Thursday, February 24, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 8.29: Talking the Talk of Freedom

vyasan' aabhihato yathaa vishet
parimuktaH punar eva bandhanaM
samupetya vanaM tathaa punar
gRha-saMjNaM mRgayeta bandhanaM

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

Just as a man released from prison might,
when stricken by some calamity,

Betake himself back to prison,

So might one who has retired to the forest

Seek out again that bondage called home.

In his rules of sitting-zen for everybody (including forest-dwellers and city-dwellers alike, not to mention prison-dwellers), Dogen exhorts us not, having grown accustomed to a fake elephant, to doubt or fear the real dragon.
In modern Japanese MOZO simply means an imitation or a copy. But the ZO of MOZO, on its own, means elephant, so Dogen's phrase includes a play on the words ZO and RYU, elephant vs. dragon.

Looking at Saundara-nanda as a whole, as we are better able to do as the translation nears completion, I think Ashvaghosha wrote the present Canto with a half-smile on his face, encouraging us to be on the look out for the existence, in every situation, of fake elephants posing as real dragons.

To encourage us to beware of skillful shaven-headed impersonators who wear the uniform, along with equally skillful hairy ones who make a virtue of not wearing the uniform. To encourage us to ask whether would-be Buddhist teachers are more like the Buddha, or more like the striver who, deep in his heart, is striving after something -- like fame, or profit, or promotion. Am I talking about myself? For sure I am, at least for some of the time, and probably for more of the time than I realize... possibly all of the time.

Probably because it takes one to know one, I see Ashvaghosha's character of the striver as representative of fake elephants everywhere.

In this verse the striver equates freedom with the condition of having retreated to a forest, and the striver equates bondage with life at home.

So here again the striver's words sound somewhat like the words of the Buddha, who repeatedly exhorts Nanda to go into the forests, or other solitary places that are suited to practice (yoga).

Evidently the royal seers are unbeknown to you/ Who retreated smiling into the forests; // Having spat out desires, they were desirous of tranquillity/ And thus not stuck in desires of a lower order.// [5.38]

To a place suited for practice, (yog'aanuloma) free of people and free of noise, /To a place for lying down and sitting, my friend, repair in this manner; // For by first achieving solitude of the body / It is easy to obtain solitude of the mind.// The man of redness, the tranquillity of his mind unrealized, / Who does not take to a playground of solitude,// Is injured as though, unable to regain a track,/ He is walking on very thorny ground.// [14.46 - 14.47]

These salubrious wilds that surround us/ Are suited to practice (yog'-aanukula) and not thronged with people.// Furnishing the body with ample solitude, / Cut a path for abandoning the afflictions./
/ [16.86]

Exactly thinking, then, the Buddha does not directly equate forests with freedom. He recommends Nanda to repair to a solitary place such as a forest that is suitable for the practice of yoga (yog'aanuloma, or yog'-aanukula). And the practice of yoga means, in essence, the practice of upright sitting, having bound one's legs together in the traditional manner.

So, again, it seems to me that what the striver is primarily interested in, and what the Buddha is primarily interested in, are not quite the same. Of course the buddha-ancestors do not deny the importance of time and place...

One set on giving up the afflictions, then, / Should attend to timing and method; // For even formal practice, done at the wrong time and relying on wrong means, / Makes for disappointment and not for the desired end. // If a cow is milked before her calf is born, / Milking at the wrong time will yield no milk. // Or even at the right time no milk will be got / If, through ignorance, a cow is milked by the horn. // Again, one who wants fire from damp wood, / Try as he might, will not get fire. // And even if he lays down dry wood, / He won't get fire from that, with bad bushcraft. // Having given due consideration to the time and place / As well as to the extent and method of one's practice,// One should, reflecting on one's own strength and weakness, / Persist in an effort that is not inconsistent with them. // [16.49 - 16.52]

... but in the end the really vital question that a buddha-ancestor like Ashvaghosha or Dogen poses is not so much about the when and the where of sitting as about the how and the what.

So, again, forget about India at the time of the Buddha or China during the heyday of Zen: just at this place, just in this moment of sitting, what is this sitting?

Is it an act of liberating oneself? Is it an act of binding oneself?

EH Johnston:
The man who betakes himself to the forest and then would seek again the bondage of home life is like a man who, released from prison, would enter it again when struck down by calamity.

Linda Covill:
Were a man to again chase the bondage known as 'home' after he has come to the forest, it would be as if a released prisoner were to return to prison when misfortune strikes.

vyasana: n. moving to and fro , wagging (of a tail); evil predicament or plight , disaster , accident , evil result , calamity , misfortune
abhihataH: mfn. struck , smitten ; visited, afflicted by
yathaa: ind. just as
vishet = 3rd pers. sg. optative vish: to enter ; to resort or betake one's self to

parimuktaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. released , liberated
punar: ind. back again, again
eva: (emphatic)
bandhanam (acc. sg.): n. the act of binding; n. catching , capturing , confining , detention , custody , imprisonment or a prison

samupetya = abs. sam - upa- √i: to come together ; to come near , approach , go to (acc.) ; to have recourse to
vanam (acc. sg.): n. forest
tathaa: ind. similarly, so
punar: ind. again, back

gRha-saMjNam (acc. sg.): called "home"
gRha: home
saMjNaa: a name , appellation , title , technical term (ifc. = " called , named ")
mRgayeta = 3rd pers. sg. optative mRg: to chase , hunt , pursue , to seek ; to seek or strive after , aim at , endeavour to obtain (acc.)
bandhanam (acc. sg.): n. the act of binding; n. catching , capturing , confining , detention , custody , imprisonment or a prison


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

Yesterday, I slipped into my comment querying your ironic reading of many of this poem's character's words: "It's not a small point". Well, perhaps it isn't a small point if I need to know exactly who Ashvaghosha was, or exactly who Ashvaghosha thought the Buddha was. Otherwise, it is a rather small point - and a doomed enterprise. This, it's true, is a bigger point:

"...forget about India at the time of the Buddha or China during the heyday of Zen: just at this place, just in this moment of sitting, what is this sitting?

Still, you've got a few more cantos in which to wear me down. Wear me down if you can!


jiblet said...


"Is it an act of liberating oneself? Is it an act of binding oneself?"

is not such a small point, either.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Malcolm,

In a sense it's the same point.

The answer to all those questions about what sitting is:

No. It is not that.

The irony in the story of the guy who loved statues but who was dismayed when he met a real dragon is somehow akin to the irony in the fairy story of the king's gorgeous new clothes -- the story in which some awkward child piped up "The king is in the altogether!"

If I truly succeed in wearing your doubt all the way down, you might conclusively decide that reading these comments of a fake elephant is a complete and utter waste of your valuable time!

But thanks for listening anyway...


Happi said...

Mike -

Of course, I should have suspected you'd say "It is not that," which is true at the moment of sitting.

At the same time, right at this moment when I am typing and, therefore, obviously not sitting, I would say sitting is being an immovable mountain and is being wind, is coming home, is leaving home, is freedom...

Isn't part of the issue the associations we attach to these words? For example, I'm pretty certain Nanda and the striver would define "home" differently.

Isn't the problem the expectations those words might cause us to bring to our sitting, which then prevent body and mind from dropping off?

Mike Cross said...

Hi Gisela,

You might be on the right track seeing the problem as being in our expectations.

For the antidote to problematic expectations, I often return to the sutra that Dogen quotes in Shobogenzo chap. 87:

I find it helpful to keep returning to that chapter again and again -- because behind all my efforts there is prone to be a hint of "What's in it for me?"

All the best,