−−−⏑¦⏑−−−¦¦−⏑−−¦⏑−⏑−smtvā janma ca mtyuṁ ca tāsu tāsūpapattiṣu |
⏑−−−¦⏑−−−¦¦⏑−⏑⏑¦⏑−⏑−tataḥ sattveṣu kāruṇyaṁ cakāra karuṇātmakaḥ || 14.4
Having remembered [his own] birth and death
In those various existences,
Compassion towards all beings, on that basis,
Felt he whose very essence was compassion --
Today's verse introduces a long reflection by the bodhisattva on the suffering of living beings reborn in five stages in saṁsāra, namely: (1) hell; the words of (2) animals, (3) hungry ghosts, and (4) human beings; and (5) heaven.
This reflection is going to continue until its conclusion in BC14.51:
Further man’s sight is veiled by passion and by the darkness of delusion, and from the excess of his blindness he does not know the way out of this great suffering.” (EHJ's translation from the Tibetan)
What is firstly interesting about today's verse, as I read it, is what it causes not to be mentioned.
Which is to say that if Aśvaghoṣa had wished to go into any detail about the bodhisattva's past lives, this would have been the place to do it. Instead of that, Aśvaghoṣa with today's verse deflects attention away from the bodhisattva's past lives and towards the lives of living beings who are suffering now. Aśvaghoṣa does this having mentioned the bodhisattva's remembering of his past lives only briefly, in a matter of seven pādas, giving no detail at all.
One effect of this deflecting of attention, I think, is that no support is lent to any dogmatic view, one way or the other, about karma and rebirth.
What is covered in great and gory detail, through to BC14.51, is the suffering which the bodhisattva observes in all other beings (sattveṣu).
Only after this long consideration of others' suffering in saṁsāra does the bodhisattva ask himself the question that will lead him back, via the 12 links, to the doings which the one veiled in ignorance does do:
After thus considering, he reflected in his mind, “What is it verily, whose existence causes the approach of old age and death? ” (BC14.52; EHJ's translation from the Tibetan)
A second point of interest in today's verse is the double use of kāruṇya and karuṇātmakaḥ in the 3rd and 4th pāda. This seems designed to stimulate us to consider what the compassion of the bodhisattva was, and what compassion in general is.
In SN Canto 16, the Buddha tells Nanda:
Understanding these noble truths, by a process of reasoning, while getting to know the four as one, / He prevails over all pollutants, by the means of mental developing (bhāvanayā [inst. f.]), and, on finding peace, is no longer subject to becoming. // SN16.5 //
In this context, compassion is the antidote to mind-pollutants like ill-will or violence, and compassion is to be developed as such. Hence, in The Long Discourse Giving Advice to Rāhula(Mahārāhulovādasuttaṁ, MN 62), the Buddha tells Rāhula:
Karuṇaṁ Rāhula bhāvanaṁ bhāvehi,
Develop what is to be developed, Rāhula, in the way of compassion,
karuṇaṁ hi te Rāhula bhāvanaṁ bhāvayato
for, Rāhula, from developing what is to be developed in the way of compassion,
yā vihesā sā pahīyissati.
whatever violence there is will be given up.
Also relevant is what the Buddha tells Nanda in SN Canto 15:
If some desirous idea, a fever of the mind, should venture to offend you, / Entertain no scent of it but shake it off as if pollen had landed on your robe. // SN15.3 // Even if, as a result of calm consideration, you have let go of desires, / You must, as if shining light into darkness, abolish them by means of their opposite. // 15.4 // What lies behind those desires sleeps on, like a fire covered with ashes; / You are to extinguish it, my friend, by the means of mental developing (bhāvanayā [inst. f.]), as if using water to put out a fire. // SN15.5 //
If hatred or cruelty should stir up your mind, / Let it be charmed by their opposite, as turbid water is by a jewel. // SN15.12 // Know their opposite to be kindness and compassion; / For this opposition is forever like brightness and darkness. // SN15.13 //
So there is no sense in which Aśvaghoṣa negates the practice of bhāvanā (Pali: bhāvanam) as described in the Rāhula Sutta.
At the same time, what the Buddha tells Nanda in SN15.13 is that the opposite of hatred or cruelty is to be known (jñeyaḥ) as kindness and compassion.
And if we come back again to MMK Chapter 26, Nāgārjuna writes of ignorance being destroyed by the developing, or by the bringing into being (bhāvanāt [abl. n.]) of jñanasyāsyaiva, "just this act of knowing."
So taking all the above hints into consideration, I read in today's verse a suggestion that the bodhisattva was a person, even before he became the fully awakened Buddha, who didn't need actively to develop compassion. His essence, already, was compassion. His Buddha-nature, already, was compassion. So when he remembered who he was, compassion towards all beings was already there. This remembering, I should think, before it was anything else, was an act of awareness, or an act of knowing.... as in Nāgārjuna's excellent assertion about the ending of ignorance:
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 (bhāvanāt) of just this act of knowing.//MMK26.11//
I do tend to go on. But all this, as always, is primarily for my own benefit. When I first came across the word bhāvanā in Aśvaghoṣa's writings a few years ago I was bamboozled. So today's verse seems, along the way, indirectly, in passing, to offer another clue in the direction of being gradually less bamboozled.
smṛtvā = abs. smṛ: to recall
janma (acc. sg.): n. birth
mṛtyum (acc. sg.): n. death
tāsu tāsu (loc. pl. f.): various
upapattiṣu (loc. pl.): f. happening , occurring , becoming visible , appearing , taking place , production , effecting , accomplishing; origin, birth
tataḥ: ind. then; from that place, thence ; from that, in consequence of that
sattveṣu (loc. pl. n.): beings
kāruṇyam (acc. sg.): n. compassion , kindness
cakāra = 3rd pers. sg. perf. kṛ: to do, make
karuṇātmakaḥ (nom. sg. m.): he whose essence was compassion