Thursday, February 26, 2015

BUDDHACARITA 14.12: Drinking Molten Metal and Roaring

pāyyante kvathitaṁ ke cid agni-varṇam ayo-rasam |
āropyante ruvanto 'nye niṣṭapta-stambham āyasam || 14.12

Some are caused to imbibe a potion, brought to the boil, 

Of smelted fire-coloured metal;

Ones who are different are planted, roaring,

Up a molten column of the metal.

Looking ahead, there is much mention in the coming verses of ayas, which generally means iron or metal in general, but which sometimes means, in particular, gold.

In today's verse as I read it, Aśvaghoṣa is signalling his intention to play with that ambiguity. 

The ostensible gory meaning is conveyed by the translations of EBC and EHJ:
Some are made to drink molten iron of the colour of fire, others are lifted aloft screaming on a red-hot iron pillar. (EBC)
Some are made to drink molten iron of the colour of fire ; others are impaled howling on a redhot iron pillar. (EHJ)

Thus both professors translated kvathitam ayo-rasam as “molten iron.” But as well as meaning “liquid,” rasa can mean the best of anything. So ayo-rasam can also be understood to mean “the best of metals,” in which case agni-varṇam ayo-rasam, “the best of metals which has the colour of fire,” would obviously indicate gold.

The difficulty for the translator, as is often the case, is that to bring out this hidden meaning in which ayo-rasam  means gold, the best of metals, and āyasam means made of gold, golden, would hinder the ostensible depiction of a scene of horror. 

So my job in these comments is generally to clarify the irony which resides in the gap between what is being said on the surface (where the bodhisattva is painting an awful picture of a hell to be feared), and what is being suggested below the surface (where being wrong is the best friend that a bodhisattva has got). 

Being caused to imbibe liquid gold might be just what we are doing now, as we take in, from Aśvaghoṣa's cup, the original teaching of the Buddha – which, metaphorically speaking, has been brought to the boil, again and again, by each successive generation.

And those among these imbibers who are outstanding – dragons and elephants, as the Chinese would say – are compelled, whether they like it or not, to roar the lion's roar.

If we fail to get the irony of a verse like today's verse then, like EH Johnston eighty years ago and like Patrick Olivelle more recently, we are bound to think that the Buddha taught a religion like Catholicism, with all its fearful depictions of hell. On that basis, we are liable to describe the Buddha's teaching, as PO has described it, as the consummation of Brahmanism. And we are liable to describe Aśvaghoṣa, as numerous Oxford scholars have described him, as one who was primarily concerned with converting non-believers to the Buddhist faith.

But when we get the irony of a verse like today's verse, such thoughts and descriptions – ironically enough – are manifestations of the very ignorance which Aśvaghoṣa was really interested in. Above all,  Aśvaghoṣa was interested in prodding us in the direction of destroying the ignorance whose antidote is neither religious belief nor the kind of knowledge accumulated by pseudo-scientific “Buddhist studies.”
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. //MMK26.10// In the destruction of ignorance, there is the non-coming-into-being of doings./ The destruction of ignorance, however, is because of the bringing-into-being of just this act of knowing.//MMK26.11//

Such was Nāgārjuna's roar of the fundamental, from bang in the middle of the middle way.

Below the surface, the connection between
  • (a) Aśvaghoṣa's teaching in today's verse and
  • (b) Nāgārjuna's teaching in MMK26.10,
might be the connection between
  • (a) energy being directed up the spinal column and
  • (b) “reality making itself known” – i.e. the right thing being allowed to do itself.

What I have written above about ignorance and religion is a conclusion I have come to for myself. It is not a teaching I received from my teacher, who called himself "Rev. Gudo Nishijima" while demonstrating the height of ignorance by blindly teaching his students to do the very doings which are the root of saṁsāra. 

But having come to this conclusion for myself I also realize that I am not saying anything original about the futility of religious effort in the destruction of ignorance. Because it has already been said very eloquently by a Tibetan monk who has been going in the right direction for much longer than I have. 

And what do people call this monk, who affirms irreligious pursuit of the truth, and calls himself everybody's human brother? 

They call him "His Holiness."  

pāyyante = 3rd pers. pl. causative passive pā: to drink
kvathitam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. boiled , decocted , stewed
kvath: to boil , prepare by heat ; to digest ; to be hot (as the heart) ; (caus.) to cause to boil , decoct
ke cid (nom. pl. m.): some

agni-varṇam (acc. sg. n.): the colour of fire
ayo-rasam (acc. sg. n.) = ayo-rajas / ayo-mala: n. rust
ayas: n. iron ; an iron weapon (as an axe , &c ); gold
rasa: m. the sap or juice of plants , Juice of fruit , any liquid or fluid , the best or finest or prime part of anything , essence , marrow ; water , liquor , drink ; any mixture , draught , elixir , potion

āropyante = 3rd pers. pl. causative passive ā- √ ruh: to ascend , mount ; [causative] to cause to mount or ascend ; to raise ; to string (a bow) ; to cause to grow ; to plant ; to place , deposit , fasten
ruvantaḥ = nom. pl. pres. part. ru: to roar , bellow , howl , yelp , cry aloud
anye (nom. pl. m.): others, ones who were different

niṣṭapta-stambham (acc. sg. m.): a scorching hot post , a molten metal column
niṣṭapta: mfn. burnt , scorched , heated thoroughly , melted (as gold) , well cooked or dressed
stambha: m. a post , pillar , column , stem
āyasam (acc. sg. m.): mfn. (fr. ayas) , of iron , made of iron or metal

呑飮於洋銅 鐵槍貫其體 

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