Under the rose-apple tree

Under the rose-apple tree

Monday, 16 May 2016

Ratnāvalī: A String of Gems


This translation of Ratnāvalī I began a couple of months ago, just for my own benefit, as part of efforts to lay the ground for translating mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā (MMK) into English.

By the beginning of this year I had already completed a draft translation of MMK, but did not feel inclined to publish it yet, even as a work in progress. There are plenty of MMK translations out there already, and I don't want to publish another one that is worthy of being ignored, as sandy ground is passed over by somebody seeking to lay foundations for a serviceable structure....

sāmanta-rāja-romāñca-karaṃ dharmāspadaṃ na yat |mṛtyasyāpy apraśasyatvād rājaṃs tad akṛtaṃ varam ||RV4.11||
A seat of dharma that does not make the hair of neighbouring kings stand on end,/ Is not worthy of admiration, even after the builder has died; and so, O King, it would be better not to build one.//
And yet I do feel inclined now to publish the present effort, work in progress though it remains. Maybe there is a clue in the contrasting titles of the two works. The M of MMK stands for mūla, which means root, fundament or foundation. The āvalī of Ratnāvalī means a row, series, or string – as in a string of pearls or a garland. Shaky foundations are no basis on which to build anything, but there is a chance that imperfections in several gems within a long string of five hundred gems will not detract too much from the beauty of the whole.

So the reader is asked to overlook several omissions and stopgaps in the translation that follows, most notably in those verses I translated from the Chinese in the absence of Nāgārjuna's original Sanskrit. If anybody can help by filling in the blanks or pointing out my errors in these or other verses, or if anybody can help make a connection to a willing collaborator whose understanding is better than mine, that would be much appreciated.

Nāgārjuna, before he was anything else, was a follower of the Buddha's teaching. To quote Vladimir K at The Zen Site

“Nagarjuna is the 14th Patriarch of Zen but he is usually studied as a philosopher rather than a teacher. This may well be a mistake.”
I echo that doubt. Something jars about the attitude of academics who are interested in Nāgārjuna's philosophy as if it could somehow be extracted from the rest of Nāgārjuna's effort to transmit the compassionate essence of the great vehicle. This essence, Nāgārjuna tells us in RV4.80 is contained in the six pāramitās:
  • dāna, free giving; 
  • śīla, ethical conduct; 
  • kṣanti, forbearance; 
  • vīrya, perseverance; 
  • dhyāna, meditation; 
  • prajñā, wisdom. 
True, as Nāgārjuna asserts in RV1.5, prajñā-pāramitā, the perfection of wisdom, is paramount. That being so, to seek to understand the wisdom of emptiness, which is synonymous with the dharma of dependent arising, is a true aim.

Going for this aim directly, however, as philosophy professors are wont to do, is not necessarily behavior which meets Nāgārjuna's criterion of benefitting all living beings. Rather than being in a hurry to gain the end, if we follow Nāgārjuna's advice, we will opt for gradual process in the right direction. R
elying on all six pāramitās, but especially the first three, we will first practise dharma in the round, instead of proceeding on the basis of incomplete understanding, because...
dharmasyāsyāparijñānād ahaṃkāro ’nuvartate |tataḥ śubhāśubhaṃ karma tato janma śubhāśubham ||RV2.24||
From incomplete knowing of this dharma, there follows “I”-making. / From that stems karma, good and bad. Thence birth, good and bad. //
tasmād yāvad avijñāto dharmo ’haṃkāra-śātanaḥ |dāna-śīla-kṣamā-dharme tāvad ādaravān bhava ||RV2.25|| Therefore, as long as the dharma which cuts out “I”-making is not yet fully understood, / Be sincere in the dharma of free giving, ethical conduct and forbearance.//
Free-giving and ethical conduct, Ratnāvalī makes clear, are for the benefit of others. The forbearance which precludes anger, along with perseverance, is for our own benefit. Only on these grounds, being steeped in benefitting others and self, Nāgārjuna seems to suggest, should we aspire to the Zen wisdom in which the distinction between self and others breaks down and is transcended.

Finally, a note on bodhicitta, the bodhi-mind.

Nowhere in Aśvaghoṣa's two epic poems is explicit mention made of bodhicitta. Such mention, I am reliably informed, is similarly absent from the Pali and Sanskrit records of the early discourses of the Buddha. In his Bodhi-caryāvatāra, in contrast, Śāntideva seems to wish to write of little else, so that three of the first four chapters of BCV have bodhicitta in the title.

The verses in Nāgārjuna's String of Gems that make explicit mention of bodhicitta are not extant in Sanskrit. In Paramārtha's Chinese translation, however, 菩提心, the bodhi-mind, is mentioned twice in R3.86 and again in R5.69:

教一切眾生 堅發菩提心
菩薩德如山 菩提心牢固
Teaching all living beings
Firmly to establish the bodhi-mind,
The bodhisattva's merit is like a mountain.
The bodhi-mind is adamant. [R3.86]

從此行我德 已作及未作
因此願眾生 皆發菩提心
Whatever merit there is from this action I am doing,
Have done, and am yet do,
Because of this, may living beings
All establish the bodhi-mind. [R5.69]

Whether Nāgārjuna did or did not explicitly use the term bodhicitta in his String of Gems, running through all five chapters is the sense that the right direction for a bodhisattva is invariably circumscribed by the will to benefit all living beings.
Hence, for example:
parā[tma-hita-]mokṣārthāḥ saṃkṣepād buddha-śāsanam |te ṣaṭ-pāramitā-garbhās tasmād bauddham idaṃ vacaḥ ||RV4.82||The aims of benefiting and liberating others and self are, in brief, what the Buddha taught./ Those aims are contained in the six perfections. Therefore this is the word of Buddha.//

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