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Affirming the Truths of the Heart ——The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega & Pasada
by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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We rarely think of Buddhism as an emotional religion. Early Buddhism in particular is often depicted as centered more in the upper left quadrant of the heard than in the heart. But if you look closely at the tradition, you'll find that from the very beginning it has been fueled by a deeply felt emotional core.


Think back for a moment on the story of the young Prince Siddhartha and his first encounters with aging, illness, death, and a wandering contemplative. It's one of the most accessible chapters in the Buddhist tradition, largely because of the direct, true-to-the-heart quality of the young prince's emotions. He saw aging, illness, and death as an absolute terror, and pinned all his hopes on the contemplative forest life as his only escape. As Asvaghosa, the great Buddhist poet, depicts the story, the young prince had no lack of friends and family members who tried to talk him out of those perceptions, and Asvaghosa was wise enough to show their life-affirming advice in a very appealing light. Still, the prince realized that if he were to give in to their advice, he would be betraying his heart. Only by remaining true to his honest emotions was he able to embark on the path that led away from the ordinary values of his society and toward an unsurpassed Awakening into the Deathless.


This is hardly a life-affirming story in the ordinary sense of the term, but it does affirm something more important than life: the truth of the heart when it aspires to a happiness absolutely pure. The power of this aspiration depends on two emotions, called in Pali samvega and pasada. Very few of us have heard of them, but they're the emotions most basic to the Buddhist tradition. Not only did they inspire the young prince in his quest for Awakening, but even after he became the Buddha he advised his followers to cultivate them on a daily basis. In fact, the way he handled these emotions is so distinctive that it may be one of the most important contributions his teachings have to offer to our culture today.

這個故事以一般意義而言,很難說是對入世人生觀的肯定,然而它卻肯定了比生存更重要的一件事: 心靈渴求一種絕對純淨的幸福真諦。這股渴求之力以兩種情緒爲基礎,巴利文稱爲厭離(samvega)與淨信(pasada)。雖然我們當中鮮有聞者,它們卻是佛教傳統中最基本的兩種情緒,不僅激勵著年輕的王子對覺醒的求索,在他證悟之後,也鼓勵弟子們常長此心。實際上,他處理這些情緒的方式如此獨特,對於當今文化來說,是可資采納的最重要的貢獻之一。

Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It's a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it's normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. This is a cluster of feelings we've all experienced at one time or another in the process of growing up, but I don't know of a single English term that adequately covers all three. It would be useful to have such a term, and maybe that's reason enough for simply adopting the word samvega into our language.

厭離感(samvega)是年輕的悉達多王子初次面對老、病、死之時所生的感受。這個詞很難英譯,其內涵複雜,至少並攝了三類感受: 意識到世俗生活的徒勞與空虛而生起的震驚、氣餒與疏離的壓抑感; 對自耽自滿、愚癡盲目地生活至今的自責感; 尋求脫離無謂輪回之道的急迫感。這些感受,我們在成長過程的某個時刻都曾經曆過,但我不認爲有哪個英語詞彙可以同時貼切地表達這三種含義。有這樣一個詞很實用,也許足以把它直接吸收過來,納入我們的語彙中。

But more than providing a useful term, Buddhism also offers an effective strategy for dealing with the feelings behind it — feelings that our own culture finds threatening and handles very poorly. Ours, of course, is not the only culture threatened by feelings of samvega. In the Siddhartha story, the father's reaction to the young prince's discovery stands for the way most cultures try to deal with these feelings: He tried to convince the prince that his standards for happiness were impossibly high, at the same time trying to distract him with relationships and every sensual pleasure imaginable. Not only did he arranged an ideal marriage for the prince, but he also built him a palace for every season of the year, bought him only the best clothes and toiletries, sponsored a constant round of entertainments, and kept the servants well paid so that they could put at least a semblance of joy into their job of satisfying the prince's every whim. To put it simply, the strategy was to get the prince to lower his aims and to find satisfaction in a happiness that was less than absolute and not far from pure. If the young prince were alive today, the father would have other tools for dealing with the prince's dissatisfaction——including psychotherapy and religions counseling—— but the basic strategy would be the same: to distract the prince and dull his sensitivity so that he could settle down and become a well-adjusted, productive member of society.s

佛教不僅提供了這個有用的詞彙,更提供了對治它表達的感受的有效策略——我們的本土文化覺察其威脅性,卻素無良方。當然,並非僅西方文化受厭離感的威脅。在悉達多的故事裏,面對王子的新生情緒,父王的回應代表著多數文化的應對方式: 他試圖說服王子,他的喜樂標准高不可及,同時試以婚姻關系與各樣感官極樂轉移其注意力。父王不僅替他安排了一樁理想婚姻,還爲他蓋起宮殿,每季各居一處。不僅爲他購置華服美飾,還使他的周圍娛樂不斷; 受到優待的仆役們極盡能事,奉承王子的一應興致。其策略簡單說,是令王子降低目標,從遠離絕對、遠非清淨的世俗生活中覓得快樂。如果年輕的王子活在今日,那位父王對付王兒的不滿情緒則另有其招——其中會包括心理療法與宗教咨詢——不過基本策略不變: 分散注意力,麻醉敏感度,使他安定下來,成爲適應社會、有事生産的一員。

Fortunately, the prince was too eagle-eyed and lion-hearted to submit to such a strategy. And again, fortunately, he was born in a society that offered him the opportunity to find a solution to the problem of samvega that did justice to the truths of his heart.

所幸的是,王子有著鷹眼獅心,未曾屈從此計; 更有幸的是,他出生的社會爲他提供了尋找厭離感的解答與求證心靈真諦的機會。

The first step in that solution is symbolized in the Siddhartha story by the prince's reaction to the fourth person he saw on his travels outside of the palace: the wandering forest contemplative. Compared to what he called the confining, dusty path of the householder's life, the prince saw the freedom of the comtemplative's life as the open air. Such a path of freedom, he felt, would allow him the opportunity to find the answers to his life-and-death questions, and to live a life in line with his highest ideals, "as pure as a polished shell."


The emotion he felt at this point is termed pasada. Like samvega, pasada covers another complex set of feelings usually translated as "clarity and serene confidence" ——mental states that keeps samvega from turning into despair. In the prince's case, he gained a clear sense of his predicament, together with a confidence that he had found the way out.


As the early Buddhist teachings freely admit, the predicament is that the cycle of birth, aging, and death is meaningless. They don't try to deny this fact and so don't ask us to be dishonest with ourselves or to close our eyes to reality. As one teacher has put it, the Buddhist recognition of the reality of suffering — so important that suffering is honored as the first noble truth — is a gift, in that it confirms our most sensitive and direct experience of things, an experience that many other traditions try to deny.


From there, the early teachings ask us to become even more sensitive, to the point where we see that the true cause of suffering is not out there — in society or some outside being — but in here, in the craving present in each individual mind. They then confirm that there is an end to suffering, a release from the cycle. And they show the way to that release, through developing noble qualities already latent in the mind to the point where they cast craving aside and open onto Deathlessness. Thus the predicament has a practical solution, a solution within the powers of every human being.


It's also a solution open to critical scrutiny and testing — an indication of how confident the Buddha was in the solution he found to the problem of samvega. This is one of the aspects of authentic Buddhism that most attracts people who are tired of being told that they should try to deny the insights that inspired their sense of samvega in the first place.


In fact, Buddhism is not only confident that it can handle feelings of samvega but it's also one of the few religions that actively cultivates them to a radical extent. Its solution to the problems of life demand so much dedicated effort that only strong samvega will keep the practicing Buddhist from slipping back into his or her old ways. Hence the recommendation that all Buddhists, both men and women, lay or ordained, should reflect daily on the facts of aging, illness, separation, and death — to develop feelings of samvega — and on the power of one's own actions, to take samvega one step further, to pasada.


For people whose sense of samvega is so strong that they want to abandon any social ties that prevent them from following the path to the end of suffering, Buddhism offers both a long-proven body of wisdom for them to draw from, as well as a safety net: the monastic sangha, an institution that enables them to leave lay society without having to waste time worrying about basic survival. For those who can't leave their social ties, Buddhist teaching offers a way to live in the world without being overcome by the world, following a life of generosity, virtue, and meditation to strengthen the noble qualities of the mind that will lead to the end of suffering. The close, symbiotic relationship maintained between these two branches of the Buddhist parisa, or following, guarantees that the monastics don't turn into misfits and misanthropes, and that the laity don't lose touch with the values that will keep their practice alive.


So the Buddhist attitude toward life cultivates samvega — a strong sense of the meaninglessness of the cycle of birth, aging, and death — and develops it into pasada: a confident path to the Deathless. That path includes not only time-proven guidance, but also a social institution that nurtures it and keeps it alive. These are all things that our society desperately needs. In our current efforts at mainstreaming Buddhism, we should remember that one source of Buddhism's strength is its ability to keep one foot out of the mainstream, and that the traditional metaphor for the practice is that it crosses over the stream to the further shore.

因此,佛教的生命觀滋養厭離之心——即對輪回於生老死的強烈的無謂感——並將之發展爲淨信: 對涅磐之道的信心。那條道不僅包括了久經考驗的智慧指南,還包括了延續法脈的團體組織。這些都是我們個人與社會迫切需要的。在當前使佛教主流化的努力當中,我們應當記得,佛教的力量來自於不隨波逐流,修證的傳統譬喻是跨越水流、到達彼岸。

最近訂正 6-2-2009