Saturday, March 2, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 4.91: Seeing & Not Seeing Greatness, In Adherence to Objects & In Regard to Self

māhātmyaṁ na ca tan-manye yatra sāmānyataḥ kṣayaḥ |
viṣayeṣu prasaktir-vā yuktir-vā nātmavattayā || 4.91

I fail to see greatness there,

Where ending is the general rule –

Where there is, on the one side, adherence to objects,

And, on the other, absence of self-conscious practice.

If we follow the ostensible meaning of today's verse, the prince is saying that he does not recognize as great those unenlightened ancient Indian heroes who, not having attained the deathless nectar, remained susceptible to destruction – either through attachment to sensual objects, or due to their own lack of mindfulness as conscious subjects.

The irony that Aśvaghoṣa intends, as I hear him, is that the as-yet unenlightened prince is not able to see the true greatness which exists where destruction/ending (kṣayaḥ) is the general rule – that is, in the practice of destroying faults and ending afflictions.

In the latter reading “adherence to objects” (viṣayeṣu prasaktiḥ) might mean, for example, tending a crop of potatoes from one seed potato to several people's dinner plates; or watching a stick of incense burn down to the end; or attending to the air being breathed in through the nose.

And “no practice with self-regard” (yuktir nātmavattayā) might mean, for example, making a breakfast with somebody else's enjoyment in mind; or sitting in such a way that one's own body and mind spontaneously drop off.

In the following words that the Buddha says to Nanda, objects to adhere to might be acts of moving, staying at rest, and standing; other objects of adherence might be water, fire, and corn:
As long as the intention of moving is there, one mobilizes for the act of moving; / And with the intention of staying at rest there is an act of staying at rest; with the intention of standing, likewise, there is standing up. // SN12.32 // When a man has confidence that there is water under the ground / And has need of water, then, with an effort of will, here the earth he digs. // 12.33 // If a man had no need of fire, nor confidence that fire was in a firestick, / He would never twirl the stick. Those conditions being met, he does twirl the stick. // 12.34 // Without the confidence that corn will grow in the soil he tills, / Or without the need for corn, the farmer would not sow seeds in the earth. // SN12.35 //
Again, in the following words that the Buddha says to Nanda, “absence of practice with self-regard” (yuktir nātmavattayā) might be called in other words doing what can be done for others:
Therefore forgetting the work that needs to be done in this world on the self, do now, stout soul, what can be done for others. / Among beings who are wandering in the night, their minds shrouded in darkness, let the lamp of this transmission be carried. // SN18.57 //
Today's verse, then, as I read it, causes us to consider what greatness might be, on the one side, in terms of attitude towards objects and, on the other side, in terms of self-regard of the subject.

In the background, is Aśvaghoṣa real intention that true greatness – which the prince as yet fails to see – resides in the dynamic interaction between subject and object?

In “true Buddhist theory” as Gudo Nishijima taught it to me, what is truly great is the union of subject and object in action, and the supremely great action is the act of sitting upright in the full lotus posture.

Therefore Dogen famously wrote:

Practise full lotus sitting with the body.
Practise full lotus sitting with the mind.
Practise full lotus sitting as body and mind dropping off.

As mentioned in a recent post, during the 1980s, I was all ears for Gudo Nishijima's outlining of the progress of Western philosophy, culminating in the dialectic idealism of Hegel, and the dialectic materialism which Karl Marx opposed to it.

The connection to today's verse is that Hegel's dialectics can be understood as a dialectics of the thinking subject, whereas Marx's version is a dialectics of material objects.

In Gudo's version of dialectic Buddhism, Hegelian dialectic idealism constituted a thesis, to which Marxist dialectic materialism constituted the anti-thesis, and Gudo's “philosophy of action” constituted a new synthesis. In Gudo's synthesis, subject and object are joined in the reality of the action, that real action being totally separated from thinking, which is not real.

During the same decade of the 1980s, it turns out, George Soros was working out his own new synthesis, centred on the concept of reflexivity. In the epilogue to his The Alchemy of Finance (first published 1987), Soros writes:
Hegel propounded a dialectic of ideas; Marx turned the idea on its head and espoused dialectic materialism; now there is a new dialectic that connects the participants' thinking with the events in which they participate – that is, it operates between ideas and material conditions. If Hegel's concept was the thesis and Marxism the antithesis, reflexivity is the synthesis.
Thus, the difference between GN's proposed new synthesis and GS's proposed new synthesis centres on whether or not participants' thinking, and the real events in which they participate, are connected in a reflexive manner.

FM Alexander was no great philosopher. He was not interested in abstract philosophy but was concerned in a very practical and concrete way with the moment at which subject meets object. During Alexander's time the Australian cricketer Don Bradman – widely regarded as the greatest cricketer of all time – was batting at his pomp and Alexander cited Bradman's batting (wherein subject, via willow bat, consistently hit objective leather ball) as an example of what Alexander called “thinking in activity.”

Learning “thinking in activity,” I have ventured to submit, is necessary in order to respond to Dogen's injunction
Practise full lotus sitting with the mind.

When I ventured to submit this to Gudo, however, he rejected it in the strongest terms. For him, thinking in sitting-meditation is not a thing to be learned or used. The presence of disturbing thoughts is not to be denied, but thinking is not a thing to indulge in, still less to learn or use.

Since I knew from experience that the work of FM Alexander was true – because it really worked for me, in bringing me back in the direction of balance – I knew that Gudo's response must be wrong. Still, getting the whole thing in perspective has been something I have been struggling with now for nearly 20 years.

George Soros's concept of reflexivity, I must say, seems to work well as an explanation of how Gudo's bias against thinking, and real events in the lives of him and his students, tended to reinforce each other. The same may be true on a larger scale of what is happening under the banner of Zen in some Zen communities in America, with sex scandals and the like, whereby people's Zen views and self-conscious, far-from-equilibrium sitting practice reinforce each other in circular fashion.

Optimistically thinking, sitting practice is so full of merit that as long as Zen devotees continue to sit, their views will drop off, and all will be well.

But such optimistic thinking is always a mistake. It may be the Zen equivalent of the delusion that Soros calls “market fundamentalism.”

For many years I was sustained by a kind of naïve religious belief in the power of sitting. I had the idea that if I just continued to sit sincerely, the truth would come out in the end, just like a market naturally tending back to equilibrium. Part of that naïve belief was that, through the sheer power and truth of his own sitting-zen practice, before his death Gudo would come to his senses, realize that he did me wrong as a partner in the Shobogenzo translation, and somehow make amends – recognizing his mistake, naming me as his successor, and so on, and so forth. My wife encouraged me in this belief with the Japanese phrase 終わりよければ全てよし, owari yokereba subete yoshi, which, roughly translated, means “All's well that ends well” or in other words “It will all come right in the end.” But in fact it did not come all right in the end between me and Gudo. On the contrary, it just kept going more and more wrong. Whatever expectations I had were not fulfilled. Having at an early age placed all my eggs in Gudo's basket I turned out, in the parlance of the financial markets, to be long and wrong. I was like one of those naïve investors who, believing in the efficient markets hypothesis, lost his shirt to George Soros.

In thinking so optimistically about the outcome of what I had invested in Gudo, I made a big mistake – which is no great sin. The great sin would be to fail to learn from it.

To study Aśvaghoṣa's poetry day by day cannot help but alert the reader to the presence of ironies verbal, dramatic, and cosmic. Dogen wrote of sitting with body, with mind, and as body and mind dropping off, but the dialectic of Zen master Gudo was not adequate to cover all three of these bases. Can the reflexivity of money man George, insofar as it connects the sitter's thinking with the reality of sitting in which he is participating, help to supply what Gudo missed? If it turned out to be so, that indeed would be ironic. In any event, I think the question is worthy of further investigation.

The truth may be that reflexivity has not got much to say about body and mind dropping off – an equilibrium situation. But reflexivity might at least provide some useful insight into how, in far-from-equilibrium situations, sitting with the mind can supply negative feedback.

māhātmyam (nom. sg.): n. (fr. mahātman) magnanimity , highmindedness ; exalted state or position , majesty , dignity
na: not
ca: and
tan-madhye (loc. sg.): in the midst of that
tad: ind. there
manye = 1st pers. sg. man: to think, deem, consider

yatra: ind. wherein
sāmānya-taḥ: ind. equally , similarly , according to analogy; in general, generally
kṣayaḥ (nom. sg.): m. loss , waste , wane , diminution , destruction , decay ; end, termination

viṣayeṣu (loc. pl.): m. objects of sense; anything perceptible by the senses , any object of affection or concern or attention , any special worldly object or aim or matter or business , (pl.) sensual enjoyments , sensuality
prasaktiḥ (nom. sg.): f. adherence , attachment , devotion or addiction to , indulgence or perseverance in , occupation with (loc.)
pra- √ sañj : to hang on , attach to (loc.) ; to cling to (loc.) ; to engage with any one (loc.) in a quarrel or dispute
vā: or

yuktiḥ (nom. sg.): f. union , junction , connection , combination ; preparation ; application , practice , usage ; trick , contrivance , means , expedient , artifice , cunning device , magic ; meditation on the supreme being , contemplation , union with the universal spirit
vā: or
vā-vā , " either " -- " or " , " on the one side " -- " on the other "
na: not
ātma-vat-tayā (inst. sg.): f. self-possession , self-regard , prudence

又稱彼勝士 樂著五欲境
亦復同磨滅 當知彼非勝 


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

Not that it matters much, but isn't māhātmyaṁ the accusative of (na) manye?

While I'm here... I've enjoyed reading your longer comments of the last few days.

Some might say that your relentless efforts to examine and honestly clarify the history of your relationship with Gudo for self and others - and to relate them to Ashvaghosha's text - are admirable and useful. Others might say that you're going round in circles, firming up a self-serving narrative that may be well wide of the mark.

But I'm pretty sure you're aware of such views, and others, and so there's no need for me to bother you with one of my own. Not that I don't have a view...sometimes. Your feelings about your relationship with Gudo and your need to write about them are really none of my business. They do make for a very good read though! Thanks.


Mike Cross said...

Thanks Malcolm. Yes I should have glossed māhātmyaṁ as accusative since I opted to follow EHJ's reading of manye -- which EBC's text also has. But the original Nepalese manuscript has tan-madhye (in the midst of that/there), in which case I suppose māhātmyaṁ would be nominative.

The disagreement between Gudo and me was primarily philosophical. If we had let personal and cultural differences be an obstacle, we would never have got as far as we did.

From where I sat, Gudo had a bias against thinking.

From where Gudo sat, it was not permissible for me to have a view that diverged from his own, in the matter of the relationship between thinking and reality.

In the wider scheme of things, what people think about Gudo and me doesn't matter much. It might matter a lot in the kind of Zen where kissig the master's arse in so-called "Sanzen" (and showing him your tits if so requested?) is regarded as the primary thing.

But our study of Shobogenzo was not originally like that, at least in the early days.

For Gudo, to clarify the relationship between thinking and reality was very vital.

In the end, the personal and the philosophical are all entangled. I can't separate the two.

On the personal level, there is no chance of a return to near equilibrium, since Gudo is either dead or no longer compos mentis. But the struggle to clarify the philosophical difference goes on....

Thanks as always for the feedback.

jiblet said...

Yes. Philosophical differences are what you're seeking to clarify, not personal ones. That's what I hear.

"In the end, the personal and the philosophical are all entangled. I can't separate the two." I hear that too.

Thanks for the further clarifications.

Nigel Riley said...

Hi Mike
I am not an expert in philosophy but you may like to take a look at the ideas of The late Francisco Varela in particular his book with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch 'The Embodied Mind'. They are building bridges between mind as a subjective experience and cognitive science using Buudhist psychology with phenomenology and psychoanalysis. It seems to broaden Soros' reflexivity.
Enjoying your posts
Nigel Riley

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Nigel.

What Soros has investigated is the relationship between thinking and reality.

Experts in Buddhist pyschology are the type I generally try to steer clear of!

Soros claims to believe in harsh reality. I find his arguments very persuasive, so far. He seems to be one who practises what he preaches.

But anyway, thanks again. The friendly suggestion is appreciated.