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水中に月を捉ふ爭でか拈得せん

What does 拈得せん mean there? Is some classical construction? I cant quite find an explanation for it

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As you said, it's from a Buddhist (zen) verse 証道歌 which is attributed to 玄覚. As most of zen works are, it's written in colloquial Middle Chinese, not using the usual vocabulary of Classical Chinese or Japanese.

  • 拈得 "able to pick up" ← (verb) "catch with fingers" + (modal) "have been able to ...; successfully ..."
  • 拈得せん ← 拈得-す (makes verb) + む/ん (auxiliary) "will; would; might"

As question + か + verb + む is a formula in Classical Japanese to make a rhetorical question, 爭【いか】でか拈得せん would be translated "how could (you) pick it up? (no you couldn't)".

(爭 is also a Middle Chinese word otherwise shouldn't have such reading.)

  • 教えて頂きたいのですが、得が "can" の意味なら「拈るを得ん」みたいに読まないのかなーと思ったのですが、こういうものなのでしょうか。 – naruto May 22 at 6:38
  • @naruto えーと、何とも説明しにくいのですが、時代の新しい中国語におけるこの「得」は英語でいう動詞の後の副詞や補語のようなもので、go upとかgo awayとか(あるいはgo mad)のように動作がどうなったかを表すものです。意味はほぼ可能なので、英語や日本語に訳すとあまり要領を得ないのですが、「~しきれる」にちょっと近いかもしれません。もし漢文の「拈るを得」だとすると語順は「得拈」になりますし、意味も若干違います。口語中国語を訓読しようとするとどうしても無理な部分をここでは一単語扱いして回避しているわけです。より極端な例についてはこちらをご覧ください。 – broccoli forest May 22 at 7:09
  • なるほどそれでcolloquialなんですね…ありがとうございます – naruto May 22 at 7:17
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    +1, the phrase is really in colloquial Chinese, which is more evident when rendered like this: 水中捉月「怎」拈得? – droooze May 22 at 7:22
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    If one subscribes to the theory that 怎 is a contraction of two syllables, (1) 作 and (2) some variant of 物 or 麽, then the connection is not so remote. MC 作 has ending /-k/, which is quite compatible with /-ŋ/. The /-m/ in 怎 is from the initial of the second syllable. – droooze May 22 at 9:54
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This sentence seems to be from this kanbun Buddhist sutra. 拈得す seems to be a rare word, but from its kanji (拈 = = pinch/pick/take; 得 = obtain), I think it means something like "to pick out" or "to pick and obtain". せん is a form of す ("to do") followed by ん for inference. This せん translates to するだろう(か) in modern Japanese.

水中に月を捉ふ 爭でか拈得せん
Catching the moon in the water...how can you pick it out? (i.e., no it's impossible)

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