Tuesday, January 20, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 3.38: Not Becoming Something

na ca tatra kash cid upapatti-
sukham abhilalaaSHa tair guNaiH
sarvam a-shivam avagamya bhavaM
bhava-saMkSHayaaya vavRte na janmane

But nobody who was there [craved] accomplishment,

Expecting a happy payoff for these good works.

Having learned that all becoming is pernicious,

People worked to eradicate becoming,
not to become something.

This verse is a denial of end-gaining, if ever there was one.

Line 1 is a denial of end-gaining. At the same time it pin-points what the SUFFERING of end-gaining is. The suffering of end-gaining is not being there, being somewhere else. Ashvaghosha goes on in the following cantos to describe, in graphic detail, how Nanda experienced this suffering, whose essence is conflict between a sensual attachment and attachment to an idea of accomplishing something in future. For future accomplishment is only ever an idea.

Line 2 is a bit tricky to separate from Line 1. The compound upapatti-sukham, lit. "payoff-happiness," straddles both lines, with the payoff having come already in Line 1. "Payoff-happiness" means, for example, the happiness of enlightenment, or the happiness of a favourable birth -- the happiness that exists not here but out there somewhere, "in the other monastery" as Dosho Port puts it, as an idea, as an end to be gained.

So Line 2 is also a denial of end-gaining. At the same time, it objectively describes the CAUSE OF SUFFERING, in terms of impurity of motivation. The impurity of motivation has a psychological side, involving a kind of expectancy in a person's thought processes-- "What is going to be in it for me?" But equally I would say that impurity of motivation has a basis in survival reflexes, especially the infantile panic/grasp reflex. In saying this, I am only following the direction in which I was pointed by Gudo Nishijima, who emphasized to me (ad nauseam) the primary importance of the autonomic nervous system.

Line 3, again, is a denial of end-gaining. At the same time, its standpoint is not at all theoretical: this is the standpoint of one who has learned in his own real experience how pernicious the end-gaining habit can be. Using torture in an effort to get somebody to tell you the truth is an extreme example of pernicious end-gaining. Pushing one's head up to the ceiling and pulling one's chin back in an effort to devote oneself to the Buddha's teaching, might be another example. What is much easier for a person to see at 50 than at 20 or 30, looking back over a lifetime of mistakes, is that failure to INHIBIT one's end-gaining ideas brings misery upon self and upon others.

Line 4 is just the denial of end-gaining.
What does it mean to work to eradicate becoming? How does one actually go about doing such work? Is there, anywhere in the world, a reliable MEANS that can work for me and for others? That really has been my koan for 30 years, and I have not cracked it yet. Otherwise, why would I still be prone to anger?

To eradicate becoming is at the heart of the work of FM Alexander. But if you visit an Alexander training school what you are likely to find is students intent on becoming teachers -- until they learn to release themselves from that bind, applying in practice what Alexander called the MEANS-WHEREBY principle.

To eradicate becoming, similarly, is the whole point of learning what Master Dogen called the backward step of turning light and shining. It is Nanda's taking of just this backward step that Ashvaghosha describes in Canto 17. This blog is heading there next week. We will follow Ashvaghosha's description of the four realisations, by which he charts A MEANS of working our way back to the clarity and simplicity of just sitting, endowed with equanimity and mindfulness.

So again this morning I have written all this stuff in the way of commentary, like so many heaps of slag. Whether there is any value at all in my comments, I honestly do not know. But what I do really know, with all my heart, is this: the gold is in the bold.

Now... where’s my spade?

na: not
ca: and
tatra: there
kash cid: any (body), any (thing)
upapatti: happening, occurring, becoming visible, appearing, production, accomplishing; proving right; ascertained or demonstrated conclusion, proof, evidence

sukham (accusative): happiness, pleasure, comfort, ease, prosperity
upapatti-sukha: happiness as accomplishing, happiness as achievement; the happiness of enlightenment
abhilalaaSha = perfect of abhi + lash: desire, wish for, covet, crave, hanker after
taiH = instrumental, plural (agreeing with guNaiH) of sa: that, his, those
guNaiH: (instrumental, plural): by/through/because of virtues

sarva: all
a-shiva: unkind, pernicious, dangerous, ill-luck
avagamya = absolutive of avagam: hit upon, understand, know
bhavam (accusative): coming into existence, birth, becoming

bhava: becoming
saMkSHayaaya = dative of saMkSHaya: complete destruction, disappearance, dissolution
vavRte = past of vRt: turn, advance, proceed, act, follow a course, tend or turn to (dative), be intent on, attend to (dative);
na: not
janmane = dative of janman: birth, production, re-birth, becoming something

EH Johnston:
And no one there desired to obtain by these virtues a return to existence in however happy a state; for, understanding all existence to be evil, they acted so as to bring about the cessation of existence, not rebirth.

Linda Covill:
No one there wanted a happy rebirth as a reward for his virtues. People understood that all existence was harmful, therefore they were intent on the cessation of existence, not on its continuation.


Linda Covill said...

Hi Mike, thank you for your thoughtful considerations of the Saundarananda. I'm so glad that this wonderful text is getting some appreciation.

Kind regards,
Linda Covill

Ray said...

Based on this, I feel that I negate my appreciation of your work, even as I express it !

Thank you sincerely for your effort, nonetheless.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Linda,

Thank you very much indeed for this -- I am so glad to have your blessing. I have already expressed my deep appreciation of your work, not only your translation but also your introduction, so I shall spare everybody the embarrassment of me grovelling to you now.

Apologies are in order, however, for my going ahead and quoting you at such length without having gained your permission first -- I couldn’t find you on the internet, but I have been planning to ask permission, if the opportunity arose, to keep on quoting your translation.

As you write in your intro, “Not all the medical allusions pertain to Nanda alone; the famous penultimate verse (18:63) designates me, and all other readers and auditors of ‘Handsome Nanda’ as patients, because we have ingested the medicine that is bottled in this poem.”

So thank you again, not so much as a fellow patient, but more as a recovering patient to a compassionate nurse.


Mike Cross said...

Hi Ray,

Yes, engineering the void is like that... Completely give up the idea of moving the leg! (In order to gain the freedom for the leg to move.) And, while continuing to give up the idea of moving the leg, move the leg!

Admin said...


Very nice post.



Admin said...


Wonderful post.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Madhu,

It is great to have somebody following this blog in India. If you notice any mistakes in my understanding of Sanskrit, I would be very grateful if you didn't hold back.

The same request goes out, needless to say, to Linda Covill, or indeed to anybody who knows Sanskrit.

lxg said...

This post has, as you like to say Mike, 'hit the target' for me in relation to recent painful experiences and to a deeply rooted wrong idea in me that fulfilment/happiness exists outside of myself, either in someone else (a woman for example) or in achieving something, being somebody. I think the two are connected. This idea or bunch of connected ideas has been a source of much frustration to me. Maybe the idea that one needs to be fulfilled is an impediment to real happiness. What do you think?

Mike Cross said...

Hi Alex,

I think that as you are, so too I am.

I could easily have personalised my comments on this post much more than I did. But judging from your response, it clearly wasn't necessary for me to spill my own blood on the stage. You got the message without that.