Category Archives: Theory and Theoretical Musings

When I’m thinking about “dry stuff” of how I’m approaching the material — we all have lenses! What’s yours?

Data mining the Asita-Subhadra connection: Progress Report 1

Out of 126 clusters, I have gone through the first 20, and found that 7 are chiasmically meaningful, which is much higher than I thought.

Even more surprisingly, the clusters threw up what I previously gleaned by reading and manually comparing those parts.

Here’s a preview of what I have gotten thus far.

ProgressReport1 - clusters

I understand that might not be all that intelligible, but here’s what I gleaned from those clusters.

ProgressReport1 - gleanings

In terms of providing different perspectives of what is chiasmic, I think this method is holding up very well so far, and has generated quite a few matches that I did not pick up on while reading these two sections. (what I did pick up on is briefly presented here)

The most interesting would probably be the one found in cluster 4 – the Buddha was born to end birth. How strange that seems! Have you ever heard of someone doing something in order to stop doing that very same action?

Discussion with Eric brought to my mind how eating can be considered an example of this. We eat to starve off hunger so that we do not have to eat further, but, as Eric quickly points out, that is only a temporary relief. Perhaps that’s the importance of the Buddha’s endeavour – it is said to be the ultimate relief.

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Buddhacarita: What and Why?

So if the Buddha’s life story could be thought of as chiasmic, why choose one particular work like the Buddhacarita?

Before I start on this topic, I would first like to tell you why I even got interested in the Buddha’s biographies in the first place. At some point during my current course (that is supposed to lead to a Masters of Arts in Buddhist Studies) it occurred to me that, as a Buddhist, I should learn more about the personality that allegedly started the faith/religion. It was a pretty simply impulse which I’m sure many more Buddhists share, and a powerful one, for I couldn’t help but feel there was so much to be gained reading these stories – so much that I had to continue reading and understanding them.

Take my word on these: reading well-written, meaningful stories of the Buddha (or I’m sure that is true for all other religious figures) is energizing, to say the least!

But still, why the Buddhacarita? The answer to that has to start with my initial searching into the Taisho Shinzokyo edition of the Chinese Buddhist Canon for the Buddha’s life stories (unfortunately, I can’t read any other canonical Buddhist language). I found 14 extent versions of the stories, and because I didn’t have the time to read them all (in time for my paper), I worked with those with were organized into chapters (with chapter titles to tell me what they were roughly about). That left me with 7 of them, of which only 2 had complete — from birth to death (nirvana) — stories of the Buddha’s life.

One of which is Buddhacarita, much better known, and as I were to later find out, has extent portions in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese. Another plus is that quite a few scholars — Samuel Beal, E.H. Johnston, Friedrich Weller — have worked on critical editions of the Sanskrit text, and they translated it into English. (And if you are interested, I highly recommend Johnston’s Buddhacarita or Acts of the Buddha.)

The author of this work is well-established as Asvaghosa, whom we know lived in North India during the 1st to 2nd century C.E. Although I can’t read the original Sanskrit work, it is reportedly in Classical Sanskrit, and the author displays very deep knowledge of Brahmanic literature, as evidenced by the many allusions to Vedic and Brahmanic stories within conversations in the Buddhacarita. The translation itself is wonderfully poetic, which is some testament to that it was meant to be performed/read in the royal court during the author’s days.

There were days when I spent, in the attempt to familarise myself with the text, just reading the translations aloud, and I truly enjoyed them. As a Venerable, who is a PhD student with our department puts it, it is indeed a luxury (not all can or will learn to enjoy) to light some incense, have cups of tea, while reading/reciting/learning about the Buddha or his teachings.

Chiasmus

What is a chiasmus? Oxford Dictionaries (Online) defines it as “a rhetorical or literary figure in which words, grammatical constructions, or concepts are repeated in reverse order”. Quite a mouthful. But I think, put simply, it’s a bidirectional road with a U-turn, where there are features on both sides that correspond to one another.

It is quite easily found in poetry and shorter pieces of work, but what inspired my search for such a structure in the Buddhacarita is (beside Ven. Huifeng’s class on the Buddha’s biographies) is that longer texts have been found to be constructed along similar lines. Mary Douglas, in Thinking in Circles, calls the structure a ring composition, and gives the wonderful example of this occurring in the Robert Murray’s work on the first few chapters of Genesis. See here because I can’t quote it at length here.

In our very brief (and increasingly deeper) conversation (between Ven. And I), we believe that the Buddha’s life story does seem to exhibit signs that it is chiasmic, thus the current explorations!