Thursday, November 24, 2011

SAUNDARANANDA 18.59: More Talk of Dispassion, By a Woman for Women

dhruvaṃ hi saṃśrutya tava sthiraṃ mano
nivṛtta-nānā-viṣayair-mano-rathaiḥ /
vadhūr-gṛhe sāpi tavānukurvatī
kariṣyate strīṣu virāgiṇīḥ kathāḥ // 18.59 //

- = - = / = - - / = - = - = // - = - = / = - - / = - = - =
- = - = / = - - / = - = - = // - = - = / = - - / = - = - =

For, surely, when she hears of your steadfast mind

With its chariots turned back from sundry objects,

Your wife following your example will also talk,

To women at home, the talk of dispassion.

The 2nd line of today's verse can be read as referring back to Aśvaghoṣa's description of Nanda at the beginning of Canto 12:

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 //

At that time, thanks to the Buddha's skillfulness, the chariot of Nanda's mind turned back from one particular desired object, namely celestial nymphs. In the interventing cantos, through learning well the backward step of turning his light and letting it shine, Nanda has turned back his mental chariots, or heart's desires, not only from one sort of object but from all sorts of objects (nānā-viṣaya).

Such is talking the talk of dispassion -- or more literally making "dispassionate mentions/overtures" (virāgiṇīḥ kathāḥ [plural]).

Dispassion means freedom from, mainly, greed and anger.

A starting point of dispassion might be to see greed as it is and anger as it is, without fear of being wrong. When I observe anger welling up in me, and observe my habitual reaction to it, I am not sure that I have even quite arrived yet at this starting point. Even if one understands in principle that it is OK to be wrong, even if one understands that being wrong is both fuel and raw material for work on the self, still in practice fear of being wrong runs deep -- it does in me, for one -- because of habit, and because of fear itself.

Voice the dharma-directions, Marjory Barlow might say, and go into movement without a care in the world. Let it come out in the wash....

My overriding response to seeing Gudo Nishijima's so-called "translation" of mūla-madhyamika-kārikā out in print has turned out to be a reaction of anger. As Gisela pointed out in a comment some time ago, to walk away from a problem is not always the same as leaving it behind, or letting go of it. And so my anger shows me that there is much I haven't let go of yet. One might argue that I haven't even walked very far away.

When I reflect on my anger, and my habitual response to it (trying to suppress it, witnessing it explode, et cetera) in light of Aśvaghoṣa's teachings, it seems appropriate and pertinent to dwell on the method by which Nanda is described in Canto 17 as shaking the tree of afflictions.

For, on those grounds, on the grounds of impermanence and emptiness, on the grounds of absence of self, and of suffering, / He, by the most discerning empirical path, caused the tree of afflictions to shake. // 17.17 //

In this verse "on the grounds of emptiness" is śūnyatas.

And exactly what Aśvaghoṣa means by this he explains in 17.20:

Since separateness is a construct, there being no-one who creates or who is made known, / But doing arises out of a totality, he realised, on that basis, that this world (lokam) is empty (śūnyam). // 17.20 //

śūnyatā, emptiness, is thus described as a condition of the world, to be investigated while the tree of afflictions is flowering and fruiting. Aśvaghoṣa does not describe emptiness as a state that is realised when the autonomic nervous system has become balanced by keeping the spine straight vertically. He describes it as an objective condition of the world which Mr. Angry, when the red taint of his passion is at its very height, can investigate. So when Sanskrit scholars foam at the mouth at Gudo's translation of śūnyatā as balanced state [of the autonomic nervous system], I am on their side. "Balanced state [of the autonomic nervous system]," is not only a terrible translation of śūnyatā; it is also a wrong interpretation of śūnyatā.

On such matters Gudo Nishijima, IMHO, encouraged his students to take sides, either with him or against him. To a man who he deemed to be on his side, even a deeply deluded man, he happily transmitted the Dharma. A bloke who told him he was wrong, like me, he treated like an enemy. For that I am eternally angry with him. And for that I am angry with those who, in awe of the Buddha-Dharma, sided with him even when it was not reasonable to do so. That kind of sectarian prejudice is the typical attitude of the religious believer, and to my nostrils it stinks -- not that I wasn't like that myself for many years.

However we understand the goal of dispassion, which thus seems to me at time of writing a very distant one, and however we understand the possible starting points for pursuing it (as described for example in 13.10 and 17.17), what is clear from today's verse and even moreso from tomorrow's verse, is that the Buddha by no means saw dispassion as an exclusively male pursuit. Rather, he saw dispassion as a virtue to be discussed among women at home, and as a virtue that a woman like Sundarī might wish to pursue by going forth from her home.

EH Johnston:
For certainly when your wife hears that your mind has become steadfast with its desire turned away from the various objects of the senses, she too will imitate you in the palace and will preach among the women of freedom from passion.

Linda Covill:
When your wife at home hears about your stability of mind, now that its desires for the various sense-objects have been turned away, she too is sure to follow your example, and speak of dispassion to her women.

dhruvam: ind. firmly , constantly , certainly , surely
hi: for
saMshrutya = abs. saM- √shru: to hear
tava (gen. sg.): your
sthiram (acc. sg. n.): mfn. firm, strong; not wavering or tottering , steady ; constant , steadfast , resolute , persevering
manaH (acc. sg.): n. mind

nivRtta-naanaa-viShayaiH (inst. pl.): turned back from manifold objects
nivRtta: turned back
naanaa: ind. differently , variously , distinctly , separately , (often used as an adj. = various , different)
viShaya: object ; an object of sense ; anything perceptible by the senses , any object of affection or concern or attention , any special worldly object or aim or matter or business , (pl.) sensual enjoyments , sensuality
mano-rathaiH (inst. pl.): m. " heart's joy " , a wish , desire (also = desired object) ; fancy , illusion ; (in dram.) a wish expressed in an indirect manner , hint ; the heart compared to a car
mano = manas: mind
ratha: 1. m. (from √ ṛ, to go) " goer " chariot; 2. m. ( fom √ ram, to enjoy) pleasure , joy , delight

vadhuuH (nom. sg.): f. a bride or newly-married woman , young wife spouse any wife or woman
gRhe = loc. sg. gRha: n. a house , habitation , home; (also) domestic or family life
saa (nom. sg.): f. she
api: even, also
tava (gen. sg.): of you, your
anukurvatii = nom. sg. f. pres. participle anu-√kR: to follow in doing ; to imitate , copy

kariShyate = 3rd pers. sg. future kR: to do, make
striiShu = loc. pl. strii: f. woman
vi-raagiNiiH = acc. pl. f. vi-raagin: mfn. indifferent, without colour/passion
kathaaH = acc. pl. kathaa: f. talk, story, mention


Happi said...

Hey Mike –

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve seen the movie ‘Zen’… A scene that has stayed with me, probably because of the title of my blog, is when Dogen visits an old Shogun who is battling his old ghosts. I imagine those ghosts are remanents of losses suffered in a war of the past. In the movie it’s not the Shogun who asks for Dogen’s help, rather those around him, because to the extent that the Shogun continues to wage battles with ghosts of the past, he is ineffective at his current job… Or maybe they’re friends who are concerned knowing that that in fact the Shogun is a remarkable person… or could be if he let go of those ghosts.

In the movie Dogen teaches the Shogun about sitting zen, which at least temporarily gives the Shogun a bit of a rest. But I think we both know that that’s only the first step. And it’s hard to translate the ‘letting go’ of sitting into the ‘letting go’ that needs to be done if a person is to most effectively and successfully deal with the present.

Some of the motivation for pursuing ‘letting go’ might be found in asking what would happen the Shogun’s ability to successfully fight (or otherwise deal with) a real person who appeared if the Shogun remained distracted by the other ghosts?

In terms of the ‘translation’ of mūla-madhyamika-kārikā, you are probably one of the few people in the world who has the capacity to effectively counter any errors in that ‘translation’ effort as well as advance what might be a more accurate approximation of what Narajuna wanted to convey. The way I see it, your anger, though it may be justified, is getting in the way – both in terms of your own efforts and the way other people will respond to those efforts in spite of any truth in what you are saying. Can you ‘let go’ of the past construct of yourself that generates anger enough to be the most effective person you can be today? In my view, what a shame if you can’t… It was good to read today’s post which affirms that you at least intellectually know how. Can you put it into practice?

Mike Cross said...

Never mind about me, Gisela, I would like to hear what you have made of Saundara-nanda over the past 3 years. How you responded, as a woman, to the striver's tirade against women, for a start.

If you email me your own individual testimony ( I will devote a post to it in a week or two.

Nice to know that you are still checking in!

Thanks for listening,


Happi said...

To be honest, even if I could think of something worth sharing, I’m not sure I see the point in submitting a testimony if you’re not going to respond to it. Especially since I'm such a beginner and haven't been around for the whole of Saundarananda.

My short answer to the striver’s tirade against women is that it seemed only to reflect on his own inability to work through for himself what is probably the most difficult subject in the history of the human race and, I think it's safe to say, continues to be so to this day.

Thanks for your efforts Mike.

Mike Cross said...

My response to your original question, Gisela, was no response.

No response can mean a multitude of things -- from the Buddha's noble silence, to a sign that Jack Reacher, if you've done him wrong, is just waiting for the moment to get you back. Isn't that why we both like Jack Reacher? Leave him alone and he is no trouble to anybody. But if you do him wrong, you might as well know that, sooner or later, you are going down. Justice will be done.

Sometimes, in an empty world, anger is instrumental in karma playing out.

Happi said...

I can’t say I’ve thought of you as the Reacher type, though on occasion you seem to cast yourself along the lines of a Darth Vader… A Buddha gets the best of both worlds so let’s hope for that. (I doubt a Buddha would think of his silence as noble though. In fact viewing his silence as noble would be a giveaway that he was trying to be right.)

On a more serious note, don’t we want to be free of karma and suffering? Or maybe that’s ‘trying to be right’.

I appreciate your clarification. Thanks!

Mike Cross said...

What do I want?

Or as I often ask myself in France, parroting my neighbour, "Qu'est ce que vous voulez?"

I suppose if I were on more familiar terms with myself I might ask "Qu'est ce que tu veux?"

Your question causes me to ask myself the same old question of myself -- what do you want? -- and my brain comes up with various clever responses.

But if I look at my life as providing the answer, for the past 30 years I have wanted to clarify, mainly for my own benefit, the means-whereby of how to meditate.

Simple as that really. So right now I am preparing tomorrow's verse, and to the above end I want every fucking word to hit the target.

Translating Dogen, and especially Fukan-zazezngi, training as an Alexander teacher and vainly arguing with Gudo for more than 10 years about the relevance of Alexander's discoveries, and more recently translating Aśvaghoṣa... are all symptomatic of one overriding wish to clarify the means-whereby an individual bloke like me or an individual woman like you, with a background in science, can enjoy meaningful daily practice of sitting-dhyāna.

Happi said...

Mike –

Please excuse my delayed response. I’ve taken some time because, since you brought up my scientific background, I wanted to weigh in with my typical reaction most of the time you start on about scientific theory and sitting.

It is my sense that any person or theory that argues that a “meaningful daily practice of sitting-dhyāna” can be reduced to the state of a specific locus of either brain or body is wrong.

I largely consider Nishijima a victim of his time – a time when science and neurophysiology, in particular, came to the fore. Nishijima’s theory, to the extent that any person holds strictly to it, is outdated. The theory originated during a time when the majority of neurophysiologists were attempting to localize specific individual functions to specific regions of the brain. The approach met with some early success for a preliminary understanding of sensory (seeing, hearing, etc.) and motor (brain areas commanding movements of legs, arms, hands, fingers, etc.) systems, but progress along these lines has largely stalled as it has become more apparent that most functions are diffusely regulated. Moreover, even if a person were to accept that the autonomic nervous system is the key locus involved in “meaningful daily practice of sitting-dhyāna,” to say that a vertically straight spine and neck is the key necessary requirement with which the autonomic nervous system is balanced seems absurd given what is known about the multiplicity of inputs to the region.

What is “dropping off body and mind?”  One of the phrases that comes close to describing it, for me anyway, is ‘fluidity in stillness’. (You’ve used similar phraseology yourself in your commentary -- stillness in fixity if I remember correctly…) What this suggests to me intuitively is that all the physiological processes that usually occur at a level below our conscious awareness are not tensed, but in a state I might describe as the ‘absence of resistance’.

Nishijima’s use of the word ‘balance’ seems to me a bit of an error on his part, because a system can be in balance when two forces oppose each other with either great resistance or minimal resistance. I know from my own experience that, although keeping the spine straight to maintain stability and thus allowing a state of ‘the absence of resistance’ to occur is helpful to a “meaningful daily practice of sitting-dhyāna”, stiffening the spine and neck in the effort to keep them straight vertically results a great resistance in both body and mind that is counterproductive. I could go further and extend this logic to what I think ‘thinking not thinking’ is about. It seems very

To summarize, combining what I know as a scientist with my experience in sitting, I actually come down closer to Alexander theory as having the potential to train people in relaxing their unconscious resistances and thereby bringing them closer to “meaningful daily practice of sitting-dhyāna.” (Admittedly I say this without ever having had an Alexander lesson and just based on an intuitive sense of what you’ve described in your commentary over the past couple of years, so obviously I could be way off.)

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Gisela.

I think that even pursuit of the truth that purports to be scientific is liable to be tainted by end-gaining, when the scientist strives to prove a hypothesis that he feels to be correct, and continues to cling to it, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. That is what I have hated about Gudo's approach; what I have hated is not so much his reductionist hypothesis about the autonomic nervous system, but rather his way of asserting it, his dogmatic insistence on his pet theory as totally identified with Gautama Buddha's "one true Buddhism." Gudo revered science as a body of knowledge, but in his own pursuit of the truth, he wasn't the least bit scientific. He was a typical religious dogmatist -- not just at the end of his life when he let the cat out of the bag, but for as long as I knew him. In his mind he was a Zen Patriarch. Thus, he would offer abject apologies for something like a spelling mistake, but on the things he thought that really mattered (like his teaching around 'right posture', or his negation of any role for thinking in Zazen) he would never admit he was wrong, even when he was, spectacularly wrong.

A scientist like Richard Feynman seemed to me, from watching him being interviewed, to pursue the truth in a totally different way.

When I say that my wish is help clarify the means-whereby an individual bloke like me, or an individual woman like you who has a background in science, can enjoy meaningful daily practice of sitting-dhyāna, I don't mean that I wish us to agree on the ultimate scientific theory of what sitting-meditation is, so that all doubt and uncertainty might be resigned to the past.

On the contrary, that would just be end-gaining. So if ever I did wish to clarify such a theory, I hereby recognize the error of my former end-gaining ways.

Aśvaghoṣa's intention, as I have come to understand it, is to clarify a better way than end-gaining.

The end as Aśvaghoṣa describes it is not a scientific theory. The end is release, or liberation, or peace, and the means-whereby, as I see it, is a better way than end-gaining. So if you were willing to contribute something in the way of individual testimony, as a woman with a scientific background, I would be interested to know whether, for example, reading Aśvaghoṣa has caused you to gain confidence in a better way than end-gaining.

Happi said...

You're welcome Mike.

I also neither believe in a ‘one true Buddhism’ or an ‘ultimate scientific theory of what sitting-meditation is.’ Nor do I wish to pursue scientific study of what sitting is. I brought this up because I tire of listening to rants about, in my opinion, a largely outdated theory. People may remember your vehemence, but not take your thinking as seriously because of it. It’s just my opinion though. (And after all, vehemence is a typical approach used for teaching in Zen history.)

Are there ways of improving the way many people are taught and approach sitting? You may be onto a method that is helpful for some.

I intend to submit some sort of a testimony about Aśvaghoṣa. Thanks for asking.