Wednesday, July 27, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 11.2: Nanda Goes Through the Motions

so 'n-iShTa-naiShkramya-raso
cacaara vi-raso dharmaM
niveShy' aapsaraso hRdi

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

Not relishing the taste of freedom from care,

Sapless as a wilting lotus,

He went through the motions of dharma-practice,

Having installed the apsarases in his heart.

Today's verse contains a play on the sound raso. In line 1 rasaH means taste. In line 2 taama-rasa ("[flower whose] taste/essence is exhaustion"?) means a day-lotus. What kind of lotus a day-lotus is, I do not know -- a lotus that wilts at the end of the day? In line 3 vi-rasaH means insipid or sapless. In line 4 apsarasaH is accusative plural for the apsarases whom Nanda has installed, or bedded in, deep in his heart.

Something of the original poetry, inevitably, is therefore lost in translation. The original poetry, inevitably, is a cut above my attempt to render it in English.

Translation is not glamorous work, not so much art as craft, or graft. The original author is up there. The translator is down here. There is a kind of hierarchy implicit in the work, a hierarchy of master and servant. The original creative impulse of Ashvaghosha is of a higher order. The effort of the translator is of a lower order.

When Daniel Barenboim appeared on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs a few years ago, he said at the end of his interview that truthfully he wouldn't take any recordings with him to a desert island. He would prefer to commune with the great composers by reading directly the scores they had written. The pianist Lang Lang, a protege of Barenboim, said on another edition of the same show, in similar vein, that he wouldn't take a grand piano onto the island as his luxury, but would be content to draw a keyboard in the sand.

This kind of approach to music appears to be a cut above the mindless repetition so beloved of Japanese devotees of practical ways. A friend of mine who went to a music college in London told me that young Japanese piano students were infamous for sitting at a piano all day playing a score from beginning to end, and then starting again, endlessly repeating the same mistakes.

I use this example from the world of music, about which I know practically nothing, because it seems nicely to illustrate how the practice of a real master of an art is "a cut above" the kind of practice that is just going through the motions. Barenboim's approach to music and music-making is evidently a cut above those pianists who practise mindless repetition of the same mistakes.

Marjory Barlow described the teaching of her uncle FM Alexander as a cut above bodywork. Marjory perceived that a lot of bodywork was going on at Alexander teacher-training schools and she worried about the tendency. The understanding that "this work is the most mental thing there is," Marjory feared, was liable to get lost amid people's preoccupation with using the hands to give people a new sensory experience. Not that Marjory didn't think use of the hands was important. But she saw it as secondary. The essence of Alexander's teaching, for Marjory, was a cut above any kind of therapeutic bodywork.

Nanda in today's verse is described as being vi-rasaH, sapless, unenthusiastic, insipid, in his practice of dharma. His heart, which is literally pre-occupied by apsarases, is not in his work. He is physically sitting in lotus, but his heart and mind is not in the practice. He is just sitting in the lesser sense, mindlessly.

In Canto 12 Ashvaghosha describes Nanda finding confidence in a better way, or a higher good (shreyas). The present series of verses, as I read them, culminating in the description of Nanda as having become extremely ugly in 11.6, are vital to understand what shreyas means, or rather what it does not mean. shreyas, as I understand the term, points to practice of a higher order, practice that is a cut above regulation dharma-practice.

We can know from the first two Cantos of Saundara-nanda that ancient Indians had been doing their dharma-duty, diligently practising dharma, for many centuries before Gautama's birth. The Buddha discovered dharma of a higher order, and preached and practised a better way to follow it.

Reading Ashvaghosha's words with a view to translating them, facing a computer screen and endeavouring to understand the thinking behind the ancestor's words, is a way of communing with the buddha-ancestors. That is what I am doing now, and presumably what you are doing now. Good for us. But a better way still might be to take this thinking into sitting, and to throw it out from sitting.

Cross-legged sitting practice, in the teaching of Zen Master Dogen for one, is a cut above other kinds of practice.

Sit in full lotus with body.

Sit in full lotus with mind.

Sit in full lotus as body and mind dropping off.

In the final analysis, the right thing being allowed to do itself in sitting might be a cut above both my physical effort to do it and my mental effort to allow it.

Some days I just sit like a gormless git, staring out into space, pulling my head back into the past and thinking about what might have been. This is sitting of a lower order, going through the motions.

On a better day, I make not only a physical effort to bind my creaking legs in the traditional way but also a mental effort to think the head forward, forward and up, forward and up, using as a starting point words like: "I wish to let the neck be free, to allow the head to go forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen, while sending the knees forwards and away"....

Marjory Barlow in her old age used to say something which revealed her own sense of what was of a higher order. She used to say about Alexander work, "I wouldn't swap it for anything."

A lesson with Marjory was more than just to know what it felt like for the right thing to do itself. Marjory guided her pupil to keep thinking for himself -- neck free, head forward and up, spine to lengthen, back to widen, knees away from the back -- until such time as she could say "That's it. The whole body informed with thought."

The whole body informed with thought.

This practice was a cut above anything I had experienced in Japan. When I showed Marjory how I had been taught to sit in Japan, Marjory's reaction was frank and unhesitating: "There is no freedom in it."

From translating Dogen's words into English, from communing with Dogen in that sense, I understood that what Dogen meant by thinking and non-thinking might be beyond the ken of the Japanese Zen masters of today, and their western imitators. And that understanding brought me to the door of Marjory Barlow, who described Alexander work as "an exercise in finding out what thinking is."

How now can I make a case that what Marjory called thinking is not some kind of non-Buddhist innovation or heresy but is what the buddha-ancestors traditionally practised, sitting in lotus with mind, and what they relinquished, sitting in lotus as body and mind dropping off?

Not by caring too much. Not by being extremely determined.

EH Johnston:
Not relishing the taste of renunciation and without enjoyment like a faded lotus without sap, he practised the Law with the Apsarases firmly fixed in his heart.

Linda Covill:
He housed the apsarases in his heart; then, sapless as a wilting lotus and unappreciative of renunciation's taste, he practiced dharma unenthusiastically.

saH (nom. sg. m.): he
an-iShTa-naiShkramya-rasaH (nom. sg. m.): finding the taste of indifference undesirable
an-iShTa: mfn. unwished , undesirable , disadvantageous , unfavourable
naiSh-kramya: n. indifference (esp. to worldly pleasures) , resignation
rasa: m. the sap or juice of plants , Juice of fruit , any liquid or fluid , the best or finest or prime part of anything , essence , marrow; taste ; charm, pleasure , delight

mlaana-taamaras'-opamaH (nom. sg. m.): like a wilting lotus
mlaana: mfn. faded , withered , exhausted , languid , weak , feeble; dejected, sad
taama-rasa: n. a day-lotus
taama: m. ( √tam) anxiety
√tam: to gasp for breath (as one suffocating) , choke , be suffocated , faint away , be exhausted , perish , be distressed or disturbed or perplexed
rasa: (see above)
upama: mfn. (ifc.) equal , similar , resembling , like

cacaara = 3rd pers. perfect car: to move one's self , go , walk , move ; to undertake , set about , under go , observe , practise
virasaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. juiceless , sapless , unseasoned; flavourless , tasteless , insipid (lit. and fig.) , unpleasant , disagreeable ; (ifc.) having no taste for
dharmam (acc. sg.): dharma, law

niveShya = abs. causative ni- √ vish: to bring to rest ; to cause to enter , introduce ; to cause to sit or lie or settle down on (loc.); to draw up or encamp (an army); to fix in , fasten to (loc.) ; to call to mind , impress (manasi , hRdaye &c )
apsarasaH (acc. pl.): f. heavenly nymphs, apsarases
hRdi (loc. sg.): n. the heart (as the seat of feelings and emotions) , soul , mind (as seat of thought and intellectual operations) , breast , chest , stomach , interior

No comments: