Wednesday, January 30, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.60: Acting As If Reason Were Absent

yas-tu dṣṭvā paraṁ jīrṇaṁ vyādhitaṁ mtam-eva ca |
svastho bhavati nodvigno yathācetās-tathaiva saḥ || 4.60

Rather, when one man sees another

Who is worn out and riddled with sickness,
not to mention dead,

And he remains at ease in himself, unstirred,

He acts as though his reason were absent.

In today's verse the prince sounds as if he is complaining about the irrational or unreasonable behaviour of those who remain smugly self-assured, even when confronted with the triple terror, instead of awakening the bodhi-mind. But what the prince might really be doing – without realizing it himself – is describing the reality of action which is beyond thinking, as practised and experienced in a one-to-one face-to-face transmission.

The relation that Aśvaghoṣa is picturing in today's verse, then, between one man and another, might be the relation described in the Lotus Sutra as a buddha alone, together with a buddha (唯仏与仏 Jap: YUI-BUTSU YO-BUTSU).

Understood like this, param, "another" (in the singular), and mṛtam-eva ca, rather than mṛtam-eva vā, makes sense. The prince's words, taken literally, are not describing three others, but one pitiful other, who is (1) knackered out from hard exertion over many years, and (2) shot through with faulty sensory appreciation, not to mention (3) busted, defunct, extinct, dead – like a broken wooden dipper.

According to the Lotus Sutra, one such individual, a buddha alone, together with a buddha, is perfectly able to realize that all dharmas are real form.

What Aśvaghoṣa as I hear him is emphasizing in today's verse  albeit in his usual indirect and ironic style – is that this perfect realization is not only a function of the reasoning mind, or the intellect. This perfect realization might be more akin to water flowing downhill, naturally, unconsciously, spontaneously, automatically, the right thing having been allowed to do itself.

This principle of perfect realization, however, since ancient times, has been misunderstood in China and Japan by people prejudiced against the use of reason.

What FM Alexander understood with unparalleled clarity, like a torch shining light after 700 years of Zen darkness, was how human beings might use the supreme inheritance of our conscious, reasoning mind to guide and control that flow which is natural, unconscious, spontaneous. Thus was it suggested that FM Alexander “re-discovered the secret of Zen for our time.”

“Think that which is beyond thinking,” exhorted Dogen. This exhortation, as anybody knows who has ever dabbled in Zen, points to the realm beyond thinking. What tends to be overlooked, including by my own teacher Gudo Nishijima, is that Dogen's imperative includes, in the first instance, the imperative: Think!

Think! Use reason in order to enter and experience the reality of action in which reason may appear to have become obsolete!

In the above sentence, appear is the operative word.

The generally unreliable Chinese translator translated the 4th pāda as 是則泥木人 "he is just a person of clay and wood.” Insofar as “a person of clay and wood,” suggests a non-emotional practitioner who is not particularly bothered by thoughts and feelings, the phrase conveys something of the original sense; it is like those descriptions in Chinese Zen of old drills with black beads for eyes and bamboo pipes for nostrils. But the Chinese translator would have been closer to Aśvaghoṣa's original if he had written not 是則, which expresses identity, but rather , which expresses likeness.

What Aśvaghoṣa as I hear him is suggesting is that the buddha who remains at ease in himself and unstirred acts as though his reason were absent. Aśvaghoṣa is not saying that in buddha-action reason has ceased to operate; still less is he saying that buddha-action is irrational or unreasonable.

When England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003, in England's final attack of the match against Australia, Matt Dawson could easily have passed the ball out to Johnny Wilkinson for a longer range drop goal attempt. But instead of that Dawson gained an extra few yards by making the seemingly instinctive dart practised thousands of times in his career as a scrum half. Then Martin Johnson, apparently without needing to pause for thought, picked up the ball and set up another ruck so that Dawson could get back to his scrum half position. Dawson then safely passed the ball out to Wilkinson who duly put the ball between the posts for the World Cup-winning score.

A spectator watching the well-practised actions of Dawson and Johnson might say that those actions looked instinctive, natural, spontaneous – in short, those actions looked as if reason was absent from them. But when Matt Dawson and Martin Johnson spoke about the World Cup after the event, it transpired that one of the guiding principles in the training sessions had been the practise of T-CUP, standing for Thinking Clearly Under Pressure.

The first stage of sitting-meditation, as Aśvaghoṣa describes it, is a state characterized by thoughts and ideas – a state, in short, in which reason is manifestly operating. In the second of the four stages of sitting-meditation which Aśvaghoṣa enumerates, thoughts and ideas have subsided like waves which were previously causing disturbance in a body of calmly-moving water, and the practitioner enjoys a profound sense of joy. In the third stage, however, even this joy is recognized as a fault, because of the tendency that joy has to turn into its opposite. Joy thus gives way to a still deeper sense of ease. But in the fourth stage, even this ease is recognized as a subtle interference and consequently dropped off.

Now in this description, as I read it, reason is operating not only in the first stage of sitting-meditation. Reason is also operating in the recognition of faults at successive stages of sitting-meditation. This recognition of faults belongs to what FM Alexander called “thinking in activity” and it is akin to what the 2003 England rugby team called Thinking Clearly Under Pressure.

Learning to sit in such a way as to allow spontaneous flow means learning to sit as though reason were absent (yathācetās-tathaiva). This, ironically, means learning how to use reason, learning how to think.

It is a very different process from the way I was taught to sit by my teacher.

Dogen asked us to ask ourselves: Just in the moment of sitting, what is sitting?... Is it thinking?

Gudo's answer was a resounding: NO!

And as a word, Gudo's answer was correct.

Sadly, however, Gudo failed to understand the question.

Should I have done a better job in helping him to understand the question? Of course I should have, if only I had been less emotionally reactive and more in touch with my own reason, not to mention stronger and braver and quicker on the uptake.

If you have followed my argument this far, you will be able to see why I regard today's verse as a particularly meaningful one.

Otherwise, it may be natural for you to understand today's verse as it has been understood hitherto, by scholars who are not particularly interested in what role reason might have to play in sitting-meditation. In that case, today's verse is simply the whinging of a prince who is criticizing others for their lack of rationality.

yaḥ (nom. sg. m.): (correlative of saḥ) [he] who
tu: but
dṛṣṭvā = abs. dṛś: to see, behold
param (acc. sg.): m. another (different from one's self) , a foreigner , enemy , foe , adversary

jīrṇam (acc. sg. m.): mfn. old , worn out , withered , wasted , decayed
vyādhitam (acc. sg. m.): mfn. afflicted with disease , diseased , sick
mṛtam (acc. sg. m.): mfn. dead , deceased , death-like , torpid , rigid ; departed , vanished (as consciousness) ; vain , useless ; calcined , reduced (said of metals)
eva: (emphatic)
ca: and

svasthaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. self-abiding , being in one's self (or " in the self " Sarvad. ), being in one's natural state , being one's self uninjured , unmolested , contented , doing well , sound well , healthy (in body and mind) , comfortable , at ease
bhavati = 3rd pers. sg. bhū: to become, be ; exist , be found , live , stay , abide , happen , occur
na: not
udvignaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. shuddering , starting , frightened , terrified ; sorrowful , anxious , grieving for (an absent lover)

yathā: ind. (correlative of táthā) in which manner or way , according as , as , like
acetāh (nom. sg. m.): mfn. imprudent, unconscious , insensible.
táthaiva: ind. exactly so , in like manner
saḥ (nom. sg. m.): he

是則泥木人 當有何心慮
[Relation to Sanskrit tenuous] 


Rich said...

Thanks Mike, enjoyed your explanation and it certainly gives something to 'think' about.

In your example of the Rugby World Cup the practice of T-CUP was in the training sessions. On the field they just do it. The line between thinking/reason and action is blurry but in general I'd say the tendency is too much time on the thinking/reason side.

You said 'Think! Use reason in order to enter and experience the reality of action in which reason may appear to have become obsolete!'

Sometimes with a break in the action thinking/reasoning is useful.

And I agree with Alexander 'use the supreme inheritance of our conscious, reasoning mind to guide and control that flow which is natural, unconscious, spontaneous. ' but I associate him more with 'power of positive thinking crowd' although don't really know him.

Rather, when one man sees another

Who is worn out and riddled with sickness,
not to mention dead,

And he remains at ease in himself, unstirred,

He acts as though his reason were absent."

In the face of horror and suffering trying to reason your way out of it doesn't work so he suspends his reason because that's the best he can do.

Mike Cross said...

What line of business did you say you were in, Rich?

Rich said...

I'm in the business of trying to live -) and that involves sitting, sports, real estate, and just trying to help the situation.

Mike Cross said...

Real estate, eh? Sounds interesting!

Do you actually buy and sell property? Or is it more a question of arranging viewings?

Rich said...

Just buy and sell. I read your About Me, are you an Alexander Teacher or a school teacher or ?

Mike Cross said...

Main job is parking my arse on a round black cushion and really owning real estate.

Your views are all worthless, Rich, and I am not buying.

Rich said...

Yea, I don't know anything and neither do you, but I do like Ashvaghosa. Thanks for the translation services.

Mike Cross said...

"Yea, I don't know anything and neither do you"

That is not a view; that is the truth.

"I do like Ashvaghosa"

Me too.

"Thanks for the translation services."

You're very welcome. Thanks for listening.