Thursday, January 8, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 3.25: The Flag of Dharma

tam udiikSHya hema-maNi-jaala
valayinam iv'otthitaM dhvajam
priitim agamad a-tulaaM nR-patir
janataa nataash ca bahumaanam abhyayuH

Looking up at him in the network of gold and pearls

That seemed to wrap around him like an upraised flag,

The king became incredibly joyful,

And everybody, head bowed down,
felt deep appreciation.

Line 1: Gold might mean dyed a yellowy-red colour, and pearls might mean individual back-stitched stitches. So the starry-eyed depiction in the first line might be a depiction of the Buddha's robe.

Line 2: An upraised flag, banner, or standard, generally marks a rallying point not so much for intellectual pursuits, but more for showing whose side you are on in a football match, presidential election, or other form of battle. People fighting a campaign with a shared objective naturally tend to come together and encourage each other, rallying under a flag (2).

Line 3: This fact was not lost on the battle-hardened King of Kapilavastu, a leader of men drawn from the earth. We see in Line 3 how the mind of the king has changed, on seeing his son resolutely flying the flag of Dharma, from anxious expectation and impatience, to imponderable joy.

What confers joy beyond measure might be not anything too stiff, formal, or frozen, but something fluid, alive, yielding. I do not usually wear a kesa to write blog posts; I usually take off my kesa after sitting-zen and then start writing. Sometimes I put on a rakusu, sometimes not. But today I am still wearing the gold-coloured kesa that Pierre Turlur sewed for me, out of fairly thick silk curtain material. So now I am wearing a kesa, but even more joyfully than that, now I am in the process of making a kesa. It will have many hundreds of panels. This morning I have added a few stitches to the 25th panel of the 3rd stripe. I nearly wrote "a few final stitches," but in a true kesa, as Pierre is fond of contemplating, there is no finality. It is an endless work in progress.

Line 4: It may be that whenever people appreciate something truly and deeply, their heads tend to release, out of Mara's grip, forward and up, forward and up, forward and up. When a person is arrogant, his head pulls back and Mara rejoices. But the experience of genuinely deep appreciation is always a humbling one. And when we are genuinely humbled -- At the moment of truth: no expecting, no pretending -- it is very natural to bow our heads down to the ground.

Conversely, bowing the head down to the ground generally helps to improve a person's sensory appreciation. I know this from Alexander work: a very experienced Alexander teacher I know once complained that she was never going to meet any wealthy oil sheiks with a bad back, because they all practised bowing five times a day. Again, in working to help children with vestibular reflexes towards a better integration of those reflexes, getting them working face down on the floor, and then on hands and knees, is absolutely indispensable.

My comments are getting too long. But the final thing I want to draw attention to is Ashvaghosha's indirectness. Linda Covill points to this indirectness in the excellent introduction to her translation: "[Even the more didactic] passages are rich in figurative language, with vivid similes and engaging comparisons which do much to counteract the tendency to preachiness."

Ashvaghosha does not run the risk of stimulating resentment by telling us who or what we should revere. Although he is totally goal-oriented, every word he writes represents the inhibition of the end-gaining mind. Or probably it is BECAUSE he is totally oriented to a true goal, and not to any personal agenda, that every word represents inhibition of the end-gaining mind -- "Direction is the truest form of inhibition."

This is suffering, the Buddha said, and this, belonging to suffering is the tangled skein of tendrils producing it. This is inhibition, and this is a means.

Sewing a kesa, stitch by stitch by stitch, is just such a means.

tam: (accusative) him
udiikSHya: looking up
hema: gold
maNi: jewels, pearls -- possibly suggestive of individual dots from the backstitching on a traditionally-sewn robe?
jaala: net, lattice

valayinam (agreeing with tam): encircled with, wrapped around with
iva: like
utthita: raised, uplifted
dhvajam: banner, flag, standard

priitim: (accusative) joy, joyful
agamad: (with accusative) became
a-tulaaM: unbounded, unequalled, beyond measure
nR-patiH: lord of men; king, ruler

janataa: subjects, crowd, assemblage of people
nataa: bowed down, prostrate
ca: and
bahumaanam (accusative): high regard, esteem, respect
abhyayuH: (perfect of abhi + i) approach -- verb of motion, with accusative, meaning became, felt, etc.

EH Johnston:
Looking up at Him, as at an uplifted banner girdled with clusters of gold and jewels, the king felt unequalled ecstasy and the prostrate crowd adored Him.

Linda Covill:
Looking up at him as at a raised standard hung about with a filigree of gold and jewels, the king’s rapture was unbounded, and his subjects bowed in reverence.


lxg said...

I was feeling quite cocksure today as I strolled down the Kings road after Alexander training but then quite suddenly a wave of seasickness came over me as it did yesterday evening. The phrase 'all at sea' keeps coming to my mind. I am 'all at sea' at the moment and lacking direction, no doubt about that. Last night my flatmate said this to me:

'they say that when you are seasick you should look toward the horizon.'

It seemed to fit.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks, Alex.

Jordan said...

The Kesa, much like Indra’s jeweled net, so vast and intertwined.

I am uplifted, wrapped in the Kesa.

I also have immense joy when others find themselves wrapped the Kesa

A spontaneous bow in reverence to the robe that wraps around us.

With gratitude

Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Jordan.

Very glad indeed to have opened it up for you.

Raymond said...


You write alot about the head going "forward and up". Do you mean literally that in assuming the zazen posture we should refrain from positioning ourselves in the traditional manner of "chin in, push the sky with the top of the head", which at least in me produces a sort rigidity, and rather let our neck and head align naturally? Keeping in mind that " one can never do an undoing" how might we go about aligning our head and neck as we begin zazen.


Mike Cross said...

Hi Raymond,

I am saying -- and I believe Ashvaghosha is saying, and I think even Jordan is pointing to the same thing -- that there is no need to "assume a zazen posture."

Assuming a zazen posture is something that happened in Japan.

"Head forward and up" was Alexander's way of saying: No, not that!

Head forward and up is pointing the way out of Mara's grip. When we assume a zazen posture, Mara is rubbing his hands together with glee.

Head forward and up is pointing the way back to how the Buddha's teaching was before it became tainted by the arrogance of Japanese sectarianism.

Grrrrr. I am in fighting mood this morning.

Thanks for your question.

Jordan said...

Grrrrr. I am in fighting mood this morning.

I am feeling that too. At the moment it is like a great demon up from the pit. Not wanting to be expelled and grasping at the the roots of my foolish attachments and aversions.

Head should not be causing tension in the back or neck. I don't think it so much as out and up as being natural.

Mike Cross said...

Sometimes it is natural for a tortoise to pull its head back and down into its shell. Sometimes its natural for a tortoise to let its curiosity lead its head out of its shell.

The arrogance of sectarianism -- sitting in what we feel to be the "correct posture" is a variation on the former, fearful theme.

It is very natural to sit like that, and even to do thousands of meaningless formal bows like that... if one's root viewpoint is cultural arrogance.

But I think the bowing Ashvaghosha describes is a million miles from that kind of formalistic bowing.

Fear is very natural. But that doesn't mean we should consciously practice sitting in a fearful posture, by pulling with the chin, pushing with the knees, and all that other Japanese nonsense.

Jordan said...

I have to disagree.
I think that fear is a response.

Like the kind of response an asura might have to a deva trying to claim Mt. Sumeru as a prize.

The poor godlings don’t realize that it is empty.

The skilful surgeon cuts out my shame.
It may be false sensory appreciation, but I feel hollow this morning.

When we feel grateful, than it is appropriate to bow or make offerings.

I want the raise the feet of Gautama Buddha above my head this morning. Lifting space will have to do.


Mike Cross said...

There is the white passive fear, like fear paralysis, of slumping forward and down.

There is the red active fear, like panic, of hyper-extending back and down.

Champions of "correct posture," in general, veer towards the latter, confusing uptightness with uprightness.

They are the same people who confuse compassion with the recitation of shallow platitudes, as if trying to cover up their mental rigidity, beneath a shield of smiley faces (: (: ....

Head forward and up is the direction of releasing the body out of the prison of fear. That calls for real letting go, which has nothing whatever to do with intellectual letting go.

I'm not sure exactly what you are driving at with this comment, Jordan, but I sense your struggle is a real one, and therefore no bed of roses, and no story of eternal sunshine.

Keep on keeping on!


Jordan said...


The point is that all of this is a product of conditioning.

I do not know where the conditioning came from, but I know it is there. And I seemed to vomit some of that up this morning.

Still, head up? (this echos of my music teacher"Chin up, lose neck") I don't know. is that overcompensating for tucking the chin? I suppose through observing my own sitting that my head is up by comparison to the chin tuckers. But at the same time when I read head up I picture the iconic image of a velvet Jesus, face towards the heavens, and I do not think that is what your driving at.

If I free my neck, it is more like my jaw is almost in line with the deck.

I have not seen my music teacher in over a year, so I could be completely wrong. Which I have no fear of.

Keeping on,

Mike Cross said...

The point is that we are conditioned into trying to be right, and we only reinforce that conditioning with our sitting practice -- unless somebody who understands points us back in the opposite direction. The opposite direction means the direction which is opposite to end-gaining.

Trying to be right goes hand in hand with being afraid to be wrong, and that kind of fear tends to bring on postural rigidity.

So trying to sit with correct posture is a root cause of physical and mental fixing.

That's why Master Dogen's preliminary instructions tell us to stop trying to be right.

I sense that I am preaching to the converted here, but hopefully I can help you to see more clearly what you know already.

Keep on keeping on!


Raymond said...

This has been a good exchange. Thank you both for your comments.