Wednesday, March 4, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 16.20: We Become What We Practise

sattvaany abhiShvaNga-vashaani dRShTvaa
svajaatiShu priiti-paraaNy atiiva
abhyaasa-yogaad upapaaditaani
tair eva doShair iti taani viddhi

See sentient beings in the grip of attachment,

Dead set on pleasure among their own kind;

And, from their habitual practice of faults,

Observe them presenting with those very faults.

Line 1 describes the SUFFERING of emotional enslavement.

Line 2, as I read it, is less about the perils of taking pleasure and more about the perils of lacking the will to be free. In other words, the problem discussed in this line is that of MOTIVATION. Priiti, meaning pleasure or joy, pops up several times in Ashvaghosha's descriptions of realisation of the four dhyaana, and especially in the earlier stages of that process. So Ashvaghosha is no killjoy. The distinction to be made is between (a) setting one's sights on freedom, in which case, if one is skillful, pleasure is liable to be part of the scenery; and (b) accepting pleasure as one's chief object, in which case one not only sacrifices freedom at the altar of the pleasure principle, but one also buckles oneself securely into the swing of samsaric suffering. So whereas (a) the pursuit of freedom (if one is skillful) is blessed by experience of pleasure, at a certain level, as a criterion; (b) direct pursuit of pleasure as one's chief object invariably tends towards attachment and suffering.

Pleasure svajaatiShu, "among one's own kind," may have been intended to carry a connotation of pleasure from human sexual contact, in which case the line might have been translated as "Being too devoted to the pleasures of kindred flesh." But if we actually look around us, as the Buddha is recommending Nanda to do, gross sensualists, being motivated primarily by the desire for sexual gratification, are not much in evidence. But what we do observe is many people like sheep who are indeed primarily motivated, in diverse ways, by the pleasure principle. The main motivation of many people does indeed seem to be the desire to be pleasurably rewarded, through being shown the love, appreciation and respect not only of sexual partners but also of other family members, professional peers, and other flocks/groups to which they regard themselves as belonging. That desire for positive reinforcement from the approval of others might be manifested, for example, in the support of a particular football team, in the purchase of a particular brand of training shoes or mobile phone, or even, on a subtler level, the writing of a popular book.

Line 3 expresses the rightful object of INHIBITION, which is habitual patterns. Insofar as this verse does point to attachment to pleasures of the flesh as a source of suffering, the target of INHIBITION, or suppression, in that case, is not sexual desire itself, but rather the practice of the habits that are typically observable around sexual desire -- on the positive side are the kind of celebration of sexual greed discernible in a hip-hop video, along with young lovers' over-exuberant expectations of their partners, and other habits of romantic thinking, et cetera; on the negative side, instances of bitter disappointment, jealous rage, et cetera, are not difficult to find. Understood like this, as a process targeted at habits, INHIBITION is not a tool of repression (as is generally indicated when psychologists talk of sexual inhibitions): INHIBITION is rather a key to freedom (as was indicated by FM Alexander when he spoke of inhibition of endgaining ideas and endgaining habits). Freedom, as Alexander said, "involves carrying out an activity against the habits of life."

Line 4 is the punch-line, expressing the truth that the faults which we have practised in the past have left us in the present with an unconscious tendency towards those same faults. And such an unconscious tendency can never be eradicated, however hard and long a person practises, through unconscious practice. Hence the indispensability of finding a conscious PATH. But even having found such a path, it is still a very long way to Tiperary, because a conscious path is always so difficult to practice.

While in the process of writing this comment, I had to go and pick up my wife's car from a local garage. I came back complaining about the attitude of the guy manning the service reception desk. "You are such a grumpy man!" my wife remarked. Maybe so, but I was not a grumpy child. People have reliably told me that I was not a grumpy child. So I haven't always been this grumpy. No, it has taken me a lifetime of unskillful, unconscious practice to become as grumpy as this.

sattvaani = accusative, plural of sattva: a living or sentient being, creature
abhiShvaNga: intense attachment or affection to
vashaani = accusative, plural vasha: will, wish, desire; authority, power, control, dominion; (at the end of compounds) by command of, by force of, on account of
dRShTvaa = absolutive from dRsh: to see

svajaatiShu = locative, svajaati: one's own kind
sva: own
jaati: birth; form of existence fixed by birth; kind, species
priiti: any pleasurable sensation , pleasure , joy
paraani = accusative, plural of paraa: (at end of compounds) having as the chief object , given up to , occupied with , engrossed in
atiiva: exceedingly , very; excessively

abhyaasa: the act of adding anything; reduplication; repetition; repeated or permanent exercise , discipline , use , habit , custom
yogaat = ablative of yoga: employment , use , application , performance; partaking of; engagement in
upapaadita: effected , accomplished , performed , done; given , delivered , presented ; proved , demonstrated; treated medically
upa-√ pad: to take place , come forth , be produced , appear , occur , happen

taiH (instrumental, plural): with those
eva: very same
doShaiH = instrumental, plural of doSha: fault
iti: that
taani (accusative, plural): them, those [living beings]
viddhi = imperative of vid: know, understand, perceive; notice, observe; experience, feel

EH Johnston:
Seeing all beings to be under the spell of attachment and excessively given to taking pleasure in their particular types, know that they are brought to birth again accompanied by the same vices in consequence of their habitual practice of them (in their previous births).

Linda Covill:
Having seen that living beings are ruled by attachment, entirely engrossed in pleasure-seeking among their own kind, know that because of their engagement in these habits they will be reborn with those very faults.


lxg said...

Hi Mike,

Is it not also true that people, and I include myself in this, take great pleasure in indulging their own negative emotions, melancholy and the like. It becomes a habit as you rightly said Mike. Actually there are a lot of outside pressures that reinforce those indulgences, like the American teen drama I found myself watching with my teenage sister yesterday. After watching that melancholic crap for longer than I should have I actually began to feel violated by it. Recently I've been making a real conscious effort to recognise and to not express those negative emotions.


Raymond said...


I love it! Great post. The commentary especially resonated with me. When I see myself, I see how far astray I have gone. Intellectually, I know that any religious practice like zazen should move one away from being possessed by their own ego delusions, but somehow I have not been able to free my practice from its extra baggage.

For me, even to wonder about inhibiting endgaining is to some extent already being lost in self-consciousness which moves one farther away from responding with mindfulness to the external world, instead binding one to a sort of egotistical solipscism.

I, perhaps like you, perhaps not, would like to recover a little piece of the uncomplicated, joyful, non-cerebral child I remember that I was...before several tragedies set me on a course dissimilar from that of many others.

I think my koan is to keep sitting, keep removing layers of pretension until something of an authentic, humble, and yet path-driven daily life remains.

Thank you for your post.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Alex,

I think what you observed is undoubtedly true, and that the 2nd line is intended to include that meaning too -- of how we like to indulge ourselves in our negative emotional habits.

Hence typical exchange between British shopkeeper and customer:

"How are you?"

"Mustn't grumble, must we. And even we did grumble, no bugger would listen to us, eh?"

I must confess, I feel right at home amid that kind of negativity, whereas relentless positivity tends to make me feel anxious.

Japanese culture too has a strong sense of pathos running through it -- "mono no aware" in Japanese.

Whereas America is... America, with all its religious and cultural influences.

I seem to remember making a New Year's Resolution with Jordan along the lines of inhibiting mental chatter... but I soon forgot all about it!


Mike Cross said...

Hi Raymond,

Many thanks for the encouragement.

Yes, how to take the backward step to a simpler, clearer, more joyful way of being is the challenge in sitting -- to recover our child-mind.

But when we use a word like "koan," if you'll forgive me for saying so, it seems to me to be tied up with very troublesome associations with Japanese Zen, which did not exist at the time of Ashvaghosha at all.

That is one of the reasons I am doing this translation -- as a means of walking away from all the troublesome baggage of koan, sesshin, satori, roshi, shosan, sanzen, and even, in the final analysis, zazen.

Sitting is sitting is sitting. It is a human activity. A buddha is a human being who is awake. From this perspective, to use a Chinese/Japanese term like "koan" is, at best, totally unnecessary.

lxg said...

Thanks Mike,

Yeah I feel uncomfortable around overly positive or overly nice people too. I find it quite disarming. But I'm not attempting to be more positive, just less openly negative. Not wasting my energy expressing negative emotions however small. Negativity is contageous isn't it. Maybe I'm being too precious. It's an experiment.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Alex,

I don't know about too precious, but maybe this verse can be seen as advocating an approach which is not too self-conscious.

I think that in this part, the Buddha is recommending Nanda not just to gaze at his own navel, but to have a good look, like a modern-day psychologist, or evolutionary biologist, or anthropologist, at how sentient beings actually behave.

If you have got a job that allows you the opportunity to do this while earning your bread and butter, all the better!


Jordan said...

Hi Mike,
Thanks for reminding me of that resolution. I think I will have another go at it.

Harry said...

Hi Mike,

Good stuff.

On the point of words & terms: surely they're not a problem unless they're a problem?

Dogen Zenji seemed to have a very fresh and playful rapport with the words he was only too happy to mess with. I grant you that orthodoxy and general human substandardry (even hapless translators!?) have taken their toll on his word, and non-word, artistry in many cases.



Harry said...

"...But even having found such a path, it is still a very long way to Tiperary, because a conscious path is always so difficult to practice."


Did you know that the 'Tipperary' in the song is not a reference to the Irish town at all but was the name of a whore house in London frequented by British Army troops?

Seemed relevant to the topic at hand.



Mike Cross said...

Hi Jordan,

Glad to see you haven't given up on this blog yet.

BTW, are you still in contact with that disappointing 'Zen teacher' friend of yours?

All the best,


Mike Cross said...

Hi Harry,

On your first point, I am gradually coming to the conclusion that Sanskrit and English are much better languages for expressing the Buddha's teaching clearly than Chinese and Japanese.

Take the confusion with thinking and non-thinking for example. In Ashvaghosha's clarification of the four dhyaanas, I feel his words leave no room for confusion at all.

Of course if one prefers a smokescreen of ambiguity/inscrutability (which certain authorities have been known from time to time to use to their short-term political and economic advantage) then Chinese and Japanese may be the languages to go for.

On your second point, thanks for that information. You have shattered a romantic wordview that I didn't realise I had, until it was shattered. So, sincerely thanks!

All the best,


Jordan said...

No, I have not given up on this blog. I like it here. I find it rather comfortable.

Regarding the 'Zen teacher' friend: I haven not had contact with that person yet today. I don't know about tomorrow.

Keeping on,

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Jordan,

Maybe it is all the negative mental chatter that makes you feel at home?


Jordan said...


I don't know about that.

More like a mutual affinity, appreciation, and respect of the means whereby.

Mike Cross said...

Ah ha! So is it a kind of pleasure you feel to be among your own kind?

To be serious, I wouldn't disagree with your conclusion, Jordan.

Still, steady does it, or your can-do kick-ass US marine attitude might scare off my more shy and retiring British readers -- some of us "mustn't grumblers" have led very sheltered lives amd are easily embarassed.

Jordan said...

Anecdotal comment, with regards to "mustn't grumblers."

We have some sayings, “Marine’s are not happy unless they have something to complain about”… “If your Marines (that are in your charge) are not complaining, they are probably plotting something that will reflect badly on you.”

Institutionalized grumpiness

Mike Cross said...

Or maybe institutionalized realism, as a result of decades of doing the dirty work of sabre-rattling leaders with big political agendas?

As I sat outside just now drinking a cup of tea, and reflecting on your comment, Jordan, in light of what the Buddha is recommending Nanda to do here -- to observe what actually is -- it struck me that I have often come across deep depths of calm acceptance among warriors and martial artists, and conversely not a few instances of ugly and aggressive ambition among religious folk.

Our stereotypes are ever prone to be wrong!

Yours right or wrong, keeping on keeping on,


Jordan said...

I Mustn't talk about Politics... institutionalized stifling. Besides it makes the red come out...

Speaking of redness, I experienced actual real redness for the first time in a long time the other day when my boss pointed out a long since corrected administrative detail about my last functional area inspection. He was being good natured about it too; just offering some ribbing on one minor point because he "has to give me a hard time about something". Redness was how I reacted. Redness. What is up with that and why can't I take a joke about my job performance especially when my proficiency is never called into question and praised by higher ups. Redness.
Redness, Redness, Redness. I am totally in wonder right now about that redness.

I think your right on about what you are saying in regards to accepting without acceptance; deeply. And thank you for reminding me how fortunate I am to work with reliable people. This too shall pass, I think I have fear reflex to the notion that this will pass too.

Reviewing what I wrote up here,
I must be relaxing a bit.

Thanks for all your efforts Mike,


Mike Cross said...

Thanks, Jordan.

Maybe a deeper obstacle to the truth than redness, is the darkness of denial.

Jordan said...

Denial is a tough one. particularly when compounded with ignorance/delusion. That's where I depend on good friends to help out.