Saturday, January 16, 2010

SAUNDARANANDA 17.4: All-Out Effort

RjuM samagraM praNidhaaya kaayaM
kaaye smRtim c'aabhimukhiim vidhaaya
sarv'-endriyaany aatmani saMnidhaaya
sa tatra yogaM prayataH prapede

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

By first directing the whole body up,

And thus keeping mindfulness turned towards the body,

And thus integrating in his person all the senses,

There he threw himself all-out into practice.

This is a long comment, not because it needs to be, but because I got up at 3.30 am, sat, and then found myself writing a long comment. I wouldn't bother reading it, if I were you. I would just focus on the verse, and begin to make the verse your own, by asking what it means for the whole body to tend in a straight up direction.

The meaning of √dhaa (put, place) is like the meaning of √ kR (do, make); it is like an auxiliary verb (a verb that helps other verbs, like am in 'I am swimming', or have in 'I have sat'). √dhaa does not necessarily mean to put something somewhere. Hence sam-aa-dhi ("putting together") means coming back to balance; it means putting/pulling oneself together only metaphorically, not literally putting something somewhere.

As a verbal root, √dhaa appears in each of the first three lines, in three absolutive forms: praNidhaaya, vidhaaya, saMnidhaaya. The absolutive form, expressed by the ending -ya, conveys a sense of action preceeding the action of the main verb. So the main verb in this verse is prapede, "he threw himself" in the fourth line,

Using these three √dhaa like this seems to me to indicate a certain order to be observed in sitting practice. pra-Ni-√dhaa-ya (putting down in front) means √dhaa-ing uprightness first, as the primary thing. If one attends to this as the primary √dhaa-ing, it may be that √dhaa-ing of mindfulness and √dhaa-ing of the senses will tend to follow, spontaneously, as a natural consequence of directing the body up.

Again, what is primary, what comes first and foremost, is indicated in the first line by pra-Ni-√dhaa (put down in front). What is primary in upright sitting is directing the body, as a whole, straight up.

As we have already been told in 14.41, as a herdsman follows his scattered cows, mindfulness follows after. We have already been told very clearly and explicitly by the Buddha that mindfulness follows after. But certain individuals, with their own "take" on practice, to do with mindfulness of breathing, prefer to stick with their own take on practice, not listening to the teaching of the Buddha. And if such an individual annoys the hell out of me, it must be because I am using that individual as a mirror for my own poor listening ability.

Mindfulness, the Buddha has told us, follows after. And mindfulness is like a suit of armour; it is like an insulating layer around us. As such it is not inside us but neither does it belong to the outside. So mindfulness is more in the middle, being neither the beginning nor the end of anything; accordingly, vi-√dhaa ('put in order') in the 2nd line is a more neutral form -- the prefix vi- does not necessarily express anything, and neither does the root √dhaa express anything too concrete and specific. Such is the practice of mindfulness: it is not something definite and directly do-able like concentration on breathing. It is less direct than than. Mindfulness follows after.

So first √dhaa the whole body up, and then vi-√dhaa the mindfulness which follows in such a way as that it remains turned inwards, towards the body.

Is it two acts of √dhaa-ing, or one act of √dhaa-ing?

In the 3rd line saM-ni-√dhaa (together-down put) points to integration as the immediate aim of sitting practice -- what Dogen as a young man expressed in his own words with the four Chinese characters
JI (naturally/spontaneously),
JO (becoming/realising),
IPPEN (one piece/integration).

"spontaneously becoming one piece"....
"naturally realising integration" ....

If you can be bothered to google those words, you will doubtless be led to some dust & fluff that I deposited on another blog in the middle of some other sleepless night.

The meaning of this verse, having been transmitted through 12 generations from the Buddha to Ashvaghosha was transmitted through 16 ancestors in India from Ashvaghosha to Bodhidharma, and through many generations in China from Bodhidharma to Dogen. Dogen while still in his twenties came back from China to his native Japan and did his best to convey this meaning in words written in his native Japanese. Living in Japan and reading those words, endeavoring to understand them on the basis of my own sitting practice, and endeavoring to translate them truly into English, and yet somehow knowing that I hadn't really got to the bottom of them, I came back to England to investigate the discoveries of FM Alexander, who described his work as "an exercise in finding out what thinking is."

The first line of this verse seems to have to do with good posture; it seems primarily to be about the body. In fact, I submit, to study what the first line really means is to study what thinking is.

Because if we try to understand the first line only on the basis of physical practice, that trying is only emphasizing what we already know as uprightness -- which is liable to be not uprightness but just uptightness.

In the 4th line "all-out" (prayata) could be understood as meaning with an absolute maximum of effort, or it could be understood as meaning with an absolute minimum of effort -- depending on whether one conceives of sitting-dhyana as one of the most physical things there is, i.e. as a kind of "stationary physical gymnastics" or as the most mental thing there is, i.e. as definitely not that.

Speaking for myself, I don't know what sitting-dhyana is. I only know, as a result of very definitely going wrong in my own practice, that it is definitely not that.

When EHJ translated the first line as "Straightening all his body" and when LC translated the first line as "Holding his body completely straight," they were expressing their take on sitting practice. Because neither of them had glimpsed the true meaning of sitting practice for themselves, they had no choice but to express a take on sitting practice. Only a person who knows all-out practice of sitting practice knows what it is to be without any take on sitting practice. And only when all takes on sitting-practice are dropped off is all-out practice truly all-out practice.

When I translate the first line as "First directing the body, as a whole, up," am I expressing an Alexander take on sitting practice? Or is it that I am the one who has truly endeavored to listen, so that "First directing the body, as a whole, up," is not an expression of an Alexandrian take on practice but is just Ashvaghosha's gold literally shining through? I don't know. But I think that for my life to be truly meaningful and serviceable, it has to be the latter.

In the end what does it mean, as a student of the Buddha, to throw oneself all-out into practice? Whether the practice is sitting-dhyana or translation, it might mean to do less and listen more.

If I have not truly been listening, then this whole blog is just a waste of time. If I have truly listened, then all this commentary is so much dust and fluff on top of gold. May the latter be the case! May the gold truly be in the bold.

EH Johnston:
Straightening all his body, he directed his attention on his body and, collecting all his sense-faculties in himself, he entered earnestly into the practice of Yoga.

Linda Covill:
Holding his body completely straight, directing his attention toward his body, and centering all his senses on himself, he began yogic practice in earnest.

Rjum (acc. sg. m.): mfn. tending in a straight direction , straight (lit. and fig.) , upright
samagram (acc. sg. m.): mfn. all , entire , whole , complete
sam: ind. together, altogether
agra: mfn. foremost , anterior , first ; n. foremost point or part ; tip
praNidhaaya = abs. pra-Ni- √dhaa: to place in front ; to put down , deposit ; to put on , apply ; to turn or direct (the eyes or thoughts) upon (loc.)
pra: in front
ni: down, in
ni√dhaa: to put or lay down
√dhaa: to put, place
kaayam (acc. sg.): m. the body

kaaye (loc.): to the body
smRtim (acc. sg.): f. mindfulness, attention
ca: and
abhimukhiim (acc. sg. f.): mfn. with the face directed towards , turned towards , facing
vidhaaya = abs. vi- √ dhaa: to put in order , arrange , dispose , prepare , make ready ; make , do (like √ kR to be translated variously in connection with various nouns)

sarva: all
indriyaani = acc. pl. indriya: n. power of the senses, sense
aatmani = loc. sg. aatman: self ; the person or whole body considered as one and opposed to the separate members of the body; the body
saMnidhaaya = abs. saM-ni-√dhaa: to put or place down near together; to place together , collect , pile up

sa (nom. sg. m.): he
tatra: ind. there, then
yogam (acc. sg.): m. the act of yoking, practice
prayataH = nom. sg. m. prayata: mfn. outstretched , far-extended ; piously disposed , intent on devotion , ritually pure (also applied to a vessel and a place ), self-subdued , dutiful , careful , prudent; m. a holy or pious person
prapede = 3rd pers. sg. perf. pra-√pad: throw one's self down (at a person's feet) ; to go forwards set out for (with acc.); to undertake , commence , begin , do

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