Thursday, May 20, 2010

SAUNDARANANDA 1.43: Holding the Mirror Up to Nature (II)

kukShiM himagirer iva

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With its fine frontage of white watchtowers,

And a well-apportioned central market

Overlooked by crescents of large houses,

It was like a Himalayan valley.

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the
mirror up to nature...

Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2

Through Hamlet, Shakespeare is saying something to the actor about how to act -- about how the actor in acting is to hold up a mirror to, without overstepping the modesty of, nature.

The Sitting of buddha also holds up a mirror to nature, without contrivances like the ascetic practices and cosmetic face paints of the Indian spiritual performer, who seems to wish to overstep nature's modesty.

The Sitting of buddha is a manifestation of conscious human effort; it is not an instinctive activity like eating or shitting that evolution has prepared us to do unthinkingly. If, however, I overdo the effort to sit upright, stiffening and holding the breath in the process, then like the spiritual shaman/showman, I diverge from the true purpose of Sitting buddha.

If my uprightness is such that I sit too proudly, as if apart from nature, like a Roman or Nazi monument, that is not it. Sittting buddha holds up the mirror to nature, not like that, but more in the style of a Zen garden, where a large rock may be placed in such a way as to mirror a mountain in the background.

This is what Ashvaghosha is suggesting in this verse, as I read it. The white watchtowers on the great ramparts of ancient Kapilavastu were holding up a mirror to, and borrowing a bit of the grandeur of, the snow-capped Himalayan peaks in the far distance.

The sitting-zen practitioner Rachelle Sherwood recently drew my attention to the above artwork, and other pictures like it, in which she seems to me to be endeavouring to hold the mirror up to that which, in sitting, the practitioner digs himself a cave... namely,...


EH Johnston:
Having a fair front of white upper storeys and well laid out bazaars, and encompassed by a row of palaces, like a valley of the Himalayas having fine peaks like white watchtowers and manifold interior wealth and encompassed by uplands like palaces.

Linda Covill:
It had a fine frontage of white watch-towers and a well laid out center of shops surrounded by crescents of mansions, like a Himalayan valley.

paaNDur'-aaTTaala-sumukham (acc. sg. n.): with a fine frontage of white watchtowers
paaNDura: mfn. whitish , white , pale , yellow
aTTaala: m. a watchtower
su-mukha: mfn. having a good or beautiful mouth , fair-faced , handsome; mfn. having a good entrance

suvibhakt'-aantar'-aapaNam (acc. sg. n.): with a well laid out market in the centre
su-vibhakta: mfn. well separated or distributed ; well proportioned , symmetrical
vibhakta: mfn. divided ; isolated , secluded ; divided into regular parts , harmonious , symmetrical
antara: mfn. being in the interior
aapaNa: m. a market , a shop

harmya-maala-parikShiptam (acc. sg. n.): surrounded by a garland of mansions
harmya: n. a large house , palace , mansion , any house or large building or residence of a wealthy person ; a stronghold , prison
maala: n. a forest or wood near a village ; a wreath , garland.
parikShipta: mfn. thrown , thrown about , scattered , surrounded , overspread

kukShi: m. the belly , a valley
himagireH = gen. sg. himagiri: m. the himaalaya mountain
hima: m. cold , frost
giri: m. mountain
iva: like


Harry said...

Nice article, Mike.

I think you have a good eye. My missus, a painter, thought that the picture you included here was the 'most interesting' of the bunch (although I was caught by the one with all the intersecting blue and red lines).

I've seen this notion of 'one-ness' bandied around a bit recently (by people I'd have thought would know better)... "practicing in order to realise one-ness" and all that guff.

Nature is not skint like some notion of "one-ness". "Being without" is not lacking in brush strokes.



Mike Cross said...

Thanks, Harry.

Yes, good eye; shame about the ear!

What seems to me to be missing from the one with the red and blue lines is some gold. For me red and blue represent panic and paralysis, the dual aspect of fear. I think a sense of space in which there is room for gold might be what Rachelle is working towards, as we all are.

Dogen did say that the secret is JI-JO-IPPEN, spontaneously becoming one-piece, or naturally realizing oneness, but yes i agree with you that we get carried away with concepts like "one-ness" and "being without."

I was taught something in that regard from 17.69 in which, after seeming to describe Nirvana as a whole lot of "being without", Ashvaghosha turns the tables and suddenly compares it to a feast following a famine.