Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Was the Buddha a God? (sutra)

Dhr. Seven, Amber Larson (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly translation, Dona Sutra (AN 4:36); Bhikkhu Bodhi (the defilements); Ven. Thanissaro (explanatory note); Justalittledust.com
A golden Buddha rises from the forest in Thailand (Thai-on/flickr.com)
The Story of Dona the Brahmin as a hymn by MOD (TBCM.org.my, Malaysia)
Gandharan scroll (justalittledust.com)
[Thus have I heard.] At one time the Blessed One was traveling along the road between Ukkattha and Setabya while the Brahmin Dona was traveling along the same road.

The Brahmin Dona saw in the Blessed One's footprints thousand-spoked wheels, together with rims and hubs, complete in all of their features. On seeing them, the thought occurred to Dona, "Amazing and astounding, these are not the footprints of an ordinary human being!"
Then the Blessed One, leaving the road, went to sit at the root of a tree -- legs crossed, body erect, establishing [the four foundations of] mindfulness before him.
The statue is massive (Thai-on/flickr.com)
And Dona, following the Blessed One's footprints, saw him sitting there at the root of that tree -- confident and inspiring confidence, with senses calmed, heart/mind calmed, having attained the utmost self-control and tranquility, tamed, with senses restrained and guarded, a great being (naga).
  • [Naga is a term used to describe similar great beings, like tusker elephants or magical and/or extraterrestrial dragons. It was adopted by early Buddhists as yet another epithet for the Buddha and enlightened Buddhist disciples.]
On seeing him, Dona went up to [the Buddha] and asked, "Master, would you be a divine light being (godling, divinity, deity, deva)?" [See note below].
"No, Brahmin, I am not a divine light being."
"Would you be a divine messenger (angel/os, spirit, gandhabba)?"

"No, Brahmin, I am not a divine messenger."

"Would you be a mythical creature (yakkha)?"
"No, Brahmin, I am not a mythical creature."

"Would you be an ordinary human being?"
"No, Brahmin, I am not an ordinary human being."
Chiang Mai, northern Thailand (YR Journey/Arsenal1886london/flickr.com)
"When asked if you are a deva, gandhabba, yakkha, or an ordinary human being, you answer: 'No, Brahmin, I am not.' What sort of being are you then?"
"Brahmin, the defilements [asavas/taints and samyojanas/fetters] by which -- had they not been abandoned -- I would be a deva, gandhabba, yakkha, or an ordinary human being -- those are abandoned, their roots eradicated, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future rearising.
"Just like a red, blue, or white lotus -- born in water, grown up in water, rising above the water -- stands unsmeared by water so, too, I -- born in the world, grown up in the world, having risen above the world -- live unsmeared by the world. Remember me, Brahmin, as 'awakened.'
"The defilements by which I would go to [be reborn in] a deva-state, or become a gandhabba [angelic deva-messenger] in the sky, or go to a yakkha-state [becoming a "caretaker of the natural treasures hidden in the earth and tree roots," according to the Encyclopædia Britannica (2007)], or a human-state -- those have been eradicated by me, uprooted, their stems removed.

"Like a blue lotus rising up -- unsmeared by water -- unsmeared am I by the world, and so, Brahmin, I am awake."
Golden Buddha, mouth of Dambulla Cave, Sri Lanka (Richard Silver/rjsnyc/flickr.com)
Note: Now or in the future?
Noted by Ven. Thanissaro (Geoffrey DeGraff, Abbot, Wat Metta) edited by Amber Larson (Wisdom Quarterly)
Tan Geoff's best translation
Dona's question is phrased in the future tense, which has led to a great deal of discussion as to what this entire dialogue means: Is he asking what the Buddha will be in a future life, or is he asking what he is right now? The context of the discussion seems to demand the present: Dona wants to know what kind of being would have such footprints. And the Buddha's image of the lotus -- which is born in muck but rises above it to spread its beauty and wondrous fragrance -- describes his present state. Yet, some might argue that the grammar of Dona's questions seem to demand the futuret. A.K. Warder in his famous book, Introduction to Pali (p. 55), notes that the future tense is often used to express perplexity, surprise, or wonder about something in the present. We do it in English as well: "What on earth would this be?" This seems to be the sense here. Dona's earlier statement, "These are not the footprints of a human being," is also phrased in the future tense yet does not mean "What would they be in the future?" The mood of wonder extends throughout Dona's conversation with the Buddha.

It is also possible that the Buddha's answers to Dona's questions -- which, like the questions, are phrased in the future tense -- are a form of word-play, in which the Buddha is using the future tense in both its meanings, to refer both to his present and to his future state.
The Buddha not identifying himself as a human being relates to a point made throughout the Canon, which is that an awakened person can no longer really be defined in any way at all. On this point, see MN 72, SN 22.85, SN 22.86, and/or the article "A Verb for Nirvana." Because a mind/heart with clinging is "located" by its clinging, an awakened person is trapped, fettered, or located in no place at all in this or any other world: This is why one is unsmeared by the world (loka), like the lotus which is unsmeared by water it springs from.

The defilements left behind
Bhikkhu Bodhi (In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon/Wikipedia.org asava), edited by Dhr. Seven (Wisdom Quarterly)
Various points about various definitions of the mental defilements, defilements of the heart, obstacles to insight and enlightenment and liberation are collected and summarized by the American Theravada scholar-monk Bhikkhu Bodhi:

The āsavas or taints are a classification of defilements considered in their role of sustaining the forward movement of the process of [re]birth and death.

The commentaries derive the word from a root su meaning "to flow." Scholars differ as to whether the flow implied by the prefix ā is inward or outward; hence some have rendered it as "influxes" or "influences," others as "outflows" or "effluents."

A stock passage in the suttas  [Pali "discourses," sutras] indicates the term's real significance independently of etymology when it describes the āsavas as states "that defile, bring renewal of existence, give trouble, ripen in suffering, and lead to future birth, aging and death" (MN 36.47; I 250).

Thus other translators, bypassing the literal meaning, have rendered it "cankers," "corruptions," or "taints." The three taints mentioned in the Nikāyas [discourse collections, volumes] are respectively synonyms for craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, and ignorance. [The fourth āsava, attachment to views, appears in the commentaries.]

When the disciple's mind is liberated from the taints by the completion of the path of [enlightenment] arhantship, one reviews this newly won freedom and roars a lion's roar:

"Birth is destroyed, the spiritual life has been lived, what [was] to be done has been done; there is no more coming back to any state of being" (In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon, edited and introduced by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2005, p. 229).
Earlier British Buddhist scholars Rhys Davids and William Stede (1921-25) state in part that "Freedom from the 'āsavas' constitutes full enlightenment" [entry on āsava (pp. 115-16)].

No comments: