Sunday, November 1, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 15.8: Desires Like Poisonous Snakes

a-nityaa moSha-dharmaaNo
riktaa vyasana-hetavaH
bahu-saadhaaraNaaH kaamaa
barhyaa hy aashii-viShaa iva

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

Desires which are fleeting,
which are bringers of privation,

Which are flighty,
the causes of wagging to and fro,

And which are common,

Are to be dealt with like poisonous snakes,

For several reasons I have been finding it difficult to arrive at a satisfactory translation of this verse, whose meaning hinges largely on the ambiguous meaning in the fourth line of the verb barh, given in the dictionary as "to speak, hurt, give, cover, or shine," and translated by EHJ and LC as "kill" and "destroy."

Is the 2nd line rikta means hollow, idle, and also wagtail; and the word vyasana suggests the wobbling behaviour of a subconsciously controlled person in pursuit of his ends, and also means the wagging of a tail.Is this an intentional play on words? It could be. But I don't know if Ashvaghosha intended that or not.

In any event, in this verse, as I read it, the Buddha cannot be making a general statement that all desires are to be dealt with (still less killed or destroyed) like poisonous snakes.

If a person has a lifelong passion for the violin, or for the theatre, or for the sea, or for the beautiful game of football, or for studying military strategy, or for the Lotus Sutra, or for sitting-zen, or for the Buddha-robe, should that passion necessarily be treated as if it were a snake with poisoned fangs?

And what is an enlightened way to deal with poisonous snakes? The extreme end of the spectrum of human emotional reaction might be to endeavour to exterminate entire species of them. A more enlightened approach might be to understand them and on the basis of that understanding to seek an accommodation with them.

When I look back on fifty years of making one mistake after another, it is not that desire has been my enemy. Rather, my worst mistakes have followed from not being clear enough about what I really want. For example, it was clear to me in my 20s that it was Gudo Nishijima's desire that I should be his successor. But did I want that or not? Was that my desire or not? I wasn't clear about it, one way or the other. For another example, did I want to marry the girlfriend I was with at university? Yes and no. I wasn't clear whether I wanted to marry her or not -- until she started sleeping with my best friend, and then I knew I did. Against that kind of background, I am very happy now to have this strong and clear desire to dig out Ashvaghosha's gold. The stronger and clearer this desire is, the better my condition is, the more engaged I am with the fundamental.

There is a lot of fear in my country about appearing to be racist. And a lot of that fear originates, as I see it, in the amazing ability that Jewish opinion-formers seem to have to manipulate the media, so that woe betide any politician who says anything with even a hint in it of anti-semitism. Anti-anti-semitism, in contrast, is positively welcomed. On BBC Radio 4's Today Programme on Friday we had the chief rabbi of Poland assuring us of the anti-anti-semitic credentials of a Polish politician. From the viewpoint of this canto, racist semitism is just an idea to be givenup, racist anti-semitism is just an idea to given up, and anti-racist anti-anti-semitism is also just an idea to be given up. People who flock beneath the banner of anti-anti-semitism are united by what kind of desire? A desire to truly stand up for the individual? Or just a trendy variation of the common herd instinct?

There is groundswell of resentment among poor white people in Britain against what they see as policies that favour non-white minorities. In particular, as council houses have become scarcer, local councils have scrapped old rules that favoured applicants with a local connection in favour of a regime based on need, including poverty and the number of children. This change is perceived, probably accurately, to favour non-white immigrants. Since I married a Japanese and our sons were born in Japan, my own sons belong to a non-white immigrant minority -- so I am not prejudiced against non-white immigrants. But my own roots, on both sides of my family, are in white families who were dirt poor economically. My parents and grandparents, however, did not suffer from poverty of ambition. The worst kind of poverty we can suffer from, as I see it, might be poverty of ambition, poverty of desire.

The final teacing of the Buddha begins with the precepts to have small desire and be content. But small desire is never the same as no desire. When desire is strong, stable and clear, then in the words of John Bunyan's old hymn, fancies flee away. And the fleeing away of fancies is just the point of this canto.

EH Johnston:
For the passions should be killed like poisonous snakes, being impermanent, of their nature subject to loss, empty of real value, the causes of calamity and shared by many others (who may deprive you of them).

Linda Covill:
For the passions are impermanent, hollow, the cause of unhappiness; they are held in common with many other people, and by their very nature can be easily taken from you. Destroy them like poisonous snakes!

a-nityaaH = nom. pl. m. anitya: mfn. not everlasting, impermanent
moSha: m. (√muSh) a robber , thief , plunderer ; robbery , theft , stealing , plundering ; anything robbed or stolen , stolen property
√muSh: to steal , rob , plunder , carry off
dharmaaNaH = nom. pl. m. dharman: m. bearer , supporter , arranger; n. (esp. ifc.) nature , quality , characteristic mark or attribute

riktaaH = nom. pl. m. rikta: mfn emptied , empty , void; bared (as an arm) ; hollow , hollowed (as the hands) ; poor , indigent ; idle , worthless ; m. (in augury) N. of one of the four wagtails which serve for omens
vyasana: n. moving to and fro , wagging (of a tail); evil predicament or plight , disaster , accident , evil result , calamity , misfortune , ill-luck , distress , destruction , defeat , fall , ruin
hetavaH = nom. pl. hetu: m. cause

bahu: many
saadhaaraNaaH = nom. pl. m. saadhaaraNa: mfn. " having or resting on the same support or basis " , belonging or applicable to many or all , general , common to all , universal , common to (gen. dat. instr. with and without saha , or comp.)
kaamaaH = nom. pl. kaama: m. wish, desire, ambition etc.

barhyaaH = nom. pl. gerundive barh: to speak; to hurt ; to give or cover; to shine
[Apte] speak; give; cover; hurt; spread; be pre-eminent or excellent
hi: for
aashii = aashis: f. a serpent's fang
viShaaH = nom. pl. viSha: n. (also m.) " anything active " , poison , venom , bane , anything actively pernicious RV. &c
iva: like


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

This may not be the place for an extended chat about these things, but I couldn't ignore "...the amazing ability that Jewish opinion-formers seem to have to manipulate the media..."

As a smart, proud, self-deprecating, self-loathing, self-obsessed, narcissistic jew - and probably none of those things - I like to think I'm always open to self-examination. I like to think I'm always willing to persevere in that endeavour beyond my inevitable initial defensiveness.

Regardless of all that, my reaction to any generalised statement hinting at conspiracy (I mean implications of a concerted common aim) is invariably "do me a favour!" Perhaps you didn't mean to imply a conspiracy, but rather a hard-wired, maybe self-preservatory, commomly shared tendency. Whatever, you're expressing the view that "jews", in matters of opinion related to themselves, their identity, race in general, and the State of Israel are in broad agreement and engage in activities seeking to manipulate and impose those views on the rest of us (you).

You must know that many "jewish opinion formers" - by whom, I imagine, you mean jewish writers, pundits and media types generally - are, and always have been, vocal critics of the established order. That established order currently includes the state of Israel, particularly it's recent policy and behaviour.

Regarding the "(their) amazing ability to manipulate the media..." I'd like some examples. How, exactly does this manipulation take place (I assume there's more to it than expressing a view)? A rhetorical question, Mike. Please don't, unless you fancy, send me a list of examples of jewish media manipulation. I'm sure I could locate many such lists online.

Thankfully, it seems that you, I, and very many others are immune to the jews attempts to control our thinking, despite "their amazing ability".

On the more general point about racism and the current trend, certainly in the UK, to regard anyone who perceives and attributes racially/culturally identifiable characteristics or behaviour to an identifiable group as an ignorant racist...If those are your concerns, I share them. But I've probably misunderstood your concerns, or expressed them poorly. Those are my concerns. Sometimes.

Have I just provided you with an example of the very thing you're talking about? I don't think so. I grew up with jews, and many of them embarrassed and annoyed the hell out of me; jews, it has been said, make the most fervent anti-semites. My perhaps naive point isn't so much about jews; my point is that "opinion-formers", whoever they may be, don't do such a "amazing" job, and that "manipulation" ain't all it's cracked up to be.

I'll now read today's post properly.

Please do keep on keeping on, Mike!

jiblet said...

You didn't mention the State of Israel, did you, Mike...

Never mind.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks, jiblet, for raising these points so lucidly.

What never ceases to amaze me is how excellent/prominent Jews, or people of Jewish descent, become in just about any field of endeavor requiring intelligence and its application -- the law, science, medicine, the media (think Hollywood for a start) and Alexander work to name some examples that spring immediately to mind.

Your point on "media manipulation," I take. In all probability that kind of thinking is the mirror principle at work.

Is it possible, I wonder, that a lot of non-Jews, like me and Adolf Hitler for example, feel some antipathy towards Judaism because, even if we are not exactly Jewish, there is a lot of Jewishness in us. In Hitler's case it seems he may have been the illegitimate son of his mother's Jewish employer. In my case, I was brought up believing that the Jewish God, as supposedly the heavenly father of the Jew Jesus, was all around me.

Observing the struggle of James Cohen (Cohen I believe being a name associated with a rabbinical tradition in Judaism?) to find his true direction as a Zen teacher, I see something very Jewish in his struggle, and again, it is a kind of mirror for my own struggle.

On one side is the truth of a sincere desire to clarify the Law, to know the truth. On the other side is this terrible sense of us/me the chosen ones/one vs them.

When the drunken Mel Gibson let out his rant about Jews being responsible for all wars in the world, I think there was some truth in what he was saying -- not in the sense that there is some Jewish cabal manipulating world events, but to the extent that Old Testament Judaism is explicitly racist and rooted in us vs them, wherein maybe lies the essential cause of many if not all wars.

A final question that springs to mind about "opinion formers" -- highlighted by the sacking of Prof. Nutt -- is how much science, law, media and politics is about the manipulation of opinion, and how much about establishing the truth, and establishing facts.

Seen in that light, any emotional reaction I feel towards "Jewish opninion formers," is clearly another example of the mirror princple.

Thanks again,


Mike Cross said...

Yes, I mentioned the State of Israel in yesterday's post.

The problem of anti-semitism and anti-anti-semitism has been on my mind for a while, tied up with striving to understand what the Buddha is saying here about duality and non-duality.

gniz said...

Mike, I'm afraid the Jews will be out of the woodwork on this one. I suppose it seems to me that you have a kind of odd preoccupation with Jews. How exactly do Jews affect your life so?

And what does it matter if Jews do in fact excel at things like writing, creative pursuits, or intellectual endeavors?

You realize that many people say similar things about blacks being naturally gifted at athletics and music, or about asians being good at math and classical music.

Does any of that really effect you or I in our pursuit of truth? It honestly just seems beneath you to talk about these kinds of petty racial issues. That you seem so caught up in whether Jundo Cohen's struggle is an archetypal Jewish struggle. Seems to me these are all human struggles.

I don't know...I hope you can get to a place where this kind of garbage ceases to even interest you. But this is part of your makeup in some way--and I guess it is your own struggle.

Your Jewish, intellectual friend,


gniz said...

One last thing. I actually have a friend--a close friend--practically my brother, we've known one another since grade school. But he works now in a very Jewish, very upper-class school system and is CONSTANTLY talking about Jews. Joking with me about my Jewish "brothers and sisters." Even though he knows I do not practice and am totally disinterested in Judaism.

Also interestingly, this buddy of mine is very insecure about his own intellectual capacity and talks a lot about how Jews are so intelligent, etc. It reminds me of you a little, Mike. He seems both envious and admiring of Jews.

But it appears to me that this is more his own fears of intellectual inadequacy at work then it is any reality about Jews. Yes, there is some emphasis on Jewish culture on education and the arts. But you can't generalize out to such extents.

There are a lot of well-educated, intellectual people from all backgrounds. But i think people who have deep insecurity about their intelligence may perhaps feel fearful about what Jewish culture represents, the same way that people insecure about their masculinity or "toughness" are probably fearful of black culture, etc.

Just a thought.


gniz said...

You really touched a nerve with me, I think. One very, very, very last point. You said that "Old Testament Judaism is explicitly racist and rooted in us vs them".

While this might be true, it also seems to me that almost all religions are so rooted. People are tribal in nature and tend to organize in groups. There is almost always an "us" and a "them." To see that somehow Jews or the old testament as being some kind of precursor to this kind of thinking is maybe a type of insanity or delusion.

But you might just think that my solid logic is due to my being a Jew, rather than looking at the fact that maybe, in this type of situation, you simply aren't very intelligent.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Aaron,

As I see it, the three great Abrahamical religions all stem from a Jewish idea,or a Jewish delusion that a supreme being, God, chose Jews as the special ones. For nobody is that idea more problematic than it is for Jews. But that idea is also problematic for many if not all people brought up in a Christian or Islaamic culture.

I am endeavouring to understand what this canto, whose title is Giving Up and Idea, is really all about. That kind of endeavour requires me, for a start, not to be afraid of being wrong and not to be afraid of being seen to be wrong.

If people call me a bigot, my job is not to react emotionally to that, but rather to investigate -- what is bigotry? And who is a bigot?

If somebody who has never met me calls me a bigot, I think there may be a good chance that they are using me as a mirror, and struggling within themselves with their own fear of being a bigot.

The way I see it, it is because Judaism itself is inherently racist that Jews in particular are so liable to kick up a fuss about non-Jews who they perceive as bigoted, anti-semitic, etc. It is just the mirror principle at work.

Why are so many of us going around all the time trying to be right, and fighting those others who we hate so much because they are a mirror for the wrongness we fear in ourselves?

Part of the answer lies, I am sure, in vestibular dysfunction. So Canto 13 is titled Thwarting the Power of the Senses through Practice of Integrity. But equally part of the answer lies in an idea that is difficult for us to give up -- like God, for example.

What is God?

God, as I see it, is just a Jewish idea.

Gudo Nishijima says that God is the Dharma, and the Dharma is God. He says that not because he believes in God. He says that because he is a manipulative old so and so.

What I say is this:

The truth is the truth. God is a Jewish idea. A very, very troublesome Jewish idea.

I have never met either you or jiblet, but I see you both as people are liable to react emotionally to the suggestion that you are wrong because of a Jewish idea. But I won't react emotionally to you, as long as I am aware that I also am wrong because of a Jewish idea.

In that respect, I think that I am much more intelligent than, for example, Adolf Hitler was. For Hitler the Jewish problem was out there. Hitler couldn't see that the Jewish problem is really in here.

All the best,


gniz said...


You make some good points amidst some of the insanity on this Jewish thing.

Yes, Jews are bigoted--myself included. Jews are bigoted because human beings are wired, as I said previously, to see an "us" and a "them." To see patterns and search for meaning, sometimes where there is none.

Mike, if you start talking about how "gays" are ruining England or the world, I bet you'll get some gay people coming onto your blog and leaving comments. What does that prove?

Nothing except that when people feel attacked or misunderstood, they want to address it. Just as you do.

It is not a Jew thang. It really is a human thing. I think you have an unhealthy and distorted conception of Jews and it is tainting your thinking. It is probably representative of a greater mental issue, to be honest, as it seems to have some paranoid overtones.

But I believe that you are honest and self-reflective and will eventually see this crap for what it is. At least, that's my hope.

Best wishes.


gniz said...

BTW Mike,

Your mirror principle is a good principle. But I think it's important to remember that we all individually have our own unique issues that are reflected in this principle.

For instance, my coming on here and defending Jews in this instance is much more about my need to feel understood and have my opinions validated--to believe that people can come to agreement even over the most heated disagreements. I also have a need to "expose" ideas that I see as being illogical or rooted in self-delusion.

Why? probably because, thanks to the mirror principle, I am terrified that I am the deluded, crazy motherfucker.

So the mirror principle may be true in this case Mike--but not for the reasons that you assume.

You and I are different people and we come from different places. When you assume that the mirror principle in my case is simply a matter of my "Jewishness" asserting itself, you in a sense dehumanize me and make me into nothing more than some thoughtless Jew machine which, when a certain button is pushed, begins enacting my Jewish programming.

But what I'm saying here is that I happen to know that I am considered a Jew based on my heritage, and I don't want you or anyone else assuming that being a Jew means I am some arbitrary set of ideas, habits, or traits.

I came on here and argued because of my own little weird and sad personal insecurities, not the ones you've imagined on my behalf.

There. I think I finally was able to explain why this bothers me so much!

This has been helpful for me.


Mike Cross said...

You are very welcome, Aaron.

The mirror principle never fails, which is why this kind of internet exchange, I think, can be useful to the participants -- not because we learn something about the other, but because the mirror principle always shows us something about ourself. And maybe in that way, indirectly, this kind of exchange can help us learn to respect the other too.

I don't have any problem with individual Jews. One of the Alexander teachers to whom I am eternally indebted, Nelly Ben-Or, is Jewish. One of my Alexander pupils from whom I learned a lot is of Jewish heritage. Jiblet has helped me a lot by following this blog.

But I do have a problem with a tendency I perceive to be inherent in Judaism, which is to see self as somehow chosen and superior to others.

This is my problem, and Judaism is just a convenient mirror in which for me to look at it. It is a problem for me because the tendency goes against the Buddha's teaching, as I read it here, to avoid involvement with others like a thorn.

All the best,


gniz said...

Funny how that line "the chosen people" has probably directly and indirectly led to more Jewish blood being spilled than almost anything else one could imagine.

They should have left that line out, I think.