Tuesday, December 7, 2010

SAUNDARANANDA 7.3: Unconscious Zen & Forceful Stretching

sthitaH sa diinaH sahakaara-viithyaaM
bhRshaM jajRmbhe yuga-diirgha-baahur
dhyaatvaa priyaam caapam iv' aacakarSha

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

Standing, distraught, by a row of mango trees

Amid the numbing hum of hovering insects,

He with his long yoke-like arms
opened himself out forcefully,

As he thought of his beloved and stretched,
as if to draw a bow.

There is more to this verse than first meets the eye.

I would not read this verse as I do without having struggled long and hard in sitting-dhyana with the ultimately inseparable problems of how physically to sit, and how mentally to think.

This verse then, as I read it, hints at questions about how conscious or unconscious a physical act like forceful stretching of oneself is, about how conscious or unconscious the act of thinking is, and about the causal connection between thinking and physical action/reaction.

Just as in the previous two verses there was irony in the description of the robe which has no fixed form (though the Buddha fixed inviolably the method for sewing it), and in the description of Nanda's sorrowful state (while surrounded in the playground of a vihara by all the blossoming glories of spring), so irony might be intended here in the description of Nanda's unconscious misery (in which he contemplates an absent object).

The central irony of this verse as I read it, then, is represented by the words samMuurchita, whose meanings include "stupefied , senseless , unconscious" and dhyaatvaa, from the root √dhyaa, which means when used transitively "to think of, to contemplate, or to brood on" and when used intransitively "to meditate, to practise Zen meditation."

The action noun from the root √dhyaa is dhyaana ("act of thinking of, act of contemplating, act of meditating") and how to translate dhyaana is a perennial problem, which we have already considered in the context of the four dhyaanas, or stages of meditation, covered in Canto 17. Chinese translators generally skirted the problem by rendering the Sanskrit dhyaana into Chinese phonetically as Cha'an, whence it became in Japanese and English, Zen.

A greater problem still than how to translate the verbal action noun dhyaana, is how to practise the action which that verbal action noun expresses.

The main problem that I have come up against, and this verse as I read it touches on this problem, is the role of thinking in Zen practice, i.e. the role of thinking in the act of sitting-Zen.

The general idea, espoused by any run-of-the-mill yoga teacher or peddlar of psycho-babble, is that to meditate is to allow to come and go those thoughts that arise unconsciously, like passing clouds.

Fair enough. But this allowing is also a kind of thinking; and it might be the kind of thinking which can, with practice, become less unconscious and which can inform a person's whole body. Hence the truth of statements made by FM Alexander such as "This work is an exercise in learning how to think." And "if you want to meditate, this is how."

In this verse, Ashvaghosha seems to describe Nanda's behaviour, in the emotional, sensory, and physical spheres, as unconscious; and at the same time he seems ironically to describe Nanda as dhyaatvaa, thinking of, or meditating on, his beloved. And this juxtaposition seems to me to intend to cause the reader to question to what extent Zen meditation is an unconscious process. To what extent, in other words, can it be a conscious, or less unconscious, process? Again, to what extent is it a thinking process, and to what extent is it a process diametrically opposed to thinking? To what extent is it mental? And to what extent is it physical? To what extent is it feeling? And to what extent is it thinking? These are the kind of questions that Dogen exhorts us to ask, notably in Shobogenzo chap. 72, The Samadhi that is King of Samadhis.

Nanda's thinking in this verse seems to be portrayed as unconscious. But can thinking be conscious? And is there any room in the sitting-dhyana of the buddha-ancestors for conscious thinking?

The buddha-ancestor from whom I received the dharma taught decisively: No! Thinking in Zazen should never be affirmed. Zazen is just action itself.

But I think my teacher failed to understand why Dogen, in his instructions for sitting-dhyana, quoted Yakusan's words "thinking the state of not-thinking."

If unconsciously thinking of one's absent beloved is associated with a forceful hyper-extension of one's back and arms (and I know from years of my own experience how it can be so), then what kind of thinking, if any, might be associated with the release of such over-tension? (For is it not this kind of coming undone [vimokSha] that, as followers of the Buddha, we are pursuing?)

I don't know. I don't know, as a follower of the Buddha, how to meditate. Neither do I know, as a devotee of FM Alexander's teaching, how to think. But when I remember how I used to sit, forcefully stretching myself, and how I used to think, when I was in Japan, I know, if I know anything, that was not it.

So I don't know how to practise sitting-dhyaana. But thanks to FM Alexander, I have understood just a bit how not to practise sitting-dhyaana. And that gives me not only somewhere to start but also, using the wisdom of "not that," a way to continue.

Anybody can follow this way, as long as we remember that the secret is being prepared to be wrong. I for one am always liable to forget this. That's why like every other damn fool in the world of Zen, I spend too much time going around trying to be right.

In conclusion, a forceful stretch is liable to have within it the seed of an aberrant Moro reflex. It may be vigorous action, but it is not necessarily enlightened behaviour. Quad Erat Demonstrandum.

EH Johnston:
Brooding on his mistress as he stood in misery beneath a row of mango-trees beset with humming bees, he stretched himself repeatedly as if he were drawing a bow with his fathom-long arms.

Linda Covill:
Wretched, he stood under a row of mango-trees that were thick with settling bees. Long-armed as a chariot yoke, he contemplated his lover and stretched vigorously, as though drawing a bow.

sthitaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. standing, stood
sa (nom. sg. m.): he
diinaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. (fr. √di ? to decay , perish) scarce , scanty ; depressed , afflicted , timid , sad ; miserable , wretched
sahakaara-viithyaam (loc. sg. f.): by a row of mango trees
saha-kaara: m. "acting with" ; a kind of fragrant mango tree
viithi: f. a row , line

aaliina-saMmuurchita-ShaTpadaayaam (loc. sg. f.): with hovering unconscious six-footed beings
aaliina: mfn. having come close to ; dwelling or abiding in ; crouched , stooped
aa- √ lii: to come close to ; to settle down upon ; to stoop , crouch
saMmuurchita: mfn. coagulated , congealed , thickened , strengthened , intensified (ifc. = " filled with "); stupefied , senseless , unconscious
sam- √ murch: to congeal into a fixed form , become dense , thicken , coagulate ; to become stupid or senseless ; to acquire consistency or firmness or strength , increase , expand , become powerful , make a loud sound
ShaT-pada: mfn. six-footed ; m. a six-footed animal , insect : f. (ifc.) a bee

bhRsham: ind. strongly , violently , vehemently , excessively , greatly , very much
jajRmbhe = 3rd pers. sg. perfect jRmbh: to open the mouth , yawn ; to gape open , open (as a flower); to fly back or recoil (as a bow when unstrung) ; to unfold , spread (as a flood &c ) , expand , occupy a larger circuit
yuga-diirgha-baahuH (nom. sg. m.): with yoke-long arms
yuga: n. a yoke , team
diirgha: long
baahu: m. arm

dhyaatvaaa = abs. dhyaa/dhyai: to think of , imagine , contemplate , meditate on , call to mind , recollect ; to brood mischief against (acc.) ; (alone) to be thoughtful or meditative
priyaam (acc. sg.): f. wife, beloved
caapam (acc. sg.): mn. a bow
iva: like, as if
aacakarSha = 3rd pers. sg. perfect aa- √ kRSh: to draw towards one's self , attract , draw away with one's self ; to bend (a bow)


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

You missed a bit -

"priyaam (acc. sg. f.): ........."

...you must think I go through this stuff with a fine-tooth comb! I don't. Not always. Just sometimes something catches my eye ;)

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Malcolm. They say that our brains see much more than we are aware of!

As a translation of sam-murchita, which do you prefer:




I think the original meaning of murch is to become thick. Senseless maybe sounds more natural but it is a negative whereas sam-murch originally has a positive sense. "Stupefying" might be over-interpreting.

Any thoughts?

jiblet said...

I might prefer LC's straightforward "thick with..." But if you're trying to capture something more of Nanda's experience of his surroundings, I just came across 'stiff, numb, torpid' for muurch (in Lanman's Sanskrit Reader - I can't find saMmuurch anywhere yet, so I assume sam is here a simple intensifier)...

Is "the numbing hum" any use? Un/fortunate assonance, perhaps...

BTW Mike, after MW, what dictionaries/vocabs are you using? You often find interesting alternate meanings that I can't always locate.


Mike Cross said...

Hi Malcolm,

Basically I look everything up in the Monier-Williams dictionary -- which has sam- √ murch, without the dot over the first m.

Rarely I consult the Apte dictionary when I can't find an entry in MW (the suffix -maya, made of, is one that springs to mind).

I like "numbing hum" -- I think it was just the phrase I was looking for.



jiblet said...

Basically I look everything up in the Monier-Williams dictionary -- which has sam- √ murch...

I didn't bother to check under sam, did I? That'll be my tendency to short-term end-gaining...to wanting to be right as soon as possible :)

Thank you!

Mike Cross said...

Interestingly, I think the original short-cut is in the Sanskrit text -- because the easiest thing was just to put a dot over the "sa" to make it "saM."

And this kind of ties in with what seemed to be a theme of the previous Canto -- that as long as it works, even it is not quite right, perfect, or true, it passes the pragmatic test of truth.

Just between me and you, Malcolm, my secret thought when I was translating that part was that people of future generations will say, "That guy Mike Cross was right after all, with what he said about Zen and AT... What a pity he said it -- just like dizzy woman number one and high & mighty woman numnber two -- without any skill or wisdom!"

jiblet said...

...my secret thought was...

I KNEW it!

Mike Cross said...

If only it were part of some cunning master-plan. Ah well, k.b.o....