Sunday, May 1, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 9.32:Another Vivid Metaphor for Old Age

yathaa hi nRbhyaaM kara-pattram iiritaM
samucchritaM daaru bhinatty an-eka-dhaa
tath" occhritaaM paatayati prajaam imaam
ahar-nishaabhyaam upasaMhitaa jaraa

- = - = = - - = - = - =
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- = - = = - - = - = - =
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Just as a saw worked by two men

Cuts a tall tree into many pieces,

So old age, pushed and pulled by day and night,

Fells people here and now who are high and mighty.

Sometimes when I sit in the morning, having dragged my weary body onto a round cushion on a sitting platform, crossed my legs, and placed a robe on my head and put it on, it is difficult to get to the end of an hour of sitting. At other times, after a session of gardening work, I plonk myself down in my gardening clothes and sit on a stuffed dry bag on a scruffy old exercise mat and, in the ineffable peace of a spring evening by the forest, after Mme Piquard has herded her cockerels into their hutch, it is very difficult to stop sitting. Last night was one such night... with the result that it was already late before I started memorizing today's verse, which is another vivid metaphor.

But how vivid, really, is the striver himself? From what miserable place is he coming?

When I first began to hear about Dogen's Shobogenzo, in 1982, the impression I got was that Shobogenzo was written in an incredibly abstruse way so that "even we Japanese cannot understand it." That's why it took me four years before I got round to trying to read Shobogenzo in its original Japanese, but when I did I was amazed how straightforward the task of translating it was going to be, in partnership with and as a service to my teacher Gudo Nishijima, who seemed to me to have much valuable insight into the real meaning of each chapter, based on a lifetime of sitting and studying Shobogezno. This insight, however, was largely intuitive and ever liable to be lost in translation.

Thus Gudo related how when at the age of around twenty he first met Kodo Sawaki, and heard Master Kodo give a lecture on Dogen's rules for sitting-zen for everybody (Fukan-zazengi), he was struck by the fundamentally optimistic tone of Dogen's teaching. At that first meeting, he understood something intuitively, and when forty years later he tried to express it in English it came out, very badly, as "Buddhism is an optimistic religion."

I say it came out very badly because the Buddha's teaching in my book is never an -ism; it not optimistic, and it is not a religion.

But neither is the Buddha's teaching a pessimistic view on suffering. Primarily, it is a way of not sitting.

"To learn Buddhism," Gudo told me, "is just to learn how to sit."

No. Bollocks. In that understanding lies the seed of striving to be right, which is the essence of ascetic yoga. The Buddha's teaching is how NOT to sit.

And yet many people seem to think that the Buddha's teaching is pessimistic religion. That's why Gudo was so struck as a young man when he first realized, listening to Kodo teach the rules of sitting-zen, that the Buddha's teaching is all about sitting and it is not pessimistic religion.

The striver, as I hear him, is in the pessimistic camp. When the Buddha dwells at great length at the beginning of Canto 16 on the truth of suffering, he seems to test the reader's patience, but with his long drawn-out analysis of suffering the Buddha is going somewhere. The Buddha is leading the reader onto a peaceable path. The striver's denunciation of the vanity that "I am young, strong, good-looking," in contrast, is not going anywhere.

As I alluded to yesterday, Dogen points in his rules of sitting-zen to the possibility of accessing the power by which ancient old fists died sitting or died standing.

These four characters, read as ZA (sitting) DATSU (dying) RYU (standing) BO (dying), seem to me to point to a possibility that totally falsifies the striver's pessimistic view.

How is it possible to sit upright in stillness and breathe ones last breath? I don't know. But I dare say not by ascetic striving.

EH Johnston:
For as a saw, worked by two men, cuts a lofty tree into many pieces, so old age, ever brought nearer by the procession of day and night, brings about the fall of the exalted inhabitants of this world.

Linda Covill:
Just as a mighty tree is chopped into segments by two men working a saw, so are these living beings that have risen up toppled by old age in league with day and night.

yathaa: ind. just as
hi: for
nRbhyaam (inst. dual.): m. by two men
kara-pattram (nom. sg.): n. a saw
iiritam (nom. sg. n.): mfn. moved, worked
iir: to go, move

samucchritam (acc. sg. m.): mfn. well raised or elevated ; surging , high; exalted , powerful
daaru (acc. g.): n. a piece of wood , wood , timber
bhinatti = 3rd pers. sg. bhid: , to split , cleave , break , cut or rend asunder
an-eka-dhaa: ind. in various ways, into many pieces
an-eka: mfn. not one , many , much ; separated
-dhaa: (suffix which forms adverbs from numerals e.g. eka-dhaa , dvi-dhaa &c )
eka-dhaa: ind. simply , singly

tathaa: ind. so, likewise
ucchritaam (acc. sg. f.): mfn. raised , lifted up , erected; high, tall ; advancing , arisen , grown powerful or mighty
paatayati = 3rd pers. sg. causative pat: to let fly or cause to fall , to fling , hurl , throw ; to lay low , bring down (lit. and fig.) , overthrow , ruin , destroy
prajaam (acc. sg.): f. procreation; a creature , animal , man , mankind ; people
imaam (acc. sg. f.): this , this here , referring to something near the speaker ; known , present

ahar-nishaabhyaam (inst. dual.): by day and night
ahar: n. a day
nishaa: f. night
upasaMhitaa (nom. sg. f.): mfn. connected or furnished with , accompanied or surrounded by , having , possessing
upa-saM- √dhaa: to put to , add , annex , increase ; to put together, join, connect
jaraa (nom. sg.): f. aging, old age

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