The real basis of the love and compassion of which the Buddha speaks in this canto cannot be belief in God. God is an idea rooted in the racist ideology of an ancient tribe of Israel. God is what the Buddha calls a-kushala vitarka, an unwholesome, inauspicious idea. And yet America’s motto remains “In God we trust.” Suicide bombers die terrible deaths crying “God is great!” Israeli ‘settlers’ occupy territory in contravention of international law, believing that God promised the land specifically to their tribe, and people around the world, myself included, use the attitude of those ‘settlers’ as a mirror for our own selfishness, and feel foul prejudice towards them and -- if we are not careful -- towards all Jews. In this situation, what is the real basis of opting not for hate and ill-will but for love and compassion? My Zen teacher spoke endlessly of balance of the autonomic nervous system, but I could not be satisfied with his teaching, nor him with me. The Buddha in 15.2 speaks of aalambana-paraayaNa, engaging with the fundamental. Exactly what he means by this is not easily gleaned from the canto, many of whose verses are full of hidden meaning and irony. In 15.7, for example, does the Buddha compare troubles to friends who are truly enemies, or to enemies who are truly friends? In 15.8 and 15.9, if the desires we are to abolish are like poisonous snakes, is the Buddha suggesting that we should exterminate poisonous snakes? In 15.10 is coming to nothing a kind of personal disaster, or is it the aim of every practitioner of sitting-dhyana? In 15.14, again, who or what is symbolized by an elephant hurling dust upon himself? Should we fear being like such an elephant, or should we aspire to be just such an elephant? Is the noble person in 15.15 more like a compassionate nurse or grandmother administering TLC and sweeties, or more like a teacher of the old school who sees kindness in cruelty? I think Ashvaghosha gave us the best clue to the Buddha’s intention in his choice of the chapter title vitarka-prahaaNa, “Giving Up an Idea.” This, as a work of translation and as work on the self, is work in progress.
In whatever solitary place you are,
Crossing the legs in the supreme manner,
Aligning the body,
And thus being
attended by mindfulness that is directed
Towards the tip of the nose
or towards the forehead,
Or actually being inside the eyebrows,
You can make the inconstant mind
Engage with the fundamental.
If some desirous idea, a fever of the mind,
Should venture to offend you,
Entertain no scent of it but shake it off
As if pollen had landed on your robe.
Even if, through insight,
You have dropped off desires,
You must, as if lighting up darkness,
Abolish them by means of their opposite.
What lies behind them sleeps on,
Like a fire covered with ashes;
You are to extinguish it, my friend, using thinking,
As if using water to put out a fire.
For from that source they re-emerge,
Like shoots from a seed.
In its absence they would be no more --
Like shoots in the absence of a seed.
Witness troubles, such as acquisition,
Arising from the desires of men of desire,
And on that basis cut off at root those troubles
Which are akin to enemies, whose name is "friend."
Desires which are fleeting,
which are bringers of privation,
Which are flighty,
the causes of wagging to and fro,
And which are common,
Are to be dealt with like poisonous snakes --
The chasing of which leads to trouble,
The keeping of which does not conduce to peace,
And the losing of which makes for great anguish.
Securing them brings no contentment.
Satisfaction through extra-ordinary wealth,
Success through the gaining of paradise,
And happiness born from desires:
He who sees these things comes to nothing.
With regard to changeable, unformed,
Insubstantial and ungrounded desires,
Which are presumed to bring happiness,
You, being here and now, need pay no heed to them.
If ill-will or cruelty
Should stir up your mind,
Let it be charmed by their opposite,
As turbid water by a jewel.
Know their opposite
To be love and compassion;
For this opposition is forever
Like brightness and darkness.
He in whom wrong-doing is not being done
And ill-will is being allowed to continue
Is hitting himself with dust
Like a bathed elephant.
Upon mortal beings who are pained
By sickness, dying, aging, and the rest,
What noble person would,
With human warmth, lay the utmost pain?
And the mind which in such an instant is tainted,
May or may not impinge on the other;
But instantly burned up in this moment
Is the man of tainted consciousness's own mind.
On this basis, towards all beings,
It is love and compassion,
Not ill-will or cruelty,
That you should opt for.
For whatever continually
A human being thinks,
In that direction, through habit,
The mind of this person veers.
Therefore, abandoning the inauspicious,
You should think constructively,
Which might be valuable for you here and now
And might be for the reaching of ultimate value.
For unconstructive ideas carried in the heart
Producing in equal measure nothing of value
For the self and for the other.
Because they create obstacles to the higher good,
They lead to the falling apart of the self;
And because they undermine the worthy condition,
They lead to the falling apart of the other's trust.
Non-bewilderment in activities of the mind,
Also, you should practise.
But above all, my friend, nothing inauspicious
Should you conceive:
That anxiousness to enjoy the three desires
Which churns in the mind
Does not meet with merit,
But produces bondage.
Tending to cause offence to living beings
And torment for oneself,
Foulness becomes ignorance
And leads to hell.
So with inauspicious conceptions
You should not mar your self
-- Which is a good sword and bejewelled --
As if you were digging the earth, spattered with mud.
Just as an ignoramus
Might burn as firewood the best aloes,
So would one, wrong-headedly,
Waste this state of being human.
Again, just as he might leave the jewel
And carry from the jewel-island a clod,
So would one leave the dharma that leads to happiness
And cherish a wretched idea.
Just as he might go to the Himalayas
And eat not herbs but poison,
So would one arrive at being a human being
And do not good but harm.
Being awake to this, you must,
by antagonistic means,
See off the idea
As if using a finely-honed counter-wedge
To drive a wedge from a cleft in a log.
Should there be anxious thoughts, then,
About whether or not your family is prospering,
Investigate the nature of the world of the living
In order to put a stop to those thoughts.
Among beings dragged by our own doing
Through the cycle of unconscious reaction
Who are our own people, and who are other people?
It is through ignorance that people attach to people.
For one who turned on a bygone road
Into a relative, is a stranger to you;
And a stranger, on a road to come,
Will become your relative.
Just as birds in the evening
Flock together at separate locations,
So is the mingling over many generations
Of one's own and other people.
Just as, under any old roof,
Travellers shelter together
And go again their separate ways,
So are relatives joined.
In this originally shattered world
Nobody is the beloved of anybody.
Held together by cause and effect,
Humankind is like sand in a clenched fist.
For mother cherishes son
Thinking "He will keep me,"
And son honours mother
Thinking "She in her womb bore me."
As long as relatives act agreeably
Towards each other,
They engender affection;
But otherwise it is enmity.
A close relation proves to be an enemy;
A stranger proves to be a friend.
By the different things they do,
Folk break and make affection.
Just as an artist, all by himself,
Might fall in love with a woman he painted,
So, each generating attachment by himself,
Do people become attached to one another.
The relation who was,
In another life, so dear to you:
What use to you is he?
What use to him are you?
With thoughts about close relatives, therefore,
You should not obsess the mind.
There is no abiding difference, in the flux of samsara,
Between one's own people and people in general.
"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,
You are to give it up, my friend:
And not entertain it in any way,
Knowing the whole world to be blazing
With the manifold fires of the faults.
Again, from the turning of the circle of the seasons,
And from hunger, thirst and fatigue,
Everywhere suffering is the rule.
Not somewhere is happiness found.
Here cold, there heat,
Here disease, there danger
Oppresses humanity in the extreme.
The world, therefore, has no place of refuge.
Aging, sickness and death
Are the great terror of this world.
There is no place where
That terror does not arise.
Where this body goes
There suffering follows.
There is no way in the world
On which, being in movement, one is not afflicted.
Even an area that is pleasant,
Abundant in provisions, and safe,
Should be regarded as a deprived area
Where burn the fires of affliction.
In this world beset
By hardships physical and mental,
There is no cosy place
To which one might go and be at ease.
While suffering, everywhere and for everyone,
Continues at every moment.
You are not to enthuse, my friend,
Over the world's shimmering images.
When your enthusiasm
Is turned back from all that,
The whole living world
You will deem to be, as it were, on fire.
Any idea you might have, then,
That has to do with not dying,
Is, with an effort of will, to be obliterated
As a disorder of your whole being.
Not a moment of trust
Is to be placed in life,
For, like a tiger lying in wait,
Time slays the unsuspecting.
That "I am young," or "I am strong,"
Should not occur to you:
Death kills in all situations
Without regard for sprightliness.
As he drags about that field of misfortunes
Which is a body,
Expectations of well-being or of continuing life
Do not arise in one who is observant.
Who could be complacent carrying around a body
Which is a receptacle for the elements
Like a basket of snakes
Each opposed to another?
That a man draws breath
And next time around breathes in again,
Know to be a wonder,
For staying alive is nothing to breathe easy about.
Here is another wonder:
That one who was asleep wakes up
Or, having been up, goes back to sleep;
For many enemies has the owner of a body.
He who stalks humankind, from the womb onwards,
With murderous intent:
Who can breath easy about him? -- Death!
Like an enemy with sword upraised.
No man born into the world,
However endowed with learning and power,
Ever defeats Death, maker of ends,
Nor has ever defeated him, nor ever will defeat him.
For cajoling, bribing, dividing,
Or the use of force or restraint,
When impetuous Death has arrived,
Are powerless to beat him back.
So place no trust
In teetering life,
For Time is always carrying it off
And does not wait for old age.
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?
So for the giving up,
In short, of all these ideas,
Mindfulness of inward and outward breathing,
You should make into your own possession.
Using this device
You should take in good time
Counter-measures against ideas,
Like remedies against illnesses.
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,
So one whose mind is ready,
having the motive of release,
Lets go first of the gross faults,
Then of the subtler ones, so that his mind is cleansed,
And by the cleansing
he retains the rudiments of Dharma.
Just as gold, washed with water,
is separated from dirt in this world, methodically,
And just as the smith heats the gold in the fire
and repeatedly turns it over,
Just so is the practitioner's mind,
with delicacy and accuracy,
separated from faults in this world,
And just so, after cleansing it from afflictions,
does the practitioner temper the mind and collect it.
Again, just as the smith brings gold to a state
where he can work it easily
In as many ways as he likes into all kinds of ornaments,
So too a beggar of cleansed mind tempers his mind,
And directs his yielding mind
among the powers of knowing,
as he wishes and wherever he wishes.
The 15th canto in the epic poem Handsome Nanda,
titled "Giving Up an Idea."