Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Aryadeva on Beauty

Aryadeva was a 3rd century Buddhist monk who believed that our attachments to eternal existence, to pleasure, and to possessing the things we love, obstruct us from realising transcendent truth. Therefore, as for his previous warnings against belief in permanence and pleasure, so he tries to fob off the initiate monk from an obsession for beauty and cleanliness. He speaks merely relative truths in these introductory verses, so that we may awaken to the absolute, and experience life, happiness and beauty as they are in themselves, empty of all conceptual attachment. However, unlike for death and pleasure, the present subject makes for some awful haikus and I have been loathe to share them. Indeed, the very essence of the haiku is beauty which makes the form unsuitable, not to mention that Aryadeva seems overly concerned with the foulness of the (mostly female) body.

Days and nights I spend
On bodily attractions,
Futile in the end.

Subsisting on earth,
One craves earth, thus sense desires
Grow with indulgence.

A woman’s beauty
Is common to all, her sex
Is the same as all.

It’s not her beauty,
But how she appeals to me,
That makes me love her.

How lovely each part!
Isn’t it astonishing
What she means to me?

How virtuous she is!
Touch wood, for though I loathe sin,
No-one is perfect.

Love springs from goodness
Or else it’s a fool’s desire
For false paradise.

“Quarantine woman,”
Some say, “from sin’s temptation,
Or regret love lost.”

Old age brings remorse;
Those careless flings of youth make
Even the wise sad.

One without desires
Needs no pleasures; one caught up
Heeds not life’s pleasures.

My girl isn’t mine
To hide from others when I’m
Not romancing her.

Desire for woman
Ensures pleasure only in
Its consummation.

In a woman’s arms,
Would a man of sense say that
Pleasure came from her?

Scrabbling in the dark,
The sexual act brings relief
Like a bloody itch.

And so it goes on, but I aborted my translation at this point, and have turned all my poetic efforts since to writing praises of beauty to compensate! If you want to read the rest, you will have to look up Chapter 3 of Aryadeva's "Four Hundred Stanzas".


  1. *Smiles*

    I have a friend, same age as me, who was a monk in Thailand for several years and still teaches now. He says that all the concentration on the vileness of the body and such is for young male monks for whom, as he says, the body really matters very much.

  2. Yes, relative truth for a specific purpose...so in making the verses more ambiguous, even turning them around but as questions just to make the reader think, I'm not sure if that works, but what I really wonder is if these verses fit with the song about re-capturing lost love. By the way Jon, Sola me "ne" vo...do you know why the "ne" in this sentence? I need to ask Betsy maybe.

  3. Try Ikkyu, Okei.


    There would be a certain irony though, he was a very rude old Zen master. :-))))

  4. Yeah, I saw Tiina posted that once... thanks! I should read more of him one day.

  5. Hi Okei,

    An interesting read / listen on the contemplation on 'asubha' (the unpleasant / unbeautiful / foul).

    I did a blog on it a few years ago & it got a mixed reaction. Some good discussion though.


    One can see its utility. E.g. if one were a doctor, it would be in your interests, and the patients', to be dispassionate toward the body (at least at certain times).

    So many have transgressed the hypocratic oath & been struck off the medical register, for the expression of lewd feelings, inapprpriately.

    I see this aspect of life / contemplation, as a kind of protection.

    A good one to have in the arsenal, in dealing with life.


  6. Hille, your reaction was exactly the same as Jon (snowleapord) earlier in the thread. :)

    I should clarify that the verses inserted based on Aryadeva are on abandoning belief in possessing beauty! (not corpse meditations on cleanliness which he goes on to, and I stopped before then)

    They seem to be focused for example on a royal prince we could speculate who wants to lock away a beautiful maiden for his own pleasure only, and the insights that Aryadeva wishes to bring about are that this is not a very spiritually productive desire likely to lead to him being re-born in a lower realm, the unreasonableness of wishing this, that the beauty is at least partly in the eye of the beholder, that the desire for possession is actually a desire for consummation, and finally that the latter is like a bloody itch. I guess if this all doesn't work, then he's going to go on to convince the prince that whilst his maiden is so wonderful on the outside, if he were to see the insides of her physical body, then he just wouldn't feel the same way... (in the same way as a man learning that the girl he's attracted to is his daughter would no longer feel attracted to her in that way).

    So it's love that treats the loved one as an object (an object of beauty, of desire etc.) instead of as a subject, that Aryadeva seeks to work away at here. I don't think I've done that justice at all, and by combining it with this song, I've probably done an injustice to the song also, so I'm a bit embarrassed about that, but that's life.

    Love is a choice. Physical reactions are not a choice. We could let physical reactions direct our choices... I don't see a problem with that necessarily... e.g. I'm hungry, so I'll eat. The only problem is if physical reactions are in contradiction to our choices, and in that case I could see the use of imagination to "get a grip", e.g. if I've chosen not to eat during a specific time period, so when I feel hungry, distract my mind with something else, or if I've chosen not to eat meat in a specific period, then compassion for chickens when I have a longing for a chicken sandwich. I think however we react subconsciously, the really important thing is to remember that how we act is our own choice. Personally, I don't like the idea of corpse meditations, because imagination when it gets out of hand can quite easily take over from reason (obsessive-compulsive) when it should rather be serving reason.

  7. i agree that the corpse meditation can be a bit grim. i think it's to be seen neutrally as a matter-of-fact way of seeing the impermanence of the body, to overcome ideas of permanence, mostly. (It probably does aid in overcoming attachment to the body, too though).

    Asubha (un-loveliness) is actually a reference to the simile of the bag of grain, from which a monk is to reflect anatomically on the contents of the body, so as not to be overly enamoured by it.

    I agree that both these contemplations can potentially be morbid (and monks had had problems with them, even in the Buddha's time.

    But used discerningly & faithfully, I see them as tools to enable one to master one's own mind.

    As long as one is in control of one's perceptions, and doesn't allow one to be controlled by 'them', one is ok.

    One should be able to turn them on & off at will, as time & circumstance dictate.

    (To make the best result possible).

    There are times when the beautiful (subha) - defined as universal loving kindness, as a perception, is more appropriate & beneficial.

    When that is the case, go with that, the Buddha says.

    Am sorry if all this seems outlandish, but it is also rational & practicable / practical.

    One need not totally abandon desire to get one's first glimpse of Nirvana & the four noble truths.

    Total attainment can come later...

  8. The imagination is a powerful tool, I wonder how much better we could learn to use it... It's used against us all the time, e.g. ads, so learning to use it positively ourselves seems like an invaluable skill to get to know.