Sunday, December 27, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 15.64: For the Giving Up of These Ideas

tasmaad eShaaM vitarkaaNaaM
prahaaN'-aarthaM samaasataH
aan'-aapaana-smRtiM saumya
viShayii-kartum arhasi

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So for the giving up,

In short, of all these ideas,

Mindfulness of inward and outward breathing, my friend,

You should make into your own possession.

What the Buddha is saying here, to use a gardening metaphor, is for the purpose of giving up of wrong gardening practices, observe your crops. He is not saying that watching crops grow helps crops to grow.

Again, for the purpose of driving out impurities, a goldsmith turns molten gold back upon itself. A goldsmith, however mindfully he attends to his work, never creates gold.

So the Buddha is not saying here, as I hear him, that we should pro-actively pay attention to (i.e. concentrate on) our own breathing, in order to promote better breathing. I know from experience that if I try to concentrate on my breathing, I can't help interfering. And the root of that interference lies with the idea that I might be able by my direct intervention -- be it ever so subtle -- to make my breathing freer, fuller, and better.

So if I have some idea about how to breathe, and practice mindfulness of breathing on that basis, that might be precisely NOT what the Buddha here is pointing Nanda towards.

A better idea to begin with, for me, is the idea of taking a backward step in the direction of a bit more ease, and, in the taking of the backward step, allowing light to fall on this in-breath and on this out-breath -- as breath passes through the nose, for example, or passes as if into the pelvis. In this case, what I am shining light on is not the breath. But in shining light not directly on the breath, the breath can be as if bathed in reflected light.

Among metaphors for sitting-dhyana, the backward step is for me the most useful and best. It is a backward step of turning light on, in, for, and by oneself.

Because sitting-dhyana is a backward step, the Buddha is not instructing Nanda to master mindfulness of breathing in order to get somewhere -- in order to make his mind balanced, for example, or in order to improve his breathing. The Buddha is instructing Nanda to master mindfulness of breathing in order to give up ideas. Then secondary benefits like mental balance and better breathing can follow indirectly.

This is exactly how Marjory Barlow taught me to breathe better. She taught me to breathe better by never, or hardly ever, mentioning breathing. What she taught me mainly, as I recorded here, was to give up ideas.

My experience on Marjory Barlow's teaching table was that I would become as if enveloped in mindfulness, mainly as the indirect result of saying no to an idea of doing something. And this, it seems to me, is also how the Buddha speaks of mindfulness -- not like a concentrated beam of light, but like a protective suit of armour.

The Buddha tells Nanda that he must make such mindfulness his own. Even the Buddha cannot do for Nanda what Nanda must do for himself.

Now, what was that point, again, about mindfulness of ... No, I mean about giving up ideas.

EH Johnston:
Therefore to put it briefly, my friend, for the abolition of these thoughts obtain mastery over attention with regard to in- and out- breathing.

Linda Covill:
So to be brief, dear friend, you should make yourself proficient in mindfulness of inward and outward breathing in order to eliminate such fancies.

tasmaat: ind. from that, on that basis, therefore
eShaam (gen. pl. m. ayam): these
vitarkaaNaaM = gen. pl. vitarka: m. idea, thought, notion, fancy

prahaaNa: n. relinquishing, abandoning, avoiding
artham: aim, purpose (very often artham , arthena , arthaaya , and arthe ifc. or with gen. " for the sake of , on account of , in behalf of , for ")
samaasatas: ind. in a summary manner , succinctly , concisely

aana: m. (fr. √ an) , face , mouth , nose ; exhaling the breath through the nose ; inhalation , breath inspired , breathing , blowing
√ an: to breathe , respire , gasp
apaana: m. breathing out , expiration; (opposed to praaNa) that of the five vital airs which goes downwards and out at the anus
smRtim (acc. sg.): f. remembrance, mindfulness, attention
saumya (voc.): my friend

viShayii = in comp. for viSaya, object
kartum = inf. kR: to do, make
viShayii-kR: to make anything an object; to make anything one's own, take possession of (acc.)
arhasi: you should


gniz said...

Hey Mike,

You probably won't like what I have to say, given that we have very different takes on practice...but since you're discussing breathing, I couldn't help myself.

You say: "I know from experience that if I try to concentrate on my breathing, I can't help interfering."

A couple of points here. Firstly, this is probably just due to the amount of time actually spent attempting to concentrate on your breathing. It takes many, many, many hours of breath watching before you can begin to watch without interfering. But I'm fairly certain it's possible to do so, if a long enough time is given over to the practice.

Also, I disagree with your premise that interference is necessarily a bad thing. Interference can be a bad thing or it cannot. If you are learning a martial art and the teacher corrects your form, or you make a correction to your form upon noticing some slopiness, this is not a bad thing.

However, to continuously over-correct yourself and overthink while in the midst of a sparring session might be problematic.

There is a time and a place for everything, no?

Mike Cross said...

Hi Aaron,

A take on practice is just an idea to be given up.

The teaching here is about giving up ideas. The clue is in the title of the canto -- vitarka-prahaaNa, "Giving Up Ideas."

Breathing is a secondary issue. To sit as the giving up of one's own ideas is the primary thing.

gniz said...

Mike, you said: "Breathing is a secondary issue. To sit as the giving up of one's own ideas is the primary thing."

Depends on how you read the passage.

I read it as saying, if you are continuously mindful of your breathing, these silly ideas floating around in your head will be given up, as a natural side effect. You might still have the thoughts but they won't be taken so seriously. They can be seen through.

That's my interpretation and it fits to some extent with my experience.

You take it the other way around and say "breathing is secondary" purely because your practice is based around the IDEA of giving up all ideas.

I am not saying you are wrong--I believe that you think your way is the only correct way, but it's not. It's just a style that works for you.

Mike Cross said...

My practice is just sitting.

Who do you think you are to tell me what my practice is based around?

I cordially invite you to concentrate on your own breathing.

gniz said...


Thanks for the invite. I think I'll take you up on it.