighty one " , a thunderbolt (esp. that of indra)
āhata: mfn. struck 
dyauḥ (nom. sg.): , f. in later Skr. heaven , the sky
phalati = 3rd pers. sg. phal: to burst , cleave open or asunder , split (intrans.)
iti: “...,” thus
matvā = abs. man: to think, consider

[No corresponding Chinese translation]

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