Thursday, 29 November 2012

Li Po at Nalanda

There was a long tradition in China of attributing innovations in prosody to the influence of Sanskrit. Prof. Victor Mair has written some interesting papers on this topic.
The Chinese may have developed a theory about tonality and established rules for the alternation between heavy (guru) and light (laghu) syllables and so on through contact with some other foreign language but what is interesting is that the Chinese poetic genius did not shrivel up and die after coming into contact with Brahminical  literature.
Indeed, Prof Francois Martin goes a step further and even suggests that the Chinese genius for landscape appreciation itself may have been reinforced by Sanskrit literature-
What has all this to do with Li Po?
Let us hear from an Indian Professor of Chinese descent-
'...China had two great poets, Li Bai and Bai Juyi, both belonging to the Tang Dynasty, who styled themselves as “upasakas”. Li Bai (701-762), whose poetic gems are suffused with the aroma of Chinese whiskey, has left behind a poem “who am I?” which reads:
“Blue-Lotus Upasaka is my self-styled title,
An angel from Heaven I’m banished to this world,
My fame has been buried beneath the liquor of the pubs
And I have measured thirty springs with my wine cups.
Who am I ? Why on earth should anyone thus inquire?
I am Golden-Millet Maiterya’s next life.”
(See Tan Chung, Classical Chinese Poetry in the Classics of the East series, Calcutta: The M.P. Birla Foundation, P. 143, with translation modified.)
This “Golden-Millet Maiterya” was the legendary Indian Buddhist layman, Vimalakirti whose Chinese name reads “wei-mo-jie” (the transliteration of the Sanskrit). Another famous Chinese poet, Wang Wei (701?-761) had a second name in “Wang Mojie”, i.e. he tried to demonstrate in both his names that he was “Wang Vimalakirit” -- “Wang” being his surname. Here we see Li Bai and Wang Wei vying with each other to claim themselves as the reincarnation of Vimalakirti who was the Indian symbol for a man highly enlightened (even more enlightened than the Bodisattvas) but remained married in the mundane world. I dare say that all the Chinese intellectuals who had self-styled themselves “Jushi” had cast themselves in this Vimalakiriti mould.'
(Do read this whole, magnificent, book here. The distinguished author is the son of the Most Venerable Tan Yun Shan about whom I've blogged earlier)

Li Po (Li Bai) drank a lot- he drowned drunkenly trying to rescue the reflection of the moon- how is he an upasak? The answer is provided by Vimalkirti's 'Field theory' of Buddhahood- an update on the Avatamsaka Sutra's Occassionalist monadology- whereby a relationist dynamics is added to what is otherwise reflection simply. I think this is comparable to 'adi vigyan'- the original science of throwing off your own evils onto a reflection- evolving into Shantideva's 'paratama parivartana'- whereby swopping selves saves both parties. Meditators, he tells us, dive into Hell to rescue all beings. Thus, it appears, those who are born intoxicated have no fear of intoxicants. Those destined to rescue all Hell-dwellers are joyous simply. Shantideva, who lived around the same time as Bai Juyi , is sometimes depicted as having a transgressive life-style- drinking wine and shacking up with a washer-woman- but what is unquestionable is that he and Bai Juyi shared a bottomless compassion for the common people. There is a story that the latter's mother drowned in a well, while bending down to admire the beauty of some flowers, and this led to a charge of filial impiety being made against him by his enemies because he had written a poem titled 'the new well' and another on admiring flowers. 

Sadly, Shantideva's Nalanda- ably enough served by the existing Institute there- is now connected with Amartya Sen's projected International University. What we moderns term Scholarship, it seems, is not just too leaky a vessel to cross the Ocean of Samsara, it is not even sufficiently sea worthy for a simple booze cruise to rescue the Moon's reflection and thus cast up at the Tavern at the end of the river of stars.

Yet Sen was born in the Shantiniketan of Tan Yun Shan. There is a lesson here which, as Gandhi was wont to say, all who run may read.
Mind it kindly.

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