Saturday, February 13, 2010

SAUNDARANANDA 17.32: The Eye of Meeting Buddha

shaantaM shivaM nir-jarasaM viraagaM
niHshreyasam pashyati yash ca dharmaM
tasy'-opadeShTaaram ath'aarya-varyaM
sa prekShate buddham avaapta-cakShuH

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And he who sees as the greatest good the Dharma

That is peaceful, salutary, ageless, and free of redness,

And who sees its teacher as the noblest of the noble:

He, as one who has got the Eye, is meeting Buddha.

How to translate the Sanskrit word dharma?

"Teaching" here might be too abstract. "Sitting" might be too definite. If the easy option is taken and the word is left untranslated, which is better: dharma with a small 'd' or Dharma with a capital 'D'?

The reason this question has not been answered definitively so far, by any translator into English, might be because the true Dharma -- at least where there is true passion for sitting-practice -- is truly unaging (nir-jarasam): it is never not fresh.

The raaga of viraaga (usually translated as "passionless") literally means colour and especially redness. To me it suggests the action of the baby panic reflex -- the Moro reflex.

Dharma in its purest form might be a person, shaven headed and wearing a traditional robe, sitting in full lotus in a non-doing manner, such that the fight or flight action of the Moro reflex is utterly transcended.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I used to suffer from chronic blushing -- going bright red and sweating with such intensity that by the time I was through blushing I would be reduced to a pallid dribble of sweat. So I wanted to get to the bottom of that problem, to understand what the hell was going on. What was going on, it seems to me now, 35 years later, was that my Moro reflex was waxing and waning in conflict with a fear paralysis response.

Circa 1987, before I had even heard of the existence of anything called "the Moro reflex," I wrote something down that at that time was my best attempt to answer the question of the relation between sitting-practice, which I was doing a lot of, and emotional reaction, which also I was doing a lot of. Doing lots of sitting, it seemed to me then, did not stop off my emotional reaction at source -- I certainly could not claim to be free of passion -- but there was some sense in which sitting was always sitting. Whether I was sitting at a retreat in a Japanese Zen temple, or sitting by my miserable lovesick self, the action of sitting was, at least on a gross physical level, the same fundamental action. So, at a particulary red-faced moment, while on a 3-week leave of absence from Japan and staying at my parent's house in Birmingham, I scribbled down the following:

Nothing to live for, nothing to gain.
No love lasts forever, no man is his name.
Gold face or red face, we wash them the same.
The truth includes blunders, sickness and pain.

When Dogen wrote that sitting is the Buddha-Dharma and the Buddha-Dharma is sitting, did he have in mind the kind of blind physical sitting I was doing then -- making every effort to keep my spine straight vertically, guided only by faulty sensory appreciation?

I don't know. But I don't think so. There was something good about my practice in those days. At the same time there was something not at all good, something very stubborn and rigid, something that was very much caught in the grip of an immature Moro reflex.

I was aware of one side (sitting with the body, i.e. doing) but blind to the other side (sitting with the mind, in the direction of non-doing). I knew that doing something with the body -- anything -- afforded some kind of relief from emotional suffering, but I did not know how to think in such a way as to cut out emotional suffering at the root. As a matter of fact, I still don't know how to think like that. But maybe, a la D. Rumsfeld, I know that I don't know. Non-doing is now more of a known unknown, whereas then it was more of an unknown unknown.

Truly meeting Buddha, it seems to me now, cannot be only the doing that I knew then. Truly meeting Buddha is not one-sided. And a teacher who only teaches one side while remaining blind to the other, even if he has many excellent qualities, is not the noblest of the noble (aarya-varyam).

As a general rule, Zen teachers in Japan tend to be awake to the importance of traditional form in sitting, but their imitation of the Buddha's upright posture tends to be rather forced. On the other side, the sitting of mindful Theravada monks, at least the ones that I have sat with, is easily liable to degenerate into slumping. There are Alexander teachers who are more enlightened as to the true meaning of non-doing in the middle way, but they tend to fail to see the merit in a westerner enduring the pain of sitting with crossed legs -- they are awake in other words to non-form, but fail to see the importance of the traditional sitting form.

Realisation of both true traditional form and true traditional non-form might be something for us, who are works in progress, to keep working gradually towards -- on the way to gouging out Bodhidharma's eyeball.

A friend and former Alexander pupil of mine, in a phonecall a couple of days ago, contrasted what he called "the pure Dharma" of the Theravada monks his sits with at Amaravati monastery, and my own approach...


Ah, well. Keep on keeping on.

EH Johnston:
And he who sees the peaceful, holy, unaging, passionless Element, the ultimate good, and its Teacher, the Chief of the Saints, has obtained illumination and sees the Buddha.

Linda Covill:
And he who sees that dharma is tranquil, benign, without age or passion, and unexcelled, and sees that its teacher, Buddha, is the best of the noble ones -- he has won insight.

shaantam (acc. sg. m.): mfn. (fr. √sham) appeased , pacified , tranquil , calm , free from passions , undisturbed
shivam (acc. sg. m.): auspicious , propitious , gracious , favourable , benign , kind , benevolent , friendly; happy
nir-jarasam (acc. sg. m.): not becoming old , young , fresh ; imperishable , immortal
nis: ind. out , forth , away &c
jaras: f. the becoming old , decay , old age
viraagam (acc. sg. m.): passionless , without feeling , dispassionate , indifferent
vi: ind. apart , asunder , in different directions , to and fro , about , away , away from , off , without
raaga: m. colour , hue , tint , dye , (esp.) red colour , redness ; passion

niHshreyasam (acc. sg. m.): " having no better " , best , most excellent ; n. the best i.e. ultimate bliss , final beatitude , or knowledge that brings it
pashyati (3rd pers. sg. dRsh): he sees
yaH (nom. sg. m.): [he] who
ca: and
dharmam (acc. sg. m.) : m. the teaching, law, method

tasya (gen.): of it
upadeShTaaram (acc. sg. m.): m. one who teaches , a teacher , adviser; a Guru or spiritual guide
atha: (auspicious particle) now, then, moreover
aarya: m. a respectable or honourable or faithful man; a man highly esteemed , a respectable , honourable man
varyam (acc. sg. m.): to be chosen , eligible; excellent , eminent , chief , principal , best of (gen. or comp.)

sa (nom. sg. m.): he
prekShate = 3rd pers. sg. pra- √iikS) : to look at , view , behold , observe;
to look on (without interfering) , suffer , say nothing
buddham (acc. sg.): m. Buddha, the Awakened One
avaapta-cakShuH (acc./nom. sg.):
avaapta: mfn. one who has attained or reached ; obtained , got
cakShus: n. light , clearness ; the act of seeing; sight; n. the eye (often ifc.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I appreciate your post. At a quick glance I initially misread the title as 'The End of Meaning', but I am thankful that there is always room for instruction.

Best Regards,