Wednesday, April 6, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 9.7: Cheap Views, Anyone?

yad" anna-paan'-aasana-yaana-karmaNaam
a-sevanaad apy ati-sevanaad api
shariiram aasanna-vipatti dRshyate
bale 'bhimaanas tava kena hetunaa

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When, through failure to eat and drink,
or sit down, or move about,

And also through over-indulgence in those acts,

The body manifestly goes to ruin,

What reason is there for you
to have the conceit of physical strength?

If the Buddha were speaking these words, I hope that I would have the humility to shut up and listen to their gist. But since the striver is speaking these words, something jars me to counter his cheap view on the fragility of a human body with some cheap views of my own.

Sometimes in my life I have been surprised by my own physical strength. When I was a teenager I used to practise weight training in between rugby training sessions, and I was surprised by how effective that training was in bulking up my inherently gaunt frame. Again, the first time I punched somebody in earnest in a karate tournament, I could hardly believe it when he went down, winded, like a ton of bricks. And in more recent history, as I set off to cycle last year from the port of Caen Ouistreham to my dojo in France, I had a lingering doubt whether I would be able to make it in a day or not, but in fact I managed to cycle 70 miles in about 8 hours without too much bother.

Again, most of us have had the experience, at the height of an illness, of thinking along the lines of "I've had a good life. I wouldn't mind slipping away right now and being free of this suffering." And yet, irrespective of such mental desire, the human body seems to have a resilience of its own -- a resilience, again, that is sometimes surprising. It doesn't take long perusing the news to come across some inspiring story of human survival against apparently insurmountable odds.

So even though the striver says in yesterday's verse that the physical body is as fragile as foam on water, and even though he suggests in today's verse that the strength of a physical body is invariably a conceit, I don't necessarily believe him.

Yes, in accordance with the 2nd law of thermodynamics, all material things are impermanent. Yes, "I am strong," is an illusion. To say "I feel indestructible" is to express a delusion. And yet there are times when, here and now, the strength and resilience of a human body -- even a flabby middle-aged one -- is a very remarkable fact.

Going further, when circumstances are right and the self is used well, without any trace or hint of ascetic striving, then there may be moments when a human body can be like a tiger before its mountain stronghold, or like a dragon that has found water.

One of the functions of Ashvaghosha's striver, as I see him, is to provide us with a mirror for that which is tainted by striving in our own effort in pursuit of the ultimate tranquillity and ultimate resilience symbolized by the tiger and the dragon.

Another function might be to encourage a sharpening of our critical faculties.

The implicit message I hear coming down through the centuries from Ashvaghosha is: Just because the striver bears the insignia, don't assume he knows what he is talking about.

Similarly, she might be a Member of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, but when she says FM Alexander taught this and that, don't take her word for it. And I might have got a certificate signed by a teacher in a line of buddha-ancestors affirming that I have received the transmission of the lifeblood of the buddha-ancestors... but it might not necessarily be so.

The message then, in short, is don't trust the uniform. Examine critically -- in terms of his wisdom or lack of it, in terms of his integrity or lack of it, and in terms of the untaintedness or taintedness of his sitting practice -- the individual human being.

EH Johnston:
Why have you this conceit of your strength, when the body is seen to come to grief through too little or too much addiction to the actions of eating, drinking, sitting and walking ?

Linda Covill:
The body is obviously close to failing, either from neglecting the activities of eating, drinking, resting and exercising or from over-indulging in them. Why then are you so proud of your physical fitness?

yadaa: ind. at which time
anna-paan'-aasana-yaana-karmaNaam (gen. pl. n.): the actions of eating, drinking, sitting and going
anna: n. food; eating
paana: n. drinking
aasana: n. sitting , sitting down
yaana: n. going , moving , marching etc.
karman: n. act, action
a-sevanaat (abl. sg.): because of not practising
a: (negative prefix)
sevana: n. devotion or addiction to , fondness for , indulgence in , practise or employment of (gen.)
api: also
ati-sevanaat (abl. sg.): because of over-indulgence in
ati-: ind. beyond, over, excessively
sevanaat: n. devotion or addiction to , fondness for , indulgence in , practise or employment of
api: also

shariiram (nom. sg.): n. the body ; one's body i.e. one's own person ; bodily strength
aasanna-vipattiH (nom. sg. n.): near to its demise ; close to death
aasanna: mfn. seated down , set down ; near , proximate ; reached
vi-patti: f. going wrongly , adversity , misfortune , failure , disaster ; ruin , destruction , death
dRshyate = 3rd pers. sg. passive dRsh: to be seen , become visible , appear

bale (loc. sg.): n. strength
abhimaanaH (nom. sg.): m. high opinion of one's self , self-conceit , pride , haughtiness ; conception (especially an erroneous one regarding one's self)
tava (gen. sg.): your
kena hetunaa (inst.): by what cause? why?

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