Ksémendra’s riddles

The Vaisnavist (devotee of the Hindu god Vishnu) Ksémendra, who at the same time happened to be an admirer of Buddhism as it was presented to him, composed in the year 1052 a series of verses on the subject of Dependent Origination.

The Chain of Dependent Origination is presented in its twelvefold appearance, a half-loop forward starting with ignorance leading ultimately to death, and a half-loop backwards beginning with death (and rebirth) which inevitably leads to ignorance in the end. Both semi-loops vacillate back and forth, back and forth until the truth about this chain is seen and hence broken.

Ksémendra’s poem is kept at several places in blockprint-copies in both Sanskrit and Tibetan. This author collected his bundle of verses under the title “Bodhisattvāvadānakalpalatā“: Narrations on the glorious exploits (avadāna) of the bodhisattva, narrations that are like the fabulous creeper (kalpalatā) [which according to the earlier strands of Vaisnavisme granted all wishes].

Mr. Marek Mejor has done the world a service by transliterating Ksémendra’s poetry. His bundle appeared in 1992 in Tokyo, at the International Institute for Buddhist Studies. In his bundle he not only presented us with a transliteration, but also ventured into a translation. Considering the play on words so appreciated by writers of Sanskrit who with their intertwining of names, concepts and verbs rather venture into riddles than into literature that is comprehensible to all, the unravelling of all this is no minor task.

To illustrate Ksémendra’s word play we may repeat the first Sanskrit stanza of his opus magnum:

sarvam avidyamūlam samsārataruprakāravaicitryam /
jñātum vaktum hantum kah sakto nyatra sarvajñāt.

Marek Mejor translates:
Who is able, except the Omniscient, to know, to tell of, to destroy all the varieties of different kinds of the world-tree, having as its root(s) ignorance?

It may well be that Marek, with the above kalpalatā (creeper) in mind, and coming across both the word -mūlam (root) and the difficult to understand composite samsārataruprakāra-, decided that where there are roots there must be a tree.

I present another solution to the riddle:
All rootcauses of ignorance, manifold [as they are throughout] samsāra, are verily made manifest by the All-knowing; who else but [he] sees and knows them, speaks of them and [personally] made an end to them.

(Samsāra is the endless roundabout of the world and everything on it.)

To repeat with the Sanskrit components added:
All (sarvam) rootcauses of ignorance (avidyamūlam), manifold (vaicitryam) [as they are throughout] samsāra (samsārata), are verily (kāravai) made (kār[a]) manifest (ruprat)/
by the All-knowing (sarvajñāt); who else (kah) but (nyatra) [he] sees (sakto) and knows (jñātum) them, speaks (vaktum) of them and [personally] made an end to (hantum) them.


“Tathāgata Tathāgata”

Many years ago a Taiwanese Bhikshunī (female monk) who taught at the Foguangshan Buddhist highschool in Kaohsiung but lived outside, in her own little temple together with her mother who had equally become a bhiksunī, handed me a version of the Lotus Sūtra. At that time I travelled around, no longer satisfied with the Srilankan-inspired theravāda teachings, but yet insecure about which road to take instead. The text of the Lotus Sūtra struck me like a hammer’s blow though after a short while this hammer turned out to be the thunderbolt that awakened me to the teachings of the Mahāyana.
I never became a true or staunch Lotus Sūtra adept. Nevertheless I wish to think of this bhiksunī, whose name I forgot, as a bodhisattva who wholly fulfilled her bodhisattva vows.

One of these days this memory arose after reading a short sentence in today’s Hindi that runs: “Hindu Hindu ek rahen“. Translated it means: “All Hindus ought to be united”.

Hindu Hindu …” reminded me of a passage in the second chapter of the Lotus Sūtra that to this day constitutes a puzzle to all Sanscrit scholars who study the Buddhist lore.

Bhikshu Kongmu gives us the Chinese redering of the Sūtra’s passage. It reads: “wéi fó yú fó năi néng jiù jìn zhū fă shí xiàng“.
His translation reads: “Only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fully understand the true character of all things.” “Fó yú fó” being the Chinese rendering of “Tathāgata Tathāgata” in the original Sanscritic text that underpins todays translations.

Over the years a number of Lotus Sūtra have been discovered, but the version most used is the complete text once hidden in one of the Mogao-caves in Dunhuang, now Western China.

Long before Bhikshu Kongmu’s solution of the enigma Indologist Kern, who is remembered as the first to translate the Lotus Sūtra into English (and who did not hesitate to incorporate an “amen” into the second chapter) rendered the text as “None but a Tathāgatha can impart to a Tathāgata those laws which the Tathāgata knows.”

Today, given the “Hindu Hindu ek rahen” we might translate the sentence “Tathāgata Tathāgata … etc” with: “Only Buddhas can understand those things“, or “only Buddhas (i.e. only Tathāgata [plural]) can impart Buddha-knowledge.”