Saturday, May 16, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 16.93: In Praise of Bittersweet Endeavour

dravyaM yathaa syaat kaTukaM rasena
tac c' opayuktaM madhuraM vipaake
tath" aaiva viiryaM kaTukaM shrameNa
tasy' aartha-siddhau madhuro vipaakaH

Just as the flesh of a fruit may be bitter to the taste

And yet it is sweet when eaten ripe,

So manly endeavour, being a struggle, is bitter

And yet, in accomplishment of the aim,
its mature fruit is sweet.

This verse is much more difficult to understand than it might appear to the unwary.

It would be easy to read this verse as an expression of optimism; but what this verse, as I read it, is really all about is not taking the easy option.

On 19th February 1925, an old girl of K.E.H.S Birmingham named Irene Tasker transcribed a lecture by FM Alexander given to the Child-Study Society, in which he said: "The technique that I have worked at all these years enables you to get rid of your defects in the process of carrying it out."

FM quoted his friend and supporter Dr Peter Macdonald, who was later (1942 - 45) to become chairman of the British Medical Association:

"Alexander does not treat specific defects. He does not undertake specific cures, but the specific defects are eradicated in the process. For instance, in flat-foot, he never touches that foot or the leg, but that flat-foot will disappear in the process."

Alexander, in other words, did not take the easy option. He worked to the preventive principle in the eradication of defects, looking at a person in the round.

Working on the eradication of defects in this way, as anybody knows who has really devoted themselves to working in this way, is a tough struggle. It is never to take the easy option.

Psychological therapies and formalistic Japanese sitting (so-called "Zazen") are just easy options. You might think, as you sit with your legs on fire, that Zazen is not an easy option, but that thought is only a manifestation of your ignorance. What Buddha/Ashvaghosha are outlining in this Canto is something much more difficult than that, which is eradication of defects on a general, preventive basis, working to a principle.

As I mentioned previously, there are people who, without asking my permission, have translated my stuff directly from my English into their own language. They have taken the easy option, and they do not have my respect. Gabriele Linnebach has my respect, because she took the option which, from the beginning, was not easy for her. Twenty-odd years ago we sat opposite each other going through Fukan-zazengi character by character. I did not realize how difficult Gabriele was finding the task, until the tears started rolling down her cheeks. She was daunted. She felt the task was too difficult for her. But it wasn't too difficult. It was very difficult, but in the end it did not prove too difficult. So I cite Gabriele's example as one example of manly endeavour which was good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end.

After seventy years in the work of enabling self and others to get rid of defects in the process of carrying out an activity (against the habits of a lifetime), Elisabeth Walker writes: "One knows with absolute certainty that what one is communicating is good."

This also could easily be understood as a statement of optimism. But I much prefer to read it as a statement of the unshakeable confidence of a person who refused to be overwhelmed by grief, following tragedies like the death of her first child and the death of the love of her life -- her husband of 50-odd years.

Similarly, when the Lotus Sutra says that the Dharma is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end, for me it is not the expression of optimistic or realistic philosophy. To me, it is rather the expression of the Buddha's unshakeable confidence that what he was communicating was good. And that kind of confidence cannot arise from taking short-cuts or easy options. It arises from working to principle, against instinctive habits, and this invariably involves a hard struggle.

So this verse, as I read it, is not expressing an optimistic thought that what is now something bad will turn into something good. It is not saying that bitter fruit is bad and sweet fruit is good. The intention might rather be that real fruit, tasting bitter when unripe and sweet when ripe, is always good.

In other words, this verse is an encouragement not to be put off by whatever bitterness endeavour may bring. What feels like the wrong thing might in fact already be the right thing, struggling to assert itself.

In discussing the feeling of bitterness in Shobogenzo chapter. 73, Master Dogen wrote:

Bitterness is a feeling. That it is the independent subject feeling, is not it. That it is objective feeling, is not it. That it is feeling as something that exists, is not it. That it is feeling as what does not exist, is not it. It is the living body feeling. It is the living body suffering. It means sweet ripe melons being replaced by bitter gourds. This is bitter to the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow, and bitter to the conscious mind, the unconscious mind, and so on. This is the practice and the experience of a mystical power that is a cut above -- a mystical power that springs out from the entire stem and springs out from the whole root. Thus, "It has been said that living beings suffer. Yet what actually exist are suffering living beings." That living beings are self is not it. That living beings are the other is not it. What actually exists is suffering living beings. In the end, it is impossible to deceive others. Sweet melons are sweet through to their stems. Bitter gourds are bitter through to their roots. And yet it is not easy to grope what this bitterness is. We should ask ourselves: what is this bitterness?

If I look forward to a dessert of summer-fruit pudding, with ripe blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries, that is only my imagination working. In the garden or in the fridge, there are no blackberries. Whereas the rhubarb growing in my back garden is not yet ready to eat, but there it is, really growing, leaves extending out to receive the sun's energy. So this verse, as I read it, is not an affirmation of expected summer fruits; it is rather an affirmation of real rhubarb -- just as Dogen's words are an affirmation of real bitterness.

EH Johnston:
Just as a substance may be hot in taste and yet when eaten be easy to digest, so energy may be painful through the toil it involves and yet be pleasant in its result through the accomplishment of the object in hand.

Linda Covill:
Just as a substance may be pungent in flavour yet when eaten ripe may prove to be sweet, so an endeavor may be hard in its execution but when it ripens through the accomplishment of its aims, prove to be sweet.

dravyam (nom. sg.): n. a substance , thing , object ; the ingredients or materials of anything ; medicinal substance or drug
yathaa: just as
syaat (optative): might be
kaTukam (nom. sg.): sharp , pungent , bitter ; fierce , impetuous , hot , bad
rasena = instrumental of rasa: taste, flavour

tat (nom./acc. sg. n.): it
ca: and
upayuktam (nom./acc. sg. n.): enjoyed , eaten , consumed
madhuram (nom./acc. sg. n.): sweet , pleasant , charming , delightful
vipaake = locative of vipaaka: ripe , mature ; ripening , maturing (esp. of the fruit of actions); maturing of food (in the stomach) , digestion,

tathaa (correlative of yathaa): so
eva: (emphatic) the same
viiryam (nom. sg.): n. manliness , valour , strength , power , energy ; heroism , heroic deed; manly vigour , virility
kaTukam (nom. sg. n.): bitter
shrameNa = instrumental of shrama: fatigue , weariness , exhaustion; exertion , labour , toil , exercise , effort either bodily or mental , hard work of any kind

tasya (gen. sg. m./n.): of it, of him
aartha: aim , purpose
siddhau = locative of siddhi: f. accomplishment , performance , fulfilment , complete attainment (of any object) , success
N.B. EHJ says that he reads this word as siddhyaa = instrumental of siddhi, and LC follows this reading. Johnston's original Sanskrit
text, if I have read it correctly reads as siddhau, which seems to make sense to me.
madhuraH (nom. sg. m.: sweet
vipaakaH (nominative singular of vipaaka): m. ripening , maturing (esp. of the fruit of actions)

1 comment:

Mike Cross said...

EHJ's original text reads siddhyau.