Tuesday, December 29, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 15.66: How a Dirt-Washer Goes for Gold

suvarNa-hetor api paaMsu-dhaavako
vihaaya paaMsuun bRhato yath" aaditaH
jahaati suukShmaan api tad-vishuddhaye
vishodhya hem'-aavayavaan niyacchati

- = - = = - - = - = - =
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Just as a dirt-washer who is after gold

Washes away first the coarse grains of dirt,

Then the finer granules, so that the material is cleansed,

And by the cleansing he retains the rudiments of gold,

It seems to me that the primary thing in sitting-dhyana is to allow something out of nothing. If we succeed in this, breathing changes for the better. So mindfulness of breathing is a useful device to register success or failure in allowing release, but it is secondary. The primary thing is allowing. This is what I was getting at in yesterday’s discussion of mindfulness of breathing and counter-measures against ideas. In countering ideas, in the first instance, the idea of allowing is important. But allowing itself is opposed to the idea of allowing. And a criterion for judging whether one is stuck at the level of the idea of allowing, or whether one is actually allowing release, is the ease of this in-breath and the ease of this out-breath.

The final four verses of this canto are given over to the metaphor of the raw material of dirt -- presumably from a river bed -- being washed with water to separate out grains of gold, which are then by heating in fire turned into molten gold, which can be molded according to a goldsmith's intention into various shapes.

In this first of the four verses, the practitioner is compared to a dirt-washer who is after gold.

I think it is important to translate it, literally, that way round: not a gold-seeker who washes dirt, or even a man who washes dirt to obtain gold (as per EJH), but a dirt-washer who is after gold (as per LC).

The importance of translating it this way round somehow relates to the teaching that in working on the self being wrong is the best friend we have got. In other words, washing dirt is not a demeaning phase to be lightly skipped over by a gold-seeker: rather being a dirt-washer is a job to be embraced totally.

As practitioners, how should we see ourselves, primarily: as gold-seekers, or as dirt-washers?

When a dirt-washer who is after gold is washing dirt, does the merit of washing dirt depend on whether or not there is any gold in the dirt?

In theory, there may be merit just in the action of washing. (I spent a lot of time in Japan being taught that principle.) But really speaking, what dirt-washer who is after gold wants to waste his time washing dirt that has got no gold in it?

For a washer of dirt it may be important to be totally a dirt-washer. And it is also important to really be after gold. So not for nothing did the Buddha compare a practitioner to a dirt-washer who is after gold.

When a gold-seeking dirt-washer is washing dirt, what is his approach to separating particles of dirt from particles of gold? Does he intervene as if with minute tweezers and separate each particle out? No, he does not. He lets water do that work for him. The essence of his job is not to do, but to allow.

The root √ haa which appears in the 2nd line in vihaaya, and in the 3rd line in jahaati, is the same √ haa which appears in the title of this canto -- vitarka-prahaaNa, “Giving Up Ideas” or “Letting Go of Ideas.” √ haa means to leave, to let go of, to give up.

In the 2nd line I wanted to translate vi-√haa-ya not as “getting rid of” but as “letting flow away.” And in the 3rd line, similarly, I had the idea to translate jahaati not as “he removes” but “he lets go” or “he lets remove themselves.” I wanted to bring out the meaning of letting, or allowing, which I have learned from Alexander work to be -- as opposed to doing conceptions of “keeping the spine straight vertically” and “sitting in the right posture” -- the primary thing.

“Allow the neck to be free to allow the head to go forward and up,
” FM Alexander said, and then the right thing -- in terms of breathing, circulation, digestion and the rest -- does itself.

Alexander’s fundamental wisdom was to see that the primary thing is not to do, but to allow. I think Alexander’s fundamental wisdom was just the Buddha’s fundamental wisdom, and it is expressed in this verse, albeit hidden in the metaphor of an industrial process, in the words vihaaya, which means “getting rid of” or “letting flow away;” and jahaati which means “he eliminates” or “he lets go.”

In preparing this verse for translation I had the idea that “let flow” and “let go” would be better translations than “get rid” and “remove.” But on reflection interposing “let” in that way just didn’t sound right. So in the end I had to let go, if not get rid, of that idea.

EH Johnston:
Just as a man, who washes dirt to obtain gold, first eliminates the grosser pieces of dirt and then the finer ones for its cleansing and, having cleansed it, retains the particles of gold,

Linda Covill:
To obtain gold, a dirt-washer discards first the large bits of grit, and then, to refine it further, he discards also the tiny bits of grit. After this cleansing, he retains particles of gold.

suvarNa-hetoH (gen./abl. sg.): out of the gold motive, because of wanting gold
suvarNa: n. gold
hetu: m. " impulse " , motive , cause
api: even, also
paaMsu: m. crumbling soil , dust , sand (mostly pl.); dung , manure
dhaavakaH (nom. sg.): m. a washerman

vihaaya = abs. vi- √ haa: to leave behind , relinquish , quit , abandon ; to give up , cast off , renounce , resign ; to be deprived of , lose ; to get rid of or free from (acc.)
paaMsuun (acc. pl. m.): bits of dirt
bRhataH = acc. pl. m. bRhat: great , large , wide , compact , solid , massy yathaa: just as
aaditaH: ind. from the beginning , from the first , at first

jahaati = 3rd pers. sg. haa: to leave , abandon , desert , quit , forsake , relinquish ; to discharge , emit ; to put away , take off , remove , lay aside , give up , renounce , resign , avoid , shun
suukShmaan = acc. pl. m. suukShma: mfn. minute , small , fine
api: also
tad: it, that, them
vishuddhaye = dative vishuddhi: f. complete purification , purity

vishodhya = abs. vi-√shudh: to become perfectly pure (esp. in ritual sense) ; to become clear (said of the senses)
hema = in comp. for heman: n. gold
avayavaan = acc. pl. avayava: m. a limb , member , part , portion
niyacchati = 3rd pers. sg. ni-√yam: to stop (trans.) , hold back , detain with (loc.) ; to stop (intrans.) , stay , remain

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