Saturday, January 2, 2010

Canto 15: Giving Up an Idea

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

Densely grow,

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,
my friend,

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."


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

Again, thanks for your work.

Re The Bloody Jews -

It doesn't anger me that you openly and honestly address issues of race/racism, particularly your own, in this blog, and it doesn't anger me that you have issues with The Jews, mirrored or whatever... What does - after a couple of days pause for reflection - cause me to eventually pipe up is what I see as your misunderstanding of some basic jew things - misunderstandings that I might be able to shed light on, from direct experience. So, with no anger or ill-will, but with a little frustration and annoyance:

As a 10-13 year-old attending after-school Hebrew classes in preparation for my Bar-Mitzvah, I was taught (by rabbis at an orthodox synagogue) - and not infrequently reminded - that as a 'chosen' jew I did not have unique abilities denied to the goyim around me and I wasn't guaranteed any special treatment in this life or the hereafter. What being 'chosen' meant was that I had a special responsibility to keep god's commandments; to live a life according to the Torah, and so be an example of righteousness unto the nations of the world.

I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now. I mean, I didn't take the 'responsibilty' seriously - at least, not because I was born A Jew. I'm pretty certain that my few jewish chums at
school spent no time seriously considering themselves 'chosen' either. What I DID spend time pondering and regretting was why I couldn't have been born a non-jew, like all the cool non-jews with button noses, blond hair and easy confidence I was surrounded by. I might then have a chance with the hot mini-skirted shiksa chicks from the local comprehensive I'd pass on the way to the apartheid kosher dinners my mother ensured I migrated to every lunchtime.

So my experience of being chosen was, and sometimes still is, one I could happily do without. I know my feelings of being an awkward stranger in a strange land were shared by the more sensitive of my jew mates. So - I wasn't taught that I was superior, and I didn't feel it.

For (I hope) obvious post-holocaust reasons, my parents generation were very pro-Israel. Me? Meh. And that's remained by attitude to Israel. I've no feelings of connection to the place, other than when, as devil's advocate, I rush to defend it when criticized, as it is these days, very frequently, by my old goyishe mate from South Shields. And very justifiable criticism it is. But most jews aren't Israelis. Wiki tells me 38% of the world's 13m jews live in Israel. I think, as gniz confirms, and as I've heard from one or two others who have spent time in Israel, Israeli arrogance is a very particular thing - a combination of factors, including feelings of superiority to their Arab neighbours, the causes of which it's far too simplistic to identify with being God's Chosen. Wiki tells me that only 27% of Israels observe the sabbath (the clearest indicator amongst obsevant jews of who is a religious jew) and perhaps 80% consider themselves 'secular' jews. Most jews, and it seems most Israelis, may not believe in God, let alone the Old Testament version of God - let alone that Old Testament God's promise of Israel to them and their generations. The establishment of the State of Israel in 'Palestine', and the policies of it's current government have far less to do with God and the Old Testament than you assume, I think.

jiblet said...

What else?
...Where we came in, I guess: "I thought Jews were supposed to be clever. But it seems that there are some Jews for whom this teaching is just too difficult to understand."

I mean...Mike...that's just silly, isn't it? If it was your intention to provoke, then you did a grand job. Other than that, I can't see your point.

I know that for some time gniz, a jew, maintained a blog recording his progress, or lack of, with mindfulness/breathing meditation...and that recently in this blog, Ashvaghosha recommends mindfulness of breathing...and that you took pains to clarify your understanding that this mindfulness of breathing was 'secondary', and not to be engaged in or paid attention to pro-actively...and that gniz took issue and commented...But WTF has being a clever jew got to do with it? It is, I assume, an honest expression of your reaction to gniz's reading of Ashvaghosha's words - and as such is an honest expression of your anti-semitism. With which I am OK - it's cool, Mike. I don't call you an anti-semite to in any way devalue you, your thoughts or feelings. Even if some jews are your best friends, confidants and heros you clearly don't like what jews - for you - represent. Apparently. Hell, I'm a racist myself, and it's no secret to me or my friends! Yeah, it's all a hall of mirrors...whatever. But I'm sure many will disagree with your interpretation of the role and meaning of mindfulness of breathing (and for that matter, focusing the attention between the eyebrows/on the tip of the nose) in Ashvaghosha's text, other than clever jews. So it seems to me, that remark of yours provoked and insulted...and that's all it did.

I feel that perhaps your view is rooted in some basic misunderstandings - primarily what it means for a jew to be told s/he is "chosen", and what The State of Israel means to most jews, and not a few Israelis too. There again, perhaps you just don't like jews ;-)

Shoyn. Genug.

I had decided to keep my counsel, and so continue to enjoy my status here as the acceptable face of the clever jew. But that would not have been wise, but only cowardly.
I'm not angry, Mike. I just felt you've made, and keep making, assumptions about the Jew Thing that don't fit with my experience.

A peaceful and prosperous New Year to you and yours.

Captcha - hemishe (very nearly 'heimishe' - Yiddish for "homely, warm, friendly"). Fancy that!

jiblet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Cross said...

Thank you, jiblet, for taking this trouble.

I agree with you that I made a comment that was both silly and deliberately provocative -- and it seems to me that what I provoked in you was not an emotional reaction but an enlightened and enlightening response.

I shall reflect on what you wrote, but in the meantime thanks again and all the best to you and yours for the New Year.

Mike Cross said...

In view of your frustration and annoyance, maybe I should have written NOT ONLY an emotional reaction BUT ALSO an enlightened/enlightening response.

Still, while still being works in progress, we can surely allow ourselves a bit of annoyance. Maybe such allowing has got something to do with the metaphor of the elephant that, after bathing, hits himself with dust.

Reflecting on what you wrote about the idea (whether one believes it or not) of being 'chosen,' in light of what the Buddha says in this chapter about giving up an idea, and about breathing, the Buddha's point, as I hear it, is that concentrating on one's breathing cannot be an effective method of giving up such an idea, but the giving up of such an idea can have a remarkably salutary effect on one's breathing.

For me, it is that way round.

Whether or not it is that way round is not something I am prepared to discuss on equal terms with the likes of gniz/Aaron. I am here to tell him it is that way round, and if he does not want to hear it, good riddance to him. (Incidentally, I noticed in the comments section of a post in Brad Warner's blog that the guy casually referred to me as a bigot.) Gniz has made a lot of comments on my blog over the years, and I haven't enjoyed any of them. I have found him to troublesome. That trouble, I suppose, might be akin to an enemy, whose name is "friend." At the same time, trouble is trouble.

As always, jiblet, thanks for listening. The sense that the likes of yourself are listening -- if not necessarily commenting -- is a great encouragement. As you wrote in a previous comment, it me who has responsibility for the translation, but at the same time it is a kind of exercise in listening in which I am happy to feel not alone.

So thanks again and all the best,


Mike Cross said...

As a PS to this discussion, it occured to me that another translation of prahaaNa is "forsaken."

One who seems to be chosen,

Will invariably seem to be forsaken,

And that is just the moment

For the forsaking of an idea.

jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

I came across this 'by accident' yesterday. If you're not already familiar with Robert Wright's work or this area of study (I'm not), if you've some time to spare, and if you fancy...

It's a talk and discussion (one hour) about the development of monotheism in the Abrahamic religions, with particular reference to ancient Israel - and the modern world.

I found it very interesting.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks jiblet, I will definitely check it out.

My starting point (prejudice?) is that the Buddha's teaching, as I struggle to understand it, is the giving up of both monotheism and atheism -- not to mention pantheism and every other kind of -ism.

Maybe this is indeed a prejudice of mine -- a kind of [anti-ism]-ism -- and this may be why I am offended when people call me a bigot.

Was the Buddha offended if people called him a bigot? Not according to Ashvaghosha's account in Canto 3.

Mike Cross said...

44 minutes in, RW says:

The mind as designed by natural selection is not intended really to understand all that much... and one specific distortion of perception is the idea that your special. That's the fundamental illusion built into all of us.

Nice connection, jiblet -- you clever old example of righteousness!


jiblet said...

Yes. I recall that bit.

Glad you enjoyed it :-)