Thursday, February 28, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.89: Playful Communion with Transient Nature

mtyu-vyādhi-jarā-dharmā mtyu-vyādhi-jarātmabhiḥ |
ramamāṇo 'hy-asaṁvignaḥ samāno mga-pakṣibhiḥ || 4.89

A man whose substance is dying, being ill, and growing old,

Who remains unperturbed while playing around

With others whose essence is dying, being ill, and growing old,

Is as one with the birds and beasts.

In today's verse ostensibly, once again, the prince seems to be looking down on those who have yet to experience that arising of nervous excitement/agitation/perturbation (saṁvegotpatti) which is associated with awakening of the will to the truth. And once again the ironic sub-text that Aśvaghoṣa really has in mind might be a description of those who are already happily participating together in practice of the truth.

In the former reading, the 4th pāda denigrates the unenlightened individual who is dallying about with other unenlightened individuals as someone who is on the same level as animals – as subhuman, if you like.

In the latter reading a man whose substance is dying might mean a man who is not worried about losing his own body and life; a man whose substance is being ill might mean a man who does not deny his own faulty sensory appreciation (aka “sickness of clouded eyes” – see Shobgoenzo chap. 43, Kuge); and a man whose substance is growing old might mean a man who continues year after year to direct his energy in pursuit of peace – for in directed energy, undoubtedly, lie all forms of growth and development (vīrye hi sarva-rddhayaḥ [SN16.98]).

If we read behind the lines, then, with the words mṛtyu-vyādhi-jarā-dharmā Aśvaghoṣa might secretly be intending to describe a buddha as a mature man of clouded eyes who is adept at throwing away his own body and life. As such, alone and together with buddhas, he breathes out and breathes in as part of one big open system.

Speaking of such oneness with the birds and beasts, FM Alexander said:
"When an investigation comes to be made it will be found that every single thing we do in the work is exactly what is done in Nature, where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously." 
This quote relates to the problem of the relationship between thinking and reality which became a bone of contention between my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima and me. Gudo's approach to reality was just to sit in it, keeping the spine straight as an unconscious act. “Thinking” did not come into it, except as a symptom of temporary ascendancy of the sympathetic nervous system over the parasympathetic nervous system – as something that should be stopped, negated, cut out, by returning to the act of keeping the spine straight. The point was to realize the reality of action, that action being “different from thinking.” And the central point of all Buddhist philosophy, as Gudo saw it, was the gap between thinking and reality.

I am caused to reflect on this problem again not only by today's verse but also by a book titled The Alchemy of Finance that I have just started reading. The book expresses the formative thinking of George Soros, the philanthropic philosopher and billionaire fund manager.

What strikes me straight away, on first browsing, is that George Soros and my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijma were each claiming back in the 1980s (as far as I know quite independently of each other) to have resolved the conflict between Hegelian dialectic and Marxist dialectic, via a new synthesis.

Gudo called his synthesis “the reality of action,” this action being “different from thinking” or “totally cut off from thinking.”

Soros saw the synthesis in a dynamic interplay between thinking and reality, in which thinking is a function of reality and reality is a function of thinking. This interplay may involve what Soros calls “reflexivity.”

Though the dissimilarities between George Soros and myself are vast, a couple of similarities at least are that we both studied the philosophy of Karl Popper while at university (Soros from the man himself, me more superficially by reading a couple of books) and we both admit to having an absurdly inflated inherent sense of our own importance (a kind of messianic delusion that GS has come a lot closer to justifying than I have).

What value there might be in Soros' theory of reflexivity, I do not yet know, not having studied it in earnest, but certainly I do not see any grounds so far on which to falsify it. Gudo's attempted synthesis, on the other hand, having studied it in very great detail, I did falsify, at least to my own satisfaction, nearly 20 years ago now. Or rather I should say that Alexander work falsified Gudo's attempted synthesis for me. Alexander work caused me to see that my former attempts to cut thinking out of the picture were misguided. Trying to cut out thinking did not cause me in sitting to commune more closely with nature; on the contrary, it led my head, heart, and hara to get out of natural alignment with each other.

Whereas Soros has used the financial markets as a laboratory to test his thinking, the laboratory I have used to go wrong in has been the practice of upright sitting. And on the basis of work in this laboratory, I argued long and hard with Gudo, from 1994 onwards, that when Dogen described the secret of sitting-zen as  非思量 HI-SHIRYO, “non-thinking,” Dogen was not pointing to the reality of action which is totally different from thinking, as per Gudo's teaching. Dogen was rather pointing to thinking, but not thinking as people understand it.

In GS's model, thinking has a cognitive or passive function (which reflects reality), and a causative or active function (which can influence reality). In the work of “learning to do it consciously,” both kinds of thinking are vital; hence Alexander's famous phrase “This work is an exercise in finding out what thinking is.” But the latter kind of thinking -- “thinking in activity” – is recognized as something particularly difficult and unfamiliar. Alexander called it the pons asinorum (bridge of asses) of every pupil he had ever met. It certainly proved a bridge too far for Gudo. It is over this bridge, in Alexander's teaching, that we are required to walk, in order to take over where evolution left off, in the matter of using the self, badly or well.

What kind of synthesis, in the end, is embodied by the method of sitting-meditation which the Buddha transmitted? The reality of action which is totally separate from thinking and which transcends feeling? Or a dynamic interplay between thinking and reality in which the practitioner's thinking is conditioned by the reality of sitting, and the reality of sitting is conditioned by the practitioner's thinking?

The Buddha's teaching may requires us, in the final analysis, to see both views as fallacious.

Still, the dynamic interplay model, from where I sit now, seems to me to be the more fertile fallacy. I wish I had been able to read The Alchemy of Finance when it was first published, back in 1987. I wish had been able to recommend the book to Gudo who, ever the realist, would certainly have been prepared to lend an ear to somebody like George Soros whose successful falsification of the efficient markets hypothesis (the central tenet behind “market fundamentalism”) had been evidenced by the making of so much money.

In Gudo's model, when water in a glass is clouded with particles of ash, as long as we refrain from scrambling the water by thinking, the ash will drop to the bottom of the glass and the water will become clear.

In the more dynamic model, a body of calm, clear water is flowing steadily downhill. Thinking is liable to disturb or interfere with the flow, as waves would disturb the main body of flowing water. At the same time, the flow of the main body of water, while it is primarily a manifestation of release of gravitational energy according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, may in some mysterious way be influenced by thinking to flow not in that direction but rather in that one. And again, when the main body of water is flowing spontaneously in the right direction, it may be that the kind of thinking that creates interference is in some way inhibited by the strong and steady flow of direction.

So in the latter model waves of thinking disturb the reality of flowing water; conversely, the reality of flowing water may have an inhibitory effect on waves of thinking  which might be why I find it helpful to go and sit by the forest. At the same time, the flow of the reality of the water might be a function of thinking, though not thinking as thinking is generally understood – which is why I left Gudo in 1994 and came to England to investigate what FM Alexander meant by thinking. 

Both models are only models, or analogies. In the final analysis no model is true. And the former model, at a certain stage, even for me, may have been a kind of fertile fallacy. Still, I think the latter model might be closer to what Aśvaghoṣa describes ...
For, just as waves produce disturbance in a river bearing a steady flow of tranquil water, / So ideas, like waves of thought, disturb the water of the one-pointed mind. // SN17.45 //

mṛtyu-vyādhi-jarā-dharmā (nom. sg. m.): one subject to death, disease, and aging; one whose characteristic attributes are dying, sickness, and growing old
dharman: m. bearer , supporter , arranger ; n. (esp. ifc.) nature , quality , characteristic mark or attribute

mṛtyu-vyādhi-jarātmabhiḥ (inst. pl.): with ones who essence is death, disease, and aging ; with ones whose essence are dying, sickness, and growing old
ātman: m. the self ; essence , nature , character , peculiarity (often ifc. e.g. karmātman, &c)

ramamāṇaḥ = nom. sg. m. pres. part. ram: to play or sport , dally , have sexual intercourse with
hi: for ; indeed (often a mere expletive , esp. to avoid a hiatus)
asaṁvignaḥ (nom. sg. m.): unperturbed , without nervous agitation
saṁvigna: mfn. agitated , flurried , terrified , shy
saṁ- √ vij : to tremble or start with fear , start up , run away

samānaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. same , identical uniform , one ; alike , similar , equal to (instr.)
mṛga-pakṣibhiḥ (inst. pl. m): wild beasts and birds
mṛga: m. a forest animal or wild beast ,
pakṣin: m. a bird or any winged animal

非常五欲境 自身倶亦然
而生愛樂心 此則同禽獸


gniz said...

Is a thought different than a taste? Is a taste "right" or "wrong?"

I take a bite of an apple and experience the taste of the apple. I don't mean, "mmm this tastes good." No, just tasting the combination of sweet, crunchy, whatever. The taste itself.

A taste is just something I experience, and so is a thought. My thoughts are not right or wrong. My tasting chicken is not a wrong taste.

I do not see how a thought about reality can explain reality anymore than a taste of an apple can predict the winner of the world cup.

Thoughts are not designed to accurately explain or model truth anymore than I would expect a dog howling to explain why I have to sneeze.

Mike Cross said...

The comment expresses a bias against thinking which is the prevailing wisdom in the Zen that came to America via Japan.

The reflexive relationship might be between this bias against thinking and the actual practice of sitting on a round black cushion.

The existence of such bias in the financial market has enabled George Soros to make billions of dollars.

The existence of such bias in the world of Zen, in contrast, has been of no bloody use to me whatsoever!

Dumb sitting, and the prejudice against thinking, are self-reinforcing -- just as Soros's model predicts.

1 - 0 to GS.

gniz said...

Hey Mike. I don't see a bias against thinking in my comment. Well, maybe there is a little bias... but only because of my reliance on SO MUCH thinking, an overabundance of thinking if you will, throughout my life. My kind of thinking has often got me in trouble...

Thinking is great, for what it is. Thinking leads to verbalization, so it's great and necessary for communicating things.

But it seems rather lousy as a way of describing what something actually IS. Or maybe the problem is that thought is so good at NEARLY describing something, while still actually not doing the job at all...

For instance, even as I've spun this web of words and thoughts around my view of thought's inability to accurately describe reality, I am believing that I have described something accurately...through, you guessed it--my thoughts!

It is a merry go round, isn't it? I believe that my description, using words, has told me something about life, about how my mind and body works. Some part of me agrees with the words floating, disembodied in my consciousness. Some part says "Yes, that sounds right old chap."

But is it right? You would say, "fuck no. it's bollocks." And you'd me more right than me.

Round and round we go.

Mike Cross said...

The problem under discussion, Aaron, is the relationship between thinking and reality, reality and thinking.

The view on the subject at which you already seem to have arrived is rendering you deaf to my words.

No more comments, please, Aaron. If you've got energy to spare, why don't you read or listen to what George Soros himself has to say about reflexive relationships between thinking and reality?