Saturday, 29 June 2013

On “Variatio delectat” in Buddhism

Schmithausen once, in the context of discussing die Textgeschichte, Ideengeschichte, Kompositionsgeschichte of the concept of the four smṛtyupasthānas, has stated (LS 1976: 247): “Die kanonischen Texte des Buddhismus neigen ja dazu, parallele Darlegungen — der Einprägsamkeit und Eindringlichkeit zuliebe — möglichst gleichförmig zu gestalten; unserer ‘variatio delectat’ gilt dort nicht.” As always, a delicious, small and yet significant observation! 

Upon being asked why she always joins her fingers so as to form a kind of rectangular shape, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, replied “maybe because of ‘eine gewisse Liebe zur Symetrie’ (a certain affinity for symmetry).” Possibly for Buddhist authors, too, asymmetry meant anomaly, abnormality, irregularity, inconsistency, and so on. An asymmetrical or irregular original formulation might face a greater risk of getting regularized and thus distorted in course of the transmission than a text that has been initially regular. But a Tibetan dictum of guiding principle for the scribes and calligraphers states that “purity” (dag pa), that is, “correctness” is the predominant criterion, which would overrule all other criteria, such as “beauty” (mdzes pa), “symmetry” (snyoms pa), and “rapidity” (mgyogs pa). The absence or presence of the concept of variatio delectat in Buddhism can be thus also useful for understanding Buddhist “Axiology” (particularly aesthetical values). But what in Buddhism can be said to have an aesthetical value, if at all, and why? The idea and sense of “purity,” in my view, seems to be crucial here. It is, so to speak, a body or mind that is in “equilibrium” or is symmetrical is also “wholesome/healthy” and “pure” and hence “beautiful” or “delicious.”

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