Wednesday, November 17, 2010

SAUNDARANANDA 6.33: Psychology of Breathless Grief

saa sundarii shvaasa-cal'-odarii hi
vajr'-aagni-sambhinna-darii guh" eva
shok-aagnin" aantar-hRdi dahyamaanaa
vibhraanta-citt" eva tadaa babhuuva

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

For as her belly trembled with her breathlessness,

Like a cave being rent inside by a fireball,

And she burned in her innermost heart
with a fire of grief,

Sundari seemed at that moment
to be going out of her mind.

In this verse -- unlike in a Western education system -- the physical, the emotional, and the psychological are not treated as separate subjects.

While I was a student at Sheffield University at the end of the 1970s, there seemed to be more truth in a pint of Tetley bitter than I could glean from the subjects I was supposed to be studying. But most of all, what seemed to hold out the promise of the more holistic kind of truth I was after, was Japanese Zen and/in Japanese martial arts. So in January 1982, a week after my 22nd birthday, I set off for Japan in search of enlightenment, and by the summer of that year I had met Gudo Nishijima and, in the words of the first letter he wrote me "begun your Zazen life."

In the years since then I have witnessed in my own experience -- in three separate episodes of stomach pain -- the kind of physical, emotional and psychological turmoil that Ashvaghosha compares to a cave being rent inside by a thunderball. The first episode was in 1984, when my then girlfriend decided not to follow me to Japan as I hoped she would; she sealed her decision by -- to quote a memorable phrase that a friend and fellow graduate of Sheffield University used at the time -- "squatting on your best mate's dick." The second episode was in 1994, after the stress of preparing Shobogenzo Book One for publication. And the third was in 2007-2008 when I began to grieve in earnest for a dream that had truly been shattered ten years earlier.

"Everything happens for a reason," I am told by my younger son, who wants to study medicine at a medical school, if he can get in, and then work in the healing business.

When I look back in that light on the three above-mentioned episodes, and also in the light of what I was thinking and writing yesterday about why I don't agree with Prof. Gombrich that nimitta should necessarily be understood in Ashvaghosha's writings as "object of meditation," my sense is that the fundamental meaning of those three shocks was in each case to push me away from unconsciousness, and particularly away from unconscious entanglement with the unconsciousness of Japanese habit and Japanese prejudice.

I was attracted to Japan for a good reason, because Dogen returned to Japan from China having received the Buddha-Dharma, whence he set about not only establishing the living Zen tradition in Japan but also leaving a written record of the teaching in Japanese.

And I was repelled from Japan also for a good reason, because there is such a strong tendency in Japan not to think but just to do, unconsciously. Whereas my struggle these past 30 years, as I see it now, has very much been in the direction of becoming more conscious.

So in 1984 I gave up the thankless task of trying to cause Japanese people, who seemed to sit there facing me like so many blank slates, to learn to communicate in English. In 1994 I gave up trying to make a life in Japan and I came back instead to live in England. And in 2007-2008 I gave up arguing with Gudo Nishijima; I quit trying to cause him through the force of reasoned verbal argument to see the light.

In each case, it strikes me now, I was faced with a problem of my own unconscious reaction to a particular Japanese stimulus or set of stimuli. And in each case liberation was not gained by me mastering my reaction to the stimulus. Liberation, or at least a bit more freedom, was gained by a decision to give up subjecting myself to the stimulus. In each case, it was as if the fireball inside was there to wake me up to the fact that the aim of my life is not to study my reaction to those Japanese stimuli.

In the meantime, the one stimulus I have not run away from, but have continued to return to four times a day, is upright sitting.

As a result my sitting has become, bit by bit, less unconscious. The unconscious pattern of upright rigidity that I used to practice so diligently has become the very thing that I wish to be free of. And when my wish to be free of unconsciousness like this is real, so that I say no and really mean it to unconsciousness, it seems to me that what is thus facilitated is the growth of consciousness. One becomes conscious by inhibiting unconsciousness.

So the original essence of sitting-meditation, as I have dug it out for myself, and just as Ashvaghosha describes it in Canto 17, has got nothing to do with so-called "objects of meditation." It has got everything to do with saying "No, not that" to progressively less gross forms of unconsciousness, until nothing remains but full consciousness of, and at the same time disinterest in, upright sitting in stillness.

The unconscious turmoil that Sundari is demonstrating in this verse is very far from the transcendent stillness of the fourth dhyana. That said, the shock she has just received might serve to push her closer, compared to where she was in Canto 4, to the plane of constructive conscious control of the individual.

EH Johnston:
For Sundari, with her bosom straining with sobs like a cave whose opening has been split by the fiery thunderbolt and with her heart burning with the fire of grief, seemed then as if out of her senses.

Linda Covill:
For as her diaphragm heaved with her hard breathing like a cave's interior rent by a fiery thunderbolt, and her innermost heart burned with the fire of grief, Sundari at that moment seemed to have lost her mind.

saa (nom. sg. f.): she
sundarii (nom. sg. f.): Sundari
shvaasa-cal'-odarii (nom. sg. f.): her belly trembling with her laboured breathing
shvaasa: m. hissing , snorting , panting ; respiration , breath ; affection of the breath , hard breathing , asthma
cala: mfn. moving , trembling , shaking
udarin: mfn. having a large belly
udara: n. (from √ dRR) the belly , abdomen ; the interior or inside of anything
√ dRR: to burst , break asunder , split open
hi: for

vajr'-aagni-sambhinna-darii (nom. sg. f.): a cave being split apart by a thunderbolt-fire
vajra: mn. " the hard or mighty one " , a thunderbolt (esp. that of indra)
agni: fire
sambhinna: mfn. completely broken or divided &c
sam- √ bhid: to break to pieces , split or break completely asunder , pierce , hurt
dara: mfn. (from √ dRR) ifc. " splitting , opening "; m. = darii: f. a hole in the ground , cave
guhaa: f. a hiding-place , cave , cavern ; (fig.) the heart
iva: like

shok-aagninaa (inst. sg.): by the fire of grief
shoka: grief, sorrow
agni: fire
antar-hRdi (loc. sg. n.): in her innermost heart
antar: ind. in the middle or interior
hRdaya: n. the heart ; the heart or interior of the body ; the heart or centre or core or essence or best or dearest or most secret part of anything
dahyamaanaa = nom. sg. f. pres. part. passive: to burn

vibhraanta-cittaa (nom. sg. f.): of disordered mind
vibhraanta: mfn. wandered or wandering about &c; confused , bewildered
vi- √ bhram: to wander ; to fall into disorder or confusion , be disarranged or bewildered
citta: n. mind
iva: like, as if
tadaa: ind. at that time, then
babhuuva = 3rd pers. sg. perfect bhuu: to be, become


Andrew said...

"One becomes conscious by inhibiting unconsciousness. " ...That's very interesting - what do you think is actually happening there?


Mike Cross said...

Hi Andrew,

"When we let go, it has filled our hands already," Dogen said. But what actually happens we do not know -- it is a mystery.

If we can know anything it might be the unconscious grasping, the attachment, and maybe that is what is being investigated in this Canto.

All the best,


Andrew said...

"unconscious grasping" seems like a good name for it. I guess we've all felt like Sundari at some time, and I've often wondered why I should feel like that, the state being so at odds with the reality of my life. You've offered me a useful line of enquiry. Thank you Mike.