Wednesday, May 20, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 16.97: Studies in the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics

a-nikShipt'-otsaaho yadi khanati gaaM vaari labhate
prasaktaM vyaamathnan jvalanam araNibhyaaM janayati
prayuktaa yoge tu dhruvam upalabhante shrama-phalaM
drutaM nityaM yaantyo girim api hi bhindanti saritaH

A man obtains water if he digs the ground
with dogged perseverance,

And produces fire from fire-sticks
by continuous twirling.

But those are sure to reap the fruit of their effort
whose energies are harnessed to practice,

For rivers that flow swiftly and constantly
cut through even a mountain.

This verse is all about harnessing energy -- in accordance with the 2nd law of thermodynamics which describes the tendency that energy has to dissipate, unless prevented from doing so by activation energy barriers.

The four lines of this verse are four studies in the 2nd law, following a certain order of progression.

Getting water out of the ground is a physical process. Obtaining water by digging a well requires gross physical effort to dig up earth, and gross physical effort to draw up water. The digging and drawing up are purely mechanical processes, in which activation energy barriers are preventing chemical reactions from taking place. If a wooden bucket is used, activation energy barriers are preventing the water from reacting with the carbon atoms of the bucket. Activation energy barriers, moreover, are maintaining the integrity of the molecular structure of the sides and bottom of the bucket and thereby preventing the water from leaking away.

Fire is ovtained not only through physical means but also through chemical reaction. Getting fire by twirling firesticks again requires persistent effort, but it is effort of a subtler and more skilfull kind than digging, involving a certain amount of know-how, and a good deal of preparation in terms of procuring kindling, dry firewood, and so on. Then nonstop twirling is required to produce the initial flame that allows activation energy barriers to be overcome in the kindling, whose burning then allows activation energy barriers to be overcome in the firewood. Then, at last, the fire gets going, as carbon and oxygen atoms continue to bond spontaneously with each other, releasing heat and light energy as they form more energetically stable compounds of carbon dioxide.

The physical and mental harnessing of energy which is the purpose of formal practice (yoga) requires both these kinds of work on the self: not only gross muscular effort to do something, like digging, but also more subtle mental effort NOT to do. The false mental conceptions that we bring to practice -- the conception that causes us to try to do an undoing, for example -- are akin to activation energy barriers in chemistry in that they operate as blocks to the spontaneous flow of energy. Not by physical work alone can we remove those blocks. Removal of those blocks also requires mental work. Mental work, like fire, has to do with reaction. Mental work has to do with inhibiting or allowing certain reactions to certain stimuli. So Dogen wrote:

Sit with the body.
Sit with the mind.

Sitting with body and mind is effort, but the fruit of such effort is the enjoyment of effortlessness. The fruit of effort, in other words, is that spontaneous flow which is to...

Sit as the dropping off of body and mind.

In discussing the progression of these three lines with my 18-year old son who does not have any interest at all in "Buddhism" but who will be starting a university degree in Chemistry in October, I asked him what he thought the logical subject of the fourth line might be. He paused for a few seconds, looking much more interested in his chicken sandwich than in my attempts to draw him into this discussion. "Dunno. Water flowing down a mountain, I suppose."

Yes, because a mountain stream is the most conspicuous manifestation we see in the natural world of the spontaneous flow of energy, and rivers cutting gorges and canyons out of mountains are most magnificent examples of how the most massive barriers can be eroded, given time, by spontaneous flow of energy itself.

Among many wonderful and inspiring metaphors that cut through all cultural and language barriers to communicate to us exactly what the Buddha wanted to communicate, this verse contains my absolute favourites. Whether as a student and translator of the Buddha's teachings, or as a student and advocate of FM Alexander's teachings, direction of energy is the business I am in. Direction of energy, I submit, is in the final analysis what this Canto is all about.

EH Johnston:
A man obtains water if he digs the earth with unremitting energy ; he produces fire from the fire-sticks by continuous friction ; and the men who apply themselves to Yoga certainly obtain the fruit of their toil. For streams, by ever running swiftly, wear away even mountains.

Linda Covill:
A man obtains water when he digs the ground with unceasing perseverance, and he produces fire from fire-sticks by continually rubbing them together. And those who apply themselves to yogic discipline are sure to win the reward of their exertions; for rivers that run swiftly and continuously can erode even a mountain.


a: not
nikShipta: thrown down or upon ; deposited , pawned , pledged ; rejected , abandoned
utsaahaH (nom. sg.): m. power , strength ; strength of will , resolution ; effort , perseverance , strenuous and continuous exertion , energy; firmness , fortitude
yadi: if, when
khanati = 3rd person singular of khan: to dig
gaaM = acc. sg. go: a cow; the earth (as the milk-cow of kings)
vaari (acc. sg.): n. water
labhate = 3rd person singular of labh: gain, obtain

prasaktam: ind. continually , incessantly
vyaamathnan = nom. sg. m. present participle of vyaa-math
math: to produce fire by rapidly whirling round or rotating a dry stick (araNi) in another dry stick prepared to receive it
jvalanam (acc. sg.): m. fire
araNibhyaam = abl. dual araNi: f. firestick
janayati = 3rd person singular of jan: to produce

prayukta: yoked , harnessed ; used , employed , practised , performed , done
prayuktaaH = nom. pl. m. prayukta: those who are harnessed
yoge = locative of yoga: practice, formal practice
tu: but, now, then (sometimes used as expletive)
dhruvam: ind. firmly , constantly , certainly , surely
upalabhante = 3rd person plural of upalabh: to seize , get possession of , acquire , receive , obtain , find
shrama-phalam (acc.): the fruit of exertion
shrama:fatigue; exertion , labour , toil , exercise , effort either bodily or mental , hard work of any kind
phala: fruit, result, benefit

drutam: ind. quickly , rapidly
nityam: ind. always , constantly
yaantyaH (nom. sg. m.): going
girim (acc. sg.): m. a mountain , hill , rock
api: even, also
hi: for
bhindanti = 3rd person plural of bhid: , to split , cleave , break , cut or rend asunder , pierce , destroy
saritaH = nom. pl. sarit: a river, stream

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