Friday, April 22, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 9.23: Exhortation to Beat the Six Senses

tathaa hi viiraaH puruShaa na te mataa
jayanti ye s'-aashva-ratha-dvipaan ariin
yathaa mataa viirataraa maniiShiNo
jayanti lolaani ShaD-indriyaaNi ye

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Less heroic are those men thought

Who conquer enemies
armed with horses, chariots and elephants,

Than those heroic thinkers are thought

Who conquer the restless six senses.

As an avid listener of BBC Radio 4 Long Wave, especially when in France, I cannot help be aware that today is a big day in the Christian calendar. As easy as falling off a log would it be for me to complain about being subjected to a lot of ludicrous stories about resurrection and other so-called Christian miracles that fly in the face of reason. It does irritate me greatly that Radio 4, which is generally a bastion of reason, gives itself up for so many minutes in the day to religious bullshit.

Equally, it is not too difficult for me to see the fault in what the striver is saying in today's verse. Just as Christian preachers, when they ask others to believe in a heap of bullshit called "the resurrection," ask too much, so also the striver, when he asks us to believe that it is possible to conquer the six senses, is asking too much. The truth might be that nobody can control the six senses; the best we can hope for, bringing reason to bear, is to contain the power or influence of faulty sensory appreciation.

In Canto 13 there are several verses in which the senses are portrayed as besieging or oppressing enemies. But nowhere in Canto 13 does the Buddha speak of conquering the senses. The verb the striver uses is √ji, to conquer. The verbs the Buddha uses are ni-√vR, to ward off, restrain, hold back [13.30], and saM-√vR, to ward off, keep back, restrain, check.

Standing grounded in mindfulness, the naturally impetuous senses / From the objects of those senses you should hold back (nivaarayitum arhasi). [13.30]

Through effort of the highest order, therefore, contain (kaaryaH saMvaraH) the power of the senses; / For unguarded senses make for suffering and for becoming. [13.54]

Whereas the Buddha uses verbs from the root √vR, which expresses the more modest and indirect principle of prevention, the striver speaks in terms of jit-endriya "conquering the senses," which is an end-gaining idea, an ascetic concept. Indeed, as a masculine noun, jit-endriya means an ascetic.

So far, so good. I feel like I am winning the argument, putting the striver firmly in the deluded camp, alongside irrational religious believers. A couple of objections, however, arise.

First, the title of Canto 13 in our source text is shiil'-endriya-jayaH, which I have translated as "Thwarting the Power of the Senses through the Practice of Integrity." If this was Ashvaghosha's original title, then I would argue in its defence that in this title indriya is not necessarily plural. The compound indriya-jayaH is literally translated as "conquering the senses" (plural) or equally as "thwarting the power of the senses" (singular). The latter translation, I have reckoned, is less direct, and more in line with what I have understood from Alexander work: namely, "We cannot control our feelings; our feelings control us. But we can have some control over what we think. The thinking educates the feeling, and the feeling educates the body. It is that way round."

Interestingly, in the version of Saundara-nanda published by Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon Project of Nagarjuna Institute, Nepal, Canto 13 has a different title: śīla evaṃ indriya-saṃyama. The word saṃyama, which the dictionary gives as holding together, restraint, is more in line with the content of the Canto.

The second objection that arises to the above analysis, on reflection, is that it is always too easy to see religious believers, strivers, and the like, as different from myself. What is more challenging is to see that of the religious believer, and that of the ascetic striver, in myself.

A couple of days ago I was sweeping in the kitchen when I nudged a plastic bin, which nudged an empty glass bottle, which fell over with a sharp clink. Because I couldn't see the bottle which was hiding behind the bin, the sound took me by surprise and seemed to penetrate to the core of my being. For a few seconds I was gripped by intense anger and an intense desire in some way to retaliate, for example, by smashing something. After a few seconds, reason was able to intervene and I was able to think to myself, largely thanks to the teaching of an Alexander teacher named Ray Evans, "This is what an auditory Moro reflex feels like."

Thirty-five years ago, when I resolved to try to get to the bottom of whatever it was inside me that caused me to over-react in certain situations, my attitude was very much like the striver's attitude. I wanted to conquer my problem. But that kind of desire for resolution is just a manifestation of the problem itself, which might originally be rooted in the Moro reflex, whose agenda is always the urgent gaining of an end.

Nowadays -- it would be easy for me to say -- I am no longer like that. I have seen the error of end-gaining ways, and so I don't expect to be perfect. But the truth might be that deep down I am still very much like that. The ascetic desire to have direct control over the senses is still there in me. So that when I over-react to a bottle falling over, it is not only the loud clink that surprises me. My immature reaction also comes as a surprise, giving rise to a sense of disappointed expectation. And when that disappointed expectation is examined, it might be nothing other than the unreal expectation of the ascetic striver that the six senses might some day be conquered.

I understand the ascetic, end-gaining striver so well and yet he still annoys me so much, because there is still so much of him in me.

And why, finally, have I written "still"? What am I expecting to change? How different am I from all those deluded Christians who are irrationally expecting something that is never going to happen?

EH Johnston:
For men may overcome foes, who are well provided with horses, chariots and elephants, yet they are not counted such heroes as the wise men who overcome the six restless senses.

Linda Covill:
for men who conquer enemies well-equipped with horses, chariots and elephants are not considered as heroic as those thoughtful men who conquer the six roving senses.

tathaa: ind. so, to the same extent
hi: for
viiraaH (nom. pl. m.): mfn. heroic , powerful , strong , excellent , eminent
puruShaaH (nom. pl.): m. men
na: not
te (nom. pl. m.): they, those men
mataaH (nom. pl. m.): mfn. thought; regarded or considered as , taken or passing for (nom.)

jayanti = 3rd pers. pl. ji: to win, conquer (in battle) , vanquish (in a game or lawsuit) , defeat
ye (nom. pl. m.): [those] who
s'-aashva-ratha-dvipaan (acc. pl. m.): with their horses, chariots, and elephants
sa: (possessive prefix) with
ashva: m. horse
ratha: m. "goer", a chariot , car , esp. a two-wheeled war-chariot
dvi-pa: m. elephant (lit. drinking twice , sc. with his trunk and with his mouth)
ariin (acc. pl.): m. enemies

yathaa: ind. (correlative of tathaa) as
mataaH (nom. pl. m.): mfn. thought; regarded or considered as , taken or passing for (nom.)
viira-taraaH (nom. pl. m.): mfn. stronger , bolder; more heroic , powerful , strong , excellent
maniiShiNaH (nom. pl. m.): mfn. thoughtful , intelligent , wise , sage , prudent; m. a learned Brahman , teacher , Pandit

jayanti = 3rd pers. pl. ji: to win, conquer , defeat
lolaani (acc. pl. n.): mfn. moving hither and thither , shaking , rolling , tossing , dangling , swinging , agitated , unsteady , restless ; changeable , transient , inconstant , fickle ; desirous , greedy , lustful
ShaD-indriyaaNi (acc. pl.): n. the six senses
ye (nom. pl. m.): [those men] who

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