When I first got my hands on a copy of Linda Colvill's translation of Saundara-nanda, just over three years ago, in the autumn of 2008, the first thing I sought out was Aśvaghośa's description of the four dhyānas, or stages of sitting-meditation.
I was particularly keen to see if there was any evidence to support my understanding of what Dogen meant by sitting with body, sitting with mind, and sitting as body and mind dropping off --- this understanding having been informed on the one hand by the teaching of a Zen teacher who described Zazen as "a kind of physical gymanstics" and on the other hand by the teaching of Alexander teachers who describe learning to use oneself well in an activity like sitting as "the most mental thing there is."
My Zen teacher in Japan, Gudo Nishijima, taught me that the most important thing in sitting was effort to keep the spine straight vertically as a physical act ("a kind of physical gymnastics"). When the sympathetic nervous system is in the ascendancy, we feel tense, self-conscious, aware of our own minds -- this, Gudo taught, is sitting with mind. Conversely, when the para-sympathetic nervous system is in the ascendancy, we feel sleepy or sensual, aware of the body and of physical desires -- this is sitting with the body. But if we just devote ourselves to the action of keeping the spine straight vertically, the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems balance each other out, which is a state of zero, or a state of emptiness, that buddha-ancestors described as "dropping off body and mind."
This as I see it is, at best, a very crude approximation of the truth.
To use Alexander jargon, Gudo's approach to sitting in the right posture was extremely "doing." There was, in Marjory Barlow's words, "no freedom in it."
The Alexander approach to sitting well, based on the principle of "non-doing," requires much less physical and much more mental effort, in order to bring about not only a lengthening direction up the spine but also a widening direction across the two sides of the body. This lengthening and widening direction is associated with release, or "undoing," and it is axiomatic in Alexander work that one cannot do an undoing. Undoing is rather something (or a bit of nothing) that, when the conditions are right, tends to do itself.
Alexander described working like this as "the most mental thing there is."
So, as a follower of Dogen and a teacher of the FM Alexander Technique, I expected to find in Aśvaghoṣa's writing a description of the four dhyānas which tallied with my understanding that sitting well is primarily a mental challenge, not a physical one. The wrong inner patterns are the doing that has to be stopped, and unconscious doing cannot be the means of stopping them. A more mindful approach must be necessary, in which habitual unconscious doing is opposed by conscious means, in the way that dark is opposed by light. Unconsciously end-gaining, vs consciously working to the means-whereby principle, Alexander wrote are different -- nay opposite -- conceptions and opposite procedures.
In Aśvaghoṣa's description of Nanda's successive passage through four stages of sitting-meditation, which involved the practice of saying "no, not that" on deeper and deeper levels, to unconscious tendencies, I found -- as a bad scientist is wont to find -- exactly what I expected to find.
What I have been slow to find is what I never expected to find, even though it has been staring me in the face.
Translating nimitta as "subject [for cultivation]", I certainly wasn't expecting to find anything as mental as this:
Having given due consideration to the time and place
As well as to the extent and method of one's practice,
One should, reflecting on one's own strength and weakness,
Persist in an effort that is not inconsistent with them.
A subject [for cultivation] that is said to be "garnering"
Does not serve when the emotions are inflamed,
For thus the mind does not come to quiet
Like a fire being fanned by the wind.
A subject one has ascertained to be calming
Has its time when one's mind is excited;
For thus the mind subsides into quietness,
Like a blazing fire doused with water.
A subject ascertained to bring calm
Does not serve when one's mind is dormant;
For thus the mind sinks further into lifelessness,
Like a feeble fire left unfanned.
A subject ascertained to be garnering,
Has its time when one's mind is lifeless,
For thus the mind becomes fit for work,
Like a feebly-burning fire plied with fuel.
Nor is not interfering valid as a subject [for cultivation]
When one's mind is either lifeless or excited.
For that might engender severe adversity,
Like the neglected illness of a sick man.
A subject ascertained to lead to non-interference,
Has its time when one's mind is in its normal state;
For thus one can set about the work to be done,
Like a wagon setting off with well-trained horses.
Again, when the mind is filled with the red joys of passion,
Direction towards oneself of loving-kindness is not to be practised;
For a passionate type is stupefied by love,
Like a sufferer from phlegm taking oil.
Steadiness lies, when the mind is excited by ardour,
In resorting to a disagreeable subject;
For thus a passionate type obtains relief,
Like a phlegmatic type taking an astringent.
When the mind is wound up, however, with the fault of malice,
One should not resort to a disagreeable subject;
For unpleasantness is destructive to a hating type,
As acid treatment is to a man of bilious nature.
When the mind is agitated by the fault of malice,
Loving-kindness should be practised, towards oneself;
For loving-kindness is calming to a hate-afflicted soul,
As cooling treatment is to the man of bilious nature.
Where there is wandering of the mind, tied to delusion,
Both loving-kindness and unpleasantness are unsuitable,
For a deluded man is further deluded by these two,
Like a windy type given an astringent.
When working of the mind is delusory,
One should appreciate the causality therein;
For this is a path to peace when the mind is bewildered,
Like treating a wind condition with oil.
Holding gold in the mouth of a furnace,
A goldsmith in this world blows it at the proper time,
Douses it with water at the proper time,
And gradually, at the proper time, he leaves it be.
For he might burn the gold by blowing at the wrong time,
He might make it unworkable by plunging it into water at the wrong time,
And he would not bring it to full perfection
If at the wrong time he were just to leave it be.
Likewise, for garnering as also for calming,
As also when appropriate for leaving well alone,
One should readily attend to the proper subject [for cultivation];
Because even diligence is destructive when accompanied by a wrong approach."
Thus, on retreat from muddling through
And on the principle to come back to, the One Who Went Well spoke to him;
And knowing the varieties of behaviour,
He detailed further the directions for abandoning ideas.
Just as a physician, for a disorder of bile, phlegm, or wind,
-- For whatever disorder of the humours has manifested the symptoms of disease --
Prescribes a course of treatment to cure that very disorder,
So did the Buddha prescribe for the faults:
“It may not be possible, following a single method, to kill off
Bad ideas that habit has so deeply entrenched;
In that case, one should commit to a second course
But never give up the good work.
Because of the instinct-led accumulation, from time without beginning,
Of the powerful mass of afflictions,
And because true practice is so difficult to do,
The faults cannot be cut off all at once.
Just as a deep splinter, by means of the point of another sharp object,
Is removed by a man skilled in that task,
Likewise an unpromising subject [for cultivation] may be dispensed with
By turning to a different subject.
And again, when Aśvaghoṣa describes Nanda sitting alone by a stream in the forest, his legs fully crossed, readying his consciousness prior to entering the first dhyāna, and at that stage changing his nimitta, or subject [for cultivation], the kind of practice Aśvaghoṣa seems to be describing is news to me:
He re-directed his energy so as to still his mind,
But in his doing so an unhelpful thought reasserted itself,
As when, in a man intent on curing an illness,
An acute symptom suddenly reappears.
In order to fend against that he turned skillfully to a different subject,
One favourable to his practice,
Like an enfeebled prince who seeks out a powerful protector
When being overthrown by a mighty rival.
So it as if for the past 3 years I have been diligently piecing together a big jig-saw, and now that I come to look at the whole picture, a lot of the picture makes sense to me on the basis of experience gleaned in Zen and Alexander practice hitherto. The part that makes sense contains: repeated descriptions of sitting with the body tending in a straight direction, and being thereby attended by mindfulness; a totally lucid description of the four dhyānas; and the Buddha's exhortation to Nanda
- to believe in better (canto 12),
- not to be a slave to faulty sensory appreciation (canto 13)
- to find some solitary spot at which to dive headlong into mindful action (canto 14)
- to abandon ideas (canto 15)
- to understand the four noble truths, exactly and comprehensively (canto 16).
But one chunk of the jigsaw has been as if blocked out by a big blind spot; namely, the description of how to prevail over the mental pollutants, not only by the general means of just sitting, but also on a specific, targeted basis, as part of the field of endeavour that the Buddha evidently called bhāvanā, or cultivation of the mind.
I was looking for something mental but not that mental!
The more I reflect on it, however, the more it starts to make sense, especially in light of my journey so far in pursuit of the Buddha's truth, aided and abetted by Alexander work and his discovery of the fundamental principle that he called "antagonistic action."
Observing a universal human tendency to stiffen the neck and pull the head back and down, Alexander advocated thinking (not trying to do) the opposite -- freeing the neck and letting the head go forward and up.
Is this so very different from mentally cultivating the diametric opposite tendency to whatever pernicious influence is polluting one's mind? Or is this kind of "cultivation" in fact a particular application of the general principle of antagonistic action?
If where my thoughts are leading now is on the right lines, then how is it possible that something so overtly mental as Aśvaghoṣa seems to be describing, could get turned into its opposite, so that Dogen invariably wrote of the body-mind, and never the mind-body, and so that my Japanese teacher could describe sitting-meditation as "a kind of physical gymnastics"?
How could such a thing happen? The answer, over many generations, might be: very easily.
Looking at what was happening to Alexander's work in only two or three generations, Marjory Barlow saw with horror that a lot of bodywork was going on in the name of the FM Alexander Technique. People were qualifying as Alexander teachers without getting to grips with why FM described the work as "the most mental thing there is."
Gudo once said in a lecture in English, "I believe Master Dogen is the most excellent Buddhist master in Japan. Therefore, I believe Master Dogen is the most excellent Buddhist master in the world."
I thought at the time that this logic was stupid and absurd.
But maybe it is only now, 25 years later, that I am beginning to realize how truly stupid and absurd that statement was.