Wednesday, November 18, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 15.25: The Self Like a Good Sword vs Ideas Like Mud

tad vitarkair a-kushalair
n'aatmaanaM hantum arhasi
su-shastraM ratna-vikRtaM
mRdd-hato gaaM khanann iva

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

With inauspicious conceptions, then,

You should not mar your self

-- Which is a good sword and bejewelled --

As if you were digging the earth, spattered with mud.

In this verse, Nanda's self like a good sword adorned by the triple gem, is opposed to inauspicious conceptions like mud.

Forgive another unduly long post on this subject, but I think that to understand the meaning of "inauspicious conceptions" (akushala vitarka) is really vital, so as to be governed less by those conceptions in sitting and in life.

The translations of akushala vitarka offered by EHJ ("evil thoughts") and LC ("unwholesome musings") give the impression of a temporary mental activity. But the real meaning of akushala vitarka, as I read it, is inauspicious conceptions that are woven deeply into the fabric of a person's body-mind.

The first of those inauspicious conceptions, related to human desire, is end-gaining. Following the mirror principle, I unconsciously criticize the end-gaining that I see in others because I don't like to see it in myself. But in brighter moments, I accept that instinctive grasping for what one desires is a universal human tendency. It is not a thing out there to fight against; it is a conception, or a tendency, in me. As a conception, it is a conception to be given up, here and now. As a tendency, it is a tendency whose grip is to be loosened, gradually -- finality not being in sight for any of us.

The second of those inauspicious conceptions, related to ill-will and cruelty, is foul or vile prejudice. This tends to arise when unconsciously I fail to separate out things that I reject, or things I detest, or things that have offended me, from individual people or groups of people whom I associate with those things.

At the individual level, at the top of my unconscious hit list are people who have offended me very deeply by treating my translation of Shobogenzo as if it were not mine. Even if I have not bothered to fight them, but have rather endeavoured to walk away from trouble, I have not exactly wished them well. I have not been entirely free of a certain tendency to sit and wait for cause and effect to punish them. If I were able to transcend the unconscious habit of wishing to see people who hurt me get their just deserts, and opt instead for compassion, I might use the sword of wisdom to separate out a person's mistakes and the person himself -- some mother's son. My strong habit is that if you hurt me, I am going to form a very strong and vile prejudice against you as a person and draw satisfaction from seeing you hurt back. It is the instinct not of a dove but of a hawk, of a fighter. It is an instinct maybe born of a fighter's fear. But again, it is not something absolute: it is a conception that can be given up in a moment by a person in possession of his own brain, and at the same time it is a tendency whose grip is maybe loosening over time.

At the group level, my plodding along this way for the last 30 years has caused me to reject every -ism, under which banner people in their desire to feel right flock like sheep. My unconscious habit is not only to despise the -ism but also to despise the pacificists, pragmatists, feminists, Buddhists, and the like who flock together under their chosen -ism. So again, the inauspicious conception whereby the rational rejection of an -ism tends to become a vile prejudice, is unconscious association of the -ism with human proponents of it or adherents to it. Whereas in light of the Buddha's teaching to opt for compassion, it is perfectly possible to reject, say, the unhelpful idea of a God who formed a covenant with some ancient middle-eastern tribes, without being prejudiced against Jews, and Christians, and Muslims, every one of whom is some mother's son or daughter with his or her own individual story.

End-gaining for enlightenment was traditionally represented by the Chinese Zen patriarchs by the word ZENNA, being tainted. And in the previous verse, as I read it, the Buddha expresses prejudice as foulness itself (kaaluShya). So being spattered by mud (mRdd-hata) is a natural metaphor for being marred by conceptions like end-gaining and prejudice. And as a metaphor for the true, original human self that is marred by inauspicious conceptions, in this verse the Buddha uses a good sword that is adjorned by the three jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Samgha.

And so begins a series of four verses featuring metaphors in which a treasure is opposed to an object of little or no value.

In each of the next three verses an ignorant man fails to make the enlightened decision when presented with contrasting alternatives: in 15.26 it is aloe wood vs ordinary timber; in 15.27 a jewel vs a clod of earth; and in 15.28 mountain herbs vs inedible weeds.

So this verse, 15.25, seems to be a bridge from the preceding discussion of inauspicious conceptions at the root of (1) troublesome desires and (2) ill-will & cruelty, to the forthcoming discussion of (3) ignorance (moha), as manifested by an ignorant person's inability to navigate a way through a succession of no-brainers.

The implication to draw might be that the kind of ignorance which the Buddha is concerned about is inability to decide between the real which (like sharp sword, aloe wood, gemstone, or Himalayan herb) is valuable, and an idea which (like mud, lump of wood or earth, or inedible plant) is cheap.

If the self is a good sword already, what is the secret of accepting and using it as such, for the making of clear-cut decisions? The hint, again, might be in the canto title, vitarka-prahaaNa, Giving Up an Idea.

To accept and use the bejewelled good sword of the self, giving up the mud of one's own ideas, is, in other words, just to sit. In that sense, this canto is expressing the essence of sitting-dhyaana -- which may be why the next canto opens with the statement:

"Thus.... the practitioner makes the four dhyaanas his own."

EH Johnston:
Therefore do not destroy yourself by evil thoughts, when you are well-armed and adorned with the Jewels, like a man who is digging up the ground casts earth on his well-armed and bejewelled body.

Linda Covill:
Don't harm yourself with unwholesome musings, as though a man in digging earth were to fling soil on himself, well-armed and jewel-adorned as he is.

tad: ind. then , at that time , in that case ; thus , in this manner , with regard to that ; on that account , for that reason , therefore
vitarkaiH = inst. pl. vitarka: m. conjecture , supposition , guess , fancy , imagination , opinion
akushalaiH = inst. pl. akushala: evil, unwholesome

na: not
aatmaanam = acc. sg. aatman: m. self ; essence , nature , character the highest personal principle of life , brahma
hantum = inf. han: to smite, strike, slay, hurt
arhasi: you should

su: ind. good , excellent , right , virtuous , beautiful , easy , well , rightly , much , greatly etc.
shastram (acc. sg.): m. a sword
ratna: jewel
vikRtam (acc. sg. m.): mfn. transformed , altered , changed &c; decorated , embellished , set with (comp.)

mRd: f. earth , soil , clay , loam
hataH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. hit by (instr. or comp.)
gaaM = acc. sg. go: f. the earth (as the milk-cow of kings)
khanan = pres. part. khan: to dig
iva: like

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