Canto 12: pratyavamarśaḥ
Gaining a Foothold


Praty-ava-√mṛś is given in the MW dictionary as 1. to touch, and 2. to reflect, to meditate. The root √mṛś on its own is defined, again, as 1. to touch, and 2. to touch mentally, consider, reflect. Reflecting this latter sense of touching with the mind, EH Johnston translated the Canto title as “Discernment,” and Linda Covill as “Comprehension.”

At the same time, EHJ noted that the original meaning of mṛś with praty-ava seems to be “lay hold of.” EHJ’s footnote: “It is hard to determine the exact meaning of pratyavamarśa… as it does not apparently occur in any other Buddhist work, Sanskrit or Pali… The original meaning of mṛś with pratyava seems to be ‘lay hold of,’ which suggests that it means the first step in the path of enlightenment, consisting of laying hold of the Law by faith in the Buddha.”01 That the kind of hold thus intended might be a foothold, fits with the title of SN Canto 14 ādi-prasthānaḥ, in which prasthāna carries a connotation of walking or marching out. Gaining a foothold also fits with the meta-metaphor of the noble eightfold path, which is alluded to in the title of SN Canto 16.

Verses 19 and 20 of the present Canto suggest that Aśvaghoṣa had in mind both senses of pratyavamarśa – both the metaphorical sense of gaining a foothold, and the non-figurative sense of mental discernment or comprehension.

Either way, what the Buddha makes very clear in the present Canto is the practical nature of his teaching of śraddhā, belief, or confidence. EH Johnston translated śraddhā as “faith.” In his book Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, which otherwise has much to commend it, the Buddhist scholar Prof. David Kalupahana wrote: “Since such sophisticated Mahāyāna sutras [as the Lotus Sutra] were not available to Nāgārjuna, he could not help moving on to the early discourses in the Nikāyas and the Āgamas in search of the Buddha’s teaching, especially at a time when he realized that the problems were created not only by metaphysicians like the Sarvāstivādins and the Sautrāntikas, but also by more popular religious teachers like Aśvaghoṣa, who over-emphasized the function of ‘faith’ in the emerging belief in a transcendent Buddha.” How wrong can a Buddhist scholar be? Did Kalupahana actually bother to read for himself what Aśvaghoṣa wrote about śraddhā?02 This translation was likely based on the generally held assumption among pioneering Buddhist scholars that the Buddha’s teaching, which those scholars called “Buddhism,” was a faith – i.e., a religion like other religions, that placed faith in the Almighty above practical human experience and reason. Illustrating what he really means by śraddhā, however, the Buddha in this Canto uses metaphors like the water-seeker digging for water, the maker of fires twirling firesticks, and the farmer sowing seed. These metaphors point to a confidence which has nothing to do with religious belief, or faith, but everything to do with practical human know-how and rational human effort.



apsaro-bhṛtako dharmaṁ carasīty atha coditaḥ /
ānandena tadā nandaḥ paraṁ vrīḍam upāgamat // 12.1 //

“You are practising dharma to earn the apsarases as wages!” To be upbraided thus, / As Nanda then was by Ānanda, made him deeply ashamed. // 12.1 //

tasya vrīḍena mahatā pramodo hṛdi nābhavat /
aprāmodyena vimukhaṁ nāvatasthe vrate manaḥ // 12.2 //

Because of the great shame the exuberance in his heart was no more. / His mind was downcast, due to disenchantment, and did not stick with practice. // 12.2 //

kāma-rāga-pradhāno ’pi parihāsa-samo ’pi san /
paripāka-gate hetau na sa tan mamṛṣe vacaḥ // 12.3 //

Though he was fixated on sensual love, and at the same time indifferent to ridicule, / Nanda’s motivation had matured to a point where neither could he disregard [Ānanda’s] words. // 12.3 //

aparīkṣaka-bhāvāc ca pūrvaṁ matvā divaṁ dhruvam /
tasmāt kṣeṣṇuṁ pariśrutya bhṛśaṁ saṁvegam eyivān // 12.4 //

Being of an unquestioning nature, he had presumed heaven to be a constant; / So on learning that it was perishable he was fiercely shocked. // 12.4 //

tasya svargān nivavṛte saṁkalpāśvo mano-rathaḥ /
mahā-ratha ivonmārgād apramattasya sāratheḥ // 12.5 //

Turning back from heaven, the chariot of his mind, whose horse was willpower, Saṁkalpa is given in the dictionary as a conception or idea or notion formed in the mind or heart; will, volition, desire, purpose. It is hard to know from this context whether Aśvaghoṣa intended saṁkalpa to have a negative, positive, or neutral connotation. EHJ translated “whose steeds are the fancies.” This is as per the Buddha’s usage of saṁkalpa in SN13.35 (“For smeared with the poison of fancies/conceptions, are those arrows, produced from five senses…”). 03 / Was like a great chariot turned back from a wrong road by an attentive charioteer. // 12.5 //

svarga-tarṣān nivṛttaś ca sadyaḥ svastha ivābhavat /
mṛṣṭād apathyād virato jijīviṣur ivāturaḥ // 12.6 //

After turning back from his thirst for heaven, he seemed suddenly to become well. / He had given up something sweet that was bad for him, like a sick man finding the will to live. // 12.6 //

visasmāra priyāṁ bhāryām apsaro-darśanād yathā /
tathānityatayodvignas tatyājāpsaraso ’pi saḥ // 12.7 //

Just as he forgot about his beloved wife on seeing the apsarases, / So also, when startled by their impermanence, did he put the apsarases behind him. // 12.7 //

mahatām api bhūtānām āvṛttir iti cintayan /
saṁvegāc ca sa-rāgo ’pi vīta-rāga ivābhavat // 12.8 //

“Even the greatest beings are subject to return!” So he reflected, / And from his shock, though given to redness, he seemed to blanch. This line may be taken as evidence of Aśvaghoṣa’s insight into the mutually antagonistic fear responses (white fear paralysis and red panic) which are at the core of human existence. Of the two, it is fear paralysis which is deeper and more primitive; hence Aśvaghoṣa is emphasizing how deep was the shock to Nanda’s system. 04 // 12.8 //

babhūva sa hi saṁvegaḥ śreyasas tasya vṛddhaye /
dhātur edhir ivākhyāte paṭhito ’kṣara-cintakaiḥ // 12.9 //

It was for growth in him of a better way that the shock happened – / Just as the verb “to grow” is listed [after “to happen”] in the lexicon recited by students of grammar. The lexicon in question is Pāṇini’s dhātu-pāṭha, “Recital of Grammatical Roots,” an ancient list of 2200 verbal roots, the first of which is bhu (be, exist, happen) and the second of which is edh (increase, grow). The beginning of the list might have been almost as familiar to people of Aśvaghoṣa’s day who knew Sanskrit as “abc” is familiar to us. (Thanks to Malcolm Markovich for clarifying this background.) 05// 12.9 //

na tu kāmān manas tasya kena-cij jagṛhe dhṛtiḥ /
triṣu kāleṣu sarveṣu nipāto ’stir iva smṛtaḥ // 12.10 //

Because of his sensuality, however, his mind was by no means gripped by the kind of constancy / Which is shown, in all three times, by the received usage of the irregularity Nipāta originally means falling down, decay, accidental occurrence; in grammar it means 1. irregular form, irregularity, exception, and 2. a particle. 06 which is “being.” Linda Covill notes that asti (existent, present) is considered to be an example of an indeclinable particle; i.e., an irregular particle whose form is supposed to remain constant. So Aśvaghośa is saying that Nanda does not yet show that kind of constancy. At the same time, conversely, Aśvaghośa might be saying something about the irregularity of existence itself. 07// 12.10 //

khela-gāmī mahā-bāhur gajendra iva nirmadaḥ /
so ’bhyagacchad guruṁ kāle vivakṣur bhāvam ātmanaḥ // 12.11 //

Trembling went he of mighty arm, like a top bull elephant, through with rut: / At a suitable moment, he approached the Guru, wishing to communicate his intention. // 12.11 //

praṇamya ca gurau murdhnā bāṣpa-vyākula-locanaḥ /
kṛtvāñjalim uvācedaṁ hriyā kiṁ-cid avāṅmukhaḥ // 12.12 //

After bowing his head to the Guru, with eyes filled with tears, / He joined the palms of his hands and spoke as follows, his face somewhat lowered, because of shame: Here again, the mental phenomena – shame – is cause, and the face being lowered is effect. (It is not a question of a practitioner arranging the angle of his head in an effort to regulate his own mind.) 08// 12.12 //

apsaraḥ prāptaye yan me bhagavan pratibhūr asi /
nāpsarobhir mamārtho ’sti pratibhūtvaṁ tyajāmy aham // 12.13 //

“For my gaining of the celestial nymphs, Glorious One, you stand as guarantor. / But for the nymphs I have no need; I relinquish your guarantee. // 12.13 //

śrutvā hy āvartakaṁ svargaṁ saṁsārasya ca citratām /
na martyeṣu na deveṣu pravṛttir mama rocate // 12.14 //

For since I have heard of heaven’s fleeting whirl and of the varieties of aimless wandering, / Neither among mortal beings nor among heavenly beings does doing appeal to me. Pra-vṛtti is defined as “moving or rolling onwards, advance, progress, active life.” So pra-vṛtti expresses the kind of doing which keeps the wheel of saṁsāra rolling – as opposed to ni-vṛtti, non-doing. See also SN12.22 and SN16.42. 09// 12.14 //

yadi prāpya divaṁ yatnān niyamena damena ca /
a-vitṛptāḥ patanty ante svargāya tyāgine namaḥ // 12.15 //

If, after struggling to get to heaven, through self-restriction and restraint, / [Men] fall at last, unsatisfied, then homage to the heaven-bound who give up on the way. // 12.15 //

ataś ca nikhilaṁ lokaṁ viditvā sacarācaram /
sarva-duḥkha-kṣaya-kare tvad-dharme parame rame // 12.16 //

Now that I have seen through the whole world of man, with its changeability and its fixity, / It is the eradicator of all suffering, your most excellent dharma, that I rejoice in. Notice that in this Canto Nanda does NOT, as per EH Johnston’s comment and David Kalupahana’s subsequent aberrant assertions, express spiritual faith in the Buddha. If Nanda here expresses belief in anything, he expresses his joyful confidence that the Buddha’s most excellent dharma can be effective in eradicating suffering. 10// 12.16 //

tasmād vyāsa-samāsābhyāṁ tan me vyākhyātum arhasi /
yac chrutvā śṛṇvatāṁ śreṣṭha paramaṁ prāpnuyāṁ padam // 12.17 //

Therefore, in detail and in summary, could you please communicate it to me, / O Best of Listeners, so that through listening I might come to the ultimate step.” // 12.17 //

tatas tasyāśayaṁ jñātvā vipakṣāṇīndriyāṇi ca /
śreyaś caivāmukhī-bhūtaṁ nijagāda tathāgataḥ // 12.18 //

Then, knowing from where he was coming, and that, though his senses were set against it, / A better way was now emerging, the Realised One spoke: // 12.18 //

aho pratyavamarśo ’yaṁ śreyasas te purojavaḥ /
araṇyāṁ mathyamānāyām agner dhūma ivotthitaḥ // 12.19 //

“Aha! This gaining of a foothold As a translation of pratyavamarśa, there is evidence to support both 1. “gaining a foothold,” and 2. “discernment/comprehension” – i.e. touching with the mind, in verse 20, where the Buddha tells Nanda that he has 1. set foot on a true path, with 2. clarity of vision. 11 is the harbinger of a higher good in you, / As, when a firestick is rubbed, rising smoke is the harbinger of fire. // 12.19 //

ciram unmārga-vihṛto lolair indriya-vājibhiḥ /
avatīrṇo ’si panthānaṁ diṣṭyā dṛṣṭyāvimūḍhayā // 12.20 //

Long carried off course by the restless horses of the senses, / You have now set foot on a path, with a clarity of vision that, happily, will not dim. // 12.20 //

adya te sa-phalaṁ janma lābho ’dya su-mahāṁs tava /
yasya kāma-rasa-jñasya naiṣkramyāyotsukaṁ manaḥ // 12.21 //

Today your birth bears fruit; your gain today is great; / For though you know the taste of love, your mind is yearning for indifference. // 12.21 //

loke ’sminn ālayārāme nivṛttau durlabhā ratiḥ /
vyathante hy apunar-bhāvāt prapātād iva bāliśāḥ // 12.22 //

In this world which likes what is close to home, a fondness for non-doing is rare; / For men shrink from the end of becoming like the puerile from the edge of a cliff. // 12.22 //

duḥkhaṁ na syāt sukhaṁ me syād iti prayatate janaḥ /
atyanta-duḥkhoparamaṁ sukhaṁ tac ca na budhyate // 12.23 //

People think ‘there might be no suffering, just happiness for me!’ And as they labour under this [illusion], / Any respite from incessant suffering they sense not as such, but as happiness. // 12.23 //

ari-bhūteṣv anityeṣu satataṁ duḥkha-hetuṣu /
kāmādiṣu jagat saktaṁ na vetti sukham avyayam // 12.24 //

Upon [whims] which are transient and akin to enemies, forever causing suffering, / Upon things like love, the world is fixed. It does not know the happiness that is immune to change. // 12.24 //

sarva-duḥkhāpahaṁ tat tu hasta-stham amṛtaṁ tava /
viṣaṁ pītvā yad agadaṁ samaye pātum icchasi // 12.25 //

But that deathless nectar which prevents all suffering you have in your hands: / It is an antidote which, having drunk poison, you are going in good time to drink. // 12.25 //

anarha-saṁsāra-bhayaṁ mānārhaṁ te cikīrṣitam /
rāgāgnis tādṛśo yasya dharmonmukha parāṅ-mukhaḥ // 12.26 //

In its fear of worthless wandering your intention is worthy of respect, / For a fire of passion such as yours, O you whose face is turned to dharma, is being turned around. // 12.26 //

rāgoddāmena manasā sarvathā duṣkarā dhṛtiḥ /
sa-doṣaṁ salilaṁ dṛṣṭvā pāntheneva pipāsunā // 12.27 //

With a mind unbridled by lust it is exceedingly difficult to be steadfast – / As when a thirsty traveller sees dirty water. // 12.27 //

īdṛśī nāma buddhis te niruddhā rajasābhavat /
rajasā caṇḍa-vātena vivasvata iva prabhā // 12.28 //

Obviously, the dust of passion was blocking the consciousness that is now awakening in you, / Like the dust of a sand-storm blocking the light of the sun. // 12.28 //

sā jighāṁsus tamo hārdaṁ yā saṁprati vijṛmbhate /
tamo naiśaṁ prabhā saurī vinirgīrṇeva meruṇā // 12.29 //

But now [consciousness] is blossoming forth, seeking to dispell darkness of the heart, / Like that sunlight spewed forth from mount Meru which dispells the darkness of night. // 12.29 //

yukta-rūpam idaṁ caiva śuddha-sattvasya cetasaḥ /
yat te syān naiṣṭhike sūkṣme śreyasi śraddadhānatā // 12.30 //

And this indeed befits a soul whose essence is simplicity: / That you should have confidence in a better way which is ultimate and subtle. Again, from the Buddha’s standpoint, there is no affirmation here of faith in Buddha. There is affirmation of confidence in a better way, or belief in betterment. The subtlety to which the Buddha refers might be related with the principle that purity/simplicity is a person’s original nature, in which case the source is to be returned to by indirect means, and not by a direct ascetic assault on the senses. (See also Introduction to Canto 13.)12 // 12.30 //

dharma-cchandam imaṁ tasmād vivardhayitum arhasi /
sarva-dharmā hi dharmajña niyamāc chanda-hetavaḥ // 12.31 //

This wish for dharma, therefore, you should nurture; / For all dharmas, O knower of dharma, invariably have wishing as their cause. // 12.31 //

satyāṁ gamana-buddhau hi gamanāya pravartate /
śayyā-buddhau ca śayanaṁ sthāna-buddhau tathā sthitiḥ // 12.32 //

As long as the intention of moving is there, one mobilizes for the act of moving; / And with the intention of staying at rest there is an act of staying at rest; with the intention of standing, likewise, there is standing up. // 12.32 //

antar-bhūmi-gataṁ hy ambhaḥ śraddadhāti naro yadā /
arthitve sati yatnena tadā khanati gām imām // 12.33 //

When a man has confidence that there is water under the ground / And has need of water, then, with an effort of will, here the earth he digs. // 12.33 //

nārthī yady agninā vā syāc chraddadhyāt taṁ na vāraṇau /
mathnīyān nāraṇiṁ kaś-cit tad-bhāve sati mathyate // 12.34 //

If a man had no need of fire, nor confidence that fire was in a firestick, / He would never twirl the stick. Those conditions being met, he does twirl the stick. // 12.34 //

sasyotpattiṁ yadi na vā śraddadhyāt kārṣakaḥ kṣitau /
arthī sasyena vā na syād bījāni na vaped bhuvi // 12.35 //

Without the confidence that corn will grow in the soil he tills, / Or without the need for corn, the farmer would not sow seeds in the earth. // 12.35 //

ataś ca hasta ity uktā mayā śraddhā viśeṣataḥ /
yasmād gṛṇhāti sad-dharmaṁ dāyaṁ hasta ivākṣataḥ // 12.36 //

And so I call this confidence the Hand, because it is this confidence, above all, / That grasps true dharma, as a hand naturally takes a gift. // 12.36 //

prādhānyād indriyam iti sthiratvād balam ity ataḥ /
guṇa-dāridrya-śamanād dhanam ity abhivarṇitā // 12.37 //

From its primacy I describe it as Sensory Power; Indriya means power, force, the quality which belongs especially to the mighty Indra (see Introduction to Canto 13). EHJ translated indriya here as “the Faculty.” 13 from its constancy, as Strength; / And because it relieves poverty of virtue I describe it as Wealth. // 12.37 //

rakṣaṇārthena dharmasya tatheṣīk ety udāhṛtā /
loke ’smin durlabhatvāc ca ratnam ity abhibhāṣitā // 12.38 //

For its protection of dharma, I call it the Arrow, / And from the difficulty of finding it in this world I call it the Jewel. // 12.38 //

punaś ca bījam ity uktā nimittaṁ śreyaso yadā /
pāvanārthena pāpasya nadīty abhihitā punaḥ // 12.39 //

Again, I call it the Seed since it is the cause of betterment; Nimittaṃ śreyasas. Here nimitta evidently means “cause.” (See discussion of nimitta from SN16.53.) 14 / And for its cleansing action, in the washing away of wrong, again, I call it the River. // 12.39 //

yasmād dharmasya cotpattau śraddhā kāraṇam uttamam /
mayoktā kāryatas tasmāt tatra tatra tathā tathā // 12.40 //

Since in the arising of dharma confidence is the primary cause, / Therefore I have named it after its effects in this case like this, in that case like that. // 12.40 //

śraddhāṅkuram imaṁ tasmāt saṁvardhayitum arhasi /
tad-vṛddhau vardhate dharmo mūla-vṛddhau yathā drumaḥ // 12.41 //

This shoot of confidence, therefore, you should nurture; / When it grows dharma grows, as a tree grows with the growth of its root. // 12.41 //

vyākulaṁ darśanaṁ yasya durbalo yasya niścayaḥ /
tasya pāriplavā śraddhā na hi kṛtyāya vartate // 12.42 //

When a person’s seeing is disordered, when a person’s sense of purpose is weak: / The confidence of that person is unsteady, for he is not veering in the direction he should. // 12.42 //

yāvat tattvaṁ na bhavati hi dṛṣṭaṁ śrutaṁ vā tāvac chraddhā na bhavati bala-sthā sthirā vā /
dṛṣṭe tattve niyama-paribhūtendriyasya śraddhā-vṛkṣo bhavati sa-phalaś cāśrayaś ca // 12.43 //

So long as the real truth is not seen or heard, confidence does not become strong or firm; / But when, through restraint, the power of the senses is subjugated and the real truth is realised, the tree of confidence bears fruit and weight.” // 12.43 //

saundaranande mahākāvye pratyavamarśo nāma dvādaśaḥ sargaḥ // 12 //
The 12th Canto in the epic poem Handsome Nanda, titled “Gaining a Foothold.”