Sunday, March 1, 2015

BUDDHACARITA 14.15: Being LIKE a Slave - A Different Conception of Hell

ke cid dāha-pariśrāntāḥ śīta-cchāyābhikāṅkṣiṇaḥ |
asi-pattra-vanaṁ nīlaṁ baddhā iva viśanty amī || 14.15

Some, tired of burning,

Go hankering after cool shade;

The dark forest, where leaves are swords,

Like slaves in chains these enter.

Some, wearied of being burned, long for cold shade; these enter like bound captives into a dark blue wood with swords for leaves. (EBC)
Some, exhausted with the burning, long for cool shade and enter like captives the dark sword-leaved forest. (EHJ)

EHJ notes:
The asi-pattra-vana [the sword-leaved forest] figures also in Brahmanical literature, MBh, xii, 12075, Manu, iv. R, xiv. 48 ; see also Kirfel, Kosmographie der Inder, Index s.v. The point of baddhā iva ["like captives"] escapes me; should it be vadhyā iva ["like men sentenced to death"?

Ostensibly, then, the asi-pattra-vana is a forest in hell –  in hell as conceived by brahmins before the time of the Buddha – where sinners go to be punished.

Under that conception of hell, the logical thing is to aspire never to go to hell.

Below the surface of the bodhisattva's present description of hell, as I read it, is an altogether different conception, whereby hell is a stage to be passed through in a cycle of saṁsāra. This saṁsāra is rooted in doings. And the coming-into-being of these doings is contingent on continuing ignorance. Hence:
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. //26.10// 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//

The challenge, then, is to understand today's verse in light of this alternative conception, whereby hell is not a place of eternal damnation but is rather a stage in a saṁsāra which is no more unbreakable than is the fragile pseudostem of a banana plant.

In the former conception, a sword in a sword-leaved forest is an object to be feared, an instrument for chopping off body parts and inflicting pain.

In the latter conception, a sword – like the sword of Mañjuśrī – might represent that act of knowing by which ignorance is destroyed. Again, millions of swords in a sword-leaved forest might represent those countless momentary decisions which determine the course of our life.

Into such a forest do we wish to enter when – like a drug addict who is fed up with drugs, or like an alcoholic who is tired of drinking – we are thoroughly fed up with burning in hell.

When we go like this from a hot place in hell to a cooler place in hell, we go freely, of our own accord, because we have had enough of burning. In that case, the important word in the 4th pāda is iva, like, as if – since a person who is like a captive, or as if bound, is not a captive and is not bound

The implicit suggestion might be, then, that even in hell we can exercise some degree of freewill. And this might be very different indeed from the ancient conception of hell fostered by brahmins before the time of the Buddha.

As a concrete, practical example of being like a captive in hell, and yet still having the opportunity to make a decision, think of sitting in a Zazen hall with very painful legs. 

Here in hell, what are you going to do? Bow and change legs. Or keep still and endure the pain? 

Go, on Monji-bosatsu, make a decision! 

Having prepared this post already, I happened to hear on the radio first thing this morning (on "Something Understood") a discussion of how idols are worshipped in the Hindu religion. The Hindu interviewee, exactly but with no little humour, observed that in Judaism, Islaam and Christian Protestantism, worship of idols is a great evil, whereas this Hindu devotee really loved to worship his lovely idols -- and particularly  the monkey-god Hanuman. 

Intuitively I wanted to be on the side of this humorous priest, the twinkle in whose eye shone through the radio waves. But rationally thinking, I asked myself, what is the Buddha's teaching on this subject? 

What I think, for what it is worth, is that in glum religions idol worship is banished and only God with a capital G is worshipped; whereas in cheerier approaches like Hinduism, and like Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism, miscellaneous gods and bodhisattvas are worshipped (om mane padme hum). 

But in the Buddha's teaching as I endeavour to practise it -- most of the time I confess, spectacularly badly -- neither God nor idols are worshipped. Rather, effort is made to get to the bottom of ignorance. 

Having said that, while I was making coffee and a pancake, the hymn "Guide Me O Thy Great Redeemer" came on the radio, and I made no effort to stop myself joining in. 

ke cit (nom. pl. m.): some
dāha-pariśrāntāḥ (nom. pl. m.): tired of burning, fed up with burning 
dāha: m. (fr. √ dah) burning , combustion , conflagration , heat ; internal heat , fever
pariśrānta: mfn. thoroughly fatigued or worn out , (ifc.) tired of , disgusted with

śīta-cchāyābhikāṅkṣiṇaḥ (nom. pl. m.): longing for cool shade
śīta: mfn. cool, chilly
chāyā: shade , shadow , a shady place (" a covered place , house "
abhikāṅkṣin: mfn. longing for , desiring (with acc. or ifc.)
abhi- √ kāṅkṣ: to long for , desire  ;  to strive.
asi-pattra-vanam (acc. sg. n.): the forest where leaves are swords
nīlam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. of a dark colour , (esp.) dark-blue or dark-green or black

baddhāḥ (nom. pl.): m. captives, prisoners
vadhyāḥ (nom. pl. m.): mfn. to be slain or killed , to be capitally punished , to be corporally chastised (cf. under vadha) , sentenced , a criminal; to be destroyed or annihilated
iva: like
viśanti = 3rd pers. pl. viś: to enter
amī (nom. pl. m.): those

畏火赴叢林 劍葉截其體 

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