Friday, November 30, 2012

BUDDHACARITA 3.65: Being Nervous about Being Nervous

⏑−⏑−,⏑⏑⏑⏑−⏑−⏑−¦¦⏑−⏑−,⏑⏑⏑⏑−⏑−⏑−   Rucirā
varāṅganā-gaṇa-kalilaṁ nṛpātmajas-tato balād-vanam-atinīyate sma tat |
varāpsaro-vṛtam-alakādhipālayaṁ nava-vrato munir-iva vighna-kātaraḥ || 3.65

iti buddha-carite mahākāvye saṁvegotpattir-nāma tṛtīyaḥ sargaḥ || 3 ||

Most lushly wooded with beautiful women was that park

To which the offspring of a ruler of men was then forcibly led,

Like a sage to a palace populated by the choicest nymphs in Alaka,

When his practice is young and he is nervous about impediments.

The 3rd canto, titled “Nervous Excitement” 
in an epic story of awakened action.

EHJ thought this verse was of doubtful authenticity, partly because “the application of vighna-kātara to the prince is at variance with the next canto.”

Such a doubt on the part of EHJ is akin to a flag on which is written the words DIG HERE.

At first blush (using the word blush advisedly), I see where EHJ is coming from. Vighna-kātara means “weak to withstand temptation (EBC)” or “afraid/fearful of obstacles (EHJ/PO),” whereas the attitude expressed by the prince in BC3.60, as I read it, is already one of sonorous assertiveness.

Looking ahead to the next canto, however, the falsification of EHJ's thesis might be contained in the 3rd pāda of BC4.55 which describes the prince's mind as samaṁ vignena dhīreṇa, which means, using EHJ's own translation “at the same time both perturbed and steadfast.”

The point is, then, that Aśvaghoṣa, in his usual indirect manner, is telling us something that doubtless comes from his own experience of the will to the truth, and from his own mature experience of practising the truth.

The point about the will to the truth is that its awakening, even when accompanied by steadfast resolve, is nevertheless liable to be disturbing, through stimulation of the fear reflexes. Hence the present canto title, saṁvegotpattiḥ, Arising of Agitation, or Nervous Excitement.

The implicit point suggested by the punchline of the 4th pāda, as I read it, is a profound point about practice itself. The point about practice itself is that when practice is young the practitioner is liable to be nervous about impediments. But as practice matures, especially under the guidance of a veteran teacher who regards being wrong as the best friend one has got in practice, those impediments come gradually to be accepted more and more as they are.

The ostensible meaning of vighna-kātaraḥ is wary of obstacles in the external world, as typified by beautiful women. And that reading certainly fits, because -- notwithstanding the kind of misunderstanding manifested by David Smith that I discussed yesterday -- Aśvaghoṣa is singularly unafraid of noticing the beauty of women, with their flashing eyes, firm breasts, hour-glass figures, jingling anklets and all the rest of it. But vighna suggests to me more profoundly, on the basis of my experience, the kind of internal impediment that one is liable to sweep under the carpet. 

When I began this comment by saying I was using the phrase “at first blush” advisedly, I was thinking of my own habitual nervousness about a  nervous impediment, as used to be manifested in spectacular form by the chronic blushing from which I suffered 40 years ago. Blushing is in itself a kind of nervousness. Chronic blushing is caused by nervousness about becoming nervous – a positive feedback loop that I experienced many times as a teenager, for which the alcohol in beer proved an effective if temporary remedy.

Nowadays similarly, when I get nervously agitated in response to the sound of a car engine or another external source of noise, the car engine or other source of noise does not give two hoots. But if I start worrying about my own nervous agitation, the nervous agitation which is worry is a more serious impediment than the external noise is, because of the positive feedback problem. 

What Aśvaghoṣa is implicitly expressing at the end of the present canto, as I read it, is his own confidence, as a veteran practitioner, that for him, in  marked contrast with the youthful Mike Cross, there are no such impediments, without or within. 

The punchline of today's verse, then, brings to mind Dogen's assertion in his rules of sitting-zen for everybody that
The universal law is realized, and nets and cages never get a look in.

Again, when a Chinese Zen master of ancient times was asked, “What is the mind of an old buddha?” he answered, “Fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles.” He didn't mention chainsaws, helicopters and airplanes, or any other loud noise that is liable to stimulate an immature auditory Moro reflex.

A few years ago a veteran meditator in the Tibetan tradition named Matthieu Ricard was placed in a MRI scanner and it was observed that he was incredibly adept at not reacting when researchers endeavoured to stimulate his startle reflexes with sudden loud noises. So here, supposedly, was evidence that many hours of meditation practice can endow a person with great powers of inhibition at the deepest levels of brain functioning.

The test would have been more truly scientific, methinks, if MR's reflexes had been tested before he started practising sitting-meditation.

My suspicion is that MR, like my own teacher Gudo Nishijima, but unlike the likes of me and my brother, was congenitally "strong to noise." 

In any event, for people who are suffering from impediments, one approach is to remain hopeful of eradicating impediments, and another approach is see an impediment as an impediment.

In the former approach, the meaning of vināśa, “utter loss (3.59; 3.62) is the eradication of all impediments, either by becoming fully enlightened or by dying in the clinical sense. In the latter approach, to sit noticing that the sound of a revving engine is causing one to feel mildly sea-sick, and at the same time bloody angry, might be the best one can do, for the present, in the area of utter loss.

So my own tentative conclusion, for the present, when it comes to impediments and nervousness thereabout, is to take comfort from what the Buddha tells Nanda about practising in accordance with one's own strengths and weaknesses, viz:
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. // 16.52 //

Sitting early yesterday morning I was much bothered by the sound of my neighbour's car engine warming up, for more than 30 flaming  minutes! Today, in accordance with the ancient teaching, while the engine revved, I placed over my ears a pair of aply named "Goldring" noise reduction headphones that I bought a couple of years ago from £59.99 very well spent. 

varāṅganā-gaṇa-kalilam (acc. sg. n.): filled with bevies of beautiful women
varāṅganā: f. a beautiful woman
vara: mfn. " select " , choicest , valuable , precious , best , most excellent or eminent among (gen. loc. abl. , or comp.)
aṅganā: f. " a woman with well-rounded limbs " , any woman or female
gaṇa: m. a flock , troop , multitude ;
kalila: mfn. mixed with; full of , covered with ; n. a large heap , thicket , confusion
nṛpātmajaḥ (nom. sg. m.): the self-begotten of the ruler of men; the son of the king

tataḥ: ind. then
balāt: ind. (abl.): " forcibly , against one's will , without being able to help it " ;
vanam (acc. sg. ): n. wood, forest
atinīyate = 3rd pers. sg. passive ati- √ nī: to lead over or beyond
sma: (particle indicating past)
tat (acc. sg. n.): that
varāpsaro-vṛtam (acc. sg.): full of choicest nymphs
vara: mfn. " select " , choicest , valuable , precious , best , most excellent or eminent among (gen. loc. abl. , or comp.)
apsaras: f. celestial nymph
vṛta: mfn. concealed , screened , hidden , enveloped , surrounded by , covered with (instr. or comp.); filled or endowed or provided or affected with (instr. or comp.)
alakādhipālayam (acc. sg.): the dwelling of a king of Alaka
alaka: m. N. of the capital of kubera (situated on a peak of the himālaya inhabited also by śiva)
kubera: the god of riches and treasure (regent of the northern quarter which is hence called kubera-guptā diś)
adhipālaya: the dwelling of a ruler; a palace
adhi-pa: m. a ruler , commander , regent , king.
ālaya: m. and n. a house , dwelling

nava-vrataḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. one who has recently taken his vow ; being young in practice
nava: mfn. new , fresh , recent , young , modern ; m. a young monk , a novice
vrata: n. will , command , law , ordinance , rule ; obedience , service ; a religious vow or practice , any pious observance , meritorious act of devotion or austerity , solemn vow , rule , holy practice ; any vow or firm purpose
muniḥ (nom. sg.): m. a saint , sage , seer , ascetic , monk , devotee , hermit (esp. one who has taken the vow of silence)
iva: like
vighna-kātaraḥ (nom. sg. m.): being discouraged in the face of an obstacle, being nervous about hindrances
vighna: m. a breaker , destroyer ; an obstacle , impediment , hindrance , opposition , prevention , interruption , any difficulty or trouble
kātara: mfn. cowardly , faint-hearted , timid , despairing , discouraged , disheartened , confused , agitated , perplexed , embarrassed , shrinking , frightened , afraid of (loc. or inf. or in comp.)

iti: thus
buddha-carite mahākāvye (loc.): in the epic story of awakened action
saṁvegotpattiḥ: becoming flustured, arising of alarm
saṁvega: m. violent agitation , excitement , flurry ; desire of emancipation
utpatti: f. arising , birth , production , origin
nāma: ind. by name
tṛtīyaḥ sargaḥ (nom. sg. m.): 3rd canto

靈禽雜奇獸 飛走欣和鳴
光耀悦耳目 猶天難陀園 



gniz said...

This was a very interesting commentary to me, Mike.

I have often been frustrated by the sense that the will to truth, or my will to engage in practice, is very much out of my control.

I once told my teacher that it felt like I was being pulled out to sea by a current, and could not quite swim back to shore. Knowing I am drifting, but unable to seem to correct the situation, feels very frustrating.

My teacher indicated that this process of "drift" and then coming back and then drifting again, is simply the way it is.

When I asked why, he wasn't very inclined to give a direct answer, but that it was an accumulation of years and perhaps even centuries of unconsciousness that are by far the biggest part of our experience, and thus, continually pull us back to the sludge of unconsciousness over and over again...

Whatever the case, I find the impediments to practice unduly frustrating. I know that my frustration with my own limitations only compounds the issue...but still...I keep thinking its going to change some day. And I am still waiting.

Mike Cross said...

A fish joins the Rinzai Sect and is given the koan "Show me your original face." After several years facing the wall, he goes back to his master to express his answer, but before he can open his mouth, he gets a hefty whack across the gills. Downcast, he swims back to his zafu. Shoulders hunched and frowning, all he can say, as he returns to facing the wall, is "DAM!"