Tuesday, November 10, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 15.17: The Basis of a Momentary Decision

tasmaat sarveShu bhuuteShu
maitriiM kaaruNyam eva ca
na vyaapaadaM vihiMsaaM vaa
vikalpayitum arhasi

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

On this basis, towards all beings,

It is love and compassion,

Not ill-will or cruelty,

That you should opt for.

This verse, as I read it, hinges on its first word, tasmaat ("on this basis").

The original basis of this canto, remember, is sitting in the supreme manner, engaging in the fundamental. And the essence of engaging in the fundamental, at least as Marjory Barlow taught me to practice it, is simply this:

"I think of doing nothing."

This was Marjory's simple idea: "Think of doing nothing."

"Then," Marjory added, "I ask myself: What kind of nothing am I doing?"

Tasmaat ("on this basis"), as I read it, means not so much on the basis of the idea "Think of doing nothing," but more on the basis of "What kind of nothing am I doing?"

Marjory took pains to distinguish between two kinds of thinking, namely:
(a) filling our heads with abstract ideas, which many of us tend to do too much;
(b) using the brain for the work of thinking, which we tend to avoid at all costs.

A nice idea, like "I am on the side of compassion towards all living beings," or "I am a Buddhist, an ordained monk in the lineage of Great Master X," or "I am an Alexander teacher, a practitioner of non-doing as taught by Marjory Barlow," might be forever, but it is also cheap.

The question "What kind of nothing am I doing?", in contrast, requires us to ask it afresh in a moment of non-doing practice. And it is on this basis, I think the Buddha is telling us, on the difficult basis of momentary practice, that we should opt for love and compassion towards all beings.

To opt for love and compassion on this basis turns out not to be so easy.

On this basis, sarveShu bhuuteShu ("towards all beings") might mean, for example, towards foxes and towards fox-hunters.

On this basis, the Buddha seems to be saying, right in the moment of the present, you should opt (vikalpayitum arhasi) -- not only before the event, when reading the golden words of the ancients, but also at the centre of the action, just in that moment when your progress up the motorway is being impeded by some half-asleep Mr Magoo dawdling along in the fast lane at a steady 65 mph.

I can decide here and now to devote the rest of my life to acting with love and compassion for all sentient beings. But what kind of decision is that? It is a decision to sign up to an idea which is highly likely to prove to be empty -- as the words "I love you" are ever prone to turn out to have been the expression of an empty idea. Having a nice idea isn't really engaging with the fundamental at all.

So tasmaat, "on this basis," as I read it, means not so much on the basis of the idea of love and compassion for all living beings, but more on the basis of giving up that idea, and using one's brain in this moment in a constructive manner.

EH Johnston:
Therefore you should cultivate thoughts of benevolence and compassion towards all beings, not of malevolence or the desire to hurt.

Linda Covill:
it follows that you should choose loving-kindness and compassion towards all living creatures as the alternative to malice and aggression.

tasmaat: ind. (abl. of ta) from that , on that account , therefore
sarveShu = loc. pl. n. sarva: all
bhuuteShu = loc. pl. bhuuta: n. (cf. above ) that which is or exists , any living being

maitriim (acc. sg.): f. friendship , friendliness , benevolence , good will
kaaruNyam (acc. sg.): n. compassion , kindness
eva: (emphatic)
ca: and

na: not
vyaapaadam (acc. sg.): m. destruction , ruin , death ; evil intent or design , malice
vihiMsaam (acc. sg.): f. injuring, hurting, harming
vaa: or

vikalpayitum = inf. vi-√klRp: to change or alternate ; to be undecided ; to choose one of two alternatives
arhasi: you should


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

I've never learned to drive, but if my experience as a pedestrian is anything to go by, I'm sure that my reaction, whenever my progress up the motorway might be impeded by some dozy sod, would be to mutter "fucking idiot".

In that moment of frustration and anger, I don't believe I have expressed or intended ill-will or cruelty, but neither have I opted for love and compassion. The moment of "opting", it seems, has passed...

And when I, the jealous husband rendered insensible by treachery and humilation, plunge the knife into my dearly beloved, it seems that, yet again, it's too late.

Mike Cross said...

Hi jiblet,

My wife or sons would laugh to read your comment, I am sure, as your choice of expletive would be very familiar to them -- and in every case I would be using the dozy sod out there as a mirror for the one I fear in here.

As Marjory Barlow used to say, "We are all in the same boat." The reaction is too quick for us, and the moment has passed already. This is how life really is, isn't it?

I think that the Buddha is saying, with Marjory, that it is ON THIS BASIS, that we are to practice what the Buddha calls here "love and compassion," and what Alexander called "constructive conscious control of the individual."

And at the very base of this basis might be giving up the idea of being the one who is right, and in that moment of giving up, not being afraid to be the one who is wrong -- the one who is not the least bit loving or compassionate; the one who is liable to be rendered insensible in his murderous jealousy; the one who is not unduly concerned about crimes of passion, wars, holocausts, famines, and the like, so long as they don't directly affect me and my own family ... you name it, beneath the thin veneer of our civilization, we might all be capable of it.

jiblet said...

Thanks, Mike.

Perhaps sitting, engaging in the fundamental, does enable us to glimpse "how life really is" after all.

It's a nice idea.

Anonymous said...


I just wanted to stop by and offer some words of encouragement for your continued dedication to this blog. I find it engaging, insightful, and valuable. I only wish that it could be compiled so that those of us who can't really read it daily can still have access to this important work of yours. So, great job!

With regard to comment #3 I would be careful to imagine that there is something to be considered as "how life really is". It seems to imply the same western notions of subject/object separation that have doomed our philosophy for 2500 years.

Take care and thanks again!

Mike Cross said...

Hi Raymond,

Thanks for the encouragement.

With regard to being careful, Patrick Macdonald had the following written on the wall of his teaching room:


The point might be that real adventures in thinking are not intellectualizing in a trying-to-be-right kind of way.

Throwing away all sense of carefulness I might say, "STOP TRYING TO BE RIGHT, YOU FU..." but if I did that it would be the clearest example yet of the mirror principle!

All the best,

Anonymous said...


The idea that sitting will lead to "how life is" seems to me to be the most egregious error in "trying to be right" that a buddhist-inclined person might be vulnerable to make. The Dhammapada records the Buddha as saying " earnestness is the path to nirvana..." Being careful IS constructive conscious control, in your Alexander terms. Not carefulness to pursue a right but carefulness not to fall into a right unconsciously.

Take care.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks, Raymond.

As my sons would say:

"er... yeah... whatever..."