Wednesday, April 13, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 9.14: A Step Too Far

idaM hi shayy"-aasana-paana-bhojanair
guNaiH shariiraM ciram apy avekShitaM
na marShayaty ekam api vyatikramaM
yato mah"-aashii-viSha-vat prakupyati

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

For this body, though long tended with good habits

Of sleeping, sitting, drinking and eating,

Does not forgive a single step too far --

At which it rears up in anger,
like a great venomous snake.

This verse again sounds similar to the Buddha's admonition in Canto 15 that Nanda should not harbour wrong ideas about that field of misfortunes, like a basket full of warring snakes, which is a human body.

Today's verse also sounds reminiscent of Nanda's own investigations into the nature of the body recorded in Canto 17, viz:

Desiring to experience its total material and immaterial substance, he examined the body, / And as impure, as suffering, as impermanent, as without an owner, and again as devoid of self, he perceived the body. // [17.16]

The similarity might be like the teaching of good posture as preached and as practiced, on the one hand, by a parade ground sergeant major who has a crude and false notion of good posture, and on the other hand, by a good Alexander teacher who -- while never knowing what good posture is -- is reasonably clear about what lies behind habits of bad posture.

This kind of similarity is in fact no similarity at all. It is the similarity of chalk and cheese.

Thus, whereas the Buddha compares the body to a basket containing snakes, the striver compares the body not to a receptacle but to a snake. And whereas Nanda investigates the body for himself as devoid of self, the striver as I hear him hasn't yet worked anything out for himself.

The irony intended in this vese, then, might be that the striver speaks of going a step too far when, in describing the human body as if it were retaliatory, he himself goes a step too far.

In the end, when it is sitting on a round black cushion, how is this human body?

Speaking for myself this morning, a field of misfortunes, like a basket full of warring snakes, is a fair description of how it feels. Incessant crowing of my French neighbour's many cockerels seems to stimulate to rear up in me... something -- as opposed to a bit of nothing. "The many-tentacled monster of misuse" is one way of describing it. It is not that my body rears up like an angry monster, but something deep within the brain and nervous system, tied up with faults in the auditory-vestibular system, is triggered into agitation. I wish to scream, like an autistic child, and kill Mme Piquard's cockerels.

In this situation, the strivers' words are as much use to me as are the words of the shallow person I heard chirping on the radio yesterday about "positive psychology," rooted in ancient Greek and 17th century philosophy, providing a way forward for human civilization -- about as much use to me as a cake of chalk is to a hungry man.

In the Buddha's teaching, there is recognition of the real (not only psychological) faults that are housed in a body, but there is no view that a body is malevolent. The Buddha's teaching begins and ends with not doing of wrong. In the Buddha's teaching, for me here and now, to kill the cockerels would be a step too far. But fear of physical retaliation is not a good enough reason for me not to take that step.

A better way might begin not with fear but on the contrary with confidence in the existence of a better way.

EH Johnston:
For this body, though cherished for a long time with actions such as lying, sitting, drinking and eating, will not forgive a single trespass ; it becomes diseased therefrom as a venomous snake grows angry when stepped on.

Linda Covill:
Though the body be long and carefully tended with good sleeping, resting, drinking and eating habits, it does not excuse even one false move and so becomes irritated like a great poisonous snake.

idam (nom. sg. n.): this
hi: for
shayy"-aasana-paana-bhojanaiH (inst. pl. m.):
shayyaa: f. a bed ; lying , reposing , sleeping
aasana: n. sitting , sitting down ; halting , stopping
paana: n. drinking
bhojana: n. the act of eating

guNaiH (inst. pl.): m. good quality, merit, virtue
shariiram (nom. sg.): n. the body
ciram: ind. for a long time
api: though
avekShitam (nom. sg. n.): tended, taken into consideration
ava-√iikSh: to look towards , look at , behold ; to have in view , have regard to , take into consideration

na: not
marShayati = 3rd pers. sg. causative mRSh: to cause to forget ; to bear , suffer , overlook , pardon , excuse
ekam (acc. sg.): one
api: even
vyatikramam (acc. sg.): m. going or passing by; overstepping , transgressing , neglect , violation , non-performance

yataH: ind. whence, in consequence whereof
mah"-aashii-viSha-vat (nom. sg. n.): like a great poisonous snake
mahat: mfn. great
aashii-viSha: m. a kind of venomous snake
aashii: f. a serpent's fang
viSha: n. poison, venom
-vat: (suffix expressing resemblance)
prakupyati = 3rd pers. sg. pra- √ kup: to be moved or agitated ; to become enraged , fly into a passion
√ kup: to be moved or excited or agitated; to swell , heave or boil with rage or emotion , be angry

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