Wednesday, March 18, 2015

BUDDHACARITA 14.32: The Going Gets Tough

[No Sanskrit text]

| de sṅon skye ba tsam na yaṅ | | lag pa rnon pos bzuṅ ba rnams |
| ral gri rnams kyis gśegs pa ltar | | gaṅ du sñiṅ rje bar ni du |

Indicative Tibetan words:
skye: be born (Chinese: )
lag: hand, arm
gri: knife, sword (Ch: )

EH Johnston's translation from the Tibetan:
32. At the first even at the moment of birth they are gripped by sharp hands, as if sharp swords were piercing them, whereat they weep bitterly.

動轉極大苦 出胎生恐怖
軟身觸外物 猶如刀劍截
Ever moving ’midst the direst sufferings, born from the womb to fear and trembling, with body tender, touching anything its feelings painful, as if cut with knives;  (Samuel Beal)
[The body’s] movement was utterly painful, and as it left the womb, it gave rise to fear. When a soft body touched an external object, it was as if cut by a sword. (Charles Willemen)

We have been plodding along day by day for the best part of seven years, in the company of Aśvaghoṣa himself. Now we have lost Aśvaghoṣa himself for the present – though he will rejoin us very briefly for seventeen verses in BC Canto 16 which are sketchily preserved in one of Weller's fragments.

For the rest of the present Canto, and for the remaining 14 cantos in the poem, we are as if accompanied not by Aśvaghoṣa himself but by two shadows, a Tibetan one, and a longer Chinese shadow – we have already seen along the way that the Tibetan translator was a more reliable guide than the Chinese translator, who tended to paraphrase rather than seek a literally accurate translation. While I recognize most of the Chinese characters from having studied them in a past life, I have no understanding of the Tibetan apart from what I can glean from using an online translation tool like this one.

Besides the Tibetan text, we have EHJ's translation of the Tibetan into English. EHJ's translation into English was based on the Tibetan text and translation into German prepared by Friedrich Weller for Das Leben des Buddha von Aśvaghoṣa (1928).

It is clear from both the Tibetan and the Chinese that the ostensible gist of the present series of verses, BC14.31 to 14.34, has to do with suffering among human beings, the human realm being the fourth of five realms in saṁsāra. Then from BC14.35 the bodhisattva's consideration turns to heaven, as the fifth of five realms in saṁsāra.

To discuss the deeper or ironic meaning, however, we need Aśvaghoṣa's Sanskrit, and that we no longer have. 

Dogen's instructions for sitting-zen begin by stating the fundamental principle of non-doing -- you are all already perfect, apart from what you are doing. What then is the point of making a big effort to do something? 

But, he goes on to warn, if there is the slightest gap, then with every word we speak about non-doing, we are just going further and further in the direction of almost completely lying to ourselves. 

Minding this gap, then, Dogen exhorts us after all to make a big effort, not to do something but on the contrary to practice what he calls a backward step. 

The reason I mention this here is that when we study Aśvaghoṣa's words in detail, in their original Sanskrit, mindfulness of the gap is always there, below the surface. Aśvaghoṣa's irony resides in mindfulness of the gap. So there is something very unsatisfactory about the path upon which I am now tentatively deciding to continue limping along for a while. 

Will it be a question of "something is better than nothing"? 

Or will I soon look back and think -- not for the first time in my life --  "Nothing would have been better than something"? 


Rich said...

Did you ever watch the show Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David ? There is no script, they wing it.

Who would be better than you as Asvaghosa winging it?

Mike Cross said...

Hi Rich,

Yes, my brother bought me a box set for Christmas a few years ago -- I remember an episode that finishes with him jumping for joy, having dodged the bullet of a prospective kidney transplant.

In answer to your question, Kapimala, Nāgārjuna, and Kānadeva are just few of several names that spring to mind. But thanks for the vote of confidence.

Rich said...

Yes, but they are not here.

I never believed that Larry would donate his kidney. Can't remember how he got out of that.

Mike Cross said...

That's very much a western view of the ancestors, Rich.