Thursday, February 26, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 16.14: Suffering, Suffering, Suffering, Suffering

pratyakSham aalokya ca janma duHkhaM
duHkhaM tath" atiitam ap' iti viddhi
yathaa ca tad duHkham idaM ca duHkhaM
duHkham tath" an-aagatam apy avehi.

Seeing now before your eyes that birth is suffering,

Recognise that likewise in the past it was suffering.

And just as that was suffering and this is suffering,

Know that likewise in the future it will be suffering.

Birth, we can understand from the previous verses, means the birth of a body that feels pain and discomfort, and of an expectant mind, pregnant with dissatisfaction.

We experience the discomfort and dissatisfaction, or pain and anguish, in the present, as we have experienced it in the past. We cannot deny it. Ashvaghosha is not letting us deny it. That was suffering and this is suffering. But what can we expect in the future?

Ashvaghosha holds out the possibility of finding in sitting practice, at the level of the fourth realisation, a lucidity in which there is indifference and pure awareness.

Dogen, similarly, advocates learning a backward step of turning light and shining, such that body and mind will naturally drop off.

The point of this and the next verse, as I read them, is to scupper in advance any unrealistic expectations that such a teaching might engender. Drop off though they naturally will, the body will continue to feel pain, as it always has done, and the mind will continue to tend towards dissastisfaction, as it always has done.

What we can realistically hope for, I believe, is that through genuine and persistent learning of the backward step, our suffering can become more meaningful. For a start, we can understand more deeply in practice what the truth of suffering is.

This is what I am taking from this difficult section of verses in which Ashvaghosha seems to want to soak us ever more deeply and thoroughly in the truth of suffering -- leaving no room for even a shred of naive optimism to remain.

pratyakSa: present before the eyes, visible, perceptible; clear, distinct, manifest, direct, immediate, actual, real
aalokya (absolutive of aa-√ lok, to look at): having seen or looked at , beholding
ca: and
janma: birth
duhKham: suffering

duhKham: suffering
tathaa: likewise
aatiita: past
api: also
iti: that
viddhi = imperative of vid: to know, understand, perceive, learn; experience, feel; recognise

yathaa: just as
ca: and
tad: that
duhKham: suffering
idam: this
ca: and
duhKham: suffering

duhKham: suffering
tathaa: likewise
an-aagata: not come, not arrived; future; unknown; n. the future.
api: also
avehi = imperative of ave: to look upon, consider; to perceive, conceive, understand, learn, know

EH Johnston:
And seeing the suffering of birth present before your eyes, know that there has been similar suffering in the past ; and as suffering has been and is, understand that there will be similarly suffering in the future.

Linda Covill:
Having seen with your own eyes that birth is suffering, understand that past birth was suffering too. Just as that was suffering and this is suffering, be aware that future birth will also be suffering.


lxg said...

Hi Mike,

This brings up lots of questions for me. Is there any place for optimism or hope at all? Do optimism and hope not belong to the realm of becoming/striving? Is that becoming a kind of escaping what really is? Is that becoming a grasping for security? Is there such a thing as security mentally or physically? If not what is truly reliable. Lots of question like that really.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Alex,

When I get seasick on a rough crossing, it is pretty much impossible for me to stand on the ship of the deck and direct myself up. If I can, on a rough crossing, I lie down and sleep. When I get back onto dry land, then I can begin again the process of thinking myself up. I feel Ashvaghosha's teaching on suffering is like that: it has to do with establishing a real basis from which to practice real optimism, as opposed to naive or ungrounded optimism.

All the best,