Editor’s note: Mike Cross received the Bodhisattva precepts in 1983 from Gudo Nishijima and worked jointly with his teacher on the translation from Japanese to English of Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, published in four volumes between 1994 and 1998.
Thereafter Mike focused his attention on the seminal text of Dogen’s teaching, the Rules of Sitting-zen for Everybody (Fukan-Zazengi), which contains such enigmatic instructions as “Think the state of not-thinking.” What is such thinking? And how does it relate to feeling and action?
Seeking clarification in the ancient writings of the 12th Zen patriarch, Aśvaghoṣa, in 2008 Mike started studying Sanskrit and began a one-verse-per day translation of Saundara-nanda which he completed at the end of 2011. He is currently working on Aśvaghoṣa’s other epic poem, Buddha-carita.
You are inventing beauty in nails, teeth, skin, and hair long and short, which are not beautiful. / Dullard! Do you not see what women originally are made of and what they originally are? //8.54//
So reckon women, in mind and in body, to be singularly implicated with faults…
These lines are taken from the epic poem Saundara-nanda by the great Indian teacher Aśvaghoṣa. Aśvaghoṣa was the 12th descendant in a direct line from the Buddha and was, as far as we know, the first such lineage-holder ever to write works of Sanskrit literature in his own name. Sanskrit scholars regard Aśvaghoṣa’s two epic poems, Saundara-nanda (“Handsome Nanda”) and Buddha-carita (“The Buddha’s Career”) as literary masterworks. More than that, for followers of the Buddha, they might be gold-mines of the original teaching.
The mining and production of gold, by the way, is a metaphor that runs through Saundara-nanda:
Just as gold, washed with water, is separated from dirt in this world, methodically, and just as the smith heats the gold in the fire and repeatedly turns it over, / Just so is the practitioner’s mind, with delicacy and accuracy, separated from faults in this world, and just so, after cleansing it from afflictions, does the practitioner temper the mind and collect it. // 15.68 //
Again, just as the smith brings gold to a state where he can work it easily in as many ways as he likes into all kinds of ornaments, / So too a beggar of cleansed mind tempers his mind, and directs his yielding mind among the powers of knowing, as he wishes and wherever he wishes. // 15.69 //
The beggar refered to here is a bhikṣuḥ, and nowhere in Saundara-nanda is mention made of a bhikṣuṇi. If this omission is an affront to the feminist viewpoint, a much starker affront is committed in the first verse quoted above (8.54), and this verse is only one of many similar verses from Saundara-nanda Canto 8, whose title is “A Tirade against Women.”
Altogether Aśvaghoṣa’s Saundara-nanda has eighteen cantos or chapters which tell the story of how the Buddha’s devilishly handsome younger half-brother Nanda struggles to go forth from his former cosseted life in the palace with his beautiful and sensual wife Sundarī.
Along the way Nanda meets a well-intentioned monk whom Aśvaghoṣa refers to as śramaṇa, “the striver,” and it is this striver who is responsible for the tirade against women in Canto 8. The striver seems on the surface to be described in favourable terms, as a compassionate and eloquent monk — a good talker of the talk. But in his well-intentioned effort to help Nanda to get over Sundarī and to get into yoga-practice, the striver emerges as a man who is very firmly fixed in his prejudices against women. Thus he says:
Like poisonous clinging creepers, like swept caves still harbouring snakes, / Like unsheathed blades held in the hand, women are calamitous in the end. // 8.31 //
They beguile with lovely voices, and strike with sharp minds: / There is honey in women’s speech, and lethal venom in their hearts. // 8.35 //
Without pausing to consider looks or wealth, or intelligence or breeding or valour, / Women attack no matter what, like a ragbag of crocodiles in a river. // 8.37 //
Ungrateful, ignoble, unsteady: such is the mind of women. / What man of wisdom could fasten his heart onto such fickle creatures? // 8.46 //
Neither in his own role as narrator, nor through the words of Nanda, or Ānanda, or the Buddha, does Aśvaghoṣa express any direct criticism towards the striver or his outlandish views. Aśvaghoṣa rather just allows the striver to express himself, at great length. It is left up to the reader to work out for himself or herself that the striver who is such an eloquent talker of the talk might not, under the weight of his extreme prejudice, be such a good walker of the walk.
Only in the final verses of the final canto do we get a clear (albeit implicit) confirmation that Aśvaghoṣa might have been holding up striver’s view of women as just the kind of view that the Buddha’s teaching asks us to abandon. This confirmation comes when the Buddha demonstrates that he does not share the striver’s view of women. Rather, the Buddha expresses his hope that Sundarī, when she sees Nanda truly gone forth and happy, might be inspired to follow his example:
Just let the astonished people in the city say, while you are standing firm, voicing dharma-directions, / ‘Well! What a miracle this is, that he who was a lover boy is preaching liberation!’ // 18.58 //
Surely then, when she hears of your steadfast mind with its chariots turned back from sundry objects, / Your wife following your example will also talk, to women at home, the talk of dispassion.// 18.59 //
For, with you showing constancy of the highest order, as you get to the bottom of what is, she surely will not enjoy life in the palace, / Just as the mind of an enlightened man does not enjoy sensual pleasures when his mental state is tranquil and controlled, and his thinking is detached, distinct, separate.” //18.60//
These final verses, as I read them, corroborate the suspicion that Aśvaghoṣa offered us the striver’s rant in Canto 8 as a typical example of a well-intentioned but not necessarily enlightened male view – perhaps like the view of those well-intentioned Thai Buddhist elders in the 1930s who, as Ānandajoti described in a recent talk, made the discriminatory rule to prevent women from going forth as bhikṣunis.