Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Snakes & Ladders

You know the feeling: a sense that things are going well, a sense of going in the right direction, when one false move . . . . and it is back to square one -- at which place the best thing one can possibly hope to find is the bottom rung of a ladder.

That is what happened to Nanda in Canto 12 when, for the first time, he found real confidence in the Buddha's teaching. He really believed in better. He found confidence in a better way than the ascetic end-gaining of the Brahmanical tradition and a better way than the Buddhist end-gaining of the Buddhist striver. Back in Cantos 4 and 5 what Nanda evinced was never real confidence in the Buddha's teaching, but only the sort of unexamined reverence that one sees on the adoring faces of superstitious Tibetans when the poor old Dalai Lama is in their presence. That kind of unexamined religious reverence, as I see it, is not any kind of ladder: it is a snake.

In a game of snakes and ladders, going up or going down is purely a matter of luck, not of judgement. But in the reality of snakes and ladders, intuition and awareness come into it, for better or for worse.

Alexander work, as I see it, is very much a ladder, beginning, like the Buddha's teaching, with inhibition of end-gaining. Working with developmental movements towards better integration of vestibular reflexes is so primitive it might be compared to preparation for stepping onto the first rung of a ladder, getting a better footing on the ground before even thinking of climbing up. And in listening work, the metaphor of a ladder has been used explicitly, by Alfred Tomatis no less, who referred to the Biblical example of Jacob's Ladder.

The voices I like to hear, talking of ladders, and snakes, are independent voices. Theravada Buddhism is not for me, but Ānandajoti Bhikkhu is not your average Theravada Bhikkhu. He is a genuine indie. Again, certain aspects of Tibetan Buddhism I am deeply skeptical about, not least the readiness to accept the Buddha's teaching around samsāra as if it were a literal affirmation of the ancient Hindu conception of rebirth. But the Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard (M) is evidently another Indie and I recommend to anybody the record of the dialogue between him and his father Jean-Francois Revel (JF) published in English as "The Monk and the Philosopher."

Here is an excerpt:

J.F. -- (discussing the war in Bosnia) A total and bloody anarchy supervened, with Croats killing Muslims, Muslims killing Croats, and Serbs killing everyone. For several years no one managed to get the different factions to stick to any peace agreement at all. What we were witnessing, in fact, was the self-destruction of all the communities involved.

M. -- In place of an analysis of the political and geographical causes, I find it more useful to put it in terms of the mental processes that lead to such an eruption of hatred.

J.F: -- Absolutely. What I'm also trying to say is that the political and geographical causes don't explain anything. If that's what it had all been about, a rational solution could have been found.

M. -- All the causes of war in the world, whether territorial claims, the sharing of irrigation water, or whatever else it might be, come down to a feeling of oneself being wronged, which then gives rise to hostility. That's a negative thought, a divergence from the natural state, and is therefore a source of suffering. The obvious conclusion is that before such thoughts completely invade and take over the mind, we need to gain some mastery over them. A fire is easiest to put out at the very moment the first flames appear, not once the whole forest is ablaze. It's all too easy to get a very long way from the basic goodness within us.

J.F. -- But how do you explain the fact that we stray away from it so much more often than staying faithful to it?

M. -- When you're following a mountain path, it doesn't take much to put a foot wrong and tumble down the slope. The fundamental goal of a spiritual discipline is to maintain perfect watchfulness all the time. Attention and awareness are basic qualities that the spiritual life helps to develop.

J.F -- Yes. But if to eradicate evil from the world we have to wait for six thousand million individuals to reach that spiritual path, it could be a long wait!

M. -- As an oriental proverb says, "With patience, the orchard becomes jam." That it might take a long time doesn't alter the fact that there's no other solution. Even if violence doesn't stop arising overall, the only way to remedy it is the transformation of individuals.



Fred said...

"As an oriental proverb says, "With patience, the orchard becomes jam." That it might take a long time doesn't alter the fact that there's no other solution. Even if violence doesn't stop arising overall, the only way to remedy it is the transformation of individuals."

Thank you.

Mike Cross said...

Don't thank me -- thank Matthieu Ricard.

But that is what the Saundarananda of Aśvaghoṣa is truly all about: the transformation of an individual.

Canto 5 is not titled "Entry into the Samgha." And there is not one verse in which Aśvaghośa uses the word saṁgha in the sense of "Buddhist community."

Aśvaghoṣa, methinks, was a true indie, and he wrote Saundarananda for indies everywhere.

But may I not fall again into the sin of certainty!

Happi said...

Hi Mike –

I agree with both Matthieu Ricard and Aśvaghoṣa that transformation has to happen on an individual by individual basis. I also have to agree that in the cantos I was here for that Aśvaghoṣa did not mention saṁgha much.

But whenever you try to draw conclusions from your sense of Aśvaghoṣa’s position on saṁgha (or lack thereof) I’ve felt the urge to point out to you that one poem, however epic, may not convey the full range of Aśvaghoṣa’s thinking. From the fact that Aśvaghoṣa fails to mention saṁgha in Saundarananda a person can only conclude that we have no idea what Aśvaghoṣa’s position on saṁgha was. Aśvaghoṣa could have written or intended to write another epic poem on saṁgha. We can’t know.

I was also wondering how much longer you think you’ll be working on cleaning up your translation of Saundarananda. If you take too much longer I might have to get a subscription to the New York Times or something.

A snooty know-it-all I’m making friends asked me to pass this message on to you.


Mike Cross said...

Thank you for your continued interest, G.

Not "not much"; not at all.

At the behest of Ānandajoti I am preparing 18 audio files of yours truly reading Saundarananda aloud. I suspect a secret agenda to market these recording of my monotonous Birmingham drawl as a cure for insomnia. Anyway I have done 11/18.

After that all options will be on the table. The only thing I can say for certain, at my present stage of pscyho-physical development, is that any form of practice, whether group or individual, that doesn't allow me to take an afternoon nap is totally out of the question.

All the best,