Saturday, December 26, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 15.63: Towards Less Imbalance

niH-saaraM pashyato lokaM
kasy' aa-mara-vitarko hi
syaad an-unmatta-cetasaH

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

Seeing the world to be without substance,

Fragile as a water-bubble,

Who, when his mind is not imbalanced,

Could harbour the notion of not dying?

For whom of not imbalanced mind could there be the idea of not dying?

The title of this canto is vitarka-prahaaNa, Giving Up Ideas -- the point being that an idea can be the cause of unlimited trouble to a human being, and so following a peaceable way requires us along the way to give up ideas.

At the same time, in verse 15.52, for example, the Buddha brings us back to the principle of psycho-physical unity. That is to say, not only do ideas cause imbalance, but imbalance also gives rise to ideas.

So giving up an idea, and letting the nervous system come back to balance, might be two different things, and then again they might not.

In this verse, then, does balance cause seeing, or does seeing cause balance?

It is like asking which is primary in sitting-dhyana practice: sitting with the body, or sitting with the mind?

The answer might be in the question.

We usually ask, for example,"Which comes first, the chicken or the egg." We don't usually say: "Which comes first, the egg or the chicken?"

There is a traditional method for allowing the mind to come back to balance. It is a method that Dogen observed, recording it in Eihei Koroku, and it is a method that Ashvaghosha records in the next verse. It has to do with mindfulness of breathing. But before it has to do with mindfulness it has to do with parking one's bottom on a zafu, crossing one's legs, and sitting in something approaching upright balance.

To add a reflection on some tenuously related points, the counter for visitors to this blog from the US ticked over 2,000 yesterday and looks set to overtake the UK visitors total sometime next year. So what is it about the US vs the UK?, I am wondering.

Yesterday night the Cross family slouched around the TV watching a romantic comedy set in London called "Love Actually." It was only a fairy story, but I couldn't help seeing it as a reflection of how pathetic Britain is.

Labour's best chance of doing well at the forthcoming election seems to lie in portraying David Cameron and George Osborne as a pair of toffs who don't really care about the ordinary British person. It is a pathetic tactic, playing to inverted class snobbery. But it works for me. I couldn't bring myself to vote for a party led by that pair of toffs. Class war is by no means a thing of the past in Briain, and on the individual level it is still alive and kicking in yours truly. Conservative politicians from more ordinary backgrounds like David Davis or Ken Clarke or David Willets I could maybe have voted for. But I wouldn't vote for Cameron or Osborne because of the issue of class. How pathetic is that? How very British is that?

In another establishment-related reflection, on the radio last thing last night I heard it said that the Catholic Church in Ireland is much healthier now than it was 25 years ago, when it was busy suppressing shameful truths in a misguided effort to safeguard the Church's reputation. That kind of effort is also a very British, and especially middle English trait: to suppress an embarrassing truth, to pretend it never happened.

The Japanese say Kusai mono ni futa, "Put a lid on what stinks." It could also be a British or Irish proverb. But an American proverb? Less likely, I think.

One of the things that has struck me in the past year of translating Ashvaghosha's writing is how non-oriental it is. In style it resonates more with the Latin epic poetry of Virgil that I was studying and translating 35 years ago, than it does with anything that Dogen wrote in Japanese. But my sense is that Ashvaghosha's teaching is going to find Western ears open to it, more than in the Old World of Europe, in the North American New World. That's what the visitor counter is suggesting, and that is what my intuition tells me.

Why? Because Ashvaghosha's teaching is too dynamic, too far removed from stuffy Old-World concern for position, culture and the rest of it.

So, truly, this teaching is not a matter of balance before seeing or seeing before balance. It is not about what or who was first yesterday. It is about going somewhere, here and now. It is about Gaining Confidence, Beating the Power of the Senses, Stepping Out and Giving Up -- canto titles all with emphasis on the "-ing."

What the Buddha, through Ashvaghosha is saying to me and saying to you, whoever you are, is get moving: sit with the glimmer of a true idea and realise the first dhyana. Then, seeing the fault in that, give up that idea and realise the second dhyana, born of better balance. Then seeing the fault in that, get a bit more ease, and go beyond difficulty and ease into the fourth dhyana, whereupon you will be as if standing at the gate to the city of Nirvana, in which case, what are you waiting for? Get in there! Go for it!

Dogen said: "Sit with body. Sit with mind. Sit as body and mind dropping off."

What the Buddha is saying here, through Ashvaghosha, is to my ears the same thing, and in language that is easier for me to understand clearly -- in language that is closer than Japanese or Chinese to my own mother tongue. The Buddha is not asking us to try to be right, to seek confirmation for ideas which thousands of years of our culture have caused us to hold to be true. The Buddha is rather asking us to be open to seeing our own faults and, in eliminating those faults, to move towards being less imbalanced.

The trend of the visitor counter gives an indication of who is listening.

EH Johnston:
For who would think he could escape Death, if his mind is sane so that he sees the world to be without substance and frail as a bubble of water?

Linda Covill:
What sound-minded man, seeing the world to be insubstantial and fragile as a water-bubble, would harbour thoughts of immortality?

niH-saaram (acc. sg. m.): mfn. sapless , pithless , worthless , vain , unsubstantial
pashyataH = abl./gen. sg. pashyat: seeing
lokam (acc. sg.): m. the world

toya: n. water
budbuda: m. (onomat.) a bubble (often as a symbol of anything transitory)
durbalam (acc. sg. m.) mfn. of little strength , weak , feeble

kasya (gen. sg.): of / for whom
aa-mara-vitarkaH (nom. sg.): m. the idea of no death, the idea of not dying
hi: for

syaad (3rd pers. optative as): could there be
an-unmatta-cetasaH (gen. sg.): of sound mind
an-: not
unmatta: mfn. (from ud- √mad) disordered in intellect , distracted , insane , frantic , mad; drunk , intoxicated , furious
ud-: up, upwards, over, above
√mad: to rejoice , be glad , exult , delight or revel in (instr. gen. loc. , rarely acc.) , be drunk (also fig.) with (instr.); to boil, bubble (as water); to gladden , exhilarate , intoxicate , animate , inspire
cetas: mind


Jordan said...

The Japanese say Kusai mono ni futa, "Put a lid on what stinks." It could also be a British or Irish proverb. But an American proverb? Less likely, I think.

The american expression might be more like "Whoa, this stinks! Smell it!"

warby said...

Hi Mike,
From this side of the lake, I sense we are getting over the "Japanese mystique" brought here by Yasutani,
Maezumi and others. Their baseline students are dying off and leaving in their wake fresh compost for growing the western dharma . My own dear teacher recently departed and left his good fields in tact. So I heartily agree the sounds of Ashvagosha are ringing here in anglo-latin starved ears.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks, Jordan.

And if it carries a whiff of old-world cultural snobbery, or the pong of "true Buddhism," then what....?

Mike Cross said...

Thanks, Warren.

I fear there is a lot of getting over to be done.

Even American Zen teachers who are striving manfully to make the Japanese Zen tradition their own, seem unable to avoid spurious Japanese terms like "sesshin", much less traditional terms like "zazen."

But thanks for the encouragement!


Jordan said...

Hi Mike, This talk of smells reminds me of my first time on Kuwaiti Naval Base. My first encounter with the Kuwaitis I noticed a rather pungent stench, I thought it smelled like the individual had not showered in about a week or so. Every one of them I ran into smelled the same way and I figured hygiene did not play into their culture very well. Turns out I was quite wrong and they were actually very clean people, they just favored a certain perfume that smelled, to my nose, like sweaty week old physical training gear.

As to class snobbery, I realize I felt it more strongly as a Staff Sergeant than I do as a Gunny. Now I have a bunch of privileges that might make someone who doesn't know me think I feel special.

As to true Buddhism, who has ever smelled it?

Mike Cross said...

Thanks, Jordan.

Any -ism has a whiff of something about it, to my nose. I haven't come across any word, in Japanese, Chinese, or Sanskrit that I would choose these days to translate as "true Buddhism" or "Buddhism."

My teacher used to speak of true Buddhism, but pursuit of it led me to give up the idea that there is any such thing as the true Buddhism of which my teacher spoke -- except as an idea in his brain.

In Alexander work, some teachers speak of a bit of nothing. And a bit of nothing might not smell like anything.

My teacher once said in a "Buddhist" lecture, "I think Master Dogen is the best Buddhist master in Japan. Therefore I think Master Dogen is the best Buddhist master in the world." Do you detect of whiff of something in that?

Maybe the lifeblood doesn't smell of anything when it is flowing, but if it stops flowing, then after a while it begins to stink of something.

Jordan said...

Mike, It is a familiar stench, quite like my own actually. I think just about every human being has that tendency to want to think that their thing is "The thing." No big deal.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Jordan,

For me, the Buddha gave us the practice of sitting-dhyana as a means of counter-acting that tendency, and it is the one great matter.

I don't like the words "No big deal." They have the sniff about them of affected nonchalance, probably arising from some kind of -ism that should be dropped off.

A lingering whiff of Buddhist punk-ism, for example?

I write this mindful of the fact that I first described myself as a Buddhist punk as long ago as 1985 or 1986 -- so the mirror principle is undoubtedly at work.

Jordan said...

I like affected nonchalanceIt fits perfectly. I guess lately I find myself too busy to worry about some one else's hang ups, instead I find the imperative to deal with my own, and the stress of the recent move has been revealing as to how many of those I still have.

Thanks as ever for providing a mirror.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Jordan.

Speaking of affected nonchalance, and remembering 1985, I remember being at a club in London talking to an old flame. Being three years into regular daily sitting-dhyana practice, and feeling that I had thereby attained some measure of cool, I said: "I used to be so jealous, but I'm no longer bothered about So and So."

"That's good," she said, "Because I made him dinner the other week and we ended up in bed."

She put her hand on my white-knuckled hand as it gripped the metal rail. "I love it when you're bothered!"

That sentence made a deep impression on me. "I love it when you're bothered." Just like a woman!

Anyway, it was a good lesson in the affected nonchalance of a Buddhist punk not being it!

Take care, Jordan!

Yours in the spirit of self-acceptance,