Wednesday, August 17, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 11.23: Tragicomic End-gaining

aakaareN' aavagacchaami
tava dharma-prayojanaM
yaj jNatvaa tvayi jaataM me
haasyaM kaaruNyam eva ca

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

"From the look on your face I know

Your motive in practising dharma.

And knowing that, there arises in me towards you

Laughter and at the same time pity.

End-gaining in general is comical when there is a gap, as there usually is, between the end aspired to and the inadequate means by which the end-gainer is attempting to gain his end -- like a mosquito crawling up the backside of an iron ox, as one Zen practitioner in ancient China put it.

And end-gaining is pitiful because of the suffering it tends to produce by its unintended consequences, or side effects.

In choosing to tell Nanda's story, Ashvaghosha was able to bring out fully the absurdity of end-gaining, using the extreme example of Nanda practising the dharma as a means to gain the end of sexual union with celestial nymphs.

But in the way he tells the story, Ashvaghosha also observes end-gaining in others in other forms, like the ascetic end-gaining of the sage Kapila Gautama in Canto 1, and Sundari's emotional end-gaining in Canto 5, and the striver's striving in cantos 7 & 8.

Even Gautama, having intuitied that ascetic end-gaining was not it (3.3), Ashvaghosha tells us in his portrayal of the Tathagata, entered after all into ascetic practice that was most severe (3.4).

And I am sure that Ananda must, as perhaps indicated in 11.8, have come to the Buddha's dharma that way himself -- via the lowly path of end-gaining. Or else how would Ananda know so clearly what was ailing Nanda, and what the appropriate medicine was?

Thinking about the meaning of today's verse I asked my wife what her motivation was in practising sitting-dhyana (or Zazen as she calls it in Japanese). "To work on myself" was her orthodox Alexandrian reply. Nice answer. But I am not blind to her end-gaining, as she is not blind to mine.

If I ask myself the same question, in light of the teachings of Alexander and Ashvaghosha, I would say that sitting is an opportunity to practise a better way than end-gaining. But as I proved conclusively in my efforts in Japan to keep my spine straight vertically, at the expense of a back that was so narrowed my ribs could barely move, it is quite possible to end-gain like mad without realizing that one is end-gaining.

The lengthening and widening direction, it seems to me, already contains within it the antidote to end-gaining. I in my stupidity am probably still end-gaining in all kinds of ways of which I am not aware (even if my wife is), but the direction "back to lengthen and widen" -- so long as I don't try to implement it by a bit of doing -- already contains the antidote to all end-gaining.

So what a true motivation in practising dharma is, these days I wouldn't presume to say. In the past I thought I knew, but evidently I didn't. If I know anything, I know what false motivation is, i.e., what end-gaining is. And excellent preventive medicine against end-gaining, it seems to me, is provided by Alexander's four directions

to let the neck be free
to let the head go forward and up
to let the back lengthen and widen
while sending the knees forwards and away.

FM Alexander, incidentally, used to tell his student teachers to keep an eye on their pupil's face, looking out for tell-tale signs like furrowed brow, hundred-yard stare, tightened jaw and generally worried look.

A better way than tragicomic end-gaining, both Ashvaghosha and Alexander would have us see, is any way of non-end-gaining. But the best way, as Dogen emphasizes in Shobogenzo, is to sit in full lotus as non-end-gaining.

To sit in full lotus as non-end-gaining is, in Dogen's words,
"the fully cross-legged sitting of body and mind dropping off."

And what that means in other words, I would venture to suggest, is to sit in full lotus allowing the head to go forward and up and the back to lengthen and widen.

EH Johnston:
From your demeanour I understand why you follow the Law and knowing that, I am moved to laughter and compassion at the same time.

Linda Covill:
"I understand from your expression your motive in practicing dharma, and knowing it, I am moved to both laughter and compassion on your account.

aakaareNa (inst. sg.): m. form , figure , shape , stature , appearance , external gesture or aspect of the body , expression of the face (as furnishing a clue to the disposition of mind)
avagacchaami = 1st pers. sg. ava- √ gam: to hit upon , think of , conceive , learn , know , understand , anticipate , assure one's self , be convinced

tava (gen. sg.): your
dharma-prayojanam (acc. sg. n.): dharma-agenda, motive for practising dharma
pra-yojana: n. occasion , object , cause , motive , opportunity , purpose , design , aim , end

yad (acc. sg. n.): which
jNatvaa = abs. jNaa: to know
tvayi (loc. sg.): towards you
jaatam (nom. sg. n.): born, arising
me (gen. sg.): in me

haasyam (nom. sg.): n. laughing , laughter , mirth
kaaruNyam (nom. sg.): n. compassion , kindness
eva (emphatic)
ca: and

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