Monday, April 13, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 16.60: Pick Your Own Passion-Killer

raag'oddhate cetasi dhairyam etya
niShevitavyam tv a-shubham nimittam
raag'-aatmako hy evam upaiti sharma
kaph'-aatmako ruukSham iv' opayujya

Steadiness lies, when one's mind is stirred up by lust,

In coming back to a disagreeable stimulus;

For thus a passionate type obtains relief,

Like a phlegmatic type taking an astringent.

A-subha, literally "not beautiful" or "not agreeable," was generally translated into Chinese with two characters read in Japanese as FU-JO, not pure, impurity.

But impurity is somewhat abstract. Whether a stimulus is pure or impure is something of a relative, philosophical problem... Is a sewage works impure? If a pub or restaurant charges a customer for a glass of tap water, is the water pure? Discuss. Or, much better, don't discuss.

Whether a person finds a stimulus agreeable or disagreeable, in contrast, is a concrete, individual matter leaving less room for discussion. Do you want salt and vinegar on your chips, love?

So when I seek steadiness by coming back to a disagreeable stimulus, what that disagreeable stimulus is, is none of your business; and, vice versa, what you find disagreeable is none of my business.

A general point that emerges out of considering how to translate a-subha is that I stupidly somehow expected Ashvaghosha's teaching, before I started studying it in detail, to be more authoritarian, more patriarchal, more prescriptive, altogether less democratic and less modern, and further away from my original culture, than the teaching of Zen Masters in China and Japan with which, from translating Shobogenzo, I was more familiar. But the picture which is emerging from this present translation work is 180 degrees opposite from my expectation. It seems to me that there is more, not less, latitude for individual freedom in Ashvaghosha's approach. His teaching, for me, is not further but closer to home.

Salt and vinegar on your chips, love?
Yes please.
Do you fancy a pickled onion?
Why not?

Ashvaghosha was in no way a product of Confucianist Chinese or insular and nationalistic Japanese culture. I, sadly, have been deeply influenced, for the worse, by certain Japanese habits, of the end-gaining variety, and I know that I am not the only one. (Hi, Plato!) For any follower of Zen Master Dogen, to separate the original wheat from Japanese chaff is no easy thing. Or, to use a more apt metaphor, to separate the Buddha's original gold from Confucianist Chinese and Japanese ore is no easy thing. But that is what this effort is all about -- mining and refining Ashvaghosha's gold.

EH Johnston:
But when the mind is excited by passion, the subject of meditation called 'impure' should be selected so as to reach steadfastness; for thus the man of passionate nature obtains relief, like the man subject to phlegm who uses astringent remedies.

Linda Covill:
When the mind is stirred up by passion, one should find stability and practice the impurity meditation, for that is how a man of passionate nature finds relief, like a patient with a phlegm condition using astringent treatments.

raaga: colour , hue , tint , dye , (esp.) red colour , redness; inflammation; any feeling or passion , (esp.) love , affection or sympathy for , vehement desire
uddhata: raised (as dust) , turned up; lifted up , raised , elevated , high; violent , intense; puffed up , haughty , vain , arrogant ; rude , ill-behaved; exceeding , excessive ; abounding in , full of; stirred up , excited , agitated
dhairyam (nom. sg.): n. firmness , constancy , calmness , patience , gravity , fortitude , courage
etya = absolutive of aa-√i: to reach , attain , enter , come into (a state or position)

niShev: (with acc.) to practise , perform , cultivate , use , employ
niShevitavyam (nom. sg. n. from gerundive of niShevita): to be practised , observed , resorted to
tu: but
a-shubham (nom. sg. n.): not beautiful or agreeable , disagreeable; impurity
nimittam (nom. sg.): n. cause, stimulus, antidote

raag-aatmaakaH (nom. sg. m.): a passionate type
hi: for
evam: thus
upaiti = 3rd person singular upe (upa-√i): to reach, obtain, to enter a state
sharma = accusative of sharman: shelter , protection , refuge , safety; comfort

kaph'-aatmakaH (nom. sg. m.): a phlegm type, one whose nature is phlegmatic
ruukSham (nom. sg.): n. an astringent
iva: like
upayujya = absolutive of upa- vyuj: to harness to; to use , employ , apply; to have the use of


Raymond said...


I enjoy your commentary very much. Related to post 16.58, " do you want some salt and vinegar on your chips, love?" might be my starting point from now on...whenever my large ego makes me believe that I know what is right and wrong for the whole world I will recall these important words. Them, I might wonder, who the heck do I think I am? I think that would be refreshing.

Thank you for all of your hard work.


Mike Cross said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Raymond.

After publishing the post, I thought back to the old Boddington's beer advert which featured the line "Do you want a flake in that, love?"

The line resonated with me because I was an ice-cream man in a northern town in a past life.

But to use that line would have been even more cultural specific.

Anyway, yes, I agree with you -- it is getting things completely upside down to get all big-headed and evangelical about the Buddha's teaching.

All the best,