Thursday, February 23, 2006

An intense sutta

I commend to you, the internet, this site which contains English translations of large swaths of the Pali Canon, the oldest Buddhist suttas, generally thought to be truest to the teachings of the Buddha's original order. The site began in 1993 as a BBS offering resources for Buddhist practitioners. Most of the translations I have seen so far are in fluid, idiomatic English, which is a breath of fresh air for me, since my library mostly stocks the old Pali Text Society translations, which were written in a deliberately anachronistic, King James style. I especially like the work of Andrew Olendzki, for instance this translation of 522 to 526 of the Theragāthā.

But what I really wanted to share is this story, from the Therigāthā of a nun who is pursued by an attractive young man, who asks her not to go forth into the contemplative life. (Scriptural spoilers follow, you may want to read the original first). The young man's opening line is fairly blunt.
You are young & not bad-looking,
what need do you have for going forth?
Throw off your ochre robe —
Come, let's delight in the flowering grove.
Well, "Not bad looking" isn't much of a come on line, but the young man goes on to praise her beauty quite extensively, especially her eyes. Sadly for our hopeful paramour, this is one of those texts that remind you that Gotama Buddha's middle path is substantially more ascetic that Aristotle's mean. Why are you so enamored of my body, the nun asks
What do you assume of any essence,
here in this cemetery grower, filled with corpses,
this body destined to break up?
What do you see when you look at me,
you who are out of your mind?'
Her equation on the composite nature of the body as the source of its impermanence and unworthiness is almost Platonic. But when she pulls away from the flux of the body, she takes a path far from Plato’s
Knowing the unattractiveness
of things compounded,
my mind cleaves to nothing at all.
A genuine lover is undeterred, so the young man continues to woo her, offering her riches and again praising her eyes. So he gets this response
Plucking out her lovely eye,
with mind unattached
she felt no regret.

'Here, take this eye. It's yours.'

No comments: