Monday, March 2, 2015

BUDDHACARITA 14.16: Karma In Hell - Not Always What You Think

pāṭyante dāruvat ke cit kuṭhārair baddha-bāhavaḥ |
duḥkhe 'pi na vipacyante karmabhir dhāritāsavaḥ || 14.16

Some, their arms in chains,

Are split, like wood by axes.

Even in such hardship the ripening of their karma is not completed;

By dint of their actions, their life-breath is preserved.

The task before us now – as the story develops of the bodhisattva's practice and experience of pratītya-samutpāda – is, in the first instance, not to have a wrong view on karma and saṁsāra.

To that end, a good starting point is to understand a wrong view on karma and saṁsāra. And Aśvaghoṣa, as a skillful means, is always inviting us unquestioningly to go along with a wrong view.

This picture in today's verse is somewhat obscured by textual uncertainty.

In the 3rd pāda, the Old Nepalese manuscript has a tear, leaving it one syllable short with duḥkhe nipipadya. EBC's text has duḥkhe' pi na vipadyaṁte. EHJ noted:
vipacyante seems better than vipadyante [as per EBC's text]; it refers to vipāka, the retribution of the act, but primarily it means 'come to an end,' by transition from the idea of completion on maturity. The passive of paripac is recorded in this sense.

If the Chinese translation is anything to go by – and generally it is not – the original verb may have been from ni-√pā, to drink in or absorb. The Chinese has:
They accept thus the poison of extreme suffering;
the conduct of karma does not let them die.

Any way up, let us assume that Aśvaghoṣa wrote today's verse in such a way as to invite the irony-blind reader to take a wrong view on karma and saṁsāra. What would the wrong view be?
Others having many arms [bahu-bāhavaḥ] are split like timber with axes, but even in that agony they do not die, being supported in their vital powers by their previous actions. (EBC) 
Some have their arms bound and like wood are chopped up with axes ; even in this suffering they do not cease to exist; the power of their acts holding back their vital breaths. (EHJ)

The wrong view, to which the ostensible meaning thus lends support, might be that hell is a place of eternal damnation, a place where men of bad karma are condemned by their sins to endure suffering until such time when, if they are lucky, they finally perish or cease to exist.

In this conception, then, hell is an absolute sort of place, as pictured by religious fundamentalists, and at the same time karma is a deterministic sort of conception. 

An alternative reading of today's verse is that there are people in hell who are not (as in yesterday's verse) as if bound (baddhā iva); some of us actually find ourselves, in our ignorance, in such an emotional, financial, or physical bind that we lack the power to do what we ought to do. With our arms thus bound (baddha-bāhavaḥ), we are split, pulled haplessly in different directions, like wood by an axe. That might be about as bad as it gets.

Personal experience of both experiencing and being propelled out of this kind of misery leads me to an alternative reading of today's verse whereby the actions referred to in the 4th pada are NOT those past WRONG doings that led the sufferer into hell.

Rather, those actions might be
(a) long-forgotten GOOD actions which have somehow retained the power to propel the person in saṁsāra out of hell; and even maybe also
(b) GOOD actions done – if not with body and speech then at least with mind – inside hell.

As an example of the latter – again speaking from personal experience – not being unclear about cause and effect is one big thing that, as followers of the Buddha's teaching, we have got on our side.

For more along these lines, I recommend Shobogenzo chap. 84, Sanji-no-go, whose title means “Karma in the Three Times.”

pāṭyante = 3rd pers. pl. passive paṭ: to split , burst , open (intr.)
dāruvat: ind. like wood
dāru: mfn. breaking , splitting ; mn. a piece of wood , wood , timber
ke cit (nom. pl. m.): some

kuṭhāraiḥ (inst. pl.): m. an axe
baddha-bāhavaḥ (nom. pl. m.): with arms bound
baddha: mfn. bound , tied , fixed , fastened , chained , fettered ; bound by the fetters of existence or evil ; clenched (as the fist) ; folded (as the hands);

duḥkhe (loc. sg.): n. suffering
api: even
na: not
vipacyante = 3rd pers. pl. passive vi- √ pac: to be cooked or baked or roasted ; to be digested ; to be completely matured or ripened or developed ; to bear fruit , develop consequences
pari- √ pac: to be cooked ; to be burnt (in hell) Hariv. ; to become ripe , (fig.) have results or consequences
vipadyante = 3rd pers. pl. vi- √ pad: to fall or burst asunder MBh. xi , 95 ; to come between , intervene , prevent , hinder Kaus3. ; to go wrongly , fail , miscarry , come to nought , perish, die
ni- √ pā: to drink or suck in , kiss Ka1v. ; to absorb , dry up

karmabhiḥ (inst. pl. n.): acts
dhāritāsavaḥ (nom. pl. m.): their breath being held ; their lives being preserved
dhārita: mfn. borne (also in the womb) , held , supported &c
dhṛ: to hold , bear (also bring forth) , carry , maintain , preserve , keep ; to hold back , keep down , stop , restrain , suppress , resist
asu: m. breath , life
duḥkha-nivarttaye [old Nepalese manuscript] = duḥkha-nivṛttaye [?] (dat. sg. f.): in the direction of cessation of suffering

利刀解其身 或利斧斫剉 
受斯極苦毒 業行不令死

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