Thursday, January 21, 2010

SAUNDARANANDA 17.9: Return of the Inauspicious Idea

aarabdha-viiryasya manaH-shamaaya
bhuuyas tu tasy' aa-kushalo vitarkaH
vyaadhi-praNaashaaya niviShTa-buddher
upadravo ghora iv' aajagaama

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

But as he renewed the direction of his energy,
so as to allow the mind to be still,

An inauspicious idea reasserted itself in him,

As when, in a man intent on curing an illness,

An acute symptom suddenly reappears.

The first thing to understand here is the meaning of the first line. The overriding importance of viirya, "direction of energy," is the conclusion, at the end of Canto 16, of the Buddha's great five-canto monologue. And the context here is that Nanda is sitting in full lotus, directing his whole body up (17.4). So the primary meaning of aarabdha-viirya, "his resuming of the direction of his energy," must be that Nanda renewed the direction of his whole body up.

This modus operandi is essentially the one that I was taught in Japan, the underlying wisdom of it being that direct intervention to try to still the mind -- by abdominal breathing or some such stupidity -- is just the playing out of an inauspicious idea. Rather, I was taught in Japan, by concentrating our efforts on "keeping the spine straight vertically," we allow the autonomic nervous system to balance itself, and balance of the autonomic nervous system equals a calm, quiet, still mind.

Sadly, it took me too many years of being 'tight and right' to begin to see that "keeping the spine straight vertically" is also liable to become the playing out of an inauspicious conception. The inauspicious conception in question is the end-gaining conception; that is, the idea that to direct the spine up is to do something. Whereas when the spine truly directs itself up, that is not the practitioner doing the right thing; it is the practitioner giving up an inauspicious idea and thereby allowing the right thing to do itself -- wherein the mind is allowed to still itself.

So the enemy in this verse is our old friend (see for example 15.19/15.20 ; 16.77) the a-kushala vitarka, i.e. the inauspicious or unconstructive idea or conception.

In sitting practice is there essentially just one inauspicious idea -- i.e. the end-gaining conception? Or are there many inauspicious ideas?

In Canto 15, the Buddha seems to list a series of inauspicious conceptions one by one, and close to the top of the Buddha's list of inauspicious conceptions seems to be the idea that I'm so special, or that my people are so special (see 15.30 - 15.41).

When one looks around, there is nothing very special about the idea that I am / we are very special -- millions of other damn fools are labouring under the same misapprehension. And yet the idea is difficult to give up: one might think one has got beyond it, but then it re-asserts itself in a manner that Ashvaghosha compares here to the appearance of an acute symptom of disease.

Framed in that way, the surfacing into consciousness of the most unwholesome of egoistic end-gaining ideas, might be something to welcome, as part of a healing process. Hence FM Alexander's famous aphorism "Being wrong is the best friend we have got in this work." And hence Patrick Macdonald's even pithier: "Look the bugger in the eye!"

The Japanese have a proverb kusai mono ni futa, "Put a lid on what stinks." But I disagree.

"Pulling in the chin to stretch the back of the neck," for example, even if the teaching originated with the great Kodo Sawaki, is a teaching that stinks. And my job is not to put a lid on it. My job is to help people see exactly why it stinks.

But before that, my job is to prevent that bloody awful end-gaining conception re-asserting itself in me!

The idea that I and my people are special is very closely allied, it seems to me, with the end-gaining conception that an upward lengthening of the spine depends on me intervening to do something. (Think of any narrow-minded fascist/nationalist you care to think of, and picture him on the parade ground.)

So maybe if we recognize the existence of many kinds of inauspicious ideas, we can at the same time recognize that they are clustered around the end-gaining conception, like Mara and his retinue. When I write "Mara," Mara is equated in my mind with "Moro" and the Moro reflex, which is the primary survival reflex, might just as well be called the end-gaining reflex.

EH Johnston:
But again an evil thought approached him, when all his energy was applied to attaining tranquillity of mind, like a fearful symptom coming on a man whose mind is set on the destruction of his illness.

Linda Covill:
But as he was commencing his endeavor to pacify his mind, again an offensive thought occurred to him, like a severe new symptom appearing in a man whose faculties are preoccupied with fighting off an existing disease.

aarabdha: mfn. begun , commenced , undertaken
aa-√rabh: to lay or take hold of , keep fast , cling to ; to gain a footing ; to enter , reach , attain ; to undertake , commence , begin ;
viiryasya = gen. sg. viirya: n. manliness , valour , strength , power , energy
manas: mind
shamaaya = dative shama: m. tranquillity , calmness , peace

bhuuyas: ind. again
tu: but
tasya (gen.): to/of him
a-kushalaH (nom. sg. m.): inauspicious, evil, not clever
vitarkaH (nom. sg.): m. idea, thought, conception

vyaadhi: disease
praNaashaaya = dative praNaasha: m. vanishing , disappearance , cessation , loss , destruction
niviShTa: mfn. settled down , come to rest ; turned to , intent upon (loc. or comp.)
buddheH = gen./abl. buddhi: f. mind, intention, purpose

upadravaH (nom. sg.): m. that which attacks or occurs suddenly , any grievous accident , misfortune , calamity ; a supervenient disease or one brought on whilst a person labours under another
upa: towards etc.
drava: m. going , quick motion , flight ; m. (dram.) the flying out against one's superior
ghoraH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. terrific , frightful , terrible , dreadful , violent , vehement (as pains , diseases , &c )
iva: like
aajagaama = 3rd pers. sg. perfect aa- √gam: to come, make one's appearance ' ; (generally with p/unar) to return

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