Tuesday, October 27, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 15.3: Nipping a Desirous Thought before It Buds

sacet kaama-vitarkas tvaaM
dharShayen maanaso jvaraH
kSheptavyo n'aadhivaasyaH sa
vastre reNur iv' aagataH

- = = - - = = =
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If some desirous thought, a fever of the mind,

Should threaten to offend you,

Entertain no scent of it but shake it off

As if pollen had landed on your robe.

The word vitarka, “thought,“ in the first line is as in the title of this canto, vitarka-prahaaNaH, Giving Up Ideas, or Dropping Off Habits of Thought.

In this canto the sights of the Buddha appear to be set, in descending order of grossness, on: (a) habits of thought that are rooted in greed, ill-will, and ignorance; (b) comfortable notions of family, friendship, shelter and security; and (c) the expectation of continuing life. So the translation of vitarka needs to be broad enough to encompass all these various thought-patterns, fancies, notions, assumptions, and expectations. “Idea” might fit the bill. “Habit of thought” might be more precise.

Verses 15.3 to 15.11 are a consideration of kaama-vitarka, “desire-thought.” Kaama means desire, wish, longing. It also means pleasure, enjoyment, or love -- and especially sexual love or sensuality. So kaama-vitarka could be interpreted as a sexy thought, the thought of love/passion/sensual pleasure. To me, however, kaama-vitarka means, more broadly, thought that is rooted in end-gaining. As is very often the case, Ashvaghosha’s wording seems to permit at least two levels of interpretation -- one that is closer to the surface, and one that has to be dug for.

Through to 15.11 the Buddha is recommending Nanda to destroy desires (kaamaa) by their opposite, and to cut them out at root. Exactly what kind of desires the Buddha has in mind is not specified, although he seems in 15.7 to point to acquisitiveness as representative of the kind of desire he has in mind. But even here, the object of the desire to acquire is left open: does he mean the desire to acquire wealth? does he mean a person’s desire to possess another person sexually? does his meaning include the desire to obtain the nectar of immortality?

The kind of desire that I am familiar with endeavoring to root out, by resorting to its opposite conception (“the means-whereby”) is what we call in Alexander work “end-gaining” -- i.e. the desire to go directly for the gaining of an end without due consideration for the proper means. This Sanskrit word generally used to represent this kind of desire seems to betRSNaa, thirsting (see for example 16.17).

A desire to eat and drink breakfast, for example, is not end-gaining/thirsting. A person who is stiffening his neck in his desire to make breakfast in a big hurry, on the other hand, is end-gaining/thirsting.

A desire to thwart the power of the senses by staying in one‘s own brain is not end-gaining/thirsting. A yogin’s desire to inhibit thoughts by pulling his eyebrows up and in, sounds to my ears very much like end-gaining/thirsting.

A desire to go out into the fresh air and do some gardening is not end-gaining. An old codger’s desire that digging the garden might cause the V-shaped upper body of his youth to re-emerge.... enough said.

Is a man’s desire to sleep with a woman necessarily the desire to go directly for an end? Is sexual desire necessarily a kind of thirsting, a fever of the mind? I am not sure about the answer to that one. I think it is an area where a man like me is very prone to delude himself.

In any event, some desires, like the desire to eat and sleep, are natural and inevitable desires, and they are not necessarily associated with mental imbalance. It is a particular class of desires, namely, end-gaining desires, or instances of thirsting, that are prone to be accompained by mental over-excitation, or fever of the mind (maanaso jvara) -- or, to put it in terms of which Gudo Nishijima would approve, over-arousal of the sympathetic nervous system.

Speaking from abundant experience in this matter, and from very recent experience too, once one has reacted to an end-gaining idea, it is already too late. Having been got already, all one can do is (a) accept the ensuing mental fever, and (b) learn from the mistake. In other words, there is no cure for habits of thought that are rooted in end-gaining; the secret is prevention.

So what this verse, as I read it, is exhorting Nanda to do is to shake off the dust of an end-gaining idea before it has had a chance to settle -- i.e. before an emotional reaction has had a chance to set in. Understood like this, comparing an end-gaining idea to pollen in the air is a very precise metaphor, and the point is to entertain not even the scent of it.

EH Johnston:
If that fever of the mind, namely, the thought of passion, should molest you, it must not be tolerated but must be shaken off like dust which has lodged on one's clothes.

Linda Covill:
If your mind offends you with feverish ideas of passion, do not dwell on them but brush them off, like dust that has collected on your clothing.

sacet: if
kaama: m. wish , desire , longing ; pleasure , enjoyment ; love , especially sexual love or sensuality
vitarkaH (nom. sg.): m. conjecture , supposition , guess , fancy , imagination , opinion; doubt , uncertainty ; reasoning , deliberation , consideration ; purpose , intention
tvaam (acc. sg.): you

dharShayet = 3rd pers. sg. caus. optative of dhRSh: to be bold or courageous or confident or proud ; to dare or venture ; to dare to attack , treat with indignity (acc.)
maanasaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. belonging to the mind or spirit , mental
jvaraH (nom. sg.): m. fever (differing according to the different doShas or humors of the body supposed to be affected by it) ; fever of the soul , mental pain , affliction , grief

kSheptavyaH = nom. sg. m. gerundive of kShip: to move hastily (the arms or legs); to strike or hit (with a weapon); to throw away , cast away , get rid of
na: not
adhivaasyaH = nom. sg. m. gerundive of adhi- √vaas: to scent, perfume
adhi: as a prefix to verbs and nouns , expresses above , over and above , besides
√vaas: to perfume , make fragrant , scent , fumigate , incense , steep
saH (nom. sg. m.): it, the [vitarkaH]

vastre = loc. sg. vastra: n. cloth , clothes , garment
reNuH: m. dust , a grain or atom of dust , sand &c ; the pollen of flowers
iva: like
aagataH (nom. sg. m.): come, arrived


Uku said...

Entertain no scent of it but shake it off

As if pollen had landed on your robe.

Very nice, thank you!

Mike Cross said...

Thank you, for the encouragement.