Canto 17: amṛtādhigamaḥ
Obtaining the Deathless Nectar

Introduction

Amṛta means undying, immortal; and hence, as a noun, the nectar of immortality – the sweet elixir which the denizens of heaven aspire to drink (SN3.8). Adhi-√gam means to find, discover, obtain; and so adhigama means obtaining, realizing, making one’s own.

The deathless nectar has been mentioned already in several cantos of Saundara-nanda as a symbol of the eternal truth that the Buddha taught (SN3.10), like a prescription that saves a dying man (SN10.54), like a fearless refuge beyond aging and death (SN11.62), like an antidote that prevents all suffering (SN12.55), and again as exemption from suffering (SN14.44).

In context amṛtādhigama describes Nanda’s success in making into his own possession the Buddha’s timeless truth of a remedy to end all suffering. One aspect of amṛta that the Canto title alludes to, then, is the deathless nature of the four noble truths, the eternal validity of which is akin to 2 + 2 = 4. But another aspect of amṛta is that, as the heavenly nectar, its taste is so sweet that it is like pure liquid joy (SN13.1). That being so, Nanda’s obtaining of the nectar represents the fulfillment of the Buddha’s promises (SN12.25, SN16.93) that Nanda’s bitter struggles, if he sticks to principle, will – as sure as night follows day – eventually bring the sweet taste of success.

Through the course of the Canto, without referring to the ten fetters explicitly, Aśvaghoṣa describes how Nanda cuts through these ten fetters one by one, on his way to truly coming back to himself. The present Canto thus seems to assume on the part of the reader familiarity with teachings like the ten fetters, plus the seven limbs of awakening, the seven latent tendencies, and so on. To clarify these enumerated teachings, along with niceties like the distinction between mundane and supramundane powers of knowing, pedantic and repetitive footnotes have been duly provided.

But what strikes one on reflection is that Aśvaghoṣa, while acknowledging the ten fetters and seven latent tendencies in his own description of Nanda’s practice, does not record the Buddha bothering with these particular enumerations. Neither do the words “mundane” or “supramundane” appear in the Buddha’s own teaching. What Aśvaghoṣa puts into the mouth of the Buddha is mainly the four noble truths, with their eightfold practical path of śīla, samādhi and prajñā. In this light, I think, is the riddle of verse 60 solved. Indirectly, Aśvaghoṣa is signalling to us what is really vital, and what is not really so vital.

The point, in conclusion, might be that the Buddha’s deathless nectar, which Nanda makes his own while sitting in the traditional cross-legged manner, is not so much enumerations of ten fetters, seven latent tendencies, et cetera, but only the timeless gist of the four noble truths. In gradually being led to this conclusion, not because Aśvaghoṣa ever spells it out for us, but on the contrary because he drops indirect hints and clues, we are left with a sense of having been privileged to commune, as if in secret, with the ancient Indian master.

 

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athaivam ādeśita-tattva-mārgo nandas tadā prāpta-vimokṣa-mārgaḥ /
sarveṇa bhāvena gurau praṇamya kleśa-prahāṇāya vanaṁ jagāma // 17.1 //

Having thus had pointed out to him the path of what is, Nanda took that path of liberation. Tattva-mārga, the path of what is, or vimokṣa-mārga, the path of liberation, means the noble eightfold path, described by the Buddha in Canto 16 under the three headings of śīla (integrity), prajñā (wisdom), and śama (peace). This Canto describes Nanda’s progressing on that path all the way to the fourth fruit of dharma, the worthy state of the arhat.01 / He bowed with his whole being before the Guru and, with a view to abandoning the afflictions, he made for the forest. // 17.1 //

tatrāvakāśaṁ mṛdu-nīla-śaṣpaṁ dadarśa śāntaṁ taru-ṣaṇḍa-vantam /
niḥśabdayā nimnagayopagūḍhaṁ vaiḍūrya-nīlodakayā vahantyā // 17.2 //

There he saw a clearing, a quiet glade, of soft deep-green grass, / Kept secret by a silent stream bearing water blue as beryl. // 17.2 //

sa pādayos tatra vidhāya śaucaṁ śucau śive śrīmati vṛkṣa-mūle /
mokṣāya baddhvā vyavasāya-kakṣāṁ paryaṅkamaṅkāvahitaṁ babandha // 17.3 //

Having washed his feet there, Nanda, by a clean, auspicious, and splendid tree-root, / Girded on the intention to come undone, and sat with legs fully crossed. // 17.3 //

ṛjuṁ samagraṁ praṇidhāya kāyaṁ kāye smṛtiṁ cābhimukhīṁ vidhāya /
sarvendriyāṇy ātmani saṁnidhāya sa tatra yogaṁ prayataḥ prapede // 17.4 //

By first directing Pra-ṇi-dhāya... vidhāya.... saṁ-ṇi-dhāya... Putting in front (directing)... putting in order (keeping)... putting together (integrating)... The verb in each of the first three pādas is thus an absolutive form from √dhā, to put or place. The sense is of preparatory efforts, attended to in a certain order, to put things in place, followed by the main verb pra-√pad, to throw oneself in. 02 the whole body up, and thus keeping his awareness turned towards the body, / And thus integrating in his person all the senses, there he threw himself all-out into practice. // 17.4 //

tataḥ sa tattvaṁ nikhilaṁ cikīrṣur mokṣānukūlāṁś ca vidhīṁś cikīrṣan /
jñānena lokyena śamena caiva cacāra cetaḥ-parikarma-bhūmau // 17.5 //

Wishing to practise, on that basis, the truth that has no gaps, and wishing to perform practices that would be favourable to release, / He moved, using mundane know-how, Jñānena lokyena. EHJ noted that lokya is equivalent to laukika (of the world, mundane, ordinary, not sacred; see verse 17), which in turn is eqivalent to sāsrava (still being possessed of the polluting influences, by which one is attached to saṁsāra). Lokottara (‘supramundane,’ world-beating, extraordinary, transcendent; see verse 22) is equivalent to anāsrava (being free of the pollutants). Describing jñāna as lokya, then, distinguishes such knowing from the sixth of the six transcendent powers of knowing (abhijñāḥ), which is the power to rid the mind of pollutants. 03 and stillness, EHJ noted further that possibly śīlena is to be understood here, since śīla also – like prajñā and samādhi – can be either laukika (mundane, subject to the influence of the pollutants) or lokottara (‘supramundane,’ beyond the influence of the pollutants). The suggestion would thus be that Nanda progressed by the threefold means of mundane knowing (jñānena lokyena), mundane discipline (śilena lokyena), and mundane tranquillity (śamena lokyena), this threefold categorization mirroring the three sub-headings of the noble-eightfold path, viz. prajñā, śīla, samādhi. 04 into the stage of readying of consciousness. // 17.5 //

saṁdhāya dhairyaṁ praṇidhāya vīryaṁ vyapohya saktiṁ parigṛhya śaktim /
praśānta-cetā niyama-stha-cetāḥ svasthas tatobhūd viṣayeṣv anāsthaḥ // 17.6 //

By holding firm, keeping direction of energy to the fore, by cutting out clinging and garnering his energy, / With consciousness that was calmed and contained, he came back to himself and was not concerned about ends. // 17.6 //

ātapta-buddheḥ prahitātmano ’pi sv-abhyasta-bhāvād atha kāma-saṁjñā /
paryākulaṁ tasya manaś cakāra prāvṛṭsu vidyuj jalam āgateva // 17.7 //

Though his judgement had been tempered and his soul inspired, now a vestige of desire, arising out of habit, / Made his mind turbid – like lightning striking water in a monsoon. // 17.7 //

sa paryavasthānam avetya sadyaś cikṣepa tāṁ dharma-vighāta-kartrīm /
priyām api krodha-parīta-cetā nārīm ivodvṛtta-guṇāṁ manasvī // 17.8 //

Being instantly aware of incompatibilities, he saw off that authoress of the dharma’s downfall, / As a man whose mind is seized by anger shoos away a loved but excitable woman, when he is trying to concentrate. In SN16.76 Aśvaghoṣa uses manasvin in its primary sense of being full of mind, bright, intelligent. As a secondary sense, however, the dictionary gives “fixing the mind, attentive.” 05// 17.8 //

ārabdha-vīryasya manaḥ-śamāya bhūyas tu tasyākuśalo vitarkaḥ /
vyādhi-praṇāśāya niviṣṭa-buddher upadravo ghora ivājagāma // 17.9 //

Nanda re-directed his energy in order to still his mind, but as he did so an unhelpful thought reasserted itself, / As when, in a man intent on curing an illness, an acute symptom suddenly reappears. // 17.9 //

sa tad-vighātāya nimittam anyad yogānukūlaṁ kuśalaṁ prapede /
ārtāyanaṁ kṣīṇa-balo bala-sthaṁ nirasyamāno balināriṇeva // 17.10 //

To fend against that he turned skillfully to a different factor, one favourable to his practice, / Like an enfeebled [prince] who seeks out a powerful protector when being overthrown by a mighty rival. // 17.10 //

puraṁ vidhāyānuvidhāya daṇḍaṁ mitrāṇi saṁgṛhya ripūn vigṛhya /
rājā yathāpnoti hi gām apūrvāṁ nītir mumukṣor api saiva yoge // 17.11 //

For just as, by laying out fortifications and laying down the rod of the law, by banding with friends and disbanding foes, / A king gains hitherto ungained land, that is the very policy towards practice of one who desires release. // 17.11 //

vimokṣa-kāmasya hi yogino ’pi manaḥ puraṁ jñāna-vidhiś ca daṇḍaḥ /
guṇāś ca mitrāṇy arayaś ca doṣā bhūmir vimuktir yatate yad artham // 17.12 //

Because, for a practitioner whose desire is release, the mind is his fortress, know-how is his rod, / The virtues are his friends, the faults are his foes; and liberation is the territory he endeavours to reach. // 17.12 //

sa duḥkha-jālān mahato mumukṣur vimokṣa-mārgādhigame vivikṣuḥ /
panthānam āryaṁ paramaṁ didṛkṣuḥ śamaṁ yayau kiṁ-cid upātta-cakṣuḥ // 17.13 //

Desiring release from the great net of suffering; desiring to enter into possession of the pathways of release, / Desiring to experience the supreme noble path; he got a bit of the Eye, In general, the Dharma-Eye does not mean an organ of sight so much as it means an instrument of seeing, or means of realizing, the truth of the Buddha’s dharma (see also verse 32). 06 and came to quiet. // 17.13 //

yaḥ syān niketas tamaso ’niketaḥ śrutvāpi tattvaṁ sa bhavet pramattaḥ /
yasmāt tu mokṣāya sa pātra-bhūtas tasmān manaḥ sv-ātmani saṁjahāra // 17.14 //

Heedless would be the unhoused man who, despite hearing the truth, housed the darkness of ignorance; / But since [Nanda] was a man of the bowl, a receptacle for liberation, he had collected his mind into himself. // 17.14 //

sambhārataḥ pratyayataḥ svabhāvād āsvādato doṣa-viśeṣataś ca /
athātmavān niḥsaraṇātmataś ca dharmeṣu cakre vidhivat parīkṣām // 17.15 //

On the grounds of their being held together, their causality, and their inherent nature, on the grounds of their flavour and their concrete imperfection, / And on the grounds of their tendency to spread out, Niḥsaraṇātmataś (niḥsaraṇātman = tending to terminate / spread out + ablative suffix taḥ) can be understood – especially in light of the 2nd law of thermodynamics – as a description of impermanence. EHJ, accepting Gawronski’s conjecture, translated niḥsaraṇātmakaś (niḥ-saraṇa = going out, escaping + ātmakaḥ = being devoted to) so that the phrase described Nanda as “devoted to escape from being.” 07 he who was now contained in himself, The merit of being ātmavān, in possession of oneself, is referred to repeatedly in BC Canto 11. 08 carried out a methodical investigation into things. // 17.15 //

sa rūpiṇaṁ kṛtsnam arūpiṇaṁ ca sāraṁ didṛkṣur vicikāya kāyam /
athāśuciṁ duḥkham anityam asvaṁ nirātmakaṁ caiva cikāya kāyam // 17.16 //

Desiring to examine its total material and immaterial substance, he investigated the body, / And he perceived the body to be impure, full of suffering, impermanent, without an owner, and again, devoid of self. // 17.16 //

anityatas tatra hi śūnyataś ca nirātmato duḥkhata eva cāpi /
mārga-pravekeṇa sa laukikena kleśa-drumaṁ saṁcalayāṁ cakāra // 17.17 //

For, on those grounds, on the grounds of impermanence and of emptiness, on the grounds of absence of self, Aśvaghoṣa thus equates śunya, being empty, with absence of a permanent self – a point which Nāgārjuna will clarify in detail two generations later. 09 and of suffering, / He, by the most excellent among mundane paths, Again, the meaning here of laukika is that these efforts of Nanda’s were prior to his winning the stage of a stream-enterer. Laukika, in other words, means the same as sāsrava, being under the influence of the pollutants, and is opposed to lokottara in verse 22. 10 caused the tree of afflictions to shake. // 17.17 //

yasmād abhūtvā bhavatīha sarvaṁ bhutvā ca bhūyo na bhavaty avaśyam /
sa-hetukaṁ ca kṣayi-hetumac ca tasmād anityaṁ jagad ity avindat // 17.18 //

Since everything, after not existing, now exists, and after existing it never exists again; / And since the world is causal, and has disappearance as a cause, therefore he understood that the world is impermanent. // 17.18 //

yataḥ prasūtasya ca karmayogaḥ prasajyate bandha-vighāta-hetuḥ /
duḥkha-pratīkāra-vidhau sukhākhye tato bhavaṁ duḥkham iti vyapaśyat // 17.19 //

Insofar as a creature’s industry, motivated by bond-making or bond-breaking impulse, / Is dependent on a prescription, named “pleasure,” for counteracting pain, he saw, on that account, that existence is suffering. // 17.19 //

yataś ca saṁskāra-gataṁ viviktaṁ na kārakaḥ kaś-cana vedako vā /
samagryataḥ saṁbhavati pravṛttiḥ śūnyaṁ tato lokam imaṁ dadarśa // 17.20 //

And insofar as separateness comes from doings, Saṁskāra-gatam. In BC Canto 14, Aśvaghoṣa describes the Buddha discovering that doings (saṁskārāḥ) born of ignorance are the causal grounds of divided consciousness, which in turn is both cause and effect of psycho-physicality. In this sense, separation (viviktam) comes from doings. 11 there being no doer or knower, / And the activity done arises out of a totality, EHJ notes that samagrya stands here for sāmagrī (“totality” [from sam-agra] ) which is the regular word for the complex of causes and conditions in the teaching of dependent arising. Sāmagrī-parīkṣa, “Investigation of Totality,” is the title of MMK ch. 20. 12 he realised, on that account, that this world is empty. Again, Aśvaghoṣa’s gist here is clarified by Nāgārjuna’s more detailed considerations of emptiness in the context of dependent arising – studying which caused me to amend the translation of this verse (after having already made the audio recording). 13 // 17.20 //

yasmān nirīhaṁ jagad asvatantraṁ naiśvaryam ekaḥ kurute kriyāsu /
tat-tat-pratītya prabhavanti bhāvā nirātmakaṁ tena viveda lokam // 17.21 //

Since the throng of humanity is passive, not autonomous, A-sva-tantra is translated in SN7.41 as “uncontrollable”; but see also SN14.32 where sva-tantrin is translated “pulling his own strings.” Tantra originally means a loom, or the warp. 14 and no one exercises direct control over the workings of the body, / But states of being arise dependent on this and that, he found, in that sense, that the world is devoid of self. This is the gist of the teaching of pratītya-samutpāda, for the clarification of which Nāgārjuna wrote his mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā. See also verse 31. 15// 17.21 //

tataḥ sa vātaṁ vyajanād ivoṣṇe kāṣṭhāśritaṁ nirmathanād ivāgnim /
antaḥ-kṣiti-sthaṁ khananād ivāmbho lokottaraṁ vartma durāpam āpa // 17.22 //

Then, like air in the hot season, got from fanning; like fire latent in wood, got from rubbing; / And like water under the ground, got from digging, that supramundane Lokottara (loka + uttara) is given in the MW dictionary as “excelling or surpassing the world, beyond what is common or general, unusual, extraordinary.” Here the supramundane path in question is the first of the four supramundane paths, viz: 1. the path to the fruit of the stream-enterer; 2. the path to the fruit of the once-returner; 3. the path to the fruit of not returning; 4. the path to the fruit of arhathood. 16 path which is hard to reach, he reached: // 17.22 //

saj-jñāna-cāpaḥ smṛti-varma baddhvā viśuddha-śīla-vrata-vāhana-sthaḥ /
kleśāribhiś citta-raṇājira-sthaiḥ sārdhaṁ yuyutsur vijayāya tasthau // 17.23 //

As a bow of true knowledge, clad in the armour of awareness, standing up in a chariot of pure practice of integrity, The three elements in the first half of the verse, again, represent the noble eightfold path’s three sub-categories of 1. prajñā and 2. samādhi, based in 3. śīla. 17 / He took his stance for victory, ready to engage in battle his enemies, the afflictions, who were ranged on the battlefield of his mind. // 17.23 //

tataḥ sa bodhy-aṅga-śitātta-śastraḥ samyak-pradhānottama-vāhana-sthaḥ /
mārgāṅga-mātaṅga-vatā balena śanaiḥ śanaiḥ kleśa-camūṁ jagāhe // 17.24 //

Then, unsheathing a sword that the limbs of awakening The seven limbs of awakening are 1. dharma-pravicaya, investigation of things, 2. vīrya, manly endeavor, directed energy, 3. prīti, joy, 4. praśrabdhi, confidence, 5. upekṣā, equanimity, 6. samādhi, balanced stillness, 7. smṛti, awareness/vigilance/mindfulness. 18 had honed, standing in the supreme chariot of true motivation, / With an army containing the elephants of the branches of the path, The eight branches of the path, as enumerated by the Buddha in SN16.30-37, are 1. samyag-vāk-karma, using the voice well, 2. samyak-kāya-karma, using the body well 3. samyag-ājiva, making one’s living well, 4. samyag-dṛṣṭi, proper insight (into the four noble truths), 5. samyag-vitarka, thinking straight, 6. samyag-parākrama, fully taking initiative, 7. samyak-smṛti, true mindfulness/awareness, 8. samyak-samādhi, totally balanced stillness. 19 he gradually penetrated the ranks of the afflictions. // 17.24 //

sa smṛty-upasthāna-mayaiḥ pṛṣatkaiḥ śatrūn viparyāsa-mayān kṣaṇena /
duḥkhasya hetūṁś caturaś caturbhiḥ svaiḥ-svaiḥ pracārāyatanair dadāra // 17.25 //

With arrows made from the presence of mindfulness, Smṛty-upasthāna. Upasthāna (from upa-√sthā, to stand or place one’s self near, to be present) means 1. the act of placing one’s self near to, coming into the presence of, waiting on, attendance; 2. abiding, and hence a place of abiding, an abode. In Chinese (see Shobogenzo chap. 73) smṛty-upasthāna was rendered 念住, “attention-abode” – hence 四念住 “the four abodes of mindfulness.” In Sanskrit the four abodes of (or ways of attending to) mindfulness are 1. kāya-smṛtyupasthāna, mindfulness of the body, 2. vedanā-smṛtyupasthāna, mindfulness of feelings, 3. citta-smṛtyupasthāna, mindfulness of the mind, and 4. dharma-smṛtyupasthāna, mindfulness of dharmas. 20 instantly he shot those enemies whose substance is upside-down-ness: / He split apart four enemies, four causes of suffering, with four arrows, each having its own range. // 17.25 //

āryair balaiḥ pañcabhir eva pañca cetaḥ-khilāny apratimair babhañja /
mithyāṅga-nāgāṁś ca tathāṅga-nāgair vinirdudhāvāṣṭabhir eva so ’ṣṭau // 17.26 //

With the five incomparable noble powers, Pañca balāḥ, the five powers, are 1. ṣraddhā, confidence, 2. vīrya, manly endeavor, directed energy, 3. smṛti, awareness/vigilance/mindfulness, 4, samādhi, balanced stillness, 5. prajñā, wisdom. 21 he broke five uncultivated areas of mental ground; Pañca cetaḥ-khilāni, “the five obstructions of the mind” [EHJ] or “the five barren places of the mind” [LC], are, according to a note by LC, four kinds of doubt, concerning 1. Buddha, 2. Dharma, 3. Saṁgha, and 4. Vinaya; and 5. anger. Khila means a piece of waste or uncultivated land situated between cultivated fields, bare soil. 22 / And with the eight true EHJ comments that Aśvaghoṣa is here using tathā as an adjective, as in Pali. 23 elephants which are the branches of the path, he drove away eight elephants of fakery. // 17.26 //

athātma-dṛṣṭiṁ sakalāṁ vidhūya caturṣu satyeṣv akathaṁkathaḥ san /
viśuddha-śīla-vrata-dṛṣṭa-dharmo dharmasya pūrvāṁ phala-bhūmim āpa // 17.27 //

And so, having shaken off every vestige of the personality view, being free of doubt in regard to the four truths, / And knowing the score in regard to pure practice of integrity, Viśuddha-śīla-vrata, “pure practice of integrity” is repeated from verse 23. The phrase could also be read as “being pure in discipline and vows” or even (in light of fetter no. 3 in the ten fetters) “freedom from the vice of clinging to rule and ritual.” 24 he attained the first fruit of dharma. Ten fetters – five lower fetters and five upper fetters – are said to tie us to the wheel of saṁsāra and impede our progress on the four supramundane paths of the stream-enterer, once-returner, no-returner and arhat. Attainment of stream-entry is associated with the cutting of three of the five lower fetters, namely: 1. the personality view, 2. doubting, and 3. clinging to rules and rituals. The three elements of this verse describe cutting of those three lower fetters. Hence viśuddha-śīla-vrata-dṛṣṭa-dharma suggests genuine integrity (śīla) and untainted devotion to practice (vrata), as opposed to śīla-vratopadanna, clinging to rules (śīla) and rituals (vrata). 25 // 17.27 //

sa darśanād ārya-catuṣṭayasya kleśaika-deśasya ca viprayogāt /
pratyātmikāc cāpi viśeṣa-lābhāt pratyakṣato jñāni-sukhasya caiva // 17.28 //

By glimpsing the noble foursome, and by being released from one portion of the afflictions; / By realising for himself what was specific to him as well as by witnessing the ease of the sages; // 17.28 //

dārḍhyāt prasādasya dhṛteḥ sthiratvāt satyeṣv asaṁmūḍhatayā caturṣu /
śīlasya cācchidratayottamasya niḥsaṁśayo dharma-vidhau babhūva // 17.29 //

Through the stability of his stillness and the constancy of his steadiness; through not being altogether bewildered about the four truths; / And through not being full of holes in the supreme practice of integrity, Again, the suggestion is of progress via the noble eightfold path under its three headings of samādhi, prajñā and śīla. 26 he became free of doubt in the truth of dharma. // 17.29 //

ku-dṛṣṭi-jālena sa viprayukto lokaṁ tathā-bhūtam avekṣamāṇaḥ /
jñānāśrayāṁ prītim upājagāma bhūyaḥ prasādaṁ ca gurāv iyāya // 17.30 //

Released from the net of shabby views, seeing the world as it really is, / He attained a joy pregnant with knowing and his quiet certainty in the Guru deepened all the more. // 17.30 //

yo hi pravṛttiṁ niyatām avaiti naivānya-hetor iha nāpy ahetoḥ /
pratītya tat-tat samavaiti tat-tat sa naiṣṭhikaṁ paśyati dharmam āryam // 17.31 //

For he who understands that the doing in this world is determined neither by any outside cause nor by no cause, / And who appreciates everything depending on everything: he sees the ultimate noble dharma. // 17.31 //

śāntaṁ śivaṁ nir-jarasaṁ virāgaṁ niḥśreyasaṁ paśyati yaś ca dharmam /
tasyopadeṣṭāram athārya-varyaṁ sa prekṣate buddham avāpta-cakṣuḥ // 17.32 //

And he who sees as the greatest good the dharma that is peaceful, salutary, ageless, and free of the red taint of passion, / And who sees its teacher as the noblest of the noble: he, as one who has got the Eye, is meeting Buddha. // 17.32 //

yathopadeśena śivena mukto rogād arogo bhiṣajaṁ kṛta-jñaḥ /
anusmaran paśyati citta-dṛṣṭyā maitryā ca śāstra-jñatayā ca tuṣṭaḥ // 17.33 //

When a healthy man has been freed from illness by salutary instruction, and he is aware of his debt of gratitude, / Just as he sees his healer in his mind’s eye, gratefully acknowledging his benevolence and knowledge of his subject, // 17.33 //

āryeṇa mārgeṇa tathaiva muktas tathāgataṁ tattva-vid ārya-tattvaḥ /
anusmaran paśyati kāya-sākṣī maitryā ca sarva-jñatayā ca tuṣṭaḥ // 17.34 //

Exactly so is a finder of reality who, set free by the noble path, is the reality of being noble: / His body being a seeing Eye, Kāya-sākṣī is lit. “body-witnessing.” Sākṣin is defined as “seeing with the eyes, witnessing.” So the emphasis here, as in the writings of Zen Master Dogen, seems to be that real arising of the Dharma-Eye involves not mere recognition but realisation with and through the whole body-mind, in sitting-meditation. 27 he sees the Realised One, gratefully acknowledging his benevolence and all-knowingness. // 17.34 //

sa nāśakair dṛṣṭi-gatair vimuktaḥ paryantam ālokya punar-bhavasya /
bhaktvā ghṛṇāṁ kleśa-vijṛmbhiteṣu mṛtyor na tatrāsa na dur-gatibhyaḥ // 17.35 //

Sprung free from pernicious theories, seeing an end to becoming, / And feeling horror for the consequences of affliction, [Nanda] trembled not at death or hellish realms. // 17.35 //

tvak-snāyu-medo-rudhirāsthi-māṁsa-keśādināmedhya-gaṇena pūrṇam /
tataḥ sa kāyaṁ samavekṣamāṇaḥ sāraṁ vicintyāṇv api nopalebhe // 17.36 //

As full of skin, sinew, fat, blood, bone, and flesh; as full of hair and a mass of other such unholy stuff, / [Nanda] then observed the body to be; he looked into its essential reality, and found not even an atom. // 17.36 //

sa kāmarāga-pratighau sthirātmā tenaiva yogena tanū cakāra /
kṛtvā mahoraska-tanus tanū tau prāpa dvitīyaṁ phalam ārya-dharme // 17.37 //

By the yoke of that very practice, Tenaiva yogena means “by that very yoga.” Yoga means practice, and at the same time a yoke as a device that causes two to be one. 28 he, firm in himself, minimised the duality of love and hate; / Being himself big across the chest, he made those two small, and so obtained the second fruit in the noble dharma. The fourth and fifth of the lower five fetters that bind a person to the nether regions of saṁsāra are 4. desire for sensual pleasure and 5. ill will. One who has cut the first three fetters and reduced sense desire and ill will to a mimimum is said to have attained the second fruit, thus being subject to only one more return to the lower realms of saṁsāra. One who has completely cut all five fetters is said to have attained the third fruit of the dharma, as a non-returner. So this verse again accords with the ancient teaching of four fruits and ten fetters, saying that Nanda had reduced love and hate to manageable proportions, but that – like the citizens of Kapilavāstu described in SN3.39 – he had not yet completely cut lower fetters no. 4 and 5.29// 17.37 //

sa lobha-cāpaṁ parikalpa-bāṇaṁ rāgaṁ mahā-vairiṇam alpa-śeṣam /
kāya-svabhāvādhigatair bibheda yogāyudhāstrair aśubhā-pṛṣatkaiḥ // 17.38 //

A small vestige of the great enemy, red passion, whose straining bow is impatient desire and whose arrow is a fixed conception, / He destroyed using weapons procured from the body as it naturally is – using the darts of unpleasantness, weapons from the armoury of practice. // 17.38 //

dveṣāyudhaṁ krodha-vikīrṇa-bāṇaṁ vyāpādam antaḥ-prasavaṁ sapatnam /
maitrī-pṛṣatkair dhṛti-tūṇa-saṁsthaiḥ kṣamā-dhanurjyā-visṛtair jaghāna // 17.39 //

That gestating love-rival, malice, whose weapon is hatred and whose errant arrow is anger, / He slayed with the arrows of kindness, which are contained in a quiver of constancy and released from the bow-string of patience. // 17.39 //

mūlāny atha trīṇy aśubhasya vīras tribhir vimokṣāyatanaiś cakarta /
camū-mukha-sthān dhṛta-kārmukāṁs trīn arīn ivāris tribhir āyasāgraiḥ // 17.40 //

And so the hero cut the three roots of shameful conduct Tri-mulāni aśubhasya, the three roots of shameful conduct, are greed, hatred and delusion. 30 using three seats of release, / As if three rival princes, bearing bows in the van of their armies, had been cut down by one prince using three metal points. As investigated in BC Canto 13, āyasa means made of iron or of metal. In that Canto, the metal in question, since it is described as fire-coloured, might be gold. If similar hidden meaning is sought in this verse, the three points might be the base of the pyramid in which one person’s golden sitting is contained. (Nanda, after all, was described back in verse 3 as sitting in the full lotus posture, and there has been no mention so far of him breaking that posture.) 31// 17.40 //

sa kāma-dhātoḥ samatikramāya pārṣṇi-grahāṁs tān abhibhūya śatrūn /
yogād anāgāmi-phalaṁ prapadya dvārīva nirvāṇa-purasya tasthau // 17.41 //

In order to go entirely beyond the sphere of desire, he overpowered those enemies that grab the heel, / So that he attained, because of practice, the fruit of not returning, He attained the third of the four fruits of dharma, the stage of the non-returner, synonymous with complete freedom from fetters 1-5. 32 and stood as if at the gateway to the citadel of nirvāṇa. // 17.41 //

kāmair viviktaṁ malinaiś ca dharmair vitarkavac cāpi vicāravac ca /
viveka-jaṁ prīti-sukhopapannaṁ dhyānaṁ tataḥ sa prathamaṁ prapede // 17.42 //

Distanced from desires and tainted things, containing ideas and containing thoughts, / Born of solitude and possessed of joy and ease, is the first stage of meditation, which he then entered. Cf Arāḍa in BC12.49: “Then he arrives at a stage secluded from desires, and also from things like malice; / He reaches the stage born of seclusion – the first dhyāna, in which there is thinking.” //SN12.49// In general, the following description of the four dhyānas corresponds closely to the description which Aśvaghoṣa attributes to the sage Arāḍa in BC Canto 12. 33 // 17.42 //

kāmāgni-dāhena sa vipramukto hlādaṁ paraṁ dhyāna-sukhād avāpa /
sukhaṁ vigāhyāpsv iva gharma-khinnaḥ prāpyeva cārthaṁ vipulaṁ daridraḥ // 17.43 //

Released from the burning of the bonfire of desires, he derived great gladness from ease in the act of meditating – / Ease like a heat-exhausted man diving into water. Or like a pauper coming into great wealth. // 17.43 //

tatrāpi tad-dharma-gatān vitarkān guṇāguṇe ca prasṛtān vicārān /
buddhvā manaḥ-kṣobha-karān aśāntāṁs tad-viprayogāya matiṁ cakāra // 17.44 //

Even in that, he realised, ideas about aforesaid things, and thoughts about what is or is not good, / Are something not quieted, causing disturbance in the mind, and so he decided to cut them out. // 17.44 //

kṣobhaṁ prakurvanti yathormayo hi dhīra-prasannāmbu-vahasya sindhoḥ /
ekāgra-bhūtasya tathormi-bhūtāś cittāmbhasaḥ kṣobha-karā vitarkāḥ // 17.45 //

For, just as waves produce disturbance in a river bearing a steady flow of tranquil water, / So ideas, like waves of thought, disturb the water of the one-pointed mind. // 17.45 //

khinnasya suptasya ca nirvṛtasya bādhaṁ yathā saṁjanayanti śabdāḥ /
adyātmam aikāgryam upāgatasya bhavanti bādhāya tathā vitarkāḥ // 17.46 //

And just as noises are a source of bother to one who is weary, and fallen fast asleep, / So do ideas become bothersome to one who is indulging in his original state of unitary awareness. // 17.46 //

athāvitarkaṁ kramaśo ’vicāram ekāgra-bhāvān manasaḥ prasannam /
samādhi-jaṁ prīti-sukhaṁ dvitīyaṁ dhyānaṁ tad-ādhyātma-śivaṁ sa dadhyau // 17.47 //

And so gradually bereft of idea and thought, his mind tranquil from one-pointedness, / He realised the joy and ease born of balanced stillness – that inner wellbeing which is the second stage of meditation. // 17.47 //

tad-dhyānam āgamya ca citta-maunaṁ lebhe parāṁ prītim alabdha-pūrvām /
prītau tu tatrāpi sa doṣa-darśī yathā vitarkeṣv abhavat tathaiva // 17.48 //

And on reaching that stage, in which the mind is silent, EHJ notes that citta-mauna seems to be the equivalent of Pāḷi mano-moneyya. 34 he experienced an intense joy that he had never experienced before. / But here too he found a fault, in joy, just as he had in ideas. // 17.48 //

prītiḥ parā vastuni yatra yasya viparyayāt tasya hi tatra duḥkham /
prītāv ataḥ prekṣya sa tatra doṣān prīti-kṣaye yogam upāruroha // 17.49 //

For when a man finds intense joy in anything, paradoxically, suffering for him is right there. / Hence, seeing the faults there in joy, he kept going up, into practice that goes beyond joy. // 17.49 //

prīter virāgāt sukham ārya-juṣṭaṁ kāyena vindann atha saṁprajānan /
upekṣakaḥ sa smṛti-mān vyahārṣid dhyānaṁ tṛtīyaṁ pratilabhya dhīraḥ // 17.50 //

And so experiencing the ease enjoyed by the noble ones, from non-attachment to joy, knowing it totally, with his body, / He remained indifferent, fully aware, and, having realised the third stage of meditation, steady. // 17.50 //

yasmāt paraṁ tatra sukhaṁ sukhebhyas tataḥ paraṁ nāsti sukha-pravṛttiḥ /
tasmād babhāṣe śubha-kṛtsna-bhūmiṁ parāpara-jñaḥ parameti maitryā // 17.51 //

Since the ease here is beyond any ease, and there is no progression of ease beyond it, / Therefore, as a knower of higher and lower, he realised it as a condition of resplendent wholeness In BC12.55, the sage Arāḍa describes the 3rd dhyāna as a condition of ease experienced as one with Śubha-kṛtsna deities (śubha-kṛtsnaiḥ... daivataiḥ), the Gods of Resplendent Wholeness. 35 which he deemed – in a friendly way – to be superlative. // 17.51 //

dhyāne ’pi tatrātha dadarśa doṣaṁ mene paraṁ śāntam aniñjam eva /
ābhogato ’pīñjayati sma tasya cittaṁ pravṛttaṁ sukham ity asram // 17.52 //

Then, even in that stage of meditation, he found a fault: he saw it as better to be quiet, not excited, / Whereas his mind was fluctuating tirelessly because of ease circulating. // 17.52 //

yatreñjitaṁ spanditam asti tatra yatrāsti ca spanditam asti duḥkham /
yasmād atas tat-sukham iñjakatvāt praśānti-kāmā yatayas tyajanti // 17.53 //

In excitement there is interference, and where there is interference there is suffering, / Which is why, insofar as ease is excitatory, devotees who are desirous of quiet give up that ease. // 17.53 //

atha prahāṇāt sukha-duḥkhayoś ca mano-vikārasya ca pūrvam eva /
dadhyāv upekṣā-smṛtimad viśuddhaṁ dhyānaṁ tathāduḥkha-sukhaṁ caturtham // 17.54 //

Then, having already transcended ease and suffering, and emotional reactivity, Mano-vikāra is translated by EHJ as “alteration of mind.” The meanings of vikāra include change of form [as in the contorted postures of the women in BC Canto 5], alteration or deviation from any natural state, change (especially for the worse) of bodily or mental condition, disease, emotion, agitation. 36 / He realised the lucidity in which there is indifference and full awareness: thus, beyond suffering and ease, is the fourth stage of meditation. // 17.54 //

yasmāt tu tasmin na sukhaṁ na duḥkhaṁ jñānaṁ ca tatrāsti tad-artha-cāri /
tasmād upekṣā-smṛti-pāriśuddhir nirucyate dhyāna-vidhau caturthe // 17.55 //

Since in this there is neither ease nor suffering, and the act of knowing abides here, being its own object, / Therefore utter lucidity through indifference and awareness is specified in the protocol for the fourth stage of meditation. // 17.55 //

dhyānaṁ sa niśritya tataś caturtham arhattva-lābhāya matiṁ cakāra /
saṁdhāya mitraṁ balavantam āryaṁ rājeva deśān ajitān jigīṣuḥ // 17.56 //

Consequently, relying on the fourth stage of meditation, he made up his mind to win the worthy state, Arhattva, “the worthy state,” means the fourth fruit, the ultimate state of arhathood. 37 / Like a king joining forces with a strong and noble ally and then aspiring to conquer unconquered lands. EHJ wrote (in the Introduction to his translation of Buddhacarita) that he found it puzzling that Aśvaghoṣa elevated sitting-dhyāna into the area of ‘supramundane’ practice in the stage of the third fruit of the dharma, immediately prior to attainment of arhatship: “In Canto 17, after the aspirant has reached the supramundane path, he acquires successively the three stages of the srotāpanna, sakṛdāgāmin and anāgāmin, and it is only thereafter that the four trances are described and they are said to be the immediate precursors of Arhatship. But [SN16.1], in accordance with the view generally prevailing in the schools, shows that the trances are mastered in a preliminary stage before the process of bhāvanā begins; and that they are even accessible to non-Buddhists is the regular belief, which Buddhacarita Canto 12 shows Aśvaghoṣa to share.”
Was Aśvaghoṣa’s intention to challenge (albeit indirectly, with due circumspection) what EHJ describes as “the view generally prevailing in the schools”? The point might be that what in theory is linear and neatly arranged is in practice circular and not neatly arranged but is rather (like Aśvaghoṣa’s poetry) full of variously interwoven strands (SN10.20). In verse 17, for example, perception of impermanence is described as mundane and therefore belonging, in EHJ’s scheme to “a prelimary stage before the process of bhāvanā begins.” But in the Rāhula Sutta the Buddha insructs: anicca-saññaṁ Rāhula bhāvanaṁ bhāvehi, “Cultivate development of the mind, Rāhula, which is perception of impermanence.”
38
// 17.56 //

ciccheda kārtsnyena tataḥ sa pañca prajñāsinā bhāvanayeritena /
ūrdhvaṁ gamāny uttama-bandhanāni saṁyojanāny uttama-bandhanāni // 17.57 //

Then he cut the five upper fetters: with the sword of intuitive wisdom which is raised aloft by cultivation of the mind, / He completely severed the five aspirational fetters, which are bound up with superiority, and tied to the first person. An arhat or worthy one is one who has cut the ten fetters, the lower five of which bind the ordinary person, the stream-enterer and the once-returner to lower worlds, and the upper five of which bind the more advanced spiritual aspirant to more elevated realms. To recap, the five lower fetters are 1. personality view, 2. doubting, and 3. clinging to rules and rituals, along with 4. sensual desire, and 5. ill-will. The stream-enterer is free of fetters 1-3; the once-returner is also free of fetters 4-5 in their grosser form; the non-returner is fully free of all five of the lower fetters. Aśvaghoṣa in this verse refers to the five upper (or aspirational) fetters (pañca ūrdhvaṁ gamāni saṃyojanāni), which remain for the would-be arhat to cut. They are namely: 6. undue interest in outward forms/appearances (rūpa-rāga; i.e. material ambition), 7. undue interest in what does not have form (arūpa-rāga; i.e., spiritual ambition, end-gaining desire for higher consciousness, knowledge etc.), 8. conceit, 9. restlessness, and 10. ignorance. In describing these five upper fetters, Aśvaghoṣa repeats the phrase uttama-bandhanāni, and this repetition led EHJ to think that the text might be suspect. But perhaps Aśvaghoṣa was playing with the ambiguity of uttama, which as an adjective means uppermost or highest, and as a noun means “the last person” – i.e. the first person singular. Relevant here is the cautionary tale that Dogen quotes in Shobogenzo of the bhikṣu who, having realized the fourth dhyāna, was tripped up by conceit. See Shobogenzo chap. 90, Shizen-biku, “The Monk who Mistook the Fourth Dhyāna.”39// 17.57 //

bodhy-aṅga-nāgair api saptabhiḥ sa saptaiva cittānuśayān mamarda /
dvipān ivopasthita-vipraṇāśān kālo grahaiḥ saptabhir eva sapta // 17.58 //

Again, with the seven elephants of the limbs of awakening The seven limbs of awakening are as per verse 24. To recap, they are: investigation of things, energy, joy, confidence, equanimity, balanced stillness, and mindfulness. 40 he crushed the seven dormant tendencies Anuśaya, “dormant tendency” (from anu-√śī, to sleep with), is as per SN15.5 – “What lies behind those desires sleeps on, like a fire covered with ashes...” To recap, the seven tendencies are: sensual greed, resentment, holding views, doubt, conceit, undue interest in becoming, and ignorance. 41 of the mind, / Like Time, when their destruction is due, crushing the seven continents by means of the seven planets. // 17.58 //

agni-drumājyāmbuṣu yā hi vṛttiḥ kavandha-vāyv-agni-divākarāṇām /
doṣeṣu tāṁ vṛttim iyāya nando nirvāpaṇotpāṭana-dāha-śoṣaiḥ // 17.59 //

The action which on fire, trees, ghee and water is exerted by rainclouds, wind, a flame and the sun, / Nanda exerted that action on the faults, quenching, uprooting, burning, and drying them up. // 17.59 //

iti tri-vegaṁ tri-jhaṣaṁ tri-vicam ekāmbhasaṁ pañca-rayaṁ dvi-kūlam /
dvi-grāham aṣṭāṅgavatā plavena duḥkhārṇavaṁ dus-taram uttatāra // 17.60 //

Thus he overcame three surges, three sharks, three swells, the unity of water, five currents, two shores, / And two crocodiles: in his eight-piece raft, he crossed the flood of suffering which is so hard to cross. The point might be that the eightfold path is a means for overcoming any number and all kinds of obstacles, including both all-smothering religious oneness (the water), and dualism (the crocodiles). At the same time, the verse brings to mind the teaching of Zen Master Dogen, who in Shobogenzo chap. 73 Sanjushichi-bon-bodai-bunbo, The 37 Things On the Side of Bodhi, went through the seven limbs, eight branches, four abodes, five powers, and so on, one by one, and then concluded the chapter by saying that we should consign all of them to oblivion, by just sitting. 42// 17.60 //

arhattvam āsādya sa sat-kriyārho nirutsuko niṣpraṇayo nirāśaḥ /
vibhīr viśug vītamado virāgaḥ sa eva dhṛtyānya ivābabhāse // 17.61 //

Having attained to the seat of arhathood, he was worthy of being served. Without ambition, without partiality, without expectation; / Without fear, sorrow, pride, or passion; while being nothing but himself, he seemed in his constancy to be different. // 17.61 //

bhrātuś ca śāstuś ca tayānuśiṣṭyā nandas tataḥ svena ca vikrameṇa /
praśānta-cetāḥ paripūrṇa-kāryo vāṇīm imām ātmagatāṁ jagāda // 17.62 //

And so Nanda, who, through the instruction of his brother and teacher and through his own valiant effort, / Had quieted his mind and fulfilled his task, spoke to himself these words: // 17.62 //

namo ’stu tasmai sugatāya yena hitaiṣiṇā me karuṇātmakena /
bahūni duḥkhāny apavartitāni sukhāni bhūyāṁsy upasaṁhṛtāni // 17.63 //

“Praise be to him, the Sugata, the One Gone Well, through whose compassionate pursuit of my welfare, / Great agonies were turned away and greater comforts conferred. // 17.63 //

ahaṁ hy anāryeṇa śarīra-jena duḥkhātmake vartmani kṛṣyamāṇaḥ /
nivartitas tad-vacanāṅkuśena darpānvito nāga ivāṅkuśena // 17.64 //

For while being dragged, by ignoble physicality, down a path pregnant with suffering, / I was turned back by the hook of his words, like an elephant in musk by a driver’s hook. // 17.64 //

Tasyājñayā kāruṇikasya śāstur hṛdi-stham utpāṭya hi rāga-śalyam /
adyaiva tāvat su-mahat sukhaṁ me sarva-kṣaye kiṁ-bata nirvṛtasya // 17.65 //

For through the liberating knowledge The metaphor of the surgeon who is able to remove a deeply-lodged dart or splinter seems to point to the primary sense of ājñā as deep knowledge or liberating knowledge. Ājñā can also mean order, command, or unlimited power, full autonomy. 43 of the compassionate teacher who extracted a dart of passion that was lodged in my heart, / Now such abundant ease is mine – Oh! how happy I am in the loss of everything! // 17.65 //

nirvāpya kāmāgnim ahaṁ hi dīptaṁ dhṛty-ambunā pāvakam ambuneva /
hlādaṁ paraṁ sāṁpratam āgato ’smi śītaṁ hradaṁ gharma ivāvatīrṇaḥ // 17.66 //

For, by putting out the burning fire of desires, using the water of constancy, as if using water to put out a blaze, / I have now come to a state of supreme refreshment, like a hot person descending into a cool pool. // 17.66 //

na me priyaṁ kiṁ-cana nāpriyaṁ me na me ’nurodho ’sti kuto virodhaḥ /
tayor abhāvāt sukhito ‘smi sadyo himātapābhyām iva viprayuktaḥ // 17.67 //

Nothing is dear to me, nor offensive to me. There is no liking in me, much less disliking. / In the absence of those two, I am enjoying the moment, like one immune to cold and heat. // 17.67 //

mahā-bhayāt kṣemam ivopalabhya mahāvarodhād iva vipramokṣam /
mahārṇavāt pāram ivāplavaḥ san bhīmāndhakārād iva ca prakāśam // 17.68 //

Like gaining safety after great danger; like gaining release after long imprisonment; / Like having no boat and yet gaining the far shore, after a mighty deluge; and like gaining clarity, after fearful darkness; // 17.68 //

rogād ivārogyam asahya-rūpād ṛṇād ivānṛṇyam ananta-saṁkhyāt /
dviṣat-sakāśād iva cāpayānaṁ durbhikṣa-yogāc ca yathā subhikṣam // 17.69 //

Like gaining health out of incurable illness, relief from immeasurable debt, / Or escape from an enemy presence; or like gaining, after a famine, plentiful food: // 17.69 //

tadvat parāṁ śāntim upāgato ’haṁ yasyānubhāvena vināyakasya /
karomi bhūyaḥ punar uktam asmai namo namo ’rhāya tathāgatāya // 17.70 //

Thus have I come to utmost quiet, through the [quieting] influence MW defines anubhāva as 1. a sign or indication of a feeling (bhāva) by look or gesture; 2. dignity, authority. 44 of the teacher. / Again and repeatedly I do homage to him: Homage, homage to the Worthy One, the Realised One! // 17.70 //

yenāhaṁ girim upanīya rūkma-śṛṅgaṁ svargaṁ ca plavaga-vadhū-nidarśanena /
kāmātmā tridiva-carībhir aṅganābhir niṣkṛṣṭo yuvati-maye kalau nimagnaḥ // 17.71 //

By him I was taken to the golden-peaked mountain, and to heaven, where, with the example of the she-monkey, / And by means of the women who wander the triple heaven, I who was a slave to love, sunk in girl-filled strife, was lifted up and out. // 17.71 //

tasmāc ca vyasana-parād anartha-paṅkād utkṛṣya krama-śithilaḥ karīva paṅkāt /
śānte ’smin virajasi vijvare viśoke saddharme vitamasi naiṣṭhike vimuktaḥ // 17.72 //

From that extreme predicament, from that worthless mire, up he dragged me, like a feeble-footed elephant from the mud, / To be released into this quieted, dustless, feverless, sorrowless, ultimate true reality, which is free from darkness. The darkness of ignorance is listed as the final fetter in the list of ten fetters. In Aśvaghoṣa’s account of the Buddha’s enlightenment, also, in BC Canto 14, full awakening is described as synonymous with the ending of ignorance. 45 // 17.72 //

taṁ vande param anukampakaṁ maharṣim
mūrdhnāhaṁ prakṛti-guṇa-jñam āśaya-jñam /
saṁbuddhaṁ daśa-balinaṁ bhiṣak-pradhānaṁ
trātāraṁ punar api cāsmi saṁnatas tam // 17.73 //

I salute the great supremely compassionate Seer, bowing my head to him, the knower of types, the knower of hearts, / The fully awakened one, the holder of the ten powers, the best of healers, the deliverer: again, I bow to him. // 17.73 //

mahākāvye saundaranande ‘mṛtādhigamo nāma saptadaśaḥ sargaḥ /
The 17th Canto in the epic poem Handsome Nanda, titled “Obtaining the Deathless Nectar.”