nivtya caivābhimukhas-tapovanaṁ bhśaṁ jiheṣe karuṇaṁ muhur-muhuḥ |
kṣudhānvito 'py-adhvani śaṣpam-ambu vā yathā purā nābhinananda nādade || 8.4
And yet, having turned back,
so that he was fronting the woods of painful practice,
Loudly he neighed, piteously, again and again.
However hungry he was, he neither rejoiced at nor partook of,
As before, grass or water on the road.
On the surface a neighing horse is feeling so sorry for himself that he is off his food.
Below the surface the horse's neighing (Skt: aśva-ghoṣa) might be expressing the Buddha's grief for a suffering world. And the Buddha might mean a human being who is no longer a slave to his or her unconscious responses to food and drink.
I am tempted to leave today's comment there. That might look and sound good. But no, fuck that for a game of cards. Here goes with another massively wordy explanation.
Today's verse resonates in my mind with the memory of the bereaved cow whose relentless and piteous mooing I described yesterday. In the years that have intervened since that episode, although I have been a regular buyer at the Intermarche supermarket in Domfront of polystyrene packs marked “boeuf pour bourguignon” or “abats bovine,” especially if that stewing beef or cow's heart and liver is on special offer, I have studiously avoided buying packs marked “abats de veau” (veal offal) at any price.
But setting aside for a moment the feelings today's verse evokes in me personally, the main thing to explain about today's verse might be the autobiographical content it hints at, since what is being described is nothing other than aśva-ghoṣa, a horse's neighing.
When Aśvaghoṣa writes of the horse having turned back (nivṛtya), then, ostensibly he is describing Kanthaka turning around in the road so that Kanthaka's horse's nose is pointing towards the forest where he carried the prince. But as a general rule, formations from ni-√vṛt, to turn back, seem in Aśvaghoṣa's writing never to have only incidental or surface meaning. Rather, they can always be read, below the surface, as pointing us back to the Buddha's exhortation that we should know the path as a turning back.
Comprehend, therefore, that suffering is doing; witness the faults impelling it forward; / Realise its stopping as non-doing; and know the path as a turning back. // SN16.42 //
As one who had turned back, on that basis, Aśvaghoṣa might have realized himself as one who was unable to turn away from the woods of painful practice – as one who, in other words, was always in, or at least was always fronting up to, the woods of painful practice.
Loud neighing, on that basis, might be a pāda of 12 syllables in the Vaṁśastha metre, repeated line after line, and verse after verse.
Piteously, on that basis, might mean “with a heart full of compassion” – karuṇam ostensibly means piteously in the sense of evoking pity (“mournfully, woefully, in distress”) but karuṇam can also means piteously in the sense of being full of pity (“compassionately”).
And not enjoying or taking food and drink as before – i.e. not eating and drinking in a habitual, unconscious manner – might be an obedient response to the Buddha's teaching, as expressed to Nanda at length and in detail at the beginning of SN Canto 14:
And so using the floodgate of awareness to close a dam on the power of the senses, / Know the measure, in eating food, that conduces to meditation and to health. // SN14.1 // For it depresses in-breath and out-breath, and brings tiredness and sleepiness, / When food is taken in excess; it also destroys enterprise. // 14.2 // And just as eating too much conduces to a dearth of value, / So eating too little makes for a lack of efficacy. // 14.3 // Of its substance, lustre, and stamina; of its usefulness and its very strength, / A meagre diet deprives the body. // 14.4 // Just as a weighing scale bends down with a heavy weight, bends upwards with a light one, / And stays in balance with the right one, so does this body according to intake of food. // 14.5 // Therefore food is to be eaten, each reflecting on his own energy, / And none apportioning himself too much or too little under the influence of pride. // 14.6 // For the fire of the body is damped down when it is burdened by a heavy load of food, / Like a small blaze suddenly covered with a big heap of firewood. // 14.7 // Excessive fasting, also, is not recommended; / For one who does not eat is extinguished like a fire without fuel. // 14.8 // Since without food there is none that survives among those that bear breath, / Therefore eating food is not a sin; but being choosy, in this area, is prohibited. // 14.9 // For on no other single object are sentient beings so stuck / As on the heedless eating of food. To the reason for this one must be awake. // 14.10 // Just as one who is wounded, for the purpose of healing, puts ointment on a wound, / So does one who wills freedom, for the purpose of staving off hunger, eat food. // 14.11 // Just as, in order to ready it for bearing a burden, one greases a wagon's axle, / So, in order to journey through life, does the wise man utilize food. // 14.12 // And just as two travellers in order to cross a wasteland / Might feed upon the flesh of a child, though grievously pained to do so, as its mother and father, // 14.13 // So food should be eaten, consciously, / Neither for display, nor for appearance; neither to excite hilarity, nor to feed extravagance. // 14.14 // Food is provided for the upkeep of the body / As if to prop, before it falls, a dilapidated house. // 14.15 // Just as somebody might take pains to build and then carry a raft, / Not because he is so fond of it but because he means to cross a great flood, // 14.16 // So too, by various means, do men of insight sustain the body, / Not because they are so fond of it but because they mean to cross a flood of suffering. // 14.17 // Just as a king under siege yields, in sorrow, to a rival king, / Not out of devotion, nor through thirsting, but solely to safeguard life, // 14.18 // So the devotee of practice tenders food to his body / Solely to stave off hunger, neither with passion nor as devotion. // SN14.19 //
Finally, I am no Aśvaghoṣa, but if I know anything I know that my own piteous crying out is bound up with a primitive fear reflex which is known in child development circles as the Moro reflex.
I think the Moro reflex provides the basic mechanism for unfettered human expression of grief, as nature intended. In many if not most ordinary people, the mechanism is to some degree aberrant, i.e. not well integrated, not properly inhibited as nature intended. That being so, we learn to suppress the primitive reflex response by means of compensatory mechanisms, which are themselves liable to be implicated in all kinds of suffering – or else we look to live out our human lives in a cautious or even cowardly manner, in such a way as to avoid stimuli that will trigger the reflex response.
FM Alexander wrote at the end of his second book (Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual):
Hence the necessity of having an understanding of “cause and effect,” primarily, in connexion with the functioning of the organism itself. For it is only after we have solved this problem in the individual that we can safely pass on to the secondary consideration of “cause and effect” in connexion with the problems of everyday life. Only then shall we be justified in asserting that individual reactions to stimuli will be the reactions of a controlled human creature, whose employment of the processes of reasoning in the activities of life prevents the undue and harmful excitement of the fear reflexes and emotions.... [my italics]
Note that FM looked to prevention of the undue and harmful excitement of the fear reflexes and emotions; he was not working towards prevention of excitement of the fear reflexes per se.
The undue and harmful excitement of the fear reflexes and emotions has continued, I am sorry to say, despite 30 years of sitting-zen and 20 years of Alexander work, to be the story of my life. It is 40 years now since I started self-medicating against the undue and harmful excitement, with beer that I brewed in my bedroom. If I had sought professional medical help along the way, I would probably have been prescribed vallium or suchlike. But instead of the medical route, I sought out a more dynamic middle way, through weight training and rugby, then karate, then Zen, then Alexander, then developmental work with reflexes – the last three having continued for the last nearly 20 years one after another and altogether... and none of it has worked as well as I would have hoped. The undue and harmful excitement of the fear reflexes and emotions has continued to be the story of my everyday life.
What it means in my own case is that any grief I feel for a suffering world, or any grief I feel for the loss of my wife's dog, or any emotion that a verse like today's verse might evoke in me, is liable not to be simple but rather to be sophisticated in the sense of being tied up with anger.
In the realm of physical movement, largely thanks to Alexander work I am able to perform certain movements – like going from standing to sitting and back up again, or going from a narrow stance to a wider stance, or doing a prostration on the floor and getting back up again – more simply than most people. In the realm of emotions, however, when it comes to expressing an emotion like grief, I couldn't make any such claim. For me grief is tied up with anger in the same way that for most people simple movements bring with them unnecessary complications, like pulling the head back and arching and narrowing the back.
But what I am nevertheless suggesting, in conclusion, and what I think today's verse might be designed to suggest, is that the poetry of Aśvaghoṣa (whose name might mean “The Horse-Whisperer,” or might mean “Horses' Neighing”) can be read and can be heard as the beautiful expression of the fitting and harmless excitement of the fear reflexes and emotions.
I think this, whether it be through what Alexander called "the work" or what the Buddha called bhāvanā, is what we are working towards. And those of us who are not yet buddhas are working in that direction as works in progress, or bodhisattvas. Though we have not yet emulated the likes of the Buddha or Aśvaghoṣa in defeating Māra for once and for all, what else is there for it, but to front up, as Kanthaka fronted up, to the woods of painful practice?
nivṛtya = abs. ni- √ vṛt: to turn back
abhimukhaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. with the face directed towards , turned towards , facing (with acc. dat. gen. ; or ifc.)
tapovanam (acc. sg. n.): the ascetic grove
bhṛśam: ind. strongly , violently , vehemently , excessively , greatly , very much ; often , frequently
jiheṣe = 3rd pers. sg. perf. heṣ: to neigh , whinny
karuṇam: ind. mournfully , woefully , pitifully , in distress
karuṇa: mfn. mournful , miserable , lamenting ; compassionate
muhur-muhur: ind. now and again , at one moment and at another , again and again
kṣudhānvitaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. afflicted with hunger
anvita: mfn. gone along with ; joined , attended , accompanied by ; having, endowed with
adhvani (loc. sg.): m. a road , way , orbit
śaṣpam (acc. sg.): n. young or sprouting grass , any grass
ambu (acc. sg.): n. water
yathā: ind. as
purā: ind. before , formerly
abhinananda = 3rd pers. sg. perf. abhi- √ nand: to rejoice at , salute , welcome , greet , hail
ādade = 3rd pers. sg. perf. ā- √ dā: " to give to one's self " , take , accept ; to take as food or drink (with gen.)