Sunday, January 1, 2012

nimitta & bhavana: work in progress

Aśvaghoṣa is 12th in a line of 51 patriarchs linking the Buddha in India and Dogen in Japan, all of whom, according to Zen tradition, preached the primacy of sitting-meditation (ZA-ZEN; sitting-dhyāna).

In the Zen teaching of Dogen, represented by the famous phrase "just sitting," (SHIKAN-TAZA) there is no subject of meditation other than sitting itself: upright sitting is the meditation, and the meditation is to sit upright. Other than sitting itself, there aren't any meditation techniques.

In Canto 16 of the Saundara-nanda of Aśvaghoṣa, however, when the Buddha instructs Nanda how, having found solitude in the forest, to go about working on himself, the Buddha guides Nanda in the appropriate use of a nimitta.

EH Johnston in a footnote to his translation writes,nimitta, properly the general characteristic of an object, is used of the general characteristic of an object selected to secure any particular type of bhāvanā and so may be translated as [subject of meditation]."

The context of Canto 16 is that the Buddha is instructing Nanda how a sitting practitioner who has already gained possession of the four dhyānas (stages of meditation) and duly acquired the five powers of knowing, then applies his mind to eradicating the āsravas, those influences which pollute the practitioner's mind and prevent him from fully appreciating the four noble truths. The practitioner prevails over these influences, the Buddha tells Nanda, by means of bhāvanā – a term which is generally lumped together with dhyāna and translated as “meditation.”

Thus, by methodically taking possession of the mind,
Getting rid of something and gathering something together,/
The practitioner makes the four dhyānas his own,
And duly acquires the five powers of knowing: //16.1//

The principal transcendent power, taking many forms;
Then being awake to what others are thinking;/
And remembering past lives from long ago;
And divine lucidity of ear; and of eye. //16.2//

From then on, through investigation of what is,
He applies his mind to eradicating the polluting influences,/
For on this basis he fully understands suffering and the rest,
The four true standpoints: //16.3//

This is suffering, which is constant and akin to trouble;
This is the cause of suffering, akin to starting it;/
This is cessation of suffering, akin to walking away.
And this, akin to a refuge, is a peaceable path. //16.4//

Understanding these noble truths, by a process of reasoning
While getting to know the four as one,/
He prevails over all the influences, by means of meditation (bhāvanayā, inst. sg.)
And, on finding peace, is no longer subject to becoming.//16.5//

For by failing to wake up and come round
To this four, whose substance is what is,/
Humankind goes from existence to existence without finding peace,
Hoisted in the swing of saṁsāra.//16.6//

Among multiple definitions of bhāvanā in the Monier Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary7 are: “1. the act of producing or effecting; 2. forming in the mind, thought, meditation; 3. reflection, contemplation (with Buddhists said to be of five kinds); and 4. water.”

In light of extensive knowledge of ancient Buddhist texts, Ānandajoti Bhikkhu asserts that “the idea of using meditation (bhāvanā) to overcome defilements is very well established in early Buddhism.” This assertion would seem to be supported by Aśvaghoṣa's use of the term bhāvanā in Canto 15, when he quotes the Buddha comparing bhāvanā to water that can put out a smouldering fire:

If some desirous idea, a fever of the mind,
Should venture to offend you,
Entertain no scent of it but shake it off
As if pollen had landed on your robe.//15.3//

Even if, through insight,
You have dropped off desires,
You must, as if lighting up darkness,
Abolish them by means of their opposite.//15.4//

What lies behind them sleeps on,
Like a fire covered with ashes;
You are to extinguish it, my friend, by means of meditation (bhāvanayā),
As if using water to put out a fire.//15.5//

What is problematic for a devotee of “just sitting,” is the principle of sitting cross-legged and using particular types of meditations to overcome specific defilements, as opposed to the indirect principle of just sitting for the sake of sitting, and letting defilements come out, as it were, in the wash.

EH Johnston's translation of nimitta as “subject of meditation,” rests upon his understanding of a direct correspondence between various types of nimitta and particular types of bhāvanā. It is in the process of developing a particular type of bhāvanā, according to Johnston's explanation, that a specific nimitta , or "subject of meditation" is employed.

To glean some understanding of where EH Johnston was coming from, let us consider what the ancient Pali texts have to say about the development of bhāvanā, taking as our starting point the traditional practice of contemplating impermanence, suffering, and non-self.

In Canto 17 of Saundara-nanda, Aśvaghoṣa describes how Nanda, sitting upright with legs crossed, contemplates the elements of earth, water, fire, and so on, as being impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal. By this means, Aśvaghoṣa tells us, Nanda causes the tree of the afflictions to shake (17.17). This is in accordance with what the Buddha tells Rāhula in The Long Discourse Giving Advice to Rāhula. In this ancient Pali text the Buddha instructs Rāhula, in a step preliminary to the development of bhāvanā, to see the elements of earth, water, fire, and so on, as they really are:

Whatever there is, Rāhula, that is inside, in oneself, that is hard or has become solid, and is attached to, like this: head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidney, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, undigested food, excrement - or whatever else there is that is inside, in oneself, that is hard, or has become solid, and is attached to, that, Rāhula, is called the internal earth element. Now, that which is the internal earth element, and that which is the external earth element, that is only the earth element. “This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self,” like this it ought to be seen, as it really is, with right wisdom. Having seen it like this, as it really is, with right wisdom, one loses interest in the earth element, one detaches the mind from the earth element.

The Buddha continues in the same vein, describing as “not my self” the other elements of water, fire, wind, and space. He then exhorts Rāhula to progress further and, with regard to the earth element, to develop bhāvanā, thus:

Develop the meditation (bhāvanaṁ bhāvehi), Rāhula, that is to be even as the earth, for, Rāhula, from developing the meditation that is to be even as the earth, appealing and unappealing contacts that have arisen in the mind will not take a hold there. Just as, Rāhula, they throw what is clean on the earth, and they throw what is unclean, and they throw what has become dung, and they throw what has become urine, and they throw what has become spit, and they throw what has become pus, and they throw what has become blood, but the earth is not distressed, or ashamed, or disgusted by it, just so do you, Rāhula, develop the meditation that is to be even as the earth, for, Rāhula, from developing the meditation that is to be even as the earth, appealing and unappealing contacts that have arisen in the mind will not take a hold there.

Continuing in like fashion for the other elements of water, fire, wind, and space, the Buddha points out that water is not worried about what it washes, fire about what it burns, and wind about what it blows over, while space does not settle anywhere.

Thus, if we follow EH Johnston's line of reasoning, we can understand that the nimitta in question is the general characteristic that all the elements share, which is not to react emotionally, whatever the circumstance. The nimitta is a general characteristic shared by all the elements, and there is one bhāvanā in view, i.e, the meditation that is to be even.

As the Long Discourse continues, however, the Buddha evidently exhorts Rāhula further to develop six bhāvanas:

Develop the meditation, Rāhula, that is friendliness, for, Rāhula, from developing the meditation that is friendliness, whatever ill-will there is will be given up. Develop the meditation, Rāhula, that is kindness, for, Rāhula, from developing the meditation that is kindness, whatever violence there is will be given up. Develop the meditation, Rāhula, that is gladness, for, Rāhula, from developing the meditation that is gladness, whatever discontent there is will be given up. Develop the meditation, Rāhula, that is equanimity, for, Rāhula, from developing the meditation that is equanimity, whatever resentment there is will be given up. Develop the meditation, Rāhula, on the unattractive, for, Rāhula, from developing the meditation on the unattractive (asubhaṁ bhāvanam), whatever passion there is will be given up. Develop the meditation, Rāhula, that is the perception of impermanence, for, Rāhula, from developing the meditation that is the perception of impermanence, whatever (kind of) ‘I am’ conceit there is will be given up.

Still following EH Johnston's argument, we can understand that the Buddha has here enumerated six bhāvanās each with a corresponding nimitta, namely friendliness, kindness, gladness, equanimity, the unattractive, and impermanence.

Subsequently, when we read in Saundara-nanda 16.63 that the Buddha taught Nanda to resort, at a time of heightened passion, to aśubham nimittam (a nimittam which is unattractive, disagreeable or impure), knowledge of the ancient Pali text would naturally tend to lead us to understand that aśubham nimittam belongs to what is described in the The Long Discourse Giving Advice to Rāhula as asubhaṁ bhāvanam (meditation on the unattractive/disagreeable/impure). Hence the following translations of Saundara-nanda 16.63:

EH Johnston:
But when the mind is excited by passion, the subject of meditation called 'impure' (a-śubham nimittam) should be selected so as to reach steadfastness; for thus the man of passionate nature obtains relief, like the man subject to phlegm who uses astringent remedies.

Linda Colvill:
When the mind is stirred up by passion, one should find stability and practice the impurity meditation (a-śubham nimittam), for that is how a man of passionate nature finds relief, like a patient with a phlegm condition using astringent treatments. 

In this understanding, then, a subject of meditation (nimitta) is specifically linked to the development of a particular type of meditation (bhāvanā), with the aim of overcoming a specific defilement.

The essential oneness of sitting-meditation (in Japanese: ZA-ZEN) is Dogen's fundamental teaching, and I would like to think that it is Aśvaghoṣa's fundamental teaching too.

As I said above, the approach to defilements of a devotee of "just sitting," as I understand it, is an indirect one: Just sit, accepting and using the whole self well, and let everything come out in the wash.

But when I re-read Canto 16 and survey the textual evidence impartially, Aśvaghoṣa almost seems to be making a point of falsifying my generalist idea:

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. //16.69//

So I go into the New Year with a sense that something is not adding up, and a sense that there is work to do -- very probably in the direction of abandoning a cherished idea.


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

For a long time I wan't exactly sure what you were saying about Ashvaghosha's use of the word nimittam in Saundarananda and what your grounds were for saying it, so thanks for explaining your thinking so clearly and presenting the argument so cogently. I do now get it. And like you I’m not sure what to make of it – I can’t decide what it was that Ashvaghosha really meant us to hear when he wrote of nimitta and bhavana.

Pondering not being able to decide or the possibility of having to abandon a cherished view, I'm reminded of the words of put-upon Private Montague 'Excused Boots' Bisley, played by Alfie Bass in Granada TV's comedy series 'The Army Game' ('57-'61 - before your time?): "Still, never mind, eh?" was Bootsie's way of dealing with such things.

- Or perhaps it was in the follow-up series, 'Bootsie and Snudge' (featuring de-mobbed Alfie Bass and Bill Fraser as Bootsie and Sgt Major Claude Snudge) that the catch-phrase was first uttered?

I could probably find out; that kind of research might be laborious but it has the merit of leading to one, and only one, true answer. The question you've posed requires a lot of reading and thinking, at the end of which an opinion, albeit a better informed opinion, may be all that can be gained.

My feeling is that the kind of research that leads to indecision or the abandonment of a cherished view is always worthwhile research, and that an appropriate bhavana for the nimitta of confusion - or disappointment - might be something along the lines of “Still, never mind, eh?”

All the best,

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Malcolm.

I think an appropriate nimitta when the mind is confused might be appreciation of causality (see 16.64).

In recent days I have been keenly aware of this, and, ironically, it is one reason I find it difficult to abandon the idea that nimitta simply means a cause, rather than a subject of meditation.

Writing this post early this morning I think (unless i am deluding myself) helped me organize my thoughts better around nimitta and bhāvanā.

After writing it, and going back to bed, I got up and checked what i remember years back reading the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard wrote and said on the subject of transforming undesirable states of consciousness by cultivating their opposites, as well as by other means. I also read what Linda Covill writes in her book about the Nimitta Sutta, and Aśvaghoṣa's apparent response to it, which was not totally affirmative.

For your reference and reflection I may type these passages out and include them as posts.

For the present, anyway, I have opted on further reflection to translate bhāvanā as "transformative thinking." Since I can't deny that nimitta seems to mean the target of such thinking, and at the same time can't let go of the idea that nimitta doesn't necessarily mean such a target but simply means "cause," I have tentatively opted to translate nimitta as "cause or target of transformation."

Check it out and see what you think.

I think it might work.

It seems to me, at time of writing, that it need not be a question of either sitting-meditation or defilement-targeting meditation. By clearly discriminating between dhyāna (sitting-meditation in which there is no target other than to sit) and bhāvanā (defilement-targeting transformative thinking), we can allow Zazen to continue just being Zazen, while also starting to get to grips with what Aśvaghoṣa meant by bhāvanā.

All the best,


jiblet said...

Bootsie's trite catch-phrase sounds to me a lot like "This is cessation of suffering, akin to walking away" (16.4). Or, "And gradually, at the proper time, he leaves it be" (16.65). But I can see that now might not be the proper time to do that - work, as you say, is still in progress.

If you've the time and inclination, I would be very interested to read any excerpts from LC and others that you think are relevant.

Thanks for the reply, Mike.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Malcolm,

On second thoughts, it occurred to me that there might be copyright issues if I just copied the passages in question verbatim. But if I paraphrase a memorable metaphor described by Matthieu Ricard, three ways of dealing with poisonous plants are 1. to uproot each plant carefully one by one, 2. to pour a load of boiling water over all the plants at once, and 3. send in a herbivore (traditionally a peacock) who thrives on eating poisonous plants. The first way corresponds to the use of antidotes as transformative agents, so that each negative emotion is dealt with one by one. The second way corresponds to just sitting as Dogen exhorted us to practise it – not necessarily as I do practise it, allowing body and mind to drop off, spontaneously and naturally, so that one's original features shine through, and pesky defilements do not even come into it. The third way, which is the most risky, consists of using negative emotions to free oneself from the influence of those very negative emotions – like a good swimmer who gives himself totally to the water in which a nervous swimmer might drown.

That's basically what I have been endeavoring to do for the past 3 years, I suppose, channeling the energy of my anger day by day into translating Aśvaghoṣa's words. And this maybe why, as the daily translation work drew to an end, my anger overflowed into a rant at that lazy little prick Brad Warner, who made his career as a writer on the back of my hard slog, then turned around and slagged me off as Mr Angry, then went ahead and rewrote and published Gudo's inevitably rubbish translation of Nagarjuna without seeing any need to learn Sanskrit. Presumably Brad's own great endowment of prajñā was sufficient to guess what Nagarjuna meant without looking at Nagarjuna's words? Arrogant as I may have been along the way, even I wasn't that arrogant. Grrrr.

Did I say 3 years? Better make that 30 years, at least.

The point is that Matthieu Ricard's explanation helps me to get a better picture of how the use of bhāvanā (which might have much in common with transformative thinking as practised in Alexander work), and practice and experience of the four dhyānas, can fit together, with some degree of overlap, into one bigger and better picture.

jiblet said...

A few hours ago I came across some photos a friend of mine published on Facebook of a Christmas dinner/party to which all of my other (older) friends had been invited and to which I was not. It upset me, but not that much. I think I get why I'm not invited to these dos. For one thing I don't invite anyone to my place, because, I tell myself, I've got no bloody money to buy booze or food for them, because I've not felt the urge to find paid work for a long time, because...cause and effect. But they should still invite me, right? I mean, even more so because I'm so very poor and lonely and yet so very entertaining! A trivial example, perhaps, but a current one; there are plenty more where that came from, spanning many decades.

Understanding, if not always noticing, cause and effect; understanding, if not always noticing, how my habitual reactions can cause unhappiness has made it easier for me to tell myself not to mind and better to understand why I shouldn’t mind...and even actually not to mind. So ‘Transformative thinking’ is a good translation of bhavana, I think. And although I don’t intentionally try to cultivate or transform myself while just sitting, my mood and behaviour these days, compared with my mood and behaviour in days of old, tells me something like cultivation/transformation may be going on.

Meanwhile and whatever…before I’d realised that the first of the FB Christmas photos I saw was of a party that I hadn't been invited to, I’d posted a funny quip as a caption. It’s not a snarky quip; I didn’t know to get snarky yet. When I did realise that all my mates were having merry Xmas fun without me, I left the comment up. So now they know that I know; they can feel just a little bit guilty. Serves em bloody right.

Mike Cross said...

He in whom wrongdoing has been given up

And yet hatred carries on,

Hits himself with dust

Like an elephant after a bath.


From one bitter and twisted soul to another, I salute you and wish you a Happy New Year, with a wink and a wry smile.

jiblet said...

It just occurred to me, Mike – maybe they didn’t invite me to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus simply because I’m jewish? …And there’s me getting all hot and bothered about it.

Racist scum!

Mike Cross said...

Now, now, Malcolm. I sense you are following me off piste, where the going is a little risky -- and I have got the scars to prove it. Maybe in our old age we should get to know the nursery slopes of transformative thinking a bit better?



jiblet said...

Happy New Year, Mike :)