Friday, June 1, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 1.32: Failing to Abandon an Idea

[?]−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦[?]−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−− Upajāti
* * * * * * * * * * *  * * * * * * * * * * *  | 
* * * * * * * * * * *   * * * * * * * * * * *  || 1.32

The gist of the Brahmans' speech seems to be affirmation of a man's desire to have an excellent son who can bring honour to the family name. Contrast this to what the Buddha tells Nanda in Saundarananda Canto 15, titled “Abandoning Ideas”: 
Again, should there be anxiety about whether or not your family is prospering, /Investigate the nature of the world of the living in order to put a stop to it.  // 15.30 //  Among beings dragged by our own doing through the cycle of saṁsāra / Who are our own people, and who are other people? It is through ignorance that people attach to people. // 15.31 //  For one who turned on a bygone road into a relative, is a stranger to you; /And a stranger, on a road to come, will become your relative.  // 15.32 //  Just as birds in the evening flock together at separate locations, / So is the mingling over many generations of one's own and other people. // 15.33 //    Just as, under any old roof, travellers shelter together / And then go again their separate ways, so are relatives joined. // 15.34 //    In this originally shattered world nobody is the beloved of anybody. / Held together by cause and effect, humankind is like sand in a clenched fist. // 15.35 //    For mother cherishes son thinking "He will keep me," /  And son honours mother thinking "She bore me in her womb." // 15.36 //  As long as relatives act agreeably towards each other, /They engender affection; but otherwise it is enmity.  // 15.37 //    A close relation is demonstrably unfriendly; a stranger proves to be a friend. /By the different things they do, folk break and make affection.  // 15.38 //   Just as an artist, all by himself, might fall in love with a woman he painted, / So, each generating attachment by himself, do people become attached to one another. // 15.39 //    That relation who, in another life, was so dear to you: / What use to you is he? What use to him are you? // 15.40 //    With thoughts about close relatives, therefore, you should not enshroud the mind./ There is no abiding difference, in the flux of saṁsāra, between one's own people and people in general.  // 15.41 //  
Here, as I see it, is a crucial difference between the Buddha's teaching and religions. In religions the challenge is -- whatever happens -- to keep the faith, to keep believing in some idea. In the Buddha's teaching the challenge is to become enlightened, again and again, about delusion, which means noticing one's own repeated failures to abandon an idea. 

What does it mean to fail to abandon an idea? 

Especially when the idea in question is an end-gaining idea – i.e. the idea of going directly for some desired end – it tends to mean, on grosser or subtler levels, to stiffen the neck and shoulders in the effort to do something, thereby pulling the head back and down, shortening the spine, and pulling the legs back and up into the pelvis, thereby restricting the natural mechanisms of breathing. 

What does it mean, conversely, to abandon an idea? How then does one go about abandoning an idea?  

So for the giving up, in short, of all these ideas, / Mindfulness of inward and outward breathing, my friend, you should make into your own possession. // 15.64 //  

True mindfulness of inward and outward breathing, it seems to me, in those rare instances where I am able to enjoy it, is not a concentrated state; it is rather a function of acceptance and use of the whole self, which means, in other words, allowing the head to go forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen, et cetera. 

This allowing, by the way, FM Alexander called “thinking,” and he contrasted it with “doing.” How to think a direction, like “spine to lengthen” without doing the slightest thing to try to make it happen, is no easy thing. It requires the abandonment of the idea that to bring about a change in myself, I have to do something. It requires abandonment of the idea that I wouldn't be able to make a change for the better just by thinking. 

The difficulty is to make the whole self into the abandonment of all ideas – and especially end-gaining ideas. That, as I invariably fail to understand it, might be the fundamental principle that Dogen, following his teacher in China, expressed as 

Just sitting. 

The Japanese online dictionary, incidentally, defines 祗管打坐 as “zazen meditation in which one focuses on sitting without actively seeking enlightenment,” which is not a bad effort, except that the word “focus” is a stake to which a donkey is liable to tie itself for ten thousand years. 

In the end, what can I say, on the basis of my own actual experience?  

The Buddha in his speech to Nanda sets the bar very high – generally too high for the likes of me. Concerned that I and my close family shouldn't be short of money, I hear on the radio of civil war brewing up in Syria, and something within me wonders how it will effect the price of gold. 

Not being particularly proud of such thinking, I come back to the reality of breathing, which is movement. Breathing can be controlled or it can be allowed. Sometimes breathing has to be controlled, as in singing, or swimming, or playing a wind instrument, or reciting or reading out loud. But with mindfulness of breathing as the Buddha advocated it to Nanda, the point is basically to allow. Even in allowing, however, controlled exhalation can be used to kind of kick-start the respiratory mechanism into action – as recommended by Dogen in his instructions for how to sit. 

Thinking simplistically, as my teacher Gudo Nishijima was prone to think, the movement which is breathing is part of the reality of action. And the most fundamental point of Buddhist philosophy is to be clear about the gulf which separates intellectual thinking and the reality of action. The reality of action encompasses everything, including thinking, but intellectual thinking has no more power to influence reality itself than a pointing finger can touch the moon. 

Alexander work, however, is an exercise in  exploring the relation between another kind of thinking, not intellectual thinking, and reality. Using thinking to touch the moon.

Thinking “head forward and up, back to lengthen and widen, knees forwards and away, lengthening to the elbows and widening across the upper part of the arms as the back widens,” is not a way of controlling breathing; it is a way of allowing the whole self to work better as a respiratory mechanism. 

On some level, the gulf between thinking and reality was itself an idea that my teacher failed to abandon. 

For his part, observing his various sons, he probably perceived many failures on many levels to abandon ideas. 

I am still hoping that the price of gold goes up. 

Tibetan Text: 
| mi dag sa la bu ma gtogs pa’i khyad ’phags pa | 
| gźan gaṅ cuṅ zad ’dod min źi ba de yi phyir |
| khyod kyi sgron ma ’di ni rigs kyi sgron ma ste | 
| khyod ñid dga’ bar mdzod cig dga’ ston da ltar bgyi | 

EHJ's translation (from the Tibetan): 
32. "On earth men desire for their peace no excellence at all other than a son. As this lamp of yours is the lamp of your race, rejoice and make a feast to-day. 

Chinese Text: 
人生於世間 唯求殊勝子
王今如滿月 應生大歡喜 
今生奇特子 必光顯宗族 

S. Beal's translation (from the Chinese): 
’Men born in the world, chiefly desire to have a son the most renowned; 43. ’But now the king, like the moon when full, should feel in himself a perfect joy, having begotten an unequalled son, (for by this the king) will become illustrious among his race; 

C. Willemen's translation (from the Chinese): 
40. “When one is born into the world, [the parent] wants only an excellent son. O king, you should feel great joy now, as [you would at the celebration upon] a full month [after birth]!
41. “You now have a wonderful son. His light will most certainly make your clan famous. 

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