Tuesday, August 25, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 13.50: The Roots of Abnormality

indhane sati vaayau ca
yathaa jvalati paavakaH
viShayaat parikalpaac ca
klesh'-aagnir jaayate tathaa

= - = - - = = -
- = - - - = - =
- - = - - = = -
= = = = - = - =

Where fuel and air co-exist,

Just as there a fire burns,

With an object and through fixing,

So a fire of affliction arises.

If we interpret parikalpa to mean illusion, invention, imagining, this verse, the previous verse, and following verse all sound reasonable enough, as in the translations of EHJ and LC.

But how do afflictions like greed and anger actually arise? As a result of illusion or imagination? Or as a result of some deeper psycho-physical abnormality?

In the context of this canto, whose title is Thwarting the Power of the Senses through Practice of Integrity, fixing rather than imagining is the translation of parikalpa which, in my book, fits better and also which has the more profound meaning, touching on the problem of unduly excited fear reflexes.

Consider, for example, how greed for food arises. Does it arise primarily because of some illusion we have about food or some imaginations or imaginings about food? Or does it arise primarily become something is stuck, because of some arrested development of our psycho-physical mechanisms?

Here is how FM Alexander addressed that question in his book Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, at the end of a chapter whose title, very appropriately for our present discussion, is UNDULY EXCITED FEAR REFLEXES, UNCONTROLLED EMOTIONS, AND FIXED PREJUDICES:

Fundamental desires and needs must be satisfied; if they are not, serious results must follow sooner or later, and the fact that the attempt to satisfy desires and needs leads many individuals to indulge in abuse and excess does not affect this conclusion. Abuse and excess are always associated with abnormality, and abnormality is due to abnormal conditions in the psycho-physical functioning of the organism, and this applies in the matter of abuse and excess in eating, as well as in drinking and in connexion with any other needs and desires. Abuse or excess is an attempt to satisfy a need or desire which, originally normal, has become abnormal, and as long as this abnormal desire or need remains, it is useless to deny a man the "means-whereby" to his excesses and abuses. Our energies should instead by applied to attempts to eradicate the abnormal conditions responsible for the excess and abuse, and so to restore the normal psycho-physical functioning of the organism and the reliable sensory appreciation which ensures the maintenance of normality in our desires and needs.

Yesterday was my last day in France after 5 weeks here alone (the rest of the family has been in Japan for the summer), and I was in a funny, retrospective mood. I hope that it was part of a very long term process of wobbling back towards the Buddha's truth of normality. Afflictions, beginning with the three root afflictions of greed, anger, and ignorance, are abnormal states. If I could go back 30 years to where my elder son is now, looking forward to starting university, I would really make a point of aspiring toward normality -- as opposed, for example, to aspiring for enlightenment through Zen and the martial arts.

Being Alexander teachers, along with sitting every day, I am sure, has helped my wife and I do a good job of bringing up our two sons. Despite being half-English and half-Japanese they could not have had a more normal upbringing and people generally remark what pleasant, confident and well-balanced lads they are. From where I was at the end of my 20s, just before meeting my wife, I haven't done a bad job of turning things around, and coming back to a more normal way of life. Backward being the operative direction. I hope my sons don't stray as I did. I hope they continue to aspire to normality.

By aspiring to normality can we avoid aging, sickness, and death? I suppose it depends on what the nectar of deathlessness means. But the simple answer is that No, if we aspire to normality we are still going to age, get ill, and die. Even so, the Buddha's teaching as I hear it is to aspire toward normality. The backward step is a step back in the direction of normality. Deathlessness cannot be other than our normal state.

In my youth I turned my back on normality through a big ambition to make great waves in the world. I went to Japan seeking enlightenment, met Gudo Nishijima, and believed him when he said that it was up to our small group -- we four 'Ejos' of Bailey, Zacchi, Luetchford and Cross -- to save the world from the conflict between idealism and materialism, by clarifying the realism of the philosophy of action. His arguments were so coherent. It all seemed to make such sense philosophically. And geopolitically my teacher made it seem that world history was hanging in the balance, and so the need to spread the gospel of realism was extremely urgent. On top of that, "If you can transcend family life," he told me, "you will be the most excellent Buddhist master in the world. This is my expectation." It was a strong stimulus, and I was not man enough to treat a small person's egoistic hope with the contempt it truly deserved.

Moreover, the key practice at the centre of it all, I was taught, was so simple: just keep sitting upright in the right posture, four times a day if you can, concentrating all effort on keeping the spine straight vertically. All the rest will take care of itself.

No mention was ever made of the problem of faulty sensory appreciation. The problem of faulty sensory appreciation seemed to go unrecognized.

Truly, it was like dry firewood and a favourable wind; and the abnormally great fire of abnormality that arose then still hasn't gone out. So if my comments sometimes seem off-beat, forgive me. I am working on it.

Where fuel and air co-exist

Just as there a fire burns,

With ambition, and through fixedness,

So normality one spurns.


EH Johnston:
As fire flames when wind and fuel are both present, so the fire of sin arises when the objects of the senses and imaginations about them are both present.

Linda Covill:
Just as a fire burns when it has both fuel and air, so too does the fire of defilement arise when both sense objects and imaginings about them are present.

indhane (locative): n. kindling , lighting ; fuel ; wood , grass &c used for this purpose
sati (locative): there being
vaayau (locative): wind, air
ca: and

yathaa: just as
jvalati: it blazes, flames, burns brightly
paavakaH (nom.): m. fire

viShayaat (ablative): from sense object
parikalpaat (ablative): from fixing
ca: and

klesha: affliction
agniH (nom.): m. fire
jaayate: is born, arises
tathaa: so, likewise


Jordan said...

"If you can transcend family life," he told me, "you will be the most excellent Buddhist master in the world"

I have a little voice inside my head that tells me this same story. So far I have managed to tell it to stuff it.
Sometimes I do feel week to it though.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks as always Jordan. Your persistence over the years has astounded me. For all my sins, I must have something that serves you for use as a mirror.

A lot of people would say that we were self-centred.

But that is enough about them....!

All the best,