Saturday, April 4, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 16.51: Skilfull Ways to Start a Blaze

aardraac ca kaaShThaaj jvalan-abhikaamo
n' aiva prayatnaad api vanhim Rcchet
kaaShThaac ca shuShkaad api paatanena
n' aaiv' aagnim aapnoty an-upaaya-puurvaM

16.51
Again, one who wants fire from damp wood,

Try as he might, might not get fire.

And even if he lays down dry wood,

He won't get fire from that, with bad bushcraft.


COMMENT:
In this metaphor, the aim is to get fire. The end to be gained is fire. In order to gain the end, both the condition of the wood and the method of setting fire to it have to be right.

Why does wood burn less easily when it is damp? A chemist would say that the dampness of the wood raises "the activation energy barriers" which temporarily prevent the wood from dissipating its energy, via combustion or other means. This excellent series of web-pages will help you to understand, if you want to, that burning of wood is a process whereby energy is released as bonds are spontaneously formed between carbon in wood and oxygen in the air. The second law of thermodynamics, or "Time's Arrow," says that the energy that is relatively highly concentrated in the carbon atoms in wood has an inherent tendency to dissipate, by joining up with oxygen atoms through combustion or decay, and then floating away in the form of carbon dioxide. But the damper wood is, the greater are the barriers to the initation of the spontaneous process of a fire burning.

The aim of practice may be seen, like a bonfire, as a spontaneous process in which energy is released. Energies such as greed and anger, like the energy locked up in wood, are bound to dissipate in time. But again, Time's Arrow can be held in check, temporarily, by the taut bow of chemical kinetics. So when a baby is throwing a temper tantrum, for example, the energy of the baby's anger is bound to dissipate sooner or later; it is only a matter of time before a crying baby quietens down. But anger lasts longer in some babies than in others. In some adults too, the barriers which prevent the energy of anger from dissipating are higher than in other adults. In my experience of self and others, adults with blocked anger have in many cases developed compensatory mechanisms for dealing with an aberrant Moro reflex. Criticize it if you will, complain about it if you like, mock it if you must, but sometimes a person's suffering from blocked anger is a fact like firewood having become damp.

So what Ashvaghosha might be telling us with the metaphor of damp wood, as I understand him, is not to be surprised or downhearted by difficult periods of practice, during which body and mind do not spontaneously drop off, and the original face does not appear. Even though theoretically body and mind should tend to drop off, just as wood is supposed to burn, in fact activation energy barriers can get in the way. Sometimes activiation energy barriers are a fact, like having three heads and eight arms.

When one finds oneself in a difficult phase, out of the groove, unable to get going, when it just is not happening, then what else can one do but pass through it? When we are powerlessness to turn the wheel of the Lotus-Universe, what else can we do but leave the wheel to turn itself? Tomorrow will be another day, bringing another opportunity to sit, and another target to aim for -- which might be another verse of Saundarananda.

With regard to method, I borrowed the word "bushcraft" from Ray Mears, whose TV demonstrations of fire-lighting I have enjoyed over the years. Having spent many years very modestly studying the art of lighting fires under native peoples on several continents, Ray is a paragon of the kind of open-minded humility that goes with true confidence. You sense that he could get a fire going from the most unpromising of raw materials, like a very experienced Alexander teacher working with a deeply fixed person. Especially without the aid of modern technology, lighting a fire is a task that requires both the right approach and also a lot of persistence -- which may be why it is a recurrent metaphor in the golden speech of Buddha and in the golden writings of Ashvaghosha.

VOCABULARY:
aardraat = ablative of aardra: wet, damp
ca: and
kaaShThaat = ablative of kaaShta: piece of wood or timber
jvalan = in comp. for jvalat: blazing fire, flame
abhikaamaH (nom. sg. m.): one who is desirous

na: not
eva: (emphatic)
prayatnaad = ablative of prayatna: persevering effort , continued exertion or endeavour; great care
api: even
vanhim (accusative): the conveyer or bearer of oblations to the gods (esp. said of agni, " fire "); fire
Rccheta = 3rd person singular, present optative of √R: to go, send; reach, obtain

kaaShThaat = ablative of kaaShta: piece of wood or timber
ca: and
shuShkaad = ablative of shuShka: dry
api: even
paatanena = instrumental of paatana: n. the act of causing to fall, felling, lowering, humbling; the act of casting

na: not
eva; (emphatic)
agnim (accusative): fire
aapnoti = 3rd person singular of aap: to get, obtain
an: (negative prefix) wrong, bad
upaaya: that by which one reaches one's aim , a means or expedient (of any kind) , way , stratagem , craft
puurvam: (at the end of compounds) with


EH Johnston:
And a man who wants a fire will not obtain one from damp wood, however much he tries, nor because of using the wrong method will he obtain a fire even from dry wood, if he merely throws it down.

Linda Covill:
A man wanting a fire will not get one from damp wood, even if he tries; and even laying on dry wood, he won't get a fire if he uses the wrong method.

2 comments:

Jordan said...

When one finds oneself in a difficult phase, out of the groove, unable to get going, when it just is not happening, then what else can one do but pass through it? When we are powerlessness to turn the wheel of the Lotus-Universe, what else can we do but leave the wheel to turn itself? Tomorrow will be another day, bringing another opportunity to sit, and another target to aim for -- which might be another verse of Saundarananda.

Mike,
I wonder if it was as pleasant writing that as I felt reading it.

Thanks for your efforts,
Jordan

Mike Cross said...

Thanks as always for your encouragement, Jordan.

To be honest, all my comments are tinged with doubt, but I don't have any doubt about persevering with the translation -- the gold is in the bold.

Keep on keeping on, being the individual you are (in accordance with the following verse, and contrary to the comments of pacifist pests),

Mike