Re-Discovering Treasure: Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita Chapter 15

It is a scholar’s dream – to re-discover some fascinating old manuscript or long-lost great work. In 1946, Bedouin shepherds discovered what would become famous as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Before that, in 1907, the archaeologist Aurel Stein negotiated with Wang Luanlu, the guardian of a cave on the Silk Road in China, to look at some 1500 year-old manuscripts that Wang had found hidden behind a wall. So the Dunhuang manuscripts were re-discovered, including the earliest printed book, the Diamond Sutra, from 868. In the last twenty or thirty years, fragments of ancient Buddhist manuscripts have been re-discovered in Afghanistan, ancient Gandhāra, and have given scholars decades of work, which gives them access to the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in existence, revealing much about early Buddhist literature.[1]

The second-century Buddhist poet, Aśvaghoṣa, wrote several poetic epics, or kāvya, including the Buddhacarita, or ‘Life of the Buddha’. Aśvaghoṣa was a Brahman convert to Buddhism, who came from Sāketa (modern day Ayodhya) in north-west India. Having been brought up as a brahman, then having converted to Buddhism, Aśvaghoṣa portrayed the Buddha as the epitome and completion of brahmanic culture. So the poem is a celebration of Indian religious culture, which places the Buddha’s discovery and teaching of Awakening at its very summit. He is also a marvellous poet, with a natural and vigorous style and a particular way of using imagery, which had an influence on later poets writing in Sanskrit, including the sixth-century Kalidāsa, author of the well-known play Śākuntala

But only the first fourteen cantos of the Buddhacarita were thought to have survived in the original Sanskrit, amounting to half of the complete work, taking the reader up to the Buddha’s Awakening, but not beyond. These fourteen cantos were preserved in some Nepalese manuscripts, written on palm-leaves. E.H Johnston (1936) published an edition of those first fourteen cantos of the Buddhacarita that remains the standard today.[2] Johnston also made the first good English translation, followed by a second by Patrick Olivelle (in 2008).[3] The second half of the poem was not entirely lost, however, as it was translated into both Chinese and Tibetan. Unfortunately, neither of these translations is particularly good, the Chinese being a very free paraphrase and the Tibetan often corrupt and ambiguous. Johnston has made a translation of chapters 15 to 18 into English, based on these translations, but much of the poetry is lost.

How amazing, then, that Canto 15 of the Buddhacarita has recently been re-discovered. The Japanese scholar Kazunobu Matsuda (2020), working with Jens-Üwe Hartmann, has recently identified the whole canto embedded in a Sanskrit manuscript of the Tridaṇḍamālā, attributed to Aśvaghoṣa. This manuscript was preserved in sPos khang monastery in Tibet (200 kms southwest of Lhasa), copied from an original which was brought there from India by Atīśa, who had re-introduced Buddhism into Tibet in the eleventh century. The manuscript was photographed by Giuseppe Tucci and Rāhula Sāṅkṛtyāyana in the 1930s, and, despite parts of the photographs being out of focus, Matsuda has managed to identify almost all of the Sanskrit characters with more or less certainty.[4] Matsuda has also made a translation into Japanese.

Back in 2009, I made a translation of Buddhacarita Canto 3, as part of my Sanskrit studies at the University of Cambridge. It was enjoyable to try to find ways to reproduce Aśvaghoṣa’s turns of phrase and imagery in the very different medium of English. So last year I leapt at an unrivalled opportunity – to make a first English translation of the newly re-discovered Sanskrit original of Canto 15. It has now come out in Asian Literature in Translation, an open-access, online academic journal published from the University of Cardiff.[5] Canto 15 describes the newly-awakened Buddha’s journey from Bodh Gaya to Vārāṇasī, where he meets up with his former companions and teaches them what he has discovered, which is the way to Awakening. 

I tried out something new in my translation, which was to offer two parallel versions, the first in prose and the second in verse, corresponding to two different translation strategies. The prose is a literal word-by-word translation which intends to convey the syntactic texture and wide-ranging vocabulary of Aśvaghoṣa’s Sanskrit in a readable English version. But the verse translation renders Aśvaghoṣa’s stanzas a line at a time, trying to convey some sense of rhythm and sound in English. I used blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) for the first 51 stanzas of the Sanskrit, which are in an eleven-syllable per line metre called triṣṭubh. The final stanzas are in a more elaborate metre called praharṣiṇī, which I put into an unrhymed ballad metre. 

A highlight of Canto 15, which gives a good sense of the whole Canto, is the Buddha’s teaching to his former companions about the ‘eightfold path’. He has managed to get their attention, after they had been highly distrustful of him, and he has taught them about his discovery of the ‘middle way’ between the painful austerities which they have been practising, and the ordinary life of indulgence in sensual pleasures. Aśvaghoṣa finds a way of making the eightfold path something more than a list, with each aspect of the path given some image or felt sense:

I turned away from both of these extremes
and found a different path, the middle way,
a safe, secure, benign and healthy way,
which brings the relaxation of endless stress. || 34 ||

It shines with the sun of perfect vision, and
is drawn by the chariot of pure intention.
Dwelling in the utterance of perfect speech,
it delights in the garden of lovely acts. || 35 ||

Abundant alms are its blameless livelihood,
perfect application its powerful chaperone.
Its wall and guard are perfect mindfulness,
its land, house, seat and bed are meditation. || 36 ||

If you look hard at stanzas 35 and 36, you can spot how each line describes a limb of the path. My favourite image here is the ‘garden of lovely acts’ (śubhakriyārāmasabhā), more literally, ‘the garden lodgings of beautiful action’, as an image for right or perfect action. With this image, Aśvaghoṣa manages to convey the feeling of of pleasure and ease that comes from actions of body, speech and mind that arise from wholesome and positive intentions. Of course, doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but this image helps convey that it is worth it.

Professor Matsuda tells me that he and Jens-Üwe Hartmann have found some more of Aśvaghoṣa’s lost stanzas, this time from Buddhacarita Cantos 16 and 17, which they will be publishing at some point soon. Yet more re-discovered treasure. It really is a scholar’s dream.


[1] Full details in Richard Salomon, The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhāra, Wisom Publications, Somerville, MA, 2018; and my review at https://dhivanthomasjones.wordpress.com/2018/09/23/welcome-to-gandhara/.

[2] Johnston, E.H. 1932. The Saundarananda, or Nanda the Fair, by Aśvaghoṣa. London: Oxford University Press.

[3] Olivelle, Patrick, trans. 2008. Life of the Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa. Clay Sanskrit Library. New York: New York University Press/JJC Foundation.

[4] Matsuda, Kazunobu. 2020. ‘Sanskrit Text and Japanese Translation of the Buddhacarita Canto 15’. The Bulletin of the Association of Buddhist Studies 25: 27–46.

[5] https://alt.cardiffuniversitypress.org/articles/abstract/50/.


Alfoxden and Buddhism

Alfoxton is the name of a country house in Somerset, in the Quantock hills in south Somerset, near the village of Holford. It has a lovely setting, and it was a country house hotel through much of the twentieth century, but its main claim to fame is that it was the home of William and Dorothy Wordsworth between July 1797 and June 1798. This short year’s residence might seem to have been merely a passing-through, before brother and sister settled at Dove Cottage, in the Lake District, but in fact it was a time with its own inner significance. It was the scene of a year’s deep collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived with his family in nearby Nether Stowey, a year of wonders in which each of them wrote some of their best work (for instance, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ for Coleridge, ‘Tintern Abbey’ for Wordsworth). One result was the volume of poetry, Lyrical Ballads, which marked a turning-point in English poetry, towards the ordinary unadorned language and elevation of the everyday which characterise a great deal of modern verse.

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind…[1]

William, Dorothy and Samuel called Alfoxton House ‘Alfoxden’, the den of all foxes, a suitably shamanic, conspiratorial name for a place tucked into the Quantocks like some old ant-hill, surrounded by an ancient deer-park, looking out towards the islands in the Bristol Channel and the Welsh hills beyond Cardiff. Adam Nicolson has recently written an evocative and compelling book, The Making of Poetry, about the year the poets spent in the area, chasing them through the woods, along the water-courses, and among the politics and characters of the late eighteenth century, when excitement and distrust of the French revolution mixed like rival football fans even in the country towns and villages of Somerset.[2]

The book is illustrated with strange, bright prints made by Tom Hammick, of scenes from that year, carved from fallen timber from Alfoxton Park. For years the house has been empty, its Georgian windows and plasterwork crumbling, while its deer park has maintained its thousand-year-old balance of tree and beast and bracken all by itself. Then in summer 2020 it was bought by some Buddhists, to begin a new phase as a land-based retreat centre. These Buddhists belong to the Triratna Buddhist Order and community, of which I am also an Order member, and the purchase of Alfoxton was less to do with poetry than with place. The project to renovate a near-derelict country house, and turn it into a beacon of sustainable, land-based Buddhist life has begun in a quiet way, with the deer coming down to inspect everything every night.[3]

Yet there is more to the acquisition of Alfoxton by Buddhists than that. Sangharakshita (1925–2018), the founder of Triratna, always emphasised the importance of the arts for western Buddhists. The arts, whether classical music, poetry, painting or architecture, hold core spiritual values for western culture, and enable western Buddhists to practice going beyond the ego and ‘surrender to the beautiful’, a process with much in common with the path of insight meditation.[4]The Buddhist scholar David McMahan has also traced the way in which the Buddhism of Triratna, in common with several (though not all) strands of western Buddhism, has engaged with the Romantic movement in art, as if it were simply a western expression of the Dharma. Some characteristic themes of Romanticism include the refusal of scientific materialism, a holistic conception of the human being in a universe evolving towards self-consciousness, and a re-emphasising of the rootedness of imagination in the world of nature.[5]

Therefore it is a very happy coincidence that Alfoxton has become a retreat centre of our particular Buddhist tradition. In fact, because Alfoxton is on the Coleridge Way, and because it is such an important place for literary history, many pigrims and walkers come to see the old house, in its atmosphere of run-down authenticity. For those living or meditating at Alfoxton, the visitors and pilgrims are a constant reminder of its connection to poetry. This year the connection was made particularly explicit, as Vishvapani and I led a retreat, exploring some of the poems and prose that the Wordsworths and Coleridge wrote around the time they spent at Alfoxden, in the context of a week of meditation and retreat life. At the end of it I felt that, through their writings, we had a spent a week in the company of the poets, and in doing so we could not help but want to wander at night in the deer park, to take in the view up on the Quantock hills, to spend time being with the ancient trees in the park, keeping up a connection that helped root our Buddhist practice into a living relationship with English poetry and landscape.

The poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and their whole pantheistic, revolutionary worldview at the time they lived in Somerset, manifests the arising of what later became known as Romanticism: a feeling for nature and the universe, a radical social vision, a sense ‘Of something far more deeply interfused’,[6] linking spiritual vision to the cosmos, the individual soul to friendship. But in the experience of our week-long retreat at Alfoxden, I feel that the true significance of the year that the Wordsworths and Coleridge spent in the West Country is to do with collaboration. The three friends met, and walked, and talked, almost every day. They shared their thoughts, their insights, their new ideas. There is a living, breathing, three-dimensionality about the idea of the ‘One Life’ that moves through all living things, as it is transmitted from Coleridge’s visionary imagination, to Wordsworth’s philosophical reflections, via Dorothy’s vivid journal-entries.

One of those journal entries concerns an early spring walk:

24th [March 1798]. Coleridge, the Chesters, and Ellen Crewkshank called. We walked with them through the wood. Went in the evening into the Coombe to get eggs; returned through the wood, and walked in the park. A duller night than last night: a sort of white shade over the blue sky. The stars dim. The spring continues to advance very slowly, no green trees, the hedges leafless; nothing green but the brambles that still retain their old leaves, the evergreens and the palms, which indeed are not absolutely green. Some brambles I observed to-day budding afresh, and those have shed their old leaves. The crooked arm of the old oak tree points upwards to the moon.[7]

There is the detailed, accurate observation of nature that Dorothy excelled at. But at the end there is the one mention in the Journal of the ‘old oak’, in the grounds of Alfoxton. It is still there. It is about 1,000 years old. It is not immediately obvious, among the many old trees, but in fact it is the hidden power-centre of the place. It is older than the house, it was old when the Wordsworths lived there, it is itself a great, living poem, made of earth and sea and sky, knotted into the landscape, inviting awe and a certain kind of deep respect. It has turned out to be the focal point of Buddhist ritual devotion at Alfoxton too, with the area under its canopy being a thin place where the powers of nature meet the comings and goings of human beings, in a kind of temenos or sacred space. It’s no coincidence that, in Coleridge’s strange, long poem ‘Christabel’, the maiden Christabel finds herself in prayer beneath an oak which is really that very Alfoxden oak:

She kneels beneath the huge oak-tree,
And in silence prayeth she.

And no surprise when the strange figure of Geraldine self-manifests out of the oak, to woo and seduce the young woman: 

The lady sprang up suddenly,
The lovely lady, Christabel!
It moaned as near, as near can be,
But what it is she cannot tell –
On the other side it seems to be,
Of the huge, broad-breasted, old oak tree.

The poet Ted Hughes argues that the appearance of Geraldine out of the old oak marks the appearance of Coleridge’s ‘pagan self’, which also appeared in mythic guise in the water-snakes of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and in the whole landscape of ‘Kubla Khan’ (all three poems written not far from the old oak).[8] I would like to think that the uncanny beauty and seductive power of nature might still spring from the oak tree, into the meditation and life of Buddhists now living there, as she has done before, in the great poetry written at Alfoxden. In this way, poetry and Buddhism together may help contribute to the deep transformations our culture needs.


notes

[1] From William Wordsworth, ‘Lines Written in early spring’, in Lyrical Ballads.

[2] Adam Nicolson, The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, Wordsworth and their year of marvels, London: Collins, 2019. 

[3] See https://sites.google.com/view/alfoxtonpark/home for more details about what’s happening. 

[4] See Sangharakshita, The Religion of Art, Windhorse Publications, 1988 (and reprinted since). 

[5] Explored in David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford University Press, 2008, especially ch.5, ‘Buddhist Romanticism: Art, Spontaneity and the Wellsprings of Nature’.

[6] From Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’, the concluding poem of Lyrical Ballads.

[7] Taken from the edition ed. Pamela Woof, Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, Oxford University Press, 2002, p.150. This edition has particularly good notes.

[8] See Ted Hughes, ‘Myths, Metres, Rhythms’ and ‘The Snake in the Oak’, in Winter Pollen, Faber, 1994, and my essay ‘Coleridge at the Border of Midnight’ in Urthona, issue 20.

Dependent Arising and Coronavirus

(the field beyond)

It has been hard to avoid war metaphors in relation to COVID-19. We’re at war with the virus; everyone is enlisted in the fight, to help those at the front line. There is no easing of restrictions while we have not yet won the battle. We pay tribute to the fallen; let’s not squander the sacrifice of those who have died; we gird ourselves against defeat. War metaphors are potent and stirring, and easy to reach for in times such as these. But they are completely inappropriate. Coronavirus is not an enemy but a pathogen. This will be no comfort for the ill or bereaved, but our metaphors are the mood music of our thoughts. It would be better to imagine COVID-19 as a natural disaster, like a storm or a flood, and as deadly and dangerous. You don’t fight nature, but learn to live with it.

In April I was supposed to lead a study and practice retreat on the theme of Dependent Arising, at Dhanakosha retreat centre in Scotland. As I walked in the woods instead of leading that retreat, I’ve thought about the dependent arising of coronavirus. The Buddha’s teaching of paṭicca-samuppāda, or ‘dependent arising’, mainly concerns the way experience works: how unsatisfactoriness arises, and how it ceases through the practice of the way to awakening. But dependent arising is, more broadly, a naturalistic principle, explaining the way the world works without recourse to God or fate. How does a viral pandemic fit into a naturalistic Buddhist worldview? Is coronavirus some kind of karmic consequence of human hubris?

Not at all. In the ancient Indian context in which the Buddha’s teaching arose, philosophical discussions about how the world worked revolved around the nature of the relationship between action (karma) and result (phala). Based on observation, inference and speculation, some held to determinism (niyativāda), the view that what happened in the past determines destiny. Others held to indeterminism (yadṛcchāvāda), the view that things happen by chance, without reference to the past. The Buddha explicitly positioned his teaching of dependent arising between these extreme views. It is the teaching that what happens is neither determined by past actions, nor without a cause, but instead that everything happens due to causes and conditions. We could call this view non-deterministic conditionality. 

It is relevant for considering a broadly Buddhist view on the very possibility of a coronavirus. According to the best explanation now around, self-reflexive human consciousness, capable of love and wisdom as well as much worse, has evolved through natural selection over millennia. The web of conditions at work in the world is evidently capable of producing something as miraculous as the human brain. Likewise the coronavirus. I would speculate that it is the very same creative openness in the fine weave of conditionality that makes room for the blind half-alive striving of a virus to survive, as it makes possible the dense folds of the cortex that somehow give rise to mind.

For this kind of reason, the Buddha taught the first noble truth, that there is unsatisfactoriness (duḥkha). The situation is such that conditioned existence is imperfect. There is this precious human existence and there are viral pandemics. But this is not the end of the Buddha’s teaching. The second noble truth is that this unsatisfactoriness has an origin, which is craving (tṛṣṇā). This little word ‘craving’ does a lot of work in Buddhist doctrine. It stands for everything that goes on in experience which takes for granted that there is an ‘I’, a ‘self’, a ‘me’ and a ‘mine’, a really existing subject of experience, who believes in his or her own thoughts about what is going on. The word ‘craving’ also stands for the root afflictions of greed, hostility and confusion, which are evolved emotional and cognitive distortions of our experience. According to this way of thinking, the problem with reality is how to relate to it based on a distorted perspective.

Egocentricity and distortion manifest in thoughts about how lucky one is not to have the virus, or how unlucky one has been to catch it. They also manifest in frustration at no longer being able to do what one wants, and also in the idea of waging a war against germs. The third noble truth is that things that arise on causes and conditions cease when their causes and conditions cease. The fourth truth is the eightfold path. The first part of the path is right view. This might mean paying attention to the way the creativity of life, the very source of this conscious awareness that can appreciate beauty, is at the same time the source of the virus leaping from bats to pangolins to us. There is room for some insight here into the contrary tendencies of our untamed emotionality and raw egotism. Such insight can bring letting go, and letting life be. Then there is room for compassion for all beings, all striving for happiness in the same mixed conditions as us.

Up against a deadly virus, we may fear for our lives. The Buddhist attitude towards the situation is illustrated in a contrast between two poems. First, Dylan Thomas’ famous villanelle, ‘Do Not Go Gentle’. The poet stands firm in the land of the living, evoking a heroic resistance to the dire threat of death:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It’s brave and somehow honorable, but it has made death into an enemy. The other poem is Rumi’s ‘What Have I Ever Lost By Dying?’, in a version by Robert Bly:

I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as a mineral,
And then I died and was reborn as a plant.

I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as a plant,
And then I died and was reborn as an animal.

I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as an animal,
And then I died and was reborn as a human being.

What have I ever lost by dying?

Rumi’s attitude is one of an ecstatic self-surrender to a bigger process at work. This is no excuse for passivity. Rather, it is a call to ride the creativity of the situation into whatever comes next.

(Overleigh cemetery)

Ripples in reality

crochet ripples

There was a nearly mystical sense of revelation last Thursday, when it was announced that gravitational waves, predicted by Einstein 100 years ago, had finally been observed. What seemed almost unbelievable, merely fictional, was now the objective reality of our universe. How to celebrate? I wrote a poem:

Gravity Waves

The world had never yielded to him
its inner life; he worked,
he walked about the city, he ate,
looking after himself but waiting.
Sometimes he forgot he was waiting
or what he was waiting for,
and the world became a stranger
rushing past on the street.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw her
at the supermarket, and then at the gym.
They talked. And they talked,
and ate, and fell in love.
His heart’s machinery bloomed into vision,
and he could see the world’s secret workings.
On the day they said gravity waves
were now proved, he bought flowers
for his wife, and they celebrated the love
that ripples through the universe –
shaking the loom of our woven moments,
that might seem unreal, but exists.

Congratulations to all those physicists at LIGO and Virgo, and in praise of neo-Platonism.

Love and Separation: Sonnet 64

Wriothesley

It’s all very well to write about experiences of beauty, of encountering the beautiful, and about how poets have managed to capture and even communicate their experience of beauty in the form of words. And it’s all very interesting to connect beauty and poetry with Buddhist practice, even with the teaching of the Buddha. But our actual human lives are by no means necessarily always characterised by vivid experiences of beauty, and our Buddhist practice may not be so sweet either. In this post I want to explore how poetry can nevertheless help us understand and engage in practising the Dharma, right at the cutting edge of life’s difficulties.

In the Pāli canon we find a teaching of the Buddha called ‘Five topics for frequent recollection’.[i] They are five simple reflections, and, as the Buddha says, they are for men, women, householders and renunciates. They are for everyone. They go like this:

  1. I am of a nature to age; I am not free from old age.
  2. I am of a nature to get ill; I am not free from disease.
  3. I am of a nature to die; I am not free from death.
  4. I will be parted from all that is pleasing and precious to me.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, joined to my actions, and actions are my refuge. Whatever actions I might do, good or bad, of these I will be the heir.

These are extraordinary sober reflections. Indeed, they do not end there. The Buddha also recommends that we consider these five topics in relation to everyone else as well as ourselves. But why should any of us reflect in this way? What is the point? The Buddha goes on to explain that, while we are young we are often intoxicated with youth, to the extent of acting in brash and heedless ways; but reflecting on age undoes this. Similarly we are often intoxicated with health and life, taking them for granted, and acting heedlessly. The fifth and last reflection is a vivid reminder that, as we act, so we become. This may seem obvious but is sometimes difficult to remember.

But the fourth recollection – that I will be parted from all that is pleasing and precious to me – is not so simple either to state or even to understand. The Buddha explains that, because of desire for those who are precious to us, we act badly, and this reflection corrects this. But I personally find this hard to understand. In fact, I find this recollection the most difficult. It slips out of my grasp, my heart rejects it. But then I came across the following sonnet by Shakespeare:

Sonnet 64

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal, slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate –
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

The sonnet is addressed to that same mysterious young man as most of the sonnets are; possibly a patron, not necessarily a lover, certainly a friend. Or perhaps it is unhelpful to think of Shakespeare’s sonnets as if they represent the feelings of a particular man toward some other particular man. Perhaps they work rather on their own literary level, creating in the reader an empathic feeling of love from their form and grammar, then exploring various details of passion and loss. The reader, reading Sonnet 64, imagines his or her own most precious love, as subject to time as anything else in this sublunary world.

But somehow the very beauty of the poem, the enduring grandeur of its rhymes, the power of its diction, allows a difficult thought about inevitable loss the space to move and gain momentum: I will be parted from all that is precious and pleasing to me. The poem gives courage. Rather than allowing the small-minded conclusion that, if all love is passing, there is no point – a conclusion that another part of us will always reject – the sonnet allows the larger, almost heroic conclusion that, indeed, love is nothing that we can hold on to, but a great heart can know this and yet still love. The poem allows this conclusion, but the love that results will perhaps not be so intoxicated by exultation. It will be more capable of a true appreciation.

Also based on talks at the Frome Triratna group, 23 Sep 2015, and at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 24 Nov 2015.

[i] From Aṅguttara-nikāya 5:57. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the entire discourse is available at https://suttacentral.net/en/an5.57.

Dharma, Beauty, Poetry: ‘The Bright Field’

Cézanne landscape

The Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, is often described in the Pāli texts as ‘lovely at the beginning, lovely in the middle and lovely at the end’.[1] Many of us have experiences of intense beauty, when the world in some way reveals itself as lovely: a landscape, an act of kindness, the slant of light through the blinds. These experiences, I believe, are immensely important for our spiritual lives, for they give us a sense of how things are not what they seem. Our preoccupations, and the way our lives are buffeted by the ‘worldly winds’ of gain and loss, fame and obscurity, praise and blame, pleasure and pain,[2] can make the world seem jaded, though perhaps occasionally pretty. But when beauty breaks through we might experience the world anew, afresh, in all its innermost glory, as the theatre of divinity and liberation.

It seems that the Buddha was familiar with the potential of such experiences of beauty to liberate. The third of the eight so-called ‘liberations’ (vimokkha) makes this explicit. It is described simply enough: subhan’t’eva adhimutto hoti, ‘One becomes focused only on the beautiful’.[3] The word for ‘beautiful’ here (subha) also means splendid, pleasant, auspicious and good.[4] Just like the English word ‘beautiful’, the subha (or in Sanskrit, śubha) is an aesthetic experience that reaches deep into our moral lives. The ‘liberation’ alluded to here is not the final release of nirvāna, but a temporary state of liberation from the defilements that is a tremendous encouragement on the way.

The commentary relates the third liberation to meditation practice, specifically to concentration on an attractive meditation device (kasina), and also to the practice of the brahmā-vihāras or ‘divine abidings’, of benevolence (mettā), compassion (karunā), gladness (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā).[5] While it might be perfectly true that Buddhist meditators have vivid experiences of the beautiful in meditation, I don’t think that we need to limit the scope of the beautiful to formal Buddhist practice. What if the beautiful breaks through as we are riding along a sunlit cycle path? Our minds and hearts may be, for some moments, liberated by such a powerful aesthetic experience.

So, what is this beauty? Somehow it is an experience that is attractive and pleasing, but at the same time, and most importantly, an experience that takes us beyond what we know. There is a transcendent dimension to the experience of beauty, a dimension that is deeply mysterious really, though probably not unfamiliar to most of us. Perhaps it is most familiar for us when listening to music, that art form that seems at once most abstract and most directly in touch with the heart.

Poets also sometimes try to translate such experiences of beauty into poems, hence attempting to evoke through imagination, in words, something of what they have seen and known. Readers might not only be reminded of their own experience of beauty, but be inspired not to forget that such experience is possible. My favourite poem of this sort is by R.S. Thomas:[6]

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give up all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Thomas (1913–2000) was a priest in the Church of Wales as well as lyric poet. His poetry is infused with Christian imagery as well as the sense of his native Wales. It is easy to imagine him travelling in the Welsh hills, perhaps visiting one of his parishioners, a sheep-farmer, and him seeing the sun break through to briefly illuminate a small field. Such are our experiences of beauty: attractive, ordinary, transient. But Thomas returns, in this poem, to that passing aesthetic experience, and goes deeper into its significance.

That experience was ‘the pearl of great price’ and ‘the one field that had / the treasure in it’. These are images from the Gospel of Matthew (13:44–6). Jesus teaches that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a field with treasure hidden in it, like a man who finds a pearl – someone seeking the Kingdom will sell everything they have to buy that field, to buy that pearl. But Thomas radically shifts the message. Now he realises that he must give up everything he has for the sake of aesthetic experience. He must centre his life on beauty, rather than seeing the bright field and then going on his way. Why must he do this? Because ‘Life is not hurrying / on to a receding future, nor hankering after / an imagined past.’ The poet realises that the normal human way, of living in a thin and jaded present, thinking of the future to which we hurry, or the past which now seems more attractive than it ever did at the time, is a mistake. The bright field holds the key; the aesthetic experience is the gateway to the living present moment, in which we go beyond our thoughts, preconceptions, proliferations, into a realm of meaning and significance we could characterise as divine.

Vivid presence in the moment – this is the gift of beauty, beyond the narratives of the ego, rather like mindfulness practice, but depending here on beauty rather than awareness. And this vivid presence in the moment ‘is the turning / aside like Moses to the miracle / of the lit bush’. This is a reference to the story in Exodus 3 of Moses hearing the voice of God in the burning bush, the miracle that led Moses to become a prophet. In this way, Thomas compares the lit field to a divine encounter and the beginning of prophecy. And this miracle of the lit field is a brightness that has the radiance of youth. It is the essence of those youthful experiences of beauty, of love, of vision, which we perhaps look back upon as adults as an enjoyable phase, but one that inevitably gave way to adult concerns with things like career and family. But, says R.S Thomas, the beauty of the lit field is not transitory as youth was, but rather is the eternity that is possible in this life.

The Buddha often described nirvāna as the ‘deathless’ (amata), the ‘undying’. This does not signify eternity in the sense of a state of infinitely prolonged life, but rather a state that is beyond time. And this is perhaps what R.S. Thomas too was hinting at – the way that the aesthetic experience of beauty contains within it, as it were, in its nature as being an encounter with the divine, a hint or taste of what is beyond time, beyond this arena of consecutive minor events.

I’ve used ‘The Bright Field’ as an example of a poem that brings to life the experience of beauty, like lighting a candle, reminding us perhaps of the great flashes of light we have ourselves experienced or could. This experience of beauty is connected at its root with the deep meaning of the Dharma. May we all remember to value our experiences of beauty.

Based on talks at the Frome Triratna group, 23 Sep 2015, and at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 24 Nov 2015.

[1] In one of the formulas that we find in the Pāli texts, it is said that a good report has been heard about the Buddha: so dhammaṃ deseti ādikalyāṇaṃ majjhekalyāṇaṃ pariyosānakalyāṇaṃ, ‘He teaches the Dharma that is lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, and lovely at the end’. ‘The end’ (pariyosāna) means ‘conclusion’, as in, the conclusion of one’s Dharma practice, which is the realisation of nirvāṇa.

[2] These are the lokadhammā, ‘qualities of the world’, described at Aṅguttara Nikāya 8:6 etc.

[3] The formula is found in the Mahānidāna sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 15, and elsewhere.

[4] Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, s.v. śubha.

[5] For instance, in the commentary on the Mahānidāna sutta, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Great Discourse on Causation.

[6] This poem is from the 1975 collection Laboratories of the Spirit, and also in Collected Poems 1945–90.