Sunday, December 11, 2011

Individual Use of the Head (7): Dorebelle

Hi Mike,

As you know I was interested not in the translation of Saundarananda or other teachings of this type, but in you and your relationship with Nishijima, with the Alexander Technique and Marjory Barlow. You pointed me out the one thing I was looking for in Nishijma, you made me discover the Alexander Technique and the work of John Appleton that gave me some precious insights.

Interacting with you in the blog has been somewhat difficult :)

Thinking about what else to say in this blog a couple of dreams came to my mind.

The first one dates back to something like five or six years ago.

I was with my children on the beach and I called them for a walk: "Come with me, let go of playing with those toys on the beach! Come with me up there, come with me to the top of the horizon." We left the beach and walked on the sea (yes, in the dream we were walking on water). We were soon almost out of breath: the sea was very steep (!). After a while we reached the top and looked down from the cliff edge of the sea: "Look! how big is the sea...". Then one of my sons fell down the cliff, I plunged after him trying to save him, and I woke up. And I thought: "Why? why it has to be so hard? Why for someone (like me!) even the sea has to be uphill?"

The search for gold in the title reminded me of another dream I had when I was a teenager:

I was a man (I was very often male in my dreams when I was a child, they changed later when I became "a woman" with sexual desires and the rest - the woman of the "tirade" I suppose XD ) and I was climbing a mountain. I had been climbing for a long time (years?) and I was still in the forest but I knew that the top of the mountain was made of gold. It was a perfect pyramid of shining gold.Suddenly I found myself in a place, a house, looking from a window at the sunset on the golden mountain in front of me. For some reason I couldn't understand, I had given up that search for gold as meaningless and I was resting at home. There is a flavor of "waiting for something that it is going to happen" in that resting but I cannot say if I'm adding it right now...


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Individual Use of the Head (6): Happi


It's somewhat difficult for me to sort out the contribution that Saundarananda has made in my understanding of what the Buddha taught from the contributions made by your commentary and my reading of Dogen (not to mention other reading, events, and influences), especially since I began reading Dogen and this blog within a couple of months of each other. I think they complemented each other to keep me on my toes questioning, rather than accepting, my understanding of other things I was learning. One uniqueness of Saundarananda is that as an epic poem it attempts to teach at least in part by example rather than by concept. The examples that come most readily to mind relate to the concepts of asceticism, holding views, striving (or end-gaining), compassion and skillful means, as well as how these concepts are inter-related.

You recently asked me to say something about how I, as a woman and a scientist, responded to the striver's tirade against women. My short answer at the time was "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."

For a couple of reasons I've decided to respond at greater length:

(1) I realized that my answer "it seemed only to reflect on his own inability to work through for himself" is basically the same answer I've been giving most of my life as I encounter difficulties in my interactions with people in order to keep myself from taking things too personally (or at least drop off my defensive responses more readily). Although the answer has truth in it and thus is frequently taught in Western Buddhism and its derivatives and spin-offs, for me I think I learned it sometime in my teens. And to be honest, that answer, in retrospect, typically hasn't worked out that well for me. In addition, because I typically have not been outspoken I also haven't done much in the way of correcting what I see as flaws in the attitudes of either the scientific community or society in general -- though it should be said I have no wish for one of my major roles in life to be a crusader.

(2) When you asked me to respond as a woman and a scientist to the striver's tirade against women, I was initially offended because I thought it was rude and insensitive. I read your blog because I am interested in the Buddha-Dharma -- it shouldn't matter whether I am a woman (or a scientist for that matter). In fact I think this has been a source of some the friction in our exchanges.

Whether your request reflects a progressive attitude or a regressive one I don't know. Using the mirror principle and examining the reasons for my initially offended response, I decided to use this opportunity to treat the request progressively. Here's why: In science, the large majority of women have to bury the fact that they are women to succeed beyond their attainment of PhD (or whatever degree). I could go on about this in greater length but I think making the point is probably enough here. The fact is I am a student of the Buddha-Dharma, a scientist, ... and a woman.

My answer:

At the time you presented and discussed the canto, I didn't have a strong reaction to the striver's tirade against women. The striver's attitude seemed so absurd that I dismissed it thinking he must have a horrible experience in his history to warrant such a tirade. And yes, it identified that he had some work to do study self. Not too long ago though, I happened to encounter some graffiti in a John that read "Boys Suck!" Even though I cannot ever remember having that thought before, on that particular day I could relate because my actions on that day had been interpreted as coming from me as a woman rather than me as a scientist, and used in a way that I consider abuse. (I will say that I recognize that my own attempts to retain a good sense of humor and to be compassionate and make allowances for people gives not only those people but others behaving out of ignorance permission to continue abusive behavior.)

In short, I can find something in me that, rather than responding to the striver's tirade against women with a tirade about how stupid he was, can relate and even see the potential causes and conditions that could give rise to such a tirade. That's an interesting surprise to me. Dogen says to 'study the self is to forget the self'. Is that because when we study ourselves long enough and hard enough, we can find the capacity for, if not the actual existence of, every possible human role and/or response? Does studying the self eventually teach us what real compassion is in order to allow us to deal with those who treat us badly out of their own ignorance? What would that compassion actually look like? I think it would differ in different circumstances and vary depending on the person. It is something that's not always easy to identify. Dogen, I think, would say to just keep practicing and the appropriate response arises naturally.

What I was originally going to try to write was a redux of modern equivalents to some of the situations and characters in Saundarananda. A few that come readily to mind:

1. What were Nanda, the Buddha and/or Aśvaghoṣa thinking having Nanda leave Sundarī without informing her at least by sending a messenger?
2. What would have happened if Nanda could have gone back and asked Sundarī if she wanted to accompany him -- as would be the case in the present day. I can imagine all sorts of scenarios coming out of that that might have been equally skillful means and would have resolved Nanda's attachment to Sundarī one way or another. I guess it would have depended on what kind of woman Sundarī was.
3. The modern day equivalent to the Buddha's skillful means would be something like a brother taking his recently separated brother to a topless bar or something. Is that actually helpful in the majority of cases?

I don't have an answer to how to resolve the difficulties in interactions between the sexes. It's not enough to bury gender as is commonly done in the sciences. I could give you a number of reasons why that approach is a failure as well. Although it seems ludicrous maybe everyone needs to wear tags to identify what role we are speaking or acting from at any particular moment. I think everyone has to continue working at it.

I think a more complete redux of Saundarananda might be fun. As I mentioned, I plan on continuing with the cantos that I missed and then review the cantos without the commentary, but exactly when I'd get to it I don't know. At the moment I still have a substantial amount to read in the Shobogenzo and I have to admit I give the Shobogenzo priority over Saundarananda. The logic behind the priority relates to another difference I perceive between the Shobogenzo and Saundarananda, though not having completely read either. The difference relates to the fact that the Shobogenzo, which translates to The True Dharma Eye Treasury, gives Dogen's best advice on how to see with and use our Dharma eye in our practice. I'm not yet convinced that Saundarananda accomplishes that as well though I have a few cantos yet to read through. Also as far as the Buddha-Dharma is concerned and Zen in particular, Dogen appears to have one of the most enlightened attitudes towards women I've encountered to date.

As always thanks for your efforts Mike -- both in this translation and your daily digging away at your own good self (and others) for the cause of the Buddha-Dharma.

Princess Leia

P.S. I have to admit that on the occasions I've seen the movie(s) I haven't gotten into the Princess Leia character that much. She seems like a snooty know-it-all with a goodly dose of airhead. These days, partially due to to your commentary and dissecting of your own self, I have a better sense of why her character grated. At least she wasn't too bad with a gun.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Individual Use of the Head (5): Malcolm

Part One

I started to write in response to your call for testimony a few days ago. Late last night (Nov 25) I was getting close to signing off on my well-considered, nicely expressed thoughts and sending them to you. But this morning, checking whether I'd honestly written what I honestly thought, and having read the latest instalment of your chat with Happi/Gisela (Nov 24/25), I got to thinking…and I noticed, not for the first time, that not having read Saundarananda, I was at a disadvantage.

I’ve read the verses as they’ve appeared each day and sped through one or two finished cantos, but I’ve not read the whole thing from beginning to end or, I confess, given it that much thought. I have been listening, but not always intently. I regret that I can’t tell you that Saundarananda has helped my practice, given me great insights, or knocked my socks off in any way – not that there haven’t been moments of admiration and recognition. I regret not having been affected by Saundarananda because it’s clear that Ashvaghosha’s poem means a lot to you. As they say in these parts, I ain't gonna lie - the truth is, I’ve not been moved by Ashvaghosha’s very skilful, very ancient poem one way or the other.

But your response to Gisela, and hers to you, made me ask myself what I, as a man, thought of the striver's tirade against women. And that led me to reconsider the testimony I’d written, the gist of which was (among other things) that a man like Ashvaghosha, an ancient Indian Buddhist renunciate would say that, wouldn’t he? Just like he has the striver recommend focussed meditative practices (nimittam) such as following the breath, putting attention between the eyebrows and the inhibition of sexual desire by ruminating on rotting female flesh; that's what they did in them days - some still do. But I hadn’t properly asked myself the question ‘Why, if the striver’s advice – the advice of a sincere practitioner - was such good advice, didn’t it work for Nanda? Why would Ashvaghosha want us to see such a highly recommended method for fashioning buddhas fail?’ And I realised that as I hadn’t yet read Suandarananda, not as a story should be read, it was no surprise that the irony you’ve insisted is present in much of the poem might have eluded me.

And then I thought: Well, to an ancient Indian renunciate like Ashvaghosha the striver is merely a man; a striver - but the Buddha is The Buddha, a kind of god; a being who has transcended striving. As a poet and dramatist, Ashvaghosha has got to give the Buddha something fancy to do for a climax or we've got a dull story, no difference between a striver and a buddha and no mahayana. Then: 'Where did that come from,' I wondered - 'mahayana'? Why did that word pop into my head? And so I didn’t know until this morning - until I googled "Ashvaghosha/mahayana" - what every schoolboy knows, that Ashvaghosha is the first Mahayana poet. Although Wiki says he isn't. Whether he is or he isn't, I was led to re-consider your insistence, which I had found unconvincing, that by showing the striver’s method as ineffective, at least as regards Nanda, Ashvaghosha may be pointing to another way; a better way.

That I could have been about to commit myself to an uninformed and ill-considered opinion makes me feel pretty stupid, a bit too eager to come when called; a bit too eager to be right and be seen to be right. But the fact that I stopped myself short makes me not quite so stupid, I like to think...or perhaps demonstrates just how very right I want to be. As soon as you've finished translating it, I’m going to read Saundarananda properly. I may still feel that Richard Gombrich is right about the meaning of nimittam; I may still feel that Ashvaghosha had the striver expound much that he, Ashvaghosha, considered sound Buddhist theory and good Buddhist practice. I may regret having said this much here and now. Ainsi va la vie.

I suppose this is the first part of my testimony, Mike. Whether or not I’ll have anything further to say on the subjects of irony, sex, the true dharma, vehicles great and small or what Ashvaghosha really meant, I do want to say a little more about your blog and your translation. I’ll get back to you soon.

Part Two

As someone who does, on occasion, tell his friends “Yes, I suppose I am a Buddhist… But there are lots of different kinds, you know!” I’ve been reluctant to respond to your request for testimony for fear of disappointing you (see testimony part one) and for fear of not being up to it; of not knowing very much about Sanskrit, Ashvaghosha or Buddhism, and not much about myself, an ex-junkie who many years after reading about Zen Buddhism and dreaming of enlightenment found out he could actually give it a go. But it is appropriate to respond, if only to thank you for the effort you’ve made every day for these past months and years. I’ve already given you some reactions to the poem – to the limited extent that I’m familiar with it. Here are some more thoughts - about your translation and your blog.

As a fellow student of Sanskrit it’s clear to me that your translation is excellent. It's faithful to the Sanskrit text, elegant, economical, and easy to read. To the best of my recollection you’ve never claimed that your translation is right, but you must have a feeling that it isn’t so very wrong, or why would you bother? Just to aim - as an expression of the means-whereby - may be a good thing, but to aim and hit the target surely can’t be a bad thing, and in my opinion you have hit the target time after time. In my opinion, you’ve every right - perhaps I should say it's not inappropriate - to be proud of the gold you’ve mined and to want to show it to others, great big bit of nothing that it is.

Your blog comments, however much you might protest, have been an essential part of your project, certainly for me. The comments are what draw me to your blog every day. You're a good writer. You often make me think and you often make me laugh. Having no real experience of Alexander Technique much of what you say about it can have no real meaning for me, but you have explained something of what AT is and what it means to you in such a way that I can see how it must be relevant to what we are; to what we do and how we do it. And so AT can’t be a million miles away from the Buddhadharma and the various other truths. AT aside, it’s your ongoing struggle to be honest with yourself and other people that is not merely entertaining to voyeuristic Buddhists looking for some excitement, but, I hope, is valuable to anyone interested in the self. If the Buddhadharma is about anything useful, it cannot be merely a model of how we should be, but must be a way of seeing how we are, and that's something you acknowledge.

Maybe there are differences between what the Buddha, Ashvaghosha, Dogen and Gudo Nishijima taught. Maybe they're not teaching the same thing. If that's so, I don't see it as a problem. I can’t deny that I find similarities between the many different Buddhisms and other teachings like science reassuring, satisfying my desire to be right and to feel safe; to have laid claim to a view which is true for all people at all times and in all places. But no view can be that. So I'm content to understand that the true dharma, the truth, is beyond views - and there is no end to the different forms of its expression.

Thanks a lot, Mike, for deciding to do this great big bit of nothing, sticking at it, and doing it so well.


Part Three

Slowly reading Saundarananda...

Monday, December 5, 2011

Individual Use of the Head (4): George

Following the Saundarananda, for the last few years, is a daily activity for me. Some times I feel tired and very little of what is written sinks into my mind. Some times what I read has so much relevance with the specific circumstances of my life that is almost freaky, it makes me wonder if someone is following me! Like the other day where after a long sleepless night I hear Buddha talking to Saundarananda about sleep and Mike about people have not conquered even the state of natural sleep.

I wish I could be able to say that since following the blog my sitting has become like a mountain and that I have experienced the great pleasures the masters of the past have talked about! No I did not! But I think, day after day, I am becoming a bit more clear about the true nature of my ongoing difficulties with sitting and of course life.

I am also happy that through the blog I actually managed to meet Mike in person. Every time we meet he (and his wife) gives me generously Alexander lessons, we sit together, have cups of tea, fish and chips, long walks, discussions! Through this contact I discovered that behind this blog there is a sincere practitioner, teacher and friend.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Individual Use of the Head (3): Harry

Hi Mike,

Re your suggestion about individual accounts of 'the work'.

What I'm at might look something like this:

I'm working at relinquishing my desire to know and achieve imagined goals, including some based on deeply accepted enduring assumptions about myself that I have internalised and retained for years. This isn't a passive, negative process though, as increasingly I realise that I have to use and express this relinquishing positively and actively in things like parenting, making music, dealing with people, and other everyday tasks.

Besides sitting for set periods I try to integrate relinquishing striving and selfish desire into all areas of my life by 'checking' myself at points through the day. In this way I find I can consciously unyoke myself from selfish desires and striving and proceed in a way not dictated by restricted courses of action. Sounds good written down, of course, but the reality of it is inconsistent and messy.



Saturday, December 3, 2011

Individual Use of the Self (2): Ian

I’m Mike’s brother, a teacher of swimming and the Alexander Technique. I’m not a sitting-zen practitioner.

I’m essentially lazy, not an explorer, a digger, a seeker of truth. More than twenty years ago, when I was 19, I had some experience of the Dogen Sangha, briefly living with a group of Tokyo westerners studying under Gudo Nishijima. I didn’t feel I belonged there and never wanted to sign up to a life following the Buddha’s teaching. One thing I’ve always been clear about in my own mind is that I wouldn’t give up the desire to be with a woman. So I have no real interest in Nanda’s struggle with that.

But, on the advice of my brother (MC), I did start having Alexander Technique lessons in my mid-twenties and something about this felt suitable for me. Looking back, I don’t think I had the sense or self-awareness at that time to see that I really needed the AT. I went for lessons wanting to find out how to be right, perhaps even wanting confirmation that I already was! Many kicks up the backside later the penny started to drop.

The Alexander Technique, with its roots in the performing arts, perhaps engenders the feeling that there’s room just to be oneself. I am beginning to understand from MC’s translation of Ashvaghosha that following the Buddha is the same. But something has kept me going with the Alexander Technique, and stopped me from sitting. Having said that, maybe there’s too much room for interpretation in the AT world of what one can be and the discipline of daily sitting practice, as MC recommends it, would be good for all AT teachers. But with the Alexander Technique I like the fact that there is nothing to conform to, that it’s always a matter of individual choice - I can end-gain if I want to!

This isn’t to say I’m ruling out the possibility of sitting-zen practice. If anything, the translation and the blog inspire me to sit. But apart from odd periods of sitting, I can’t claim to be a practitioner. I do practise the AT though (that is, I devote some time to it each day, often with my hands on a pupil) and on a daily basis explore the meaning of the words: I’d like my neck to be free so that my head goes forward and up, out of my body, so that my back lengthens and widens and my knees go forward and away from each other.

But as I don’t sit, or follow the Buddha, how can I answer this question about accomplishment of the work that has to be done in order to make the teaching of the four noble truths one's own?

What attracts me to the translation and the comments is this: the possibility of change through work on yourself as an individual.

The translation and blog have helped me because they encourage me in my quest for forward movement, albeit imperceptibly slow, with the Alexander Technique. Yes, change is very gradual, and possibly imperceptible, like the growth of a tree. But there are moments where there’s ‘a bit of nothing’ among all the fixing and doing. Perhaps very slowly a new direction is emerging. And my understanding of these experiences, though not the experiences themselves, come largely from MC.

Here are a few gems from the blog, which I’ve jotted down in my diary in 2011.

‘Being wrong is the best friend you’ve got.’ Marjory Barlow, quoted often.

In sitting, there is the ‘possibility of transcending the vestibular system, for which purpose the vestibular system has in the the first place to be still, quiet, undisturbed.’ MC 14th June

‘Keep coming back to those words. They will take you where you want to go’ MB (quoted 6th July)

On 26th August (As an example of how my understanding of AT experiences are informed by MC) I noted after giving an AT lesson that I ‘worked to do less.. small desires.. not trying to feel anything. Not trying to achieve the end. She floated out of chair and said it was a lovely experience.’

Negative feedback is the principle upon which a thermostat functions to prevent a central heating system from creating too much heat. It is a truly excellent principle, a preventive principle. MC (16th September)

Tomatis recognized that the ear is the primary route whereby the brain and nervous system receive nourishment from the environment. MC (October)

Paul Madaule describes the ear as a battery that energises the brain. (October)

Sometimes MC mentions me as someone who applies AT to swimming and gives a brief description of my modus operandi. I look at it and think, yes, this is how I would like to be working and it gives me new inspiration. For example, there was something (I can’t find it) about helping people get rid of their misconception that to overcome fear of water they are required to do something.

I find that when teaching the AT, I can’t go too far wrong if I remember Marjory Barlow’s clear message, as remembered by MC. Something like, Say no to your reaction, give your directions and go into movement without a care in the world - let it come out in the wash.

For me the AT work is primarily about direction, from the brain, of energy. From darkness and uselessness, you can get yourself going in a new direction and carry out an activity quietly. It is something you can always do and get others to do. You’re working to a principle rather than a feeling. ‘Be present to endgaining rather than endgaining to be present.’ ‘Stop doing the wrong thing, and the right thing does itself’, I am reminded of Alexander’s words and appreciate the emphasis on the Buddha’s teaching primarily not to do wrong.

MC brings colour to the translation of Ashvaghosha by understanding the verses from the viewpoint of one who knows about the human condition through practise of sitting-zen, teaching of AT, and work as a neuro developmental therapist. I often look at the two other translations and they don't seem so grounded in practice; the influence of Christianity possibly limits EHJ's understanding. The other two translations of Saundara-nanda would never have interested me. But if I’m honest I wouldn’t be interested in MC's translation either, if it wasn’t for his comments. There’s too much about kings and warriors, chariots and snakes. So all the more credit to MC for wading through the Sanskrit and attempting to dig out the real meaning, as a gift to lazy armchair followers like me.

I often glaze over and fail to give the translation the attention it deserves. MC has attempted to do the translation, as a daily job, according to the means whereby principle. All I have to do is sit and read it but I don’t often do so attending to that principle, especially as I usually read in the morning, before I’ve got myself going. I collapse over the computer with a coffee and if anything catches my attention it is MC’s new interpretations, trains of thought or notes on his personal experiences. So, as with so many things from my brother, my understanding is second hand. He does the work, he works it out, he bangs on until others get the point. And despite being a poor listener, I do listen to him.

So ...the Four Noble Truths

What are they?

From Wikipedia. A simple rendition of the Four Noble Truths is as follows:

1. Suffering does exist
2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the eightfold path.

From the translation, canto 16.

Suffering does exist.

The cause of suffering is faults which start with thirsting (redness and darkness, attachment, doing).... [Yep.]

There is the possibility of cutting out faults .....[This is where I think I am and will remain, increasingly aware of my faults and working to prevent them from getting the better of me. But Is there really the possibility of cutting them out?]

Cessation means peace and well being, rest, absence of redness and the taint of thirsting.....[I get glimpses of this in AT work.]

There is the possibility of an eternal refuge which is irremovable and noble, where there is total wellbeing, wanting little, with no fondness for worldy activity..... [I don’t know about that.]

So my friend, with regard to the many forms of becoming,

Know their causes to be [the faults] that start with thirsting

And cut out those [faults], if you wish to be freed from suffering;

For ending of the effect follows from eradication of the cause.

Again, the ending of suffering
follows from the disappearance of its cause.

Experience that reality for yourself as peace and well-being,

A place of rest, a cessation,
an absence of the red taint of thirsting,

An eternal refuge which is irremovable and noble,

Giving oneself to this path with its three divisions

And eight branches
-- this straightforward, irremovable, noble path --

One abandons the faults, which are the causes of suffering,

And comes to that step which is total well-being.

Attendant on it are constancy and straightness;

Modesty, attentiveness, and reclusiveness;

Wanting little, contentment,
and freedom from forming attachments;

No fondness for worldly activity, and forbearance.

The following two verses are useful.

So with regard to the truth of suffering,
see suffering as an illness;

With regard to the faults,
see the faults as the cause of the illness;

With regard to the truth of stopping,
see stopping as freedom from disease;

And with regard to the truth of a path,
see a path as a remedy.

Then comprehend that suffering is doing

And witness the faults moving it forward.

Realise its stopping as non-doing,

And know the path as a turning back.

I think I find myself at, and momentarily step on to, a new path but then set off again along the old, familiar one, fixing and holding my breath, pushing forward against the wind and through thick, slippery mud.

In the Alexander teaching room, I glimpse the truth of the noble truths. The overall aim, and effect, of the work for me personally seems to be the unblocking of energy. And the fact of the unblocked energy gives me hope re. the possibility of an energised life.

Faults including laziness, habits including fixing and breath-holding, modern life and a weak vestibular system..... all these things and lack of commitment... close the window of hope. But the more often it’s opened, the more easily it opens again.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Individual Use of the Head (1): Jordan

Hi Mike,

I used to play with the 8-fold path a whole lot. I don't know if maybe it could even have been too much. But I know there was a whole lot of repetition and maybe even the gratuitous act of trying to convince myself I knew what "It" all meant. And I do recall I wrote a few posts on it in the past that I would probably be embarrassed by if I looked at them now. My quick answer today in how I make it my own is not a zen parrot "Don't know" but a frank I know that I fail at it, but I do my best. I might try to answer the question again after some thinking, if I remember. But judging by my current e-mail address, my answer might be noisy and may wobble from side to side a bit.

Yours from the sea,


Individual Use of the Head: Preamble

As a translation of ājñā-vyākaraṇa, I feel very happy to have arrived at "affirmation of full autonomy." Because this translation is both literal and, at least to me, totally meaningful, it feels right.

This feeling, due to the problem that FM Alexander identified as faulty sensory appreciation, is generally a bad sign. Again, if what felt right to me yesterday also feels right today, that probably only means I haven't grown...

This pre-amble is in danger of turning into a pre-ramble.

What is paramount for Aśvaghoṣa, we have heard, is liberation, mokṣa, the coming undone of all the bonds that tie us, so that we are free.

Following the noble eightfold path of cessation in this direction is no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise. Being required to let go of cherished ideas, beliefs, views, misconceptions, along with the familiarity and security of old habits and emotional attachments, is a bitter pill to have to swallow. But the more we succeed in this work, the more fully autonomous we are. And the more fully autonomous we are, not only in the abstract but in a real situation like sitting on a round black cushion or walking in the open air, the more truly upright the whole body is, centred upon use of the head. (But do not call it right posture!)

With this in mind, even before alighting upon "Affirmation of Full Autonomy" as a translation of the title of the final canto, I had thought to call the contributions that follow:

Individual Use of the Head (1): Jordan

Individual Use of the Head (2): Ian

and so on.

So now I will shut up for a while.

All being well, towards the end of this month or at the beginning of the New Year I will get going again on Aśvaghoṣa's other kāvya poem, Buddha-carita. But for the time being I intend to keep quiet and let a half dozen or so other individuals have their say, in the order they sent in their contributions, starting with Jordan.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Canto 18: Affirmation of Full Autonomy

And so like a young initiate who mastered the Vedas,

Like a trader who turned a quick profit,

Or like a royal warrior who conquered a hostile army,

Nanda, a success, approached the Guru.

For it is pleasant,
at a time when wisdom has been fully realized,

For teacher to see student, and for student to see teacher,

Each thinking, "Your toil has rewarded me";

For which same reason
the wish to see Nanda arose in the Sage.

Thus is a noble person obliged to pay respect, to his face,

To the one through whom he has acquired distinction.

Even a noble person who retains the taint of redness
is so obliged, out of gratitude:

How much more is one with no red taint,
all pride having perished?

For when devotion springs from an agenda or desire,

There it remains rooted;

But when there is love and devotion for dharma,

That person is steeped to the core in tranquillity.

And so, a glowing gold in his yellow-red robe,

He bowed his head to the Guru

Like a karnikāra tree, with an outburst of ruddy shoots,

And a glorious blaze of flowers, nodding in the wind.

as a manifestation of his individual merit as a student

And, indeed, of the great Sage's merit as a teacher

-- Not out of pride --

He described his own accomplishment
of the work that has to be done:

"The splinter of a view, that had penetrated to my core,

O Mighty One,
was paining me intensely, being very sharp;

Via the jaws of the pincers of your words
-- by means of a means and by way of a mouth --

It was pulled out of me
as a splinter is removed by a surgeon.

A doubt,
by which I fell into a state of hesitant questioning,

O One Beyond Doubt, has been eradicated in me --

Through your teaching I have arrived at a true path

Like a straggler, under a good guide, getting on the road.

With senses ruled by relishing,

I madly drank the drug of love;

Its action was blocked in me
by the antidote of your words,

As a deadly poison is by a great remedy.

Rebirth is over, O Refuter of Rebirth!

I am dwelling as one with observance of true dharma.

What was for me to do,
O Doer of the Necessary! is totally done.

I am present in the world without being of the world.

Having drunk from the milk-cow of your voice,
whose udder is loving-kindness,
whose lovely dewlap is figures of speech,

Who is milked for true dharma,
and whose horns are boldness of expression,

I am properly satisfied, O Most Excellent One,

Like a little calf that, because of thirst, has drunk milk.

And so, O Sage, hear from me in brief

What, through seeing, I have made my own.

Though you know it anyway, O All-knowing One,

Still I wish to mention how I have worked on myself.

For true freedom-loving people
(however individual they are)

When they hear of another person's plan
that led to freedom

-- Like sick men hearing the plan
of one who became free from a disease --

Will happily work at freedom via that same path.

In a birth, I perceive earth and the other elements,

But in earth and those other elements, no self at all.

On that basis,
there is no attachment in me to those elements;

My orientation is equal
with regard to my body and outside.

Again, the five skandhas,
beginning with the organized body,

I see to be inconstant and without substance,

As well as unreal and life-negating;

Therefore I am free from those pernicious constructs.

Since I see for myself an arising and a vanishing

In all situations in the realms of the senses,

Therefore, again, there is in me no clinging

To those aforementioned elements which are
impermanent, impersonal, and unsatisfactory.

Again, on the grounds that I see the whole world
as emerging and in the same moment passing away,

As having no essential meaning
and not being as it ought to be,

On these grounds, because of meditation,
the world is bound fast by my mind

In such a way that there is no flicker in me of 'I am.'

There is all manner of indulging in four sorts of food,

But since I am not attached to how I take food,

Since when it comes to food
I am not congealed or trussed up,

I am free, on that score,
from the three realms of becoming.

In the daily round of dharma-practice

Since I am neither certain about nor bound in mind to
visual, auditory and other kinds of perception,

And since through that dharma-round
I am graced by trailing equanimity,

On that account I am detached and am free."

After speaking thus,
out of deep appreciation of the Guru

He prostrated himself on the ground
with his whole body.

He looked like a great fallen column

Of gold tinged with red sandalwood.

Then, after listening to him
who had emerged already out of heedlessness,

After hearing his firmness and his testimony

And a clarity consistent with the gist of dharma,

The Sage boomed at him like a thundercloud:

"You who stands firm
in the dharma loved by those who study it,
stand up!

Why are you fallen with your head at my feet?

The prostration does not honour me so much

As this surefootedness in the dharma.

Today, conqueror of yourself, you have truly gone forth,

Since you have thereby gained sovereignty
over yourself.

For in a person who has conquered himself,
going forth has worked;

Whereas in an impulsive person
whose senses remain unconquered, it has not.

Today you are possessed of purity of the highest order,

In that your voice, body, and mind are untainted,

And in that, henceforward, my gentle friend,
you will not again be confined

In the ungentle womb of unready slumber.

Listening ears open to the truth replete with listening,
and with purpose,

Today you stand surefooted in the dharma,
in a manner that befits the listening tradition.

For a man equipped with listening ears who is wavering

Is like a swordsman lacking valour:
he is worthy of blame.

Ah! What firmness in you,
who is a slave to objects no more,

In that you have willed the means of liberation.

For it is a fool in this world who,
thinking 'I will be finished,'

Gives in, in the face of the end of existence,
to a state of quivering anxiety.

Happily, this meeting with the present moment,
which is so hard to come by,

Is not being wasted under the sway of ignorance.

For a man who has been down goes up with difficulty,

Like a turtle to a hole in a yoke, in the foaming sea.

Having conquered Māra,
who is so hard to stop in battle,

Today, at the forefront of the fight,
you are a hero among men.

For even a hero is not recognized as a hero

Who is beaten by the foe-like faults.

Today, having extinguished the flaming fire of redness,

Happily, you will sleep well, free of fever.

For even on a fabulous bed he sleeps badly

Who is being burned in his mind by the fires of affliction.

You used to be markedly mad about possessions;

Today, because you have stopped thirsting, you are rich.

For as long as a man in the world thirsts,

However rich he may be, he is always deprived.

Today you may fittingly proclaim

That King Śuddhodana is your father.

For it is not commendable for a backslider,
after falling from the dharma alighted on by ancestors,

To proclaim his lineage.

How great it is
that you have reached the deepest tranquillity,

Like a man making it through a wasteland
and gaining possession of treasure.

For everyone in the flux of saṁsāra is afflicted by fear,

Just like a man in a wasteland.

Thinking 'When shall I see Nanda settled,

Given over to the living of a forest beggar's life?',

I had harboured from the start the desire to see you thus.

What a wonderful sight you are for me to behold!

For even an unlovely sort is a sight to behold

When well-adorned with his own best features.

But a man who is full of the befouling faults,

Strikingly beautiful man though he may be, is truly ugly.

Developed in you today is the real wisdom

By which you have done, totally,
the work you had to do on yourself.

For even a highly educated man lacks wisdom,

If wisdom fails to show in his practice of a better way.

So it is with seeing,

Among people with eyes open and with eyes closed.

For when a man lacks sight packed with intuition,

Though he has eyes, the Eye is not present in him.

Struck by calamity,
stung to do something to combat suffering,

The world exhausts itself with work like ploughing;

And yet it is ceaselessly re-visited by that suffering,

To which,
using what you know, you today have put an end.

'There might be for me no hardship;
there might be for me just happiness....'

Thus is the world impelled ever forward:

And yet it does not know a means whereby
that happiness might come to be --

That rarely attained happiness
which you today have realized, properly."

While the Tathāgata told him this and more
for his benefit

Nanda remained firm in his judgement and thinking

And was indifferent to plaudits or criticisms.

With hands joined, he spoke these words:

"Oh, how particular, O Seer of Particularities,

Is this compassion that you have shown to me!

Since I who was sunk, Glorious One, in the mire of love

Have been a reluctant refugee from the terror of saṁsāra.

If not set free by you, a brother,
a guide along a better way,

A fruitful father, and equally a mother,

I would be done for;

Like a straggler dropped from a caravan,
I would not have made it.

Solitude is sweet for one who is calm and contented,

Who looks into and has learned what is.

Again, for one who is sober and shorn of conceits,

For one who is detached in his decision-making,
dispassion is a pleasure.

And so, through squarely realising what is,

Through shaking off faults and coming to quiet,

I worry now neither about my own place,

Nor about the person there,
nor about apsarases, nor about gods.

For now that I have tasted this pure, peaceful happiness,

My mind no longer hankers
after happiness born of desires --

Just as the costliest earthly fare cannot entice

A god who has supped the heavenly nectar.

Alas, the world has its eyes closed
by blind unconsciousness;

It does not see utmost happiness in a different robe.

Flinging away lasting inner happiness,

It exhausts itself so, in pursuit of sensual happiness.

For just as a fool, having made it to a jewel mine,

Might leave the jewels and carry off inferior crystals,

So would one reject the highest happiness
of full awakening

And struggle to gain sensual gratification.

Oh! high indeed, then, is the order of that desire
to favour living beings

Which the Tathāgata,
overflowing with benevolence, has:

Since, O Sage, you throw away
the highest-order happiness of meditation

And are consumed by your effort
to stop others suffering.

How today could I possibly repay you,

My compassionate Guru whose desire is others' welfare,

By whom I was taken totally up and out
of the foaming sea of becoming,

Like a man out of a great ocean
when his boat is being battered by waves?"

Then the Sage, hearing his well-founded words

Which signified the end of everything superfluous,

Voiced, as the Very Best of Speakers,

These lines that none but a buddha,
being 'Sheer Radiance,' should voice:

"As a man of action who got the job done
and who knows the primary task,

None but you, O crafty man!,
should express this affirmation --

Like a great trader,
having crossed a wasteland and got the goods,

Who affirms the work of a good guide.

An arhat, a man of action whose mind has come to quiet,

Knows the Buddha as a charioteer
of human steeds who needed taming:

Not even a seer of truth
appreciates the Buddha in this manner:

How much less does the common man,
however intelligent he may be?

This gratitude is fitting, again, in none but you

Whose mind has been liberated
from the dust of the passions and from darkness.

For while dust prevails in the world,

O man of gratitude! real gratitude is a rare state of being.

O possessor of dharma!
Since, because of abiding by dharma,

You have skill in making it your own
and quiet confidence in me,

I have something else to say to you.

For you are surrendered and devoted,
and up to the task.

Walking the transcendent walk,
you have done the work that needed to be done:

In you, there is not the slightest thing left to work on.

From now on, my friend, go with compassion,

Loosening others up
who are pulled down into their troubles.

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.

But deemed to be higher than the highest in this world

Is he who, having realized the supreme ultimate dharma,

Desires, without worrying about the trouble to himself,

To teach tranquillity to others.

forgetting the work that needs to be done
in this world on the self,

Do now, stout soul, what can be done for others.

Among beings who are wandering in the night,
their minds shrouded in darkness,

Let the lamp of this transmission be carried.

Just let the astonished people in the city say,

While you are standing firm, voicing dharma-directions,

'Well! What a miracle this is,

That he who was a lover boy is preaching liberation!'

Surely then, 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.

For, with you showing constancy of the highest order,
as you get to the bottom of what is,

She surely will not enjoy life in the palace,

Just as the mind of an enlightened man
does not enjoy sensual pleasures

When his mental state is tranquil and controlled,
and his thinking is detached, distinct, separate."

Thus spoke the Worthy One,
the instructor whose compassion
was of the highest order,

Whose words and equally whose feet
Nanda had accepted, using his head;

Then, at ease in himself, his heart at peace,
his task ended,

He left the Sage's side like an elephant free of rut.

When the occasion arose
he entered the town for begging
and attracted the citizens' gaze;

Impartial towards gain, loss,
comfort, discomfort, and the like,
his senses composed, he was free of longing;

And being there, in the moment,
he talked of liberation to people so inclined --

Never putting down others on a wrong path
or raising himself up.

This work is pregnant with the purpose of release:
it is for cessation, not for titillation;

It is wrought
out of the figurative expression of kāvya poetry
in order to capture an audience
whose minds are on other things --

For what I have written here
not pertaining to liberation,
I have written
according to the conventions of kāvya poetry.

This is through asking myself
how the bitter pill might be made pleasant to swallow,
like bitter medicine mixed with something sweet.

Seeing, in general, that the world
is moved primarily by fondness for objects
and is repelled by liberation,

I for whom liberation is paramount
have told it here like it is,
using a kāvya poem as a pretext.

Being aware of the deceit,
take from this what pertains to peace
and not to idle pleasure.

The elemental (verb-root-rooted) dust,
assuredly, shall yield up abundant gold.

The 18th canto in the epic poem Handsome Nanda,
titled "Affirmation of Full Autonomy."

This is the work of a beggar, the respected teacher Aśvaghoṣa of Saketa, son of the noble Suvarṇākṣī, crafter of epic poetry and talker of the great talk.