Thursday, March 19, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 16.35: Balance Holds Faults At Bay

kleshaaMs tu viShkambhayate samaadhir
vegaan iv' aadrir mahato nadiinaaM
sthite samaadhau hi na dharShayanti
doshaa bhujaMgaa iva mantra-baddhaaH

Then balance repels afflictions

Like a mountain the mighty torrents of rivers;

For, as long as a man remains in balance,
faults do not venture to attack him:

The faults, like charmed snakes, are spellbound.

What is emerging clearly from this Canto is that the teaching of the four noble truths, for Ashvaghosha, all comes down to (1) preventing the growth of, (2) defending stoutly against, and (3) setting out to destroy, the faults like greed, anger, and ignorance that all begin with thirsting.

My head is befuddled this morning and my immune system is struggling -- whether against a virus or against tree pollen, or against a combination of both, I do not even know. But even in this befuddled state I cannot fail to notice the relevance of the order in which Ashvaghosha presents his strategy for combating the faults: (1) prevent, (2)defend, and (3) attack. The order of this progression seems to me, as I write this now, to be of very great importance.

It makes perfect sense -- of course it does -- that effort to maintain integrity, in using voice and body and in earning a living, belongs to the preventive stage, and that this stage should come first.

The progression to this verse is a progression from the preventive maintainance of integrity (shiila), a matter of use of the SELF, to the defensive allowing of balance (samaadhi), a condition of NATURE.

What is required of us in this verse, then, goes beyond our autonomous use of ourselves and enters into the area of allowing autonomic functioning, because that is what the balance or harmony of samaadhi basically is: a function of systems which operate wholly or mainly below the level of consciousness, in the cerebellar/vestibular system, in the action of stretch reflexes mediated at the level of the spinal chord, in the autonomic nervous system, in the endocrine/immune systems, and so on.

Part of the progression between the previous verse and this verse is less tolerance towards the faults. Still, the existence of balance, in the form of a mountain or in the form of a man abiding in samaadhi, does not preclude the co-existence of voilent rapids or of reptilian faults. The mountain/practitioner remains immune to the torrents/snakes, but the perilous rapids and poisonous snakes are still very much in the picture. The potentially harmful objects have no power to harm the subject who is defended and protected by his balanced state, but those dangerous objects still exist.

When autonomic functions related to balance are allowed to work, then, a practitioner becomes resilient to faults. But this resilience is not pro-active. No initiative is taken yet in the direction of setting out to destroy faults, which is the theme of the next verse.

Ashvaghosha thus seems to be guiding the reader to an understanding of what the Buddha's teaching requires of the practitioner, that I for one have never come across before so explicitly, either in Alexander work (where the emphasis is very much on restoring integrity through preventive means and thereby allowing the right thing to do itself), or in Zen practice as I was taught it (where everything was reduced to autonomic balance). Ashvaghosha's teaching seems to be on the point of affirming, in a definite order, not only (1) the preventive value of maintaining integrity and (2) the defensive value of allowing balance, but also (3) the destructive value of exercising aggressive intent towards the faults.

This threefold progression mirrors Nanda's progress in life, towards the exercise of greater initiative and assertiveness in his own combating of the faults. Ashvaghosha uses the military metaphor advisedly, because in the end Nanda's task is a destructive one -- requiring an aggressive attack on the obstacles to liberation. But before aggression there must be balance, and the proper route to balance is an indirect one, beginning with preventive means to maintain integrity in the use of the self.

If we take a direct approach to pursuing balance, for example, trying to keep "the correct posture" by doing this and that -- pulling the chin in, and the rest of it -- the whole enterprise will be doomed to failure. That much, brain befuddled or not, I really do know. I know because, very assiduously and zealously, for 13 years while living in Japan, I practised that mistake -- chest puffed up like a red-eyed bulldog. What my sitting practice in essence was, to tell the truth, was the very diligent practice of the fault of ignorance.

kleshaan (accusative, plural): afflictions
tu: but, and, then
viShkambhayate = 3rd person, singular of viShkambh: to hurl, cast; escape
samaadhiH (nominative, singular): balance, coming together, union, harmony

vegaan = accusative, plural of vega: violent agitation; a stream , flood , current, torrent
iva: like
adriH = nominative, singular of adri: stone, rock, mountain
mahataH = accusative, plural of mahat: great, mighty
nadiinaam = genitive, plural of nadii: river

sthite = locative of sthita: standing, remaining, abiding
samaadhau = locative of samaadhi: balance
hi: for
na: not
dharShayanti = 3rd person plural of dhRSh: to dare or venture; to dare to attack, treat with indignity (acc.)

doShaaH: (nominative, plural): m. faults
bhujaMgaaH (nominative, plural): m. a serpent , snake , serpent-demon
iva: like
mantra: " instrument of thought " , speech , sacred text or speech , a prayer or song of praise;
a mystical verse or magical formula (sometimes personified) , incantation , charm , spell
baddhaaH (nom. pl. m): bound

EH Johnston:
But concentration of mind repels the vices like a mountain the mighty currents of rivers ; for the faults, like spellbound snakes, are unable to attack the man who abides in concentration of mind.

Linda Covill:
But concentration casts off the defilements like a mountain casts off the mighty torrents of rivers; for the faults, like snakes transfixed by a magic formula, do not venture to attack a man who is fixed in concentration.


Plato said...

Hi Mike!
How do you try to apply "the exercising aggressive intent towards the faults" in you daily life? In many spiritual paths this attitude to "faults" is either ignored (people just accept and observe them and do not try to change them) or takes the form of self-punishment (like a catholic monk whiping his back to subdue his sexual desire). So I think it will be very helpful to try to understand what Buddha and Ashvagosha mean with "aggressive intent" or at least what they do not mean.

Thank you for the continuous effort regardless the congestion!


Mike Cross said...

Hi Plato!

The "aggressive intent" is my interpretation of how Buddha and Ashvaghosha are exhorting us to go about destroying the faults.

I am not sure if I have got that far yet in my own practice -- I think I might still be staring up at the foothills of siila and samaadhi.

But it is becoming more clear to me what Ashvaghosha meant by his military metaphor -- that we have an ultimate objective, which is eliminating the faults, on the basis of prajnaa. And in order to gain that objective, we had better pay attention to the proper means, beginning with siila and samaadhi.

So I am not preaching what I practise here, but rather just thinking aloud as I try to be clear in my own mind what Ashvaghosha is saying.

I think my attitude hitherto has inclined to what you describe as ignorance -- just accepting and observing and not trying to change. But I sense that Ashvaghosha is pointing to a more positive attitude beyond that.

Thank you for your coninuing encouragement!


Uku said...

For, as long as a man remains in balance,
faults do not venture to attack him:

Nice one, Mike! Balance is indeed very important in every aspects of our life. Thank you!

Mike Cross said...

Hello Markus -- you are welcome.

And, after due consideration, I would like to add the following:

Integrity weakens the hold of ignorance.
Balance holds ignorance at bay.
But wisdom destroys ignorance without a trace.
This is Ashvaghosha's teaching.

And this is my experience:
The word "balance" does not hold ignorance at bay, at all. But actual practice of integrity does weaken the hold of ignorance.

And even though you are now reading my words "actual practice of integrity," I am afraid that you do not know, you cannot know, what I really mean.

Uku said...

Hi Mike,

I think you're right. I really can't fully understand your words or anyone else's words. After all, they are just words and words are not the same as this reality.

Take care, Mike!


Mike Cross said...

Hello Markus,

My mother's grandfather, Bill Howarth, as I remember him, was a lovely man. He would go over the road to the Anchor pub for half a pint, and a pipeful of cheap, strong tobacco, keeping himself to himself. He was a very quiet and modest man, not known for holding strong views of his own on any issue but known as a hard worker.

All the best,