Wednesday, July 10, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 6.28: How Can Soft & Hard Co-exist?

vimāna-śayanārhaṁ hi saukumāryam-idaṁ kva ca |
¦⏑⏑⏑−¦¦⏑−⏑⏑¦⏑−⏑−   navipulā
khara-darbhāṅkuravatī tapo-vana-mahī kva ca || 6.28

For where could there co-exist this softness,

Fit for a bed in a palace,

And the ground of the ascetic forest,

Covered with hard blades of darbha grass?

Originally today's verse takes the form of two “where” questions:

For where is this softness, fit for a bed in a palace?
And where is the ground of the ascetic forest, covered with hard blades of darbha grass?

Such use of the two “where” questions, according to a note by EBC, is a common expression (which occurs also in Persian poetry) to imply the incompatibility of two things.

Darbha grass, according to this papercould refer to several varieties of grass, including most notably Desmostachya bipinnata and Imperata cylindrica.

Desmostachya bipinnata is described as a grass that spreads rapidly and continuously re-roots itself. The multiplicity of joints or roots indicates the far-reaching power of the plant.... Botanically it has been found that the roots of D. bipinnata can go as deep as 5 feet until they find subsoil water. It makes the hardiest grass we know. So if we take khara to be hard in the sense of “hardy” D. bipinnata fits the bill.

Imperata cylindrica seems to fit the bill better as a grass with hard blades, given that its margins are described as “finely toothed” and “embedded with sharp silica crystals.” 

Any way up, the important thing to bring out in the compound khara-darbhāṅkuravatī is the hardness expressed by khara, as opposed to the softness expressed by saukumāryam.

Once again, then, Chandaka is asking a rhetorical question, and the ostensible implication of this latest rhetorical question is that the prince's softness and the ascetic forest's hardness cannot be compatible.

Below the surface, however, Aśvaghoṣa's intention might be to encourage us to look in practice for a place where softness and hardness are compatible with, or in harmonious co-existence with, each other.

What, then, in sitting-meditation is hard and what is soft?

I think that, on a good day, most of the work of sitting (is done by what is relatively hard, i.e. by the bony skeleton, and especially by the bones of the legs and pelvis (forming an expanding triangle) and the spine, all ultimately supported by the hardness of the ground. While most of the work of meditating  () is done by what is soft, fluid, open, free from striving, i.e. mind/muscle. That said, within what is soft there might be a bit of what is hard, like determination. And within what is hard there might be a dab of what is soft, like marrow.

So today's verse is another verse in which much more might be being asked below the surface than first meets the eye.

How can soft and hard co-exist? More than thirty years ago, even before I started regular daily practise of sitting-meditation, I was being asked the question in dojos of practice of a martial art known as Go-ju (“Hard-Soft”) Karate. For the past twenty years I have been asked the question in Alexander work, and in particular in the context of being required to move the hands resolutely without stiffening the wrists.

My Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima when he spoke, as he very often did, about balance of the autonomic nervous system, gave the impression that he thought the whole of the Buddha's teaching boiled down to balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic divisions of the nervous system.

This, as I have come to see it, was a reductionist error of the kind which has raised its ugly head more and more in Alexander work, in the 60 years since the death of FM Alexander himself. Alexander teachers who have doctorates in this and that -ology, debate with each other as if their background in the scientific priesthood gave them extra credibility. Perhaps it does give them extra credibility in some people's books. But not in mine. Not recently, anyway. When I was doing my Alexander training I was mightily impressed by a book by an Alexander teacher named Frank Pierce Jones which featured a chapter titled “What is the Mechanism?” FPJ seemed to explain very clearly what I wished to be explained. In retrospect I think my wish for an explanation of what cannot be explained was just an example of the kind of mental hardness, or mental rigidity, which manifests itself in practice, just at the critical moment, in stiffening of the wrists. Nowadays I would say that to think we can explain what the “anti-gravity” mechanism is in scientific terms is not so helpful. It might be an error. It might be a delusion. The true task might be to let the mechanism work, without expecting to understand the workings. If we want to understand anything, the thing to understand might be what hinders the workings of the mechanism – for example, end-gaining and faulty sensory appreciation.

Still, behind Frank Pierce Jones' efforts to get his dirty paws on an explanation of what the mechanism is, there was real experience, under the hands of FM and AR Alexander, of the mechanism actually working in practice. He wanted to explain in terms that might make sense to the scientific community the mechanism of whose working he had been given the experience. So his motivation was good, even if in thinking he could square the circle he was deluding himself.

In a similar way, behind Gudo's desire to explain the vital essence of the Buddha's teaching in terms of the autonomic nervous system, there was clear recognition, born of decades of sitting practice and a lifetime of studying and lecturing on Master Dogen's Shobogenzo, that the vital essence, the standard for the transmission of the Buddha's dharma, was the harmonious co-existence of something soft and something hard, or something yin and something yang, or something passive and something active – and this harmonious co-existence of opposites was called in Chinese 自受用三昧 (Jap: JI-JU-YO-ZANMAI), the samādhi of accepting and using the self.

In between preparing this comment, I have sat for a couple of hours thinking of letting what is hard (e.g. floor and bones) be hard and letting what ought to be soft (e.g. awareness of the vengeful mind; and muscles of eyes, ears, and hands) be soft. It seemed to make for a degree of ease in sitting. Why not give it a try?

vimāna-śayanārham (nom. sg. n.): fit for a palace bed
vimāna: m. chariot of the gods ; the palace of an emperor or supreme monarch (esp. one with 7 stories)
śayana: n. the act of lying down or sleeping , rest , repose , sleep ; n. a bed , couch , sleeping-place
arha: mfn. meriting , deserving ; becoming , proper , fit (with gen. or ifc.)
hi: for

saukumāryam (nom. sg.): n. tenderness , delicateness
su-kumāra: mfn. very tender or delicate ; m. a delicate youth ; m. tenderness
su-kumārāṅga: mfn. having very delicate limbs
idam (nom. sg. n.): this
kva: where?
ca: and

khara-darbhāṅkuravatī (nom. sg. f.): abounding in shoots of thorns and tufty grass
khara: mfn. hard , harsh , rough , sharp ; m. a thorny plant (sort of prickly nightshade or perhaps Alhagi Maurorum) ; m. a quadrangular mound of earth for receiving the sacrificial vessels
darbha: m. ( √dṛbh, to tie in a bunch) a tuft or bunch of grass (esp. of kuśa grass ; used for sacrificial purposes
aṅkura-vat: mfn. abounding in sprouts or buds
aṅkura: m. a sprout , shoot , blade , a swelling , a tumour

tapo-vana-mahī (nom. sg. f.): the ground of the ascetic forest
tapo-vana: the ascetic forest
mahī: f. " the great world " , the earth (in later language also = ground , soil , land , country)
kva: where?
ca: and

太子長深宮 少樂身細軟
投身刺棘林 苦行安可堪 

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