Saturday, December 19, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 15.56: Precarious Antagonism

nirvRtaH ko bhavet kaayaM
mahaa-bhuut'-aashrayaM vahan
ahiinaam iva bhaajanaM

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

Who could be complacent carrying around a body

Which is a receptacle for the elements,

Like a basket of snakes

Each opposed to another.

In Indian thought before the Buddha, apparently, there were considered to be five elements of ether, air, fire, water, earth.

But, for example, in his description of suffering in Canto 16, the Buddha refers to four elements: water, earth, wind, and fire.

Fluidity of water, solidity of earth,

Motion of wind, and constant heat of fire,

Are innate in them; as also it is in the nature

Of both the body and the mind to suffer.

So the Buddha pointed to four noble truths, four abodes of mindfulness, four dhyanas in the practice of sitting-dhyana, and not five elements but four elements.

Are there four elements in this body of mine that are opposed to each other like snakes in a basket?

Ashvaghosha sometimes uses snakes as symbols of the reptilian faults, and for me that metaphor applies here. So suit yourself, but for me the essential big four is as follows:

(1) The fear reflex (Moro Reflex) is like water in that it has the very passive component of fear paralysis, like still water, which changes very fluidly into a very active component of fight or flight, or panic, which is more akin to white water.
(2) The head-balance reflex (TLR) is the vital one in determining a human being's relationship with mother earth.
(3) The twist reflex (ATNR) involves turning the head to one side and pointing in that direction with eyes, ears, and fingers: it is like wind in that it is all about movement in space and the tendency/intention to move or not move.
(4) The cat-sit reflex (STNR) is like fire in that it energizes a baby's energy in an upward direction. Only when this reflex emerges, at around 6 months, can the baby bring itself into an upright sitting position.

What makes the basket of snakes particularly fitting as a metaphor for the vestibular reflexes is that the reflexes work through antagonistic opposition.

Within the fear reflex, there is mutual antagonism between the passive and the active, and this antagonism is intimately related with the opposition within the autonomic nervous system between its parasympathetic and sympathetic branches.

The head-balance reflex, similarly, involves either flexion or hyper-extension.

Whereas both the first two reflexes involve symmetrical patterns of movement, the twist reflex (or Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex) is, as its name suggests, a-symmetrical. So the ATNR is antagonistic to Moro/TLR.

And finally the cat-sit reflex opposes elements of each of the three previous three reflexes. The cat-sit reflex opposes the first two reflexes, which involve either extension or flexion, by combining neck extension with hip flexion. And the cat-sit or Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex opposes the a-symmetry of the twist reflex with its own symmetrical pattern.

So the relation between the four vestibular reflexes, whether they are working for the good or ill of the organism as a whole, is always a manifestation of what FM Alexander called "antagonistic action."

Because antagonistic action is everywhere the rule, a crawler who wants to be loved and appreciated sometimes shows a strong tendency to non-conformist iconoclasm. I mention no names.

Anyway, I don't usually pay too much attention to altars, but while preparing this one yesterday I was thinking: "Let the neck be free like water, to let the head go forward and up like something growing out of the earth, to let the back lengthen and widen as a movement in space like the wind, while sending the knees out of the pelvis like a tiger sitting with fire in its belly."

To prepare an altar like this might be a kind of non-Buddhist ceremony in which, as a starting point, non-Buddha gives up the idea of becoming Buddha and accepts himself as non-Buddha.

In Chinese and Japanese the Buddha's four elements are called SHI-DAI, lit. "the Big Four." So for me, in sum, the Big Four are like this:
(1) Water; neck free; Moro reflex.
(2) Earth; head forward and up; Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex.
(3) Wind; back to lengthen and widen; Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex.
(4) Fire; legs out of the pelvis; Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex.

Even for a vestibular basket-case, the starting place has to be to accept oneself, like water. The alternative starting place is fear induced by trying to be right. This trying, in its turn, rests on the idea that there might be, in future, rightness to be had. Whereas the Buddha is in the process of telling Nanda exactly what every human being without exception can expect, which is not me finally becoming right, but rather aging, sickness, and death.

EH Johnston:
Who can feel true bliss, while he inhabits a body which is but a receptacle for the great elements, resembling a pot full of snakes at war with each other?

Linda Covill:
Who could be happy carrying around a body which hosts the great elements, as though one were carrying a container full of snakes fighting each other?

nirvRtaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. satisfied , happy , tranquil , at ease , at rest; extinguished , terminated , ceased ; emancipated
kaH (nom. sg. m.): who?
bhavet (3rd pers. sg. optative bhuu): might be
kaayam (acc. sg.): m. body

mahaa-bhuuta: n. a great element , gross element (of which 5 are reckoned , viz. ether , air , fire , water , earth, as distinguished from the subtle element or tanmaatra
mahaa = mahat: mfn. great (in space , time , quantity or degree); n. a great thing , important matter , the greater part
bhuuta: mfn. actually happened , true , real (n. an actual occurrence , fact , matter of fact , reality); n. an element , one of the 5 elements (esp. a gross element = mahaa-bhuuta; but also a subtle element = tan-maatra; with Buddhists there are only 4 elements)
aashrayam (acc. sg.): m. that to which anything is annexed or with which anything is closely connected or on which anything depends or rests ; a recipient
vahan (nom. sg. m. of present participle of vah, to carry): carrying

paraspara: mutual , each other's
viruddhaanaam = gen. pl. viruddha: mfn. opposed ; hostile , adverse , at variance or at enmity with (instr. gen. , or comp.)

ahiinaam = gen. pl. ahi: m. a snake
iva: like
bhaajanam (nom. sg.): n. " partaker of " , a recipient , receptacle , (esp.) a vessel , pot , plate , cup

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