Friday, October 31, 2008


For those arrows made of the five senses are smeared with the poison of fanciful notions.... They must be deflected as they rain down by the mighty man who takes his stand in the arena of disciplined conduct, bearing the bow of resolution and wearing the armour of mindfulness [SMRTI-VARMANA].

Saurananda 13.35

When mindfulness is in place like a gatekeeper at his gateway, then the faults cannot violate you, as enemies dare not attack a well-guarded city. Defilement does not arise in a man who is mindful with regard to his body.

Saurananda 14.35

Therefore when walking, be aware that you are walking, and when standing still, know that you are standing still. This is how you should maintain mindfulness at those times and others.

Saurananda 14.45

So to be brief, dear friend, you should make yourself proficient in mindfulness of inward and outward breathing in order to eliminate such fancies. With this procedure you can adopt countermeasures against such fancies in good time, as medication against sickness.

Saurananda 15.65

Trans. Linda Covill, Clay Sanskrit Library

A friend asked me about getting Ashvaghosha's books. My advice was to go to Amazon and search for Clay Sanskrit Library. In that list you will find two books by Ashvaghosha: Buddha-carita (Life of the Buddha), and Saurananda (Handsome Nanda). I heartily recommend them both. To me Ashvaghosa's writing is very gripping, very real. I sense in it something that I could never get so directly from Chinese and Japanese texts, which have a tendency to inscrutability and ambiguity. I feel Ashvaghosha's style is closer to my own culture. It is not so oriental. It is -- dare I say it? -- more Aryan. It is like coming home. It is like being re-united with a long-lost relative whose very existence you only ever dreamed of. It is like being misguided for 13 years in the matter of upright posture by an oriental control-freak, and then finding that the true masters of uprightness had been living there all the time in your own home nation.

Looking at Linda Covill's translations of smrti in context and looking at the Sanskrit on the facing page, I think that the above four excerpts are all excellent translations. I cannot see any reason to be prejudiced against the word mindfulness as a translation of smrti -- apart maybe from an unenlightened person's lack of mindfulness with regard to his own prejudices.

It seems that Ashvaghosha's message and encouragement is that not losing smrti (Chinese = FU-BO-NEN) involves a kind of constant vigilance against, for example, anger. That seems to me, in my own particular circumstances, influenced as I have been for a long time by fanciful notions about who I am, to be an extra-ordinarily difficult challenge.

Alexander work, alongside developmental work with primitive reflexes, helps me to know more definitely what I am guarding against -- a neck-head-back-limb pattern that I want to be released out of -- whether breathing in or breathing out.

The means are at hand, and they are means in which I believe. But applying them constantly, moment by moment, persistently guarding against the wrong pattern of reaction without falling into the old trap of trying to be right / fearing to be wrong and thereby stimulating that very pattern ... it is not easy. It is a battle. Ashavaghosa's military metaphors, of which there are many, are very apt.


Jordan said...

Keep going!

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Jordan. VIRYA -- manly endeavour, or grit, is another word, along with SMRTI, that Ashvaghosha dwells on a lot.

I feel that Ashvaghosha is shouting in my ear, down through the centuries: STOP BEING SUCH A PUSSY!

Molly said...

I'd never thought of mindfulness as armor. I like it. Thanks for sharing these pearls.

Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Molly.

If you can show me the true meaning of VIRYA, or manly endeavor, I will endeavor to show you the true meaning of MAITRI, or womanly love...

“Whoever finds love beneath hurt and grief disappears into emptiness with a thousand new disguises.”

Mike Cross said...

On second thoughts, it might be better to suggest the feminine aspect of MAITRI with something like "grandmotherly goodwill," in order to distinguish it from the kind of lwomanly love which Ashvaghosha suggests so evocatively with his images of flashing eyes, and jewelled earrings hanging down, and pearl necklaces dangling over breasts like golden pots -- in order to distinguish MAITRI from the kind of love, in other words, that does not lead to extinction of the flame but which rather fuels the engine of samsara.

When my old Alexander teacher Marjory Barlow, then in her 80s, used to call me "love," I am fairly sure she was using the word in the former sense.

raymond said...

I have a question.

Sometimes you seem angry at people and I think in some ways I identify with your anger. I get angry with people because I believe their will-to-truth is so weak and I resent them for it. I am also jealous that they can believe illusions that I think might be pragmatic but that ultimately I cannot believe in.

When I move my head after sitting zazen, the feeling I feel is utter helplnessness. I want to believe in God, or in something that will rush to fill in the feeling of helplessness that sitting awakens in me. The feeling of not knowing what to do, or how to be in the world. It is a difficult feeling.

What do you think about this?

Mike Cross said...

Hello Raymond -- good to hear from you.

I get angry because.....

Why do I get angry?

If Ashvaghosha is telling the truth, and I am increasingly deeply convinced by all his magnificent metaphors, military and otherwise, I get angry simply because I forget to bind on the armour of mindfulness.

I blunder on, end-gaining, from one situation to the next, from one webpage to the next, from one sentence to the next, from one barrowful of earth to the next, driven forward by my end-gaining, paying no heed to the many-tentacled monster of misuse that is suffocating me, holding me in its clammy grip, sickening my senses with its poisoned spines smeared with self-importance!!

In Saundarananda, Ashvaghosha uses the term PRAVRRTI, which the dictionary defines as "advance, activity, moving forward." Linda Covill translates it as "active life."

For example:

"Therefore accept that life is suffering, and understand faults as being related to active life; recognize cessation of suffering to be the ceasing of active life, and know the path as being related to cessation." [Saundarananda 16.40]

To re-cast this sentence in terms that are readily understandable to devotees of Alexander work:

"Therefore accept that life is suffering, and understand misuse as being related to end-gaining; recognize cessation of suffering to be the inhibition of the idea of gaining an end, and know the path as being related to inhibition."

To try to clarify what Alexander meant by inhibiting the idea of gaining an end, I wrote an account of the teaching of Marjory Barlow which you can find on my webpage, in the Articles section.

What I can honestly report from my own experience is that when I am able to devote sufficient time to working as Marjory taught me -- as described in the article titled The Marjory Barlow I Knew -- then I do sometimes become as if protected by a force-field of mindfulness in which annoying stimuli (e.g. small planes buzzing over this house) temporarily cease to anger me. So the means are available to me, but in general I am too stupid and lazy to apply the means.