Saturday, October 24, 2009

Canto 14: Stepping Into Action

Reviewed in the round, this canto is ultimately an exhortation to step out of duality and into unitary action.

Read in that light, the word eka in the first line of the last verse is key. Literally eka means one. Used to describe a person it means alone, solitary, single -- i.e. separate from others. But it literally means one -- i.e. not dual, not separate from others and not separate from oneself.

To bring out the latter meaning more explicitly, I changed the translation from
"If he constantly delights in living alone in an empty dwelling,"
"If he constantly abides as a unity, in an empty abode,"

I also decided, on reflection, to change the canto title from "Stepping Out" to "Stepping Into Action."

Incidentally, the understanding that I am expressing now I did not get from reading the words of fellow sufferers of the Zen disease of trying to be right; nor did I get this understanding by personally serving a Zen master. So, from where I sit, both sides of that debate are in the wrong. And when guided, in my desire to feel right, by the power of my own senses, I also am just wrong.

Zen dabblers who express their baseless conceited opinions irritate the hell out of me. Why? If the mirror principle does not lie, I react emotionally to conceited Zen dabblers out there because I fear the conceited Zen dabbler in me. (And the mirror principle never lies.)

How many hours a day do I need to sit, for how many years, to convince myself that I am not a Zen dabbler? The works of how many ancestors do I need to translate? For two years from 1986 to 1988, I sat for a minimum of five hours a day every day... but that didn't convince me. Recent efforts to translate Ashvaghosha, evidently, haven't convinced me either.

When I thus fear the Zen dabbler who might be me, there is me who fears, and there is the second me who might be the Zen dabbler. That is the essence of duality. Nothing could be further from the unitary truth of "I am Buddha."

Similarly, when the teacher whom I personally served as a Zen Master called me a "non-Buddhist," what he was expressing was his own fear -- a symptom of his own trying to be right. And from that wrong seed of trying to be right, wrong flowers and fruits are flourishing all over the place. Those wrong flowers and fruits can easily be identified by their characteristic black and white marking: "You are wrong, and I am right."

To step out of that duality, and into the unitary truth of action, might be the ultimate point of this canto.

Canto 14: Stepping Into Action

And so using the floodgate of mindfulness

To close a dam on the power of the senses,

Be aware, in eating food, of the measure

That conduces to realisation and to health.

For it depresses in-breath and out-breath,

And brings tiredness and sleepiness,

When food is taken in excess;

It also destroys enterprise.

And just as eating too much

Conduces to a dearth of value,

So eating too little

Makes for a lack of efficacy.

Of substance, lustre, and stamina,

Of usefulness and of its very strength,

A meagre diet

Deprives the body.

Just as a weighing scale bends down with a heavy weight,

Bends upwards with a light one,

And stays in balance with the right one,

So does this body according to intake of food.

Therefore food is to be eaten,

Each reflecting on his own energy,

And none apportioning himself too much or too little

Under the influence of pride.

For the fire of the body is damped down

When it is burdened by a heavy load of food,

Like a small blaze suddenly covered

With a big heap of firewood.

Excessive fasting, also,

Is not recommended;

For one who does not eat is extinguished

Like a fire without fuel.

Since without food there is none that survives

Among those that bear breath,

Therefore eating food is not a sin;

But being choosy, in this area, is prohibited.

For on no other single object

Are sentient beings so stuck

As on the heedless eating of food.

To the reason for this one must be awake.

Just as, for the purpose of healing,

One who is wounded puts ointment on a wound,

So, for the purpose of staving off hunger,

Food is eaten by one who wills freedom.

Just as, to ready it for bearing a burden,

The axle of a wagon is greased,

So, in order to journey through life,

The wise man utilizes food.

And just as two travellers

In order to cross a wilderness

Might feed upon the flesh of a child,

Though grievously pained to do so,
as its mother and father,

So food should be eaten,


Not for display, not for appearance;

Not so as to excite hilarity, not to feed extravagance.

For the upkeep of the body

Food is provided

As if to prop, before it falls,

A dilapidated house.

Just as someone might take pains

To build and then carry a raft,

Not because he is so fond of it

But because he means to cross a great flood,

So too, by various means,

Do men of insight sustain the body,

Not because they are so fond of it

But because they mean to cross a flood of suffering.

Just as one under siege, in sorrow,

Gives in to a rival king,

Not out of devotion, nor through thirsting,

But solely to safeguard life,

So the devotee of practice

Tenders food to his body

Solely to stave off hunger,

Neither with passion nor as devotion.

Having, through maintenance of the mind,

Passed the day self-possessed,

You may be able, shaking off sleep,

To spend the night-time too in a state of practice.

Since even when you are conscious

Sleep might be holding out in your heart,

Consciousness properly revealing itself

Is nothing to be sure about.

Initiative and constancy,

Inner strength and courage,

Are the elements to bear constantly in mind

While you are being oppressed by sleep.

Recite clearly

Those teachings of Dharma that you have learnt;

Point others in their direction,

And think them out for yourself.

Wet the face with water,

Look around in all directions,

And glance at the stars,

Wanting always to be awake.

By the means of inner senses that are not impetuous

But in a state of subjection,

By the means of a mind that is not scattered,

Walk up and down at night or sit.

In fear, in joy and in anguish,

One does not succumb to sleep;

Therefore against the onslaughts of sleep

Resort to these three:

You should feel the fear
that derives from death's approach,

The joy from grasping a teaching of Dharma,

And from the boundless suffering in a birth,

You should feel the anguish.

Such a step must be taken, my friend,

In the direction of being awake;

For what wise man, out of sleep,

Makes a wasted life?

To neglect the reptilian faults,

As if ignoring snakes in the house,

And thus to slumber on,
does not befit a man of wisdom

Who wishes to overcome the great fear.

For while the world of the living burns

With the fires of death, disease and aging,

Who could lie down insensibly,

Any more than in a burning house?

Therefore, knowing it to be darkness,

You should not engulf sleep

While the faults remain unsubdued

Like sword-wielding enemies.

But having spent the first of the three night-watches

Engaged in active practice,

You should go to bed to rest the body,

Pulling your own strings.

On your right side, then,

Remaining conscious of light,

Thinking in your heart of wakefulness,

You might with peace of mind fall asleep.

Again, by getting up in the third watch

And going into movement,
or indeed just sitting,

You might renew your practice,
with mind refreshed,

And power of the senses curbed.

And so in sitting, moving, standing,

Looking, speaking and so on,

Being fully aware of all actions,

You should cover yourself in mindfulness.

When a man is like a gatekeeper at his gate,

His mindfulness directed,

The faults do not venture to attack him,

Any more than enemies do a guarded city.

No affliction arises in him

For whom mindfulness pervades the body --

Guarding the mind in all situations,

As a nurse protects a child.

But he is a target for the faults

Who lacks the armour of mindfulness:

As for enemies is he who stands in battle

With no suit of armour.

Know to be vulnerable that mind

Which mindfulness does not guard --

Like a blind man without a guide

Going over uneven ground.

When men attach to meaningless aims

And turn away from their proper aims,

Failing to shudder at the danger,

Loss of mindfulness is the cause.

When, each standing on its own patch,

The virtues which begin with integrity are engaged,

Then as a herdsman follows his scattered cows,

Mindfulness follows after those virtues.

The nectar of immortality is lost to him

Whose mindfulness dissipates;

The nectar exists in the hands of him

Whose mindfulness pervades his body.

Where is the noble principle of him

To whom mindfulness is alien?

And for whom no noble principle exists,

To him a true path has been lost.

He who has lost the right track

Has lost the deathless step.

Having lost that nectar of deathlessness,

He is not exempt from suffering.

Therefore walking like this: "Walking, I am";

And standing like this: "Standing, I am" --

At opportune moments such as these --

You should cover yourself in mindfulness.

To a place suited for practice,
free of people and free of noise,

To a place for lying down and sitting,
my friend, repair in this manner;

For by first achieving solitude of the body

It is easy to obtain solitude of the mind.

The man of redness,
the tranquillity of his mind unrealized,

Who does not take to a playground of solitude,

Is injured as though, unable to regain a track,

He is walking on very thorny ground.

For a seeker who is not seeing reality,

Standing in the tawdry playground of objects,

It is no easier to rein in his mind,

Than to drive a foraging bull away from corn.

But just as, when not fanned by the wind,

A bright fire dies down,

In solitary places, similarly, with little effort

An unstirred mind comes to quiet.

One who eats anything at any place,
and wears any clothes,

Who dwells in enjoyment of his own being
and loves to be anywhere without people:

He is to be known as a success,
a knower of the taste of peace and ease,
whose mind is made up --

He avoids involvement with others like a thorn.

If, in a world that delights in duality
and is at heart distracted by objects,

He roves in solitude, free of duality,
a man of action, his heart at peace,

Then he drinks the essence of wisdom
as if it were the nectar of immortality
and his heart is filled.

Alone, he sorrows for the clinging, object-needy world.

If he constantly abides as a unity,
in an empty abode,

If he is no fonder of arisings of affliction
than he is of enemies,

And if, going rejoicing in the self,
he drinks the water of joy,

Then greater than dominion over thirty gods
is the happiness he enjoys.

The 14th canto of the epic poem Handsome Nanda,
titled Stepping Into Action


Harry said...

Thanks, Mike, for the interesting and helpful observations.



Mike Cross said...

Thanks, Harry.

And apologies to you for having seen you as the conceited dabbler, instead of the sincere seeker you might truly be.

Gisela said...

Hi Mike -

Just wanted to let you know that your work is touching my heart and soul daily since I discovered it.

Thank you,


Mike Cross said...

Thank you for your encouragement, Gisela.

One of Marjory Barlow's (or maybe her uncle's) sayings was: When successful, do less.

Your comment makes me think I should do less. (But I probably won't!)

All the best,


Gisela said...

Mike -

When you say that, it becomes obvious I've become attached! Please don't do less. At least not quite yet.

Kindly meant,


Mike Cross said...

Hi Gisela,

Marjory's idea is that when we are successful it means that we are allowing the right thing to do itself. So if we do less in that situation, the right thing can do itself even more.

Truly, it is not my work that touches you. It is Ashvaghosha's gold to which you and I are attached -- and so we should be!

Thanks again for the kind thoughts,


Gisela said...

Mike -

Seeing "allowing the right thing to do itself" brings me joy. Just the same, I would not be reading Ashvaghosha's Gold without your commitment to it.

Thanks again. Peace.


Harry said...

Hi, Mike.

No problem. But I fear the 'mirror, mirror on the wall' that you're looking at may be reflecting an accurate illusion and that I may often be the consummate insincere seeker (...but a seeker nonetheless).