01 December 2017

Aṣṭasāhasrikā: Insight and Ongoing Transformation.

We're making slow progress on the Aṣṭa, but both enjoying the process and nutting out some tricky passages. I want to highlight another passage from early on in chapter one. This part of the introduction seems to serve several functions. One of the main functions is that it addresses the perennial Buddhist anxieties over legitimacy and authenticity. The aim of the text here is to establish the principle that what the disciples of the tathāgata say is authentic because it ultimately derives from him. But it also does something more interesting.
1.4.1. atha khalv āyuṣmān subhūtir buddhānubhāvena āyuṣmataḥ śāriputrasya imam eva rūpaṃ cetasaiva cetaḥ-parivitarkam ājñāya āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat – yat kiṃcid āyuṣman śāriputra bhagavataḥ śrāvakā bhāṣante deśayanti upadiśanti udīrayanti prakāśayanti saṃprakāśayanti, sa sarvas tathāgatasya puruṣakāro veditavyaḥ | 
Then Elder Subhūti, with the authority of the Buddha, having known the form of the thoughts of Śāriputra with his own mind, said this to Śāriputra: “Elder Śāriputra, whatever the disciples of the Bhagavan say, instruct, teach, draw out, reveal, and illuminate, it is all to be understood as the work of the Tathāgata. 
1.4.2. tatkasya hetoḥ? 
What is the reason? 
1.4.3. yo hi tathāgatena dharmo deśitaḥ, tatra dharma-deśanāyāṃ śikṣamāṇās te tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkurvanti dhārayanti, tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkṛtya dhārayitvā yad yad eva bhāṣante, yad yad eva deśayanti, yad yad eva upadiśanti, yad yad evodīrayanti, yad yad eva [3] prakāśayanti, yad yad eva saṃprakāśayanti, sarvaṃ tad dharmatayā aviruddham | 
Because of that Dharma taught by the Tathāgata. Training in that instruction of Dharma,  they realise the nature of experience and carry [the realisation] along. Having realised that nature, whatever they speak, whatever they instruct, whatever they teach, whatever they draw out, whatever [3] they reveal, and whatever they illuminate, is all consistent with the nature of experience. 
What I want to focus on here is the sentence 1.4.3 (Chapter 1, Para 4, sentence 3). In this passage there is a series or succession of related phrases using different grammatical forms. 

yo hi tathāgatena dharmo deśitaḥ

"Because of that Dharma taught by the Tathāgata." The tense is past, and the mode is passive as so often occurs with Sanskrit (deśita is a passive past participle). In the traditional guru/chela relationship it is the teacher who is active at this point, and the student is a passive recipient of the teaching. Or more literally the "pointing out", since √diś means "point". Not like modern ideas of education. Guru, as we know, means "heavy", while cela means "cloth or clothes" (though it can also mean the "mere outward appearance", or "slave"). It's not clear how this word came to be used in the sense of "disciple".

Here dharmaḥ appears to mean the teaching of the Buddha. In other words, they adopt a lifestyle and are taught to interact with other people; they are taught meditation techniques, and how to interpret their experiences of meditation in a particular theoretical framework, according to the ancient doctrines of Buddhism.

Note that the Dharma was taught by the tathāgata, the "one in-that-state". This is the basis of the claim to legitimacy of these ideas. Everything that enlightened Buddhists say or do is ultimately traced back to the the ultimate authority in Buddhism, the original tathāgata (though note that what Buddhists mean by this shifts over time).

tatra dharma-deśanāyāṃ śikṣamāṇās

[Edit. Dhīvan has reminded me that here tatra, is a logical connector - it means "with respect to this". A literal translation would be pretty clunky, even for me, so while I think some more about it, I'm going to leave it as is. Also note that the phrase before tatra is singular and after is plural.]

"Training in that teaching of the Dharma." Here the tense has become present and the mode active (via the present active participle). Both the pronoun and the noun are in the locative case. The cognitive metaphor that comes to mind for an English speaker is that the teaching is a container; one trains in it. Almost as though one enters a special room which is set up for the purpose of practice. A virtual environment. Or even an abstract "sacred space". 

Śikṣā can mean learning, study, or training (i.e., both the more cognitive and the more practical elements of learning). The verb √śikṣ is from the desiderative mood of the verb √śāk, "to be able, capable" (whence śākya). So śikṣā reflects a "desire to be capable". So we begin with learning as a passive activity and then proceed with the student or pupil as an active participant, trying to fulfil their desire for competence or capacity.

Incidentally, in early Buddhist texts these two phases have two different outcomes with respect to confidence. The outcome of  the passive phase of learning is faith (saddhā), usually faith in the tathāgata; while the outcome of  active training is perfect clarity (aveccapasāda). So, despite what mainstream Buddhists say, saddhā or śraddhā is precisely the passive faith of the newly converted. It carries us through into training, but is eventually replaced by one's own understanding. Faith is very much the right word for this initial phase of confidence in the teacher. It is blind in the sense that it has not been tested, but not blind in the sense that it cannot be tested.

te tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkurvanti dhārayanti

And as a result of having been taught and putting it into practice two things happen. One gains personal insight (sākṣātkurvanti) into (the) nature (dharmatā) and one carries it one (dhārayanti). It is not explained here what is meant by dharmatā. But we get this dichotomy that one is taught the Dharma and one realises dharmatā. The - suffix makes an abstract noun. These refer to ideas, qualities, and states that cannot be experienced with the five sense. So in a sense this is saying that by practising the Dharma one has a personal insight into the idea of the Dharma. 

The word I'm translating as "personal insight" is sākṣātkurvanti, a verbal compound sa-ākṣāt + √kṛ. The first part sa-ākṣa means "having eyes"; and is only used in the ablative of cause "from having eyes"; which is taken figuratively to mean "before one's eyes, evidently, in person, etc". And it is combined with a form of the verb √kṛ "do, make". A single word translation might be "realise", but it maintains the connotation of a personal insight. Something that has been seen with one's own eyes, as it were. As we know, seeing is a metaphor for knowing in both English and Sanskrit. "I see" means "I understand" in both languages. 

Of course, with an abstract noun the word must be metaphorical, since abstractions cannot literally be seen. So the student "sees" the nature (dharmatā). A lot of my recent published scholarship has involved infiltrating Sue Hamilton's hermeneutic of experience into interpreting the Prajñāpāramitā literature as also being concerned with experience rather than metaphysics. Hence, I prefer to think of dharmatā referring to the nature of experience. This is exegesis rather than translation, but without the proper interpretative framework (or hermeneutic) a text like the Aṣṭa rapidly becomes incomprehensible. 

However, realisation itself is an experience and thus only fleeting. A true insight will change the "seer", or at least change their perceptions of experience. They may no longer feel any sense of experience being owned, for example - there is a flow of experience for them, but they do not feel it is "my experience" (though it continues to be their experience and no one else's). The verb √dhṛ means "carry, maintain, preserve, practice, undergo." With respect to the mind it can mean "remember". Here we are using the causative form, so the sense is "causing to remember (i.e., memorising)" or "maintenance". 

My reading is that the ongoing effects of the realisation are what is meant here, rather than any reference to remembering. One has an experience of (what we Buddhists call) "insight" and is left with an ongoing change in one's perceptions. What Jeffery Martin calls "on-going non-symbolic experience". 

One of the things that interests me here is that a century or two later, the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra introduces the idea of the dhāraṇī as something to be attained, alongside samādhi. In other words, the bodhisatva, by practising, accumulates a range of samādhi and dhāraṇī. And this use of dhāraṇī has puzzled scholars, because it does not clearly relate to the other uses. I think that this early (and somewhat confusing) use of dhāraṇī might relate to the ongoing nature of the changes wrought by meditation on one's perceptions of experience. Other uses of the word dhāraṇī were tacked onto this basic idea; first as the mnemonic practice in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā—which uses the Gāndhārī alphabet as a reminder of a sequence of words, which in turn form the basis for a series of reflections on śūnyatā); and subsequently as the magic spells chanted for protection. 

I've already noted how the opening sentence of Aṣṭa has some dhāraṇī-like qualities. We see this again here in the sequence: bhāṣante deśayanti upadiśanti udīrayanti prakāśayanti saṃprakāśayanti. Again if we made these nouns, with the -e ending, and added svāhā at the end, it would be indistinguishable from the type of dhāraṇī than began to appear in Mahāyāna texts a few centuries later. And there is evidence from the Chinese texts that the original phrase had just one verb, bhāṣante, and that the synonyms were added later. Another way of looking at these lists over synonyms is that they are a form of auto-commentary. The earliest version simply had bhāṣante "they speak" and then someone elaborated, by adding five synonyms, just in case we didn't get it. On the other hand √bhāṣ "to speak" is one of the most common verbs in Sanskrit, so it hardly needs explanation.

yad yad eva bhāṣante.... sarvaṃ tad dharmatayā aviruddham

Finally, the text concludes that whatever is said—by someone who has been instructed in Dharma, practised it, and realised the idea behind the Dharma (dharmatā) and experienced ongoing shifts in their interpretation of their experience—is consistent with the nature of experience. The text goes on to say a little more about this and justify it, but we have the gist.

Here then is the justification for going beyond the ancient stories and legends of the Buddha. It is because the experience of a personal insight into the nature of experience is common between the Buddha (presuming he existed) and the contemporary teachers who bring new perspectives on the experience and new ways of explaining it. Having had a realisation, it is carried on and informs the teaching of the next generation. 

Of course, not everyone accepted such arguments, but over about five centuries Mahāyāna gradually became the mainstream in Buddhist India and it was Mahāyāna that spread to most of Asia. Even the Theravādins in Sri Lanka flirted with Mahāyāna briefly before purging it and taking a conservative stand on their own stories and commentaries.

This is a text that requires and benefits from a considerable amount of unpacking. And this requires an interpretive framework. It is better to consciously choose a framework, rather than relying on intuition, and it is better to choose one that is fruitful in terms of practical and actionable insights. I think the hermeneutic of experience is the best interpretative framework available to us. I didn't invent it by any means, but as I have applied it over some years now, I find it resolves paradoxes, creates sense from nonsense, and recasts the mystic in pragmatic terms. One of the main things we look for in our literature is suggestions for practice. Metaphysical or mystic interpretations don't give us that. Even if this is not what the authors intended (though I believe it is), it is still the best way to approach any Buddhist text, because it informs approaches to practice that have long been confirmed by experience. 

My final comment is that Conze seems to get almost every sentence wrong in his translation. He obscures more than he reveals. The need for a new, accurate, and reframed translation is urgent. I cannot understand why this text has not been retranslated in the way that, for example, the Pāḷi texts have been retranslated. Of course, nowadays we have a partial Gāndhārī text (dated to ca. 70 CE) and we give a lot more weight to the seven Chinese translations (though not all equally). So, any study of the Pala Dynasty Sanskrit manuscripts would need to be accompanied by parallels from the Gāndhārī and Chinese versions where they shed light. It would be a major undertaking (and is beyond the scope of what I could achieve). 


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