Friday, April 3, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 16.50: When & How to Milk a Cow

a-jaata-vatsaaM yadi gaaM duhiita
n' aaiv' aapnuyaat kShiiram a-kaala-dohii
kaale' pi vaa syaan na payo labheta
mohena shRNgaad yadi gaaM duhiita

If a cow is milked before her calf is born,

Milking at the wrong time might yield no milk.

Or even at the right time no milk might be got

If, through ignorance, a cow were milked by the horn.

In this metaphor, the aim is to get milk. The end to be gained is milk. In order to gain the end, both the timing and the method of milking have to be right.

With regard to timing, Zen Master Dogen said a quiet place is good for sitting-dhyana. That is one of the first rules of sitting-dhyana. But when one endures living in a noisy place like the centre of Tokyo or the South-east of England there are times -- maybe in the early light of dawn, or maybe on a moonlit winter night after a warming trip to the bath-house -- when everything can be surprisingly quiet. Conversely, sometimes one goes to a supposedly quiet place like a forest and a stubbly Frenchman comes along with a big chainsaw. So experience confirms that finding quiet circumstances which are conducive to coming back to oneself, and conducive to forgetting oneself, is largely a question of timing.

With regard to method, the analogy of milking a cow by the horn sounds too absurd. But experience as an Alexander teacher confirms that a lot of people have a lot of conceptions about 'correct posture' and 'correct breathing' which are no less absurd than milking a cow by her horn.

The basic misconception people have is that we can intervene directly with our big neo-cortex to make our posture and breathing better. I have certainly wasted a lot of time and energy over the years trying to do just that. I still have a tendency to do that, but the tendency was especially strong before Alexander work began to give me an inkling of the difference between doing vs non-doing, or sitting with the body vs sitting with the mind.

Striving for freedom by pulling the chin back and down in order to stretch the back of the neck, in the expectation that this will cause the autonomic nervous system to become balanced... if one is able to really look into this conception in a detached manner, is too absurd for words. But because we feel right doing the absurd thing we have learned to do, we tend to like to carry on doing it regardless -- especially when like-minded people come together to encourage each other to keep carrying on like this.

This is how I was in Japan, just like a man happily milking a cow by the horn, as if to say, "I don't care whether or not I get any milk. I am happy just to follow this means, which is like polishing a tile, free of all anxiety about making a mirror."

Actually, there is a kind of happiness in carrying on like this. It is the bliss of ignorance. And because ignorance has a kind of bliss in it, even after it has begun to release its grip, it still retains a certain pull.

Walking away from ignorance, and giving up ignorance, is no bed of roses. Still, when ignorance is given up (not just by kidding oneself with one's intellect but really given up), then something releases, something is allowed to flow. "When we let go, it has already filled the hands," as Dogen wrote.

So Ashvaghosha's point here, as I understand it, is that it is necessary to give up ignorance in order to get milk. And at the same time the giving up of ignorance, if only for a moment, might be milk itself.

a-jaata: not yet born
vatsa: calf
yadi: if, when
gaaM = accusative of go: cow
duhiita (past participle from duh): milked, being milked

na: not
eva: emphatic
aapnuyaat (3rd person singular, present optative of aap): it might reach, obtain, yield
kShiiram (acc.): milk
a-kaala: the wrong time
dohii = nominative, singular of dohin: milking

kaale (locative): at the right time
api: even
vaa: or
syaan (3rd person singular, present optative of as): it might be
na: not
payaH = acc. sg. payas: n. any fluid or juice, (especially) milk
labheta = past participle of labh: to get, gain, obtain

mohena = instrumental of moha: delusion , error , folly, ignorance
shRNgaad = ablative of shRNga: the horn of an animal
yadi: when, if
gaaM = accusative of go: cow
duhiita (past participle from duh): milked, being milked

EH Johnston:
For if a man should milk a cow which has not calved, he would not obtain milk, because he would be milking at the wrong season ; or again, given the right season, he would not obtain milk if through ignorance he were to milk a cow by the horn.

Linda Covill:
A man milking a cow at the wrong time, when her calf is not yet born, will get no milk; and even at the right time, he would get no milk if, in ignorance, he were to milk her by the horn.


Plato said...

Thank you Mike!
Very clarifying translation and commentary!

Mike Cross said...

Thank you for the encouragement, Plato.

I must say I really love these metaphors of Buddha/Ashvaghosha.

They speak to us on so many levels.

Truly, the gold is in the bold.

Pete said...

So Master Dogen says that in general, a quiet room is good for Zen practice, but what of us who live by choice in the Smoke under the Heathrow flight path? No matter when I sit hear birds, aeroplanes and police sirens,(and sometimes dogs). So what? I was born to it. I remember sitting in a pleasant peaceful, but not quite silent, room in(of) Stone. I could hear birds singing, a dog barking and cars in the close. So what? But Mike you were disturbed by the dog. Perhaps it was manifestation of a deeper disturbance. No point in pursuing silence. You’ll only be disappointed.
Nice blog Mike.
Cheers Pete

Mike Cross said...

Er... thank you, Pete!

This verse is about being clear in what you want, and then going about getting it not in the wrong way.

Ashvaghosha's teaching is never optimistic or pessimistic. Neither is his message mixed or confused.

Even though my listening skills are not good, due to deep-seated developmental issues centred on vestibular dysfunction, I see that there is work for me to do in the way of serving Ashvaghosha.

That much is clear.