Sunday, November 20, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 18.55: Songs of the Middle Way

ihārtham-evārabhate naro 'dhamo
vimadhyamas-tūbhaya-laukikīṃ kriyām /
kriyām-amutraiva phalāya madhyamo
viśiṣṭa-dharmā punar-apravṛttaye // 18.55 //

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The lowest sort of man only ever sets to work
for an object in this world.

But a man in the middle does work
both for this world and for the world to come.

A man in the middle works for a result,
I repeat, in the future.

The superior type, however,
tends towards abstention from goal-oriented action.

On first reading, the Buddha appears to be contrasting the bloke in the middle discussed in today's verse with the best of the best, the highest of the high (uttamebhyaḥ uttamaḥ) discussed in tomorrow's verse.

But if we understood the two verses like that, I think the Buddha's joke might be on us.

A great batsman, it seems to me, when he talks of the importance of keeping one's eye on the ball, is singing a song of the middle way. Keeping his eye on the ball is at the forefront of his mind. But in the back of his mind there is always the intention of thwacking a thwackable ball to the boundary.

When a great footballer talks of the importance of keeping one's eye on the ball, what is his ulterior purpose? It might be, in the final analysis, to see the ball nestling in the back of the opponent's net.

When a great golfer talks about keeping his eye on the ball, his purpose, it is understood, is not to appreciate the shape and colour of a golf ball, as if it were a Monet painting or something. His ulterior motive is, taking as few shots as possible, to get the ball in the hole.

I heard that a bloke in the middle named FM Alexander, who wrote of "the great broad midway path" residing in between the extremes of unconscious behaviour, told an old lady at the end of her last lesson with him: "Now, my dear, see to it that you don't stiffen your neck. And make sure that you always have something to look forward to." That, as I hear it, is a fundamental song of the middle way.

When I hear a bloke in the lineage of Taisen Deshimaru boasting about sitting Zazen for 14 hours in a day, and assuring me that there are still today a few true Japanese Zen masters teaching, if only I would make the effort to seek them out, it somehow doesn't quite sound to my ears like a song of the middle way. It sounds more like somebody striving to be a superior type and wanting to associate himself with other superior types -- not that I haven't been there myself.

If you take the "Don't think. Just do it!" philosophy to its logical conclusion, that is what you get -- a lot of repetition which is sometimes only mechanical repetition and not necessarily meaningful repetition. Sitting for 14 hours a day, or 15 or 16 or 17 hours, and so on -- until it is difficult to discern any difference between the pleasant practice of a buddha and the bone-headed striving of an ascetic striver who is trying to be right.

Back in the days when there really were true Zen masters in China and Japan, a phrase that was used was "Let him kill himself for a while with Zazen."

EH Johnston:
The lowest class of man undertakes action for this world only, the next class both for this world and the world above, the middle man for results in the hereafter only, and the man of superior character for freedom from rebirth.

Linda Covill:
An inferior man works towards goals here in the world, the next man for both this world and the other world; the average man acts for reward in the hereafter, but the man of superior character works for the cessation of active life.

iha: ind. here, now, here & now
artham: ind. for, for the sake of; (acc. sg.) n. thing, object; concern (Ved. often acc. ártham with √ i , or gam , to go to one's business , take up one's work RV. &c )
eva: (emphatic) just
aarabhate = 3rd pers. sg. √ rabh: to lay or take hold of ; commence, undertake
naraH (nom. sg.): m. a man
adhamaH (nom. sg. m. ): lowest , vilest , worst , very low or vile or bad (often ifc. , as in naraadhama , the vilest or worst of men)

vimadhyamaH (nom. sg. m.): mfn. middling, indifferent
vi-: ind. apart, asunder (prefix sometimes used to intensify, sometimes with no meaning)
madhyama: mfn. (superl. of mádhya) middle middle, being or placed in the middle , middlemost , intermediate
tu: but
ubhaya-laukikiim (acc. sg. f.): [work] belonging to both worlds
ubhaya: both , of both kinds , in both ways
laukika: worldly, terrestrial; (ifc.) belonging to the world of
kriyaam (acc. sg.): f. action, work

kriyaam (acc. sg.): f. action, work
amutra: ind. there ; there above i.e. in the other world , in the life to come
eva: (emphatic) "I repeat"
phalaaya (dat. sg.): n. fruit, result
madhyamaH (nom. sg.): m. one in the middle

vishiShTa-dharmaa (nom. sg. m.): a man of pre-eminent nature
vishiShTa: mfn. distinguished , distinct , particular , peculiar ; pre-eminent , excellent , excelling in or distinguished by
dharman: m. bearer , supporter ; n. (esp. ifc.) nature , quality
punar: ind. again, moreover, however
a-pravRttaye (dat. sg.): f. not proceeding ; no further effect or applicability of a precept ; abstaining from action , inertion , non-excitement ; (in med.) suppression of the natural evacuations , constipation
pravRtta: n. (with karman n. action) causing a continuation of mundane existence


Jordan said...

Aim (natural respetory pause, check sight alignment, sight picture)

Don't know why for sure, but this passage brings this ditty to mind. Maybe because the desired end state is the round being on target, but there is no need to worry about it when the means whereby is solid.

Mike Cross said...


senshin mats fredriksson said...

Hello Mike. Great post.
But its a pity that you feel I am boasting.
It sure was not meant to. It was to explain to you my practice sometimes.


Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Mats. If you weren't boasting, then I apologize. I might have been using you as a mirror for my own superiority/inferiority complex -- in which case, great verse, terrible comment. There might be a lot of those.