Saturday, December 5, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 15.42: The Other Monastery

asau kShemo janapadaH
su-bhikSho 'saav asau shivaH
ity evam atha jaayeta
vitarkas tava kash cana

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

"That country is an easy place to live;

That one is well-provisioned; that one is happy."

If there should arise

Any such idea in you,

Following the previous series of eleven verses in which the Buddha has negated romantic ideas about people, here begins a series of ten verses in which the Buddha seems to want to negate romantic ideas about places.

A few months ago I read on one of Dosho Mike Port's blog posts a characteristically honest reflection on our tendency to yearn for "the other monastery."

For me "the other monastery" is a place that is always quiet. In Japan I visited a monastery named Eihei-ji, "Temple of Eternal Peace," but that wasn't it.

The house I live in near Aylesbury in the south of England is sometimes quiet, but often not quiet enough for my liking. If a noise is not too obtrusive, like a gurgling radiator, for exampe, I can sometimes distract myself from listening to it by practising "mindfulness" of, say, the sight of this stick of incense, and the feel of this zafu pushing up, and the functioning of my breathing apparatus during this in-breath and during this out-breath. Practising mindfulness in this case means a kind of effort to keep several things present in my field of attention at the same time. It is a kind of antidote to troublesome ideas of the other monastery.

Nearly ten years ago now, I bought a derelict pile of bricks by the forest in France, thinking it might fit the bill for the other monastery. As with Eihei-ji my romantic expectation didn't quite hit the target. My idea was mainly falsified by a local guy who bought the place next door, and who has since regularly breached the peace with cars, chainsaws, construction machinery, et cetera. So not a few times -- particularly during my neighbour's summer holidays -- I have found myself sitting in the grounds of my other monastery dreaming of yet another monastery.

But on some days in spring, under the falling blossoms of a big ash tree, or in autumn under its falling leaves, I have been able to dispense totally with mindfulness practice, and just enjoy just sitting. At those moments, there was no other monastery, nor any effort to give up the idea of the other monastery.

If the tumbling pound or some other circumstance causes me to give up the place in France, or if death strikes me down tomorrow, I am grateful to have had those moments, which, I am confident, were nothing but the lifeblood.

The title of this canto, vitarka-prahaaNa, "Giving Up an Idea," just means the lifeblood. The lifeblood is just to sit.

Sometimes, when a Zen Master fails to give up his idea, something gets in the way of the true transmission of the lifeblood. That is the greatest lesson my own Zen Master taught me. It has been a very tough lesson to be taught. And even having been taught it, I am evidently not immune from making the same mistake of holding on to a troublesome idea.

My teacher had an idea that translating Shobogenzo into English was "his personal job," for which he needed some help to re-write his English sentences. He also had the idea that he knew how to teach people to sit in "the right posture." After I started translating Shobogenzo for my teacher, in 1986, and the translation actually became my translation, Gudo was not able to give up his idea that it was still his translation. After I first heard the Alexander principle of non-doing in 1994, and endeavoured in my unskilful way to let my teacher know that his idea about right posture was wrong, because in truth there is no such thing as right posture, again, Gudo was not able to give up his idea.

This is why, in 1997, he and some of his students did something that really hurt me to the core. After that, I stopped translating work and waited more than ten years for Gudo to give up his own idea and redeem himself. But he never gave up those two wrong ideas of his. He just got older and older and soon he will die.

When Gudo dies, I don't know whether I will grieve or not. My sense is that I have done my grieving already. I had a dream of being the true successor of a true teacher, but it was only an idea. It was a very troublesome idea that really got in the way of me living my life. It caused me to spend the best part of 30 years with the glazed eyes of one who is trying to be right. Giving up the idea of being the one true successor, the one who is right, continues to be not easy. But the more deeply I give the idea up of being right, helped along in equal measure by the truth of Alexander's teaching and the natural energy of the forest, the more chance the right thing has to do itself.

As I write this, a nagging pain is beginning to re-emerge in my stomach. Voila.

May this translation work help me and others not repeat the mistake of holding on to an idea that should be given up.

May this translation work help to clarify, for self and others, the Buddha's original idea of giving up an idea.

EH Johnston:
Or if any such thought should arise in your mind that such and such a country is peaceful or prosperous or happy,

Linda Covill:
'That country is safe; in that one they give alms generously; that one is happy.' If any such notion should arise in you,

asau (nom. sg.): that
kShemaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. habitable ; giving rest or ease or security ; at ease , prosperous , safe
janapadaH = nom. sg. janapada: m. sg. or pl. a community , nation , people (as opposed to the sovereign) ; sg. an empire , inhabited country

su-bhikShaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. having good food or an abundant supply of provisions; n. abundance of food (esp. that given as alms) , abundant supply of provisions
asau: that one
asau: that one
shivaH (nom. sg. m.): auspicious , propitious , gracious , favourable , benign , kind , benevolent , friendly , dear ; happy , fortunate

iti: " ," thus
evam: ind. thus, such
atha: now, then, etc.
jaayeta = 3rd pers. sg. optative jan: to be born or produced , come into existence

vitarkaH (nom. sg.): m. an idea, thought etc.
tava (gen.): of you
kash cana: an


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

I've been sitting daily for just four years. For two of those years I've sat with tinnitus, caused by the acoustic trauma of an ear-bleedingly loud onstage audition. Natural habituation has increased the periods when I'm unaware of, or not so bothered by, the constant rustling and hissing, and my anxiety usually drops off as I sit, but it can still be bloody annoying. I don't like it.

It's been suggested to me that sitting 'in adverse circumstances' is valuable; a good thing; better, even, than sublimely peaceful sitting. That's a nice idea, and it was encouraging to hear it...I wonder if it's true.

Any thoughts?

jiblet said...

BTW, I too have successfully practiced 'mindfulness' with my tinnitus, although in my case the technique was to notice and accept the noise, with its accompanying (negative, stressful) reactions, rather than find alternate points of focus. Although difficult at the start, it's worked and, for me, seems the only realistic approach.

Mike Cross said...

Hi jiblet,

Very glad that you are still checking in.

I think that really accepting ourselves is the antidote to trying to be right. Trying to be right is a peculiarly human delusion, based on an idea of "being right." And only when we give up that idea can we begin to accept ourselves as we really are. So this acceptance is REAL -- which, in my experience, is very different from being "realistic."

Thoughts such as these, nice ideas, belong to the first dhyaana. The second dhyaana includes the negation of all such thoughts and ideas.

The question I would like to ask you back is how you think dhyaana should be translated? Translating the relevant section in Canto 17 earlier this year, I tried to avoid the word "meditation," and went instead with the first realisation, the second realisation, and so on. But now that I am reviewing verses 17.42 - 17.54, I am feeling that first stage of meditation, second stage of meditation, ease of meditation, and so on, fit better.

Maybe Ashvaghosha wasn't so worried as I am liable to be about always upholding the principle of oneness of the body-mind -- which might be just another kind of trying to be right.

All the best,


jiblet said...


Hell, Mike, I dunno.

I recall your choice of "realisation", and I recall raising an eyebrow - but having access to the original term meant I wasn't troubled by your choice. It allowed me to consider your reasons...although I never really understood them.

As you've asked - my cop-out choice might be to leave dhyaana untranslated and provide a footnote. But if translated it must be, then "meditation" seems just fine. I'm aware of the objections some have to the use of that word, but I don't share their concerns. The dictionary suggests that "meditation" is the appropriate English word, and I think most people, when hearing it these days, picture a sitting buddha and don't spend too much time wondering what the buddha might be doing with his 'mind'. Which, it strikes me, suggests the word might do the job. But I might be wrong.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks, jiblet.

Neither the cop-out of dhyaana nor "meditation" strike me as being satisfactory, but my attempt to solve the problem with "realisation" now strikes me as much worse than either of the original two options.

Maybe some combination of the cop-out non-translation and "meditation" is the best that can be done.

jiblet said...

Almost as soon as I'd posted my last comment I had second thoughts.

I do share the concerns some have about use of the word "meditation", but no better alternative has yet popped into my head. And I think we might be stuck with it.

There again, I could actually give some thought to the problem. I'll let you know if I come up with anything. I'm not optimistic.

jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

Having checked my few sanskrit books for references to 'dhyaana' in context, and to its root, dhyai, there seems little doubt that 'meditation' is the most appropriate (literal) translation, and accurately reflects - as far as I'm able to tell - the original meaning. The dictionary alternatives relating to thinking, imagining, pondering, contemplating etc seem less appropriate here, and I have nothing better to offer.

So I think you're right that "some combination of the cop-out non-translation and "meditation" is the best that can be done."


Whilst pondering the problem I scrolled back to the beginning of the year and your work on verse 17. Nostalgically checking posts and comments, I came across replies you'd made to me, but my comments had disappeared. So had some of other people's, but all of mine had vanished - I couldn't find a single one from January until the post of September the first, when I reappear (I didn't bother to check before that).

Can you shed any light? Will I have nothing to show my grandchildren?

jiblet said...

...That's canto 17.

Mike Cross said...

Hi jiblet,

As a translation of the root dhyai, "to meditate" is no good, for example, in the context of 17.47 (dvitiiyaM dhyaanaM sa dadhyau). We cannot say "he meditated the second meditation."

So there may be a place after all for realise as a translation of dhyai, and realisation as a translation of dhyaana.

I looked back over the posts on Canto 17 from the beginning of this year and couldn't find any comments missing. Could you be more specific about which posts your comments have disappeared from?

I wonder how I would react if stuff I had written were lost in the way you describe. I think I might react badly, and at the root of my bad reaction would be an idea along the lines of "my opinion is important and should be preserved for posterity."

Life seems constantly to test our ability to let go -- until that final letting go.

Last week an Alexander teacher I know had during an Alexander lesson with Nelly Ben-Or what he described as "a life-changing experience" of letting go. Then a couple of days later his very expensive bicycle was stolen.

For another example, a friend of mine who is a professional violinist took the Bodhisattva precepts in the Tibetan tradition, and felt in so doing that he had let go of a lot. Then a few days later his very precious violin was stolen, in a targeted operation by a professional gang of violin thieves.

In sitting-zen too, the realisation of each dhyaana is the realisation of a letting go of what went before -- an idea, a feeling of joy, and a condition of psycho-physical ease. And that letting go has to be real -- more real than the word "meditation" is apt to convey.

Alexander work is all about getting a bit more psycho-physical ease, and a bit more psycho-physical ease, and a bit more psycho-physical ease... And real Alexander work is not bullshit. It really does demand letting go of one's own ideas and actually getting more psycho-physical ease.

But in the end, truly to sit as body and mind dropping off might be a realisation beyond even that.

In the process of writing this comment, I have been interrupted by two phone calls -- one from my mother to say that my father has got to go into hospital due to some internal bleeding; and then a call from a friend whose good friend, a father of young children, is suffering greatly from bone cancer. My friend wanted to tell me about it. As I joked to him, "Would people stop bothering me with life! I am trying to finish off writing a comment about really letting go!"

jiblet said...

Thanks for your reply, Mike.

I didn't mean to suggest that "meditate" was the appropriate and best translation of all derivatives of the root "dhyai", but that "meditation" was, imo, an appropriate and accurate translation of "dhyaana", in most contexts - as here, in canto 17. I guess all I'm saying is that I don't have a significant problem with it. (What to do with "dvitiiyaM dhyaanaM sa dadhyau" I leave to you - the questions it raises are not for me to answer; it's your translation).

And although I don't have a significant problem with the loss of comments (not from canto 17, but from subsequent posts throughout the year until September - and not only mine), I'd prefer it if they were there to be reread if ever I fancied.

Last night was the first time I'd looked back. Having noticed one missing comment I was caught, and spent far too long going through the subsequent archive. If they're gone, they're gone...I'll find a way to carry on.

I'm not going to check the lot again, but I'll find the first three. Perhaps that will help you find them.


They're back! As are the comments of others that were missing last night. The record is again complete.


jiblet said...

I pondered a little further on this:

""meditation" [is], imo, an appropriate and accurate translation of "dhyaana", in most contexts - as here, in canto 17." the light of this:

"In sitting-zen too, the realisation of each dhyaana is the realisation of a letting go of what went before -- an idea, a feeling of joy, and a condition of psycho-physical ease. And that letting go has to be real -- more real than the word "meditation" is apt to convey."

...and realised that I might be very wrong about the context of canto 17. Which is what I meant by this:

"...the questions it raises are not for me to answer; it's your translation."

jiblet said...


Rather than "my opinion is important and should be preserved for posterity", my reaction on realising that my comments might be lost forever was more along the lines of "now people won't know what an intelligent, modest, insightful and articulate 56 year-old I am."

By accepting myself as that conceited, insecure numpty it's become much easier to let go, I think.

jiblet said...

And, although I don't know you or your father, I do hope his condition isn't serious.

Mike Cross said...

This afternoon I lay down for a long time just giving up the idea of doing anything or getting anywhere. Then when I sat I had the idea that to sit like a mountain is to accept oneself completely, and to rise up incredibly slowly from Mother Earth.

Your input is always welcome, jiblet. We are all works in progress.