Friday, April 24, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 16.71: Time Is of the Essence of the Contract

an-aadi-kaal' opacit'-aatmakatvaad
baliiyasaH klesha-gaNasya c'aiva
samyak-prayogasya ca duSh-karatvaac
chettuM na shakyaaH sahasaa hi doShaaH

Because of the instinct-led accumulation,
from time without beginning,

Of the powerful mass of afflictions,

And because true practice is so difficult to do,

The faults cannot be cut off all at once.

I would like to comment on this verse by quoting a passage that I think is relevant from the writings of FM Alexander, in which he uses the term “non-doing.” But before that I will describe my a priori experience of what non-doing means. (A priori means before I ever heard the Zen term “body and mind dropping off” or the Alexander term “non-doing.”)

Thirty years ago I began competing, at a very low level, in competition karate. I pretty much had only one technique -- a reverse counter-punch with my right fist. But I found myself able to use this technique to an effect that surprised me -- especially the first time I tried it out in earnest, when my opponent, a brown-belt from Leeds University whose disconcerting nickname was “killer,” went down like a deck of cards. Much to my own astonishment, I, an extremely nervous and lanky white-belt on his first outing, had winded him with a shot to the floating ribs. Having been keen on sports from an early age, I suppose that (in spite of congenital vestibular problems, received from my father, having been accumulated by his ancestors from time without beginning) my timing was not bad. I would wait and wait and wait for my opponent to leave himself open when he came in for an attack, ignoring his feints, waiting for a true opening. Then when the opening came I would sometimes experience my counter-punch doing itself, seemingly before I was even conscious of it, like a coiled spring suddenly freeing itself. The effect, I remember, was particularly strong when I was participating as the captain of a five-man competition team. And the effect was sufficiently strong to make me think that academic stuff that I was supposed to be studying at university was of zero importance in comparison. That’s why despite doing a degree in Accounting & Financial Management, I have ended up living such an alternative life, never really entering the corporate world but going instead to Japan with the intention of investigating Zen in the martial arts, and then coming back to England to investigate the discoveries of FM Alexander. Which brings me back to that quote:

I can assure my readers that anyone who will follow me through the experiences I have set down, especially with regard to 'non-doing', cannot fail to benefit; but I must emphasize that they will not be following me unless they recognize:
(1) that knowledge concerned with sensory experience cannot be conveyed by the written or spoken word, so that it means to the recipient what it means to the person who is trying to convey it:
(2) that they will need to depend upon new 'means - whereby' for the gaining of their ends, and that they will 'feel wrong' at first in carrying out the procedures because these will be unfamiliar:
(3) that that attempt to bring about change involving growth, development and progressive improvement in the use and functioning of the human organism, calls necessarily for the acceptance, yes, the welcoming of the unknown in sensory experience, and this 'unknown' cannot be associated with the sensory experiences that have hitherto 'felt right.'
(4) that to 'try and get it right' by direct 'doing' is to try and reproduce what is known, and cannot lead to the 'right', the as yet 'unknown.'

To anyone who accepts these points and sees the reason for keeping them in view whilst working to principle in employing the technique, I would say: 'Go ahead, but remember that time is of the essence of the contract.'

FM Alexander, Preface (1941) to The Use of the Self.

So what?

So, the key to understanding this section of the Canto, is not to fall at the stumbling block of nimitta -- a word which EH Johnston and Linda Covill have, quite forgivably, understood as having to do with meditation. I say quite forgivably, because people generally assume that Buddhist practice has to do with meditating. But what I have learned in the last 30 years of trying to make sense of a counter-punch that seemed miraculously to do itself, is that a moment of sitting-buddha has to do with a stimulus, the inhibition of one’s habitual reaction to that stimulus (not doing), and the allowing of action (non-doing). I still don’t claim to be more than a beginner in these matters -- because the true practice of allowing is so bloody difficult to do -- but this much at least I have understood. So my translation of the next verse, and of others verses in this section, will reflect my understanding that nimitta has nothing to do with meditation but nimitta means a stimulus, or starting point of action.

Thus, even though the faults cannot all be struck down at once, a deck of cards comes tumbling down, and those cards are on the table.

(But they are always liable to be reshuffled....)

EH Johnston:
For the faults cannot be extirpated all at once, partly because the troop of the vices are very strong, having from their nature accumulated from time without beginning, and partly because right practice is difficult.

Linda Covill:
The faults cannot be cut off all of a sudden, partly because the powerful mass of defilements has by nature been accumulating from beginningless time, and partly because the correct practice is so difficult to do.

an-aadi: without beginning
kaalaH (nom. sg.): m. time
upacita: heaped up , increased; thriving , increasing , prospering , succeeding ; big , fat , thick
aatmakatvaat = ablative of aatmakatvam:
aatmaka: having or consisting of the nature or character of (in comp.); consisting or composed of
-tvam = suffix for abstract nouns

baliiyasaH = genitive of baliiyas: more or most powerful , or mighty or strong or important or efficacious
klesha: affliction
gaNasya = genitive of gaNa: a flock , troop , multitude
ca: and
eva: (emphatic)

samyak: true, proper, out and out
prayogasya = genitive of prayoga: practice
ca: and
duSh-karatvaat = ablative of duSh-karatvam: being hard to do

chettum = infinitive of chid: to cut off
na: not
shakyaaH (nom. pl. m.): able , possible , practicable , capable of being (with infinitive in passive sense)
sahasaa (instrumental of sahas, powerful): forcibly , vehemently , suddenly , quickly , precipitately , immediately , at once , unexpectedly , at random , fortuitously , in an unpremeditated manner
hi: for
doShaaH (nom. pl.): m. faults, imbalances


Raymond said...


If I understand you right, it might follow that one can practice just as authentically in lay life. One source of anguish for me has been the idea that since I must make a living and cannot practice the way ancients have practiced in the past, I must not be able to experience their realization.

I think what you are pointing to, what Charlotte Joko Beck is pointing to in some of her writing, is that practice has almost nothing to do with sitting in a certain posture all day every day. It might have more to do with binding on the armour of mindfulness and turning towards each moment with a deftness and sensitivity that opens up an opportunity to break free of our habitual patterns of action and reaction.

What say you?

Mike Cross said...

I think that the fundamental fault you are expressing, Raymond, is feeble energy, i.e. weakness of mind towards formal sitting practice.

A garnering stimulus in such a case might be Master Dogen's teaching to practise full lotus sitting with body, with mind and as body and mind dropping off.

Again, in this Canto great emphasis is placed on yoga and on viirya.

Yoga, as I understand Ashvaghosha's usage of the term, means formal practice. Not formalistic practice, but formal practice. Formal practice means practice in which we observe the traditional form, with legs crossed and hands placed in the traditional way.

Viirya means manly endeavour. Not girly excuses or feminist rationales for failing to throw oneself into formal practice.

Another garnering stimulus might be a time target for hours of sitting in a day.

In my case, for two years from 1986 to 1988 I sat in full lotus for a minimum of five hours a day, every day. After that I started translation work in earnest. At that time, my understanding of sitting practice in terms of stimulus, reaction and action was almost zero. But the sitting for five hours a day, even if it was only with the body, was a kind of starting point.