Sunday, July 31, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 11.6: Extremely Ugly Nanda

sva-bhaava-darshaniiyo 'pi
vairuupyam agamat paraM
cintay" aapsarasaaM c' aiva
niyamen' aayatena ca

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

Though naturally good-looking,

He became extremely ugly,

Both from agonizing about the apsarases

And from protracted restraint.

Here is a recipe for becoming ugly: set your heart on some object -- e.g. a sexy nymph -- that you want a lot, and hope to gain in future, while devoting yourself in the present to some form of painful self-denial, as if it were a means of progressing towards what you want, although in fact it is not any such means.

The effect of sitting-practice as the Buddha taught is to restore our original features. But if we misunderstand it, and if we practise it unskillfully, it tends to have the opposite effect of making us ugly.

The most pernicious way of misunderstanding it, it seems to me, on the basis of my own experience of going wrong, is to conceive of "right posture" as something fixed, and to end-gain for that, instead of being content to direct oneself endlessly in the right direction.

During Alexander teacher-training in my mid-30s a French friend looked at a photo of me taken when I was 22 and said to me in astonishment in her strong French accent, "But Mike! You waz 'ansome!" The implication of Solauge's spontaneous exclamation was that somewhere along the line I had ceased to be 'ansome.

A few years earlier I had been firmly esconced in a newly-opened Zazen dojo/dormitory in a grim Tokyo suburb. At that time I was meeting both criteria mentioned in today's verse, by agonizing about an old flame and by tying myself restrictively to a tethering post of uptight posture. When a long-time family friend, my Uncle Bob (not my real uncle but the god-father of my sister) came to Tokyo on business and took my brother and me out for a meal, Bob told my brother: "He doesn't look good on it, does he?"

A verse I remember writing at that time went like this:

Buddhas act as gentlemen,
They never act as buddhas.
I only want to teach Zazen.
Moored boats do not need rudders.

In retrospect, one problem with that verse is that the 3rd line was at best only partially true; unlike Nanda, whose own lament in Canto 7 is more honest, I was lying to myself. Unlike Nanda who tried to convince himself that he couldn't hack a way of life that in fact he could, I was trying to convince myself that I could hack a situation in that noisy dormitory that in fact I couldn't hack. I needed to be somewhere much greener and quieter, and I wasn't cut out for celibacy.

"Moored boats do not need rudders," as a statement of fact is true, but as an expression of Zen sitting-practice is pitiful. What use is a moored boat to cross the flood of suffering? As an expression of sitting-practice "moored boats do not need rudders," was the statement of one who -- equipped with a faulty compass, and lacking reliable guidance from alternative sources -- had turned stillness into fixity, thereby turning freedom into its opposite. No wonder Uncle Bob said that I didn't look good on it.

On the subject of turning things into their opposite, the current Wikipedia entry on Ashvaghosha contains the following:

He also wrote Saundarananda-kavya, a kāvya poem with the theme of conversion of Nanda, Buddha’s half-brother, so that he might reach salvation. The first half of the work describes Nanda’s life, and the second half of the work describes Buddhist doctrines and ascetic practices.

This woefully inaccurate statement is referenced to a paper by Yoshichika Honda. 'Indian Buddhism and the kāvya literature: Asvaghosa's Saundaranandakavya.' The abstract of Honda's paper states:

Generally speaking, scholars on Sanskrit literature have concentrated on the first half of the work, in which the authour describes Nanda's married life in detail, Buddhist scholars, on the other hand, have mainly studied on the second half, in which we find a lot of Buddhist doctrines and ascetic practices. Few studies have thus ever tried to understand the Saundaranandakavya as a unitary work. In this paper, through the examination of "the laws of Kavya poetry" (kavyadharma) in the above quote, I maintain that the Saundaranandakavya should be conceived as a unitary work which, though composed in the kavya style, has practical purposes in Buddhism.

The information given in Wikipedia thus bears the outward appearance of something reliable and scientific -- cross-referenced as it is to a paper published by Hiroshima University's Faculty of Letters. But any regular reader of this blog, I hope, would agree with me that the information in Wikipedia is just another example of how easily the truth gets turned into its opposite and disseminated as such.

Saundara-nanda, it would be truer to say, describes the process whereby Nanda abandons all variations on the theme of end-gaining ascetic practice (which Ashvaghosha calls tapas), along with all Buddhist doctrines, in favour of true practice (which Ashvaghosha calls yoga).

It is not that, with the Buddha's yoga, we are in the beauty business. Far from it. But ascetic practice that leads us to become extremely ugly is certainly not it.

By straining, like a good striver, for so many years to keep my spine straight vertically, I had tended to go for lengthening at the expense of widening. So with me lying with knees bent on her teaching table (or "couch" as she called it), Marjory Barlow would encourage me to allow my back to spread out over the table. I got the impression she enjoyed working on a relatively big bloke, sort of like a sculptress with a great big lump of something. Then when she brought me back up to sitting on the table Marjory would often coo admiringly at her own work... "Just look at you!" she would say. Or "Look at that back!"

Thinking "let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the back lengthen AND WIDEN," might not make us look like screen gods or goddesses but it might at least be an antidote to extreme ugliness. It might at least help, in Marjory's words "to prevent my worst excesses."

EH Johnston:
That, though naturally beautiful, he became highly disfigured, was due as much to yearning for the Apsarases as to long-enduring self-control.

Linda Covill:
Though he had always been handsome by nature, he became very ugly, which resulted as much from his obsession with the apsarases as from extensive restrictions.

sva-bhaava-darshaniiyaH (nom. sg. m.): naturally good looking
sva-bhaava: m. native place ; own condition or state of being , natural state or constitution , innate or inherent disposition , nature , impulse , spontaneity; (ibc. from natural disposition , by nature , naturally , by one's self , spontaneously)
darshaniiya: mfn. visible; worthy of being seen , good-looking , beautiful
api: even, though

vairuupyam (acc. sg.): n. deformity , ugliness
agamat = 3rd pers. sg. aorist gam: to go to or towards , approach
param: ind. in a high degree , excessively , greatly

cintayaa (inst. sg.): f. thought , care , anxiety , anxious thought about (gen.)
apsarasaam (gen. pl.): f. nymph, apsaras
ca: and
eva (emphatic)

niyamena (inst. sg.): m. restraining , checking , holding back , preventing , controlling ; limitation , restriction
aayatena (inst. sg. m.): mfn. stretched , lengthened , put on (as an arrow) ; stretching , extending , extended , spread over ; extended , long , future
ca: and


an3drew said...











matter ?

Mike Cross said...

Being sunken is the result of following a downward direction. The opposite direction is upward. But if we try to direct ourselves up, what happens in practice is that the head tends to pull back, and down. So the direction is "LET the head go FORWARD, and UP."

The operative word is LET.

That being so, the sense that it doesn't matter is not a bad starting point -- probably a better starting point than being full of chipper enthusiasm for Zen Buddhism.

an3drew said...

some of us are holed before birth. often it's a case of accepting it and working through the implications !