Friday, July 15, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 10.55: Nanda Asks For a Quick Fix

an-artha-bhogena vighaata-dRShTinaa
pramaada-daMShTreNa tamo-viSh'-aagninaa
aham hi daShTo hRdi manmath'-ahinaa
vidhatsva tasmaad agadaM mahaa-bhiShak

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

For a snake whose coils are calamity,
whose eyes are destruction,

Whose fangs are madness,
whose fiery venom is dark ignorance:

The snake of love has bitten me in the heart.

Therefore, Great Healer, supply the antidote!

What is the antidote to the poison of sexual greed?

Not, I think, what Nanda is requesting. What Nanda is asking for is a quick fix, something specific and partial, a pill to treat his acute symptoms. Nanda, as I hear him, is end-gaining.

The true antidote is something (or a bit of nothing) that the Buddha does not supply directly; he rather guides Nanda indirectly to discover it for himself. The Buddha in fact cannot supply the antidote, because the true antidote is one's own confidence. Confidence in the higher good of non-doing -- an indirect way which is better than end-gaining.

Hence the Buddha tells Nanda in Canto 12:

That which prevents all suffering, the deathless nectar, you have in your hands: / It is an antidote which, having drunk poison, you are going in good time to drink. // [12.25]

Again, on the subject of sexual desire, the Buddha tells Nanda in Canto 16:
Steadiness lies, when one's mind is stirred up by passion, in coming back to a disagreeable stimulus (a-shubhaM nimittam); / For thus a passionate type obtains relief, like a phlegmatic type taking an astringent. // [16.60]

How to translate a-shubhaM nimittam in 16.60 is a thorny issue. The orthodox interpretation, according to no lesser authority than Prof. Richard Gombrich, is that nimittam means a subject of meditation. In which case LC might be right to have translated a-shubhaM nimittam -- as "the impurity meditation" -- a meditation of the kind which Ashvaghosha's striver would doubtless approve.

But what people call "meditation," tends at the best of times to be something specific and partial, involving concentration on one thing at the expense of other things.

If we rely not on scholar's notions about meditation but rather on Ashvaghosha's narrative, it is evident that the Buddha does not respond to Nanda's request in this verse by giving him an antidote in the form of anything so specific and partial as a meditation.

Can we understand that what that the Buddha gives Nanda, rather, is a stimulus that is disagreeable? Not insofar as the stimulus is understood to be the highly agreeable prospect of sexual union with gorgeous nymphs. Maybe the ascetic practice which Nanda accepts as the means-whereby of earning such union might be understood as a kind of disagreeable stimulus. But what certainly qualifies as a disagreeable stimulus is Nanda's eventual realization that even union with nymphs in heaven is a transient joy. This not only turns Nanda off; it is a shock that Ashvaghosha describes as turning Nanda totally around, like a charioteer doing a U-turn:

Turning back from heaven, the chariot of his mind, whose horse was willpower, / Was like a great chariot turned back from a wrong road by an attentive charioteer. [12.5]

I am by no means an expert on the subject of specific antidotes to sexual greed. My own response to a big libido has been a long and winding one, involving the enjoyment of 20 years of happy marriage... and counting.

The only thing I can really speak of with any authority is the folly of end-gaining on the basis of faulty sensory appreciation, as opposed to following a reliable means-whereby. And it seems to me that any attempt to stave off sexual desire by direct means -- like so-called "impurity meditation" -- is always a variation on the theme of end-gaining.

What is the antidote to the poison of sexual greed? I don't know. When I just discussed today's verse with my wife, her take on it was that the Buddha followed the principle expressed in Japanese as doku o motte doku o seisuru, "treating poison with poison." Speaking for myself, I don't know. I am no expert on celibacy. But it seems to me from Ashvaghosha's narrative that the Buddha, who truly was an expert, helped Nanda towards the celibacy for which Nanda had opted, via a very indirect means.

Nanda in today's verse, as I hear him, is pleading for the Buddha to do something, to intervene directly. And in response the Buddha follows a plan that leads Nanda very indirectly towards a better way -- not a way of celibacy that is better than non-celibacy, but a way of indirectness that is better than end-gaining.

EH Johnston:
For I am stricken to the heart by the snake of love, whose coils are calamity, whose gaze is destruction, whose teeth are madness and whose fiery venom is mental darkness ; therefore provide me with the antidote, O Great Physician.

Linda Covill:
For I have been bitten in the heart by the snake of lust, which has worthlessness for its coils, destruction for its eyes, infatuation for its fangs and dark ignorance for its burning venom. Great physician, prescribe a remedy!

an-artha-bhogena (inst sg.): coils of adversity
an-artha: m. non-value; disappointing occurrence , reverse , evil
bhoga: m. any winding or curve , coil (of a serpent)
vighaata-dRShTinaa: eyes of destruction
vighaata: m. a stroke; destruction , ruin
dRShTi: f. seeing ; eye , look , glance ; pupil of the eye

pramaada-daMShTreNa (inst. sg.): fangs of madness
pramaada: m. intoxication ; madness , insanity; negligence , carelessness
daMShTra: m. a large tooth , tusk , fang
tamo-viSh'-aagninaa (inst. sg.): venom-fire of darkness
tamas: n. darkness
viSha: n. poison, venom
agni: m. fire

aham (nom. sg. m.): I
hi: for
daShTaH (nom. sg. m.): bitten
hRdi (loc. sg.): in the heart
manmath'-aahinaa (inst. sg.): by the snake of love
manmatha: m. love or the god of love , amorous passion or desire
ahi: m. a snake

vidhatsva = 2nd pers. sg. imperative vi- √ dhaa: to distribute , apportion , grant , bestow ; to furnish , supply , procur
tasmaat: ind. therefore
agadam (acc. sg.): m. a medicine , drug , (especially) antidote
mahaa-bhiShak (voc. sg. m.): O great healer
mahaa: mfn. great
bhiShaj: m. a healer , physician


dorebelle said...

"Confined to sex, we pressed against
The limits of the sea" (Leonard Choen - A thousand kisses deep)

I followed this path for a while. I cannot call it simply sexual greed. Inside it there is a way to force an "open up" expecially if you begin to work redirecting powerful sensations and emotions like pain and fear, and paying attention to sustain intimacy and connection. You can learn a lot about how to work inside inhibition, you can have a glimpse of nothing in what it is called sub-space.

It's a rough job, an hard job, a painful job only for a glimpse so difficult to find. I reached the limits and I stopped to look for something there.
No, I painfully stopped my need of looking for something. I stopped, and sat down.

Mike Cross said...

Allow your head to release, dorebelle, FORWARD, and whatever was painful is already behind you.

Let the neck be free to allow the head to release FORWARD and UP.

Not pushing down, allowing the whole self UP.

Time to stop sitting down?

"Let the neck be free to let the head go FORWARD and UP, to let the whole torso lengthen and widen, sending the knees forwards and away."

Investigate those directions, and after twenty or thirty years let me know if you agree with me that they contain within them the deathless nectar.

Anonymous said...

For whatever end might be gained by leaving a comment to this post, I'm doing it. Not doing it, instead watching my momentary train wreck carry out, either to another wreck or if graced, some glimpse of contentment - didn't happen. So as long as I'm wrecking, let me shout out the window: Mike, this blog project is great. Keep it going please. I rarely comment but often read, am arrested, and contemplate. It's so different from everything else that seems so certain.

Mike Cross said...

Many thanks for this encouragement, whoever you may be.

One of my heroes, the Alexander teacher-trainer Ron Colyer, sometimes speaks of "the sin of certainty."

That particular sin seems to be connected to the tendency to try to be right, or to fix.

But Alexander, with his open-ended directions, gave us a means to get beyond all that.

An American Alexander teacher named Judith Leibowiz wrote a book that has recently been published called "Dare to Be Wrong." I haven't read the book, but it is a nice title.