Sunday, December 15, 2013

BUDDHACARITA 8.57: Anatomy of a Bubble

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−¦¦⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−⏑−   Vaṁśastha
kulena sattvena balena varcasā śrutena lakṣmyā vayasā ca garvitaḥ |
pradātum-evābhyudito na yācituṁ kathaṁ sa bhikṣāṁ parataś-cariṣyati || 8.57

How will a man so proud of his family, character,
strength and shining splendour,

So proud of his learning, prosperity, and power,

A man so up for giving, not for taking:

How will he go around begging from others?

Ostensibly Gautamī in today's verse is giving voice to any mother's fears about a son who is taking to the homeless life of a wandering mendicant.

Below the surface, the first half of today's verse strikes me as a bubble of ambiguous words, which causes me to reflect over and over again about the relationship between words and what they represent, and thence about the relationship between thinking and reality.

Kulena garvitaḥ, for a start, could describe the mind of a person who is comfortable in his own skin and therefore “proud of his family.” This is the ostensible meaning and this is how I have translated kulena garvitaḥ.  But kulena garvitaḥ could also mean, perhaps more literally, “conceited about his own race/tribe.” If we go with the first words given in the dictionary for kula (“herd”) and garvita (“haughty”), we arrive at “haughty about his herd," which does not sound so virtuous at all. So the same words,  kulena garvitaḥ, describe two very different psychological states, one being anchored in reality, the other being a kind of bubble. 

Living in Japan through the 1980s and first half of the 1990s, I witnessed first hand – from fairly close to the centre – the inflating and bursting of the bubble of Japanese arrogance. At this time Japanese racial arrogance, or haughtiness about the herd, even gave itself its own name which was nihonjin-ron, or “Japanese-ism” – a body of philosophy given over to discussing what was so special about the Japanese people that had caused Japan's economy to rise from the post-war ashes to become number one in the world.

As a rule, bubbles inflate because of exactly what Dogen warns against in the 2nd phase of Fukan-zazengi, which is the opening up of a gap between thinking and reality.

Nobody has understood and explained the anatomy of such bubbles, in my book, better than George Soros, with his elucidation of the demonstrable truths of fallibility and reflexivity. 

If the thesis of my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima is that thinking and reality are cut off from each other by an absolute gulf, George Soros's charting of the anatomy of a bubble represents the falsification of, or at least the anti-thesis to, Gudo's thesis.

What relevance has any of this to a bloke who sits?

For one thing, if the bloke who sits is reliant not so much on begging as on savings, the inflating and bursting of bubbles has very real economic and financial consequences.

Through the course of this year, 2013, the price of gold has been going down. And the fundamental reason the price of gold has been on a downward trajectory is that a majority of people have judged that the price is likely to continue going down. When perception eventually changes so that a majority of people judge that the price of gold is likely to keep on going higher, then we are very likely to see the gold price inflate rapidly into a bubble that will eventually burst. In the formation of a bubble as described by George Soros, testing of the downside invariably happens before the bubble forms in earnest, and that testing of the downside has been going on in 2013.

The gold price is a very pure laboratory for observing the relation between thinking and reality, since, ironically, when the price of gold is dropping, people desire it less, and when the price of gold is going up, people desire it more. This is generally true of financial assets – bitcoin being a good current example of the paradox whereby a rising price stimulates demand. But gold is not only a financial asset that is liable to rise and fall rapidly in value depending on how people think about it. It is also a precious metal prized for its shining physical and chemical properties, and its peculiar non-reactivity, so that mud does not tarnish it, and human thoughts and feelings do not bother it one little bit.

As a physical metal, then, gold is spectacularly immune to human thinking. It exemplifies the reality which is "different from thinking." At the same time, as a financial asset gold is demonstrably sensitive to the subtlest changes in expectation, so that, as George Soros has famously said, “gold is the ultimate bubble.”

Against this background, what seems to be going on in the world at present is a kind of tug of war between gold as a financial asset (paper gold) whose price is very sensitive to the expectations and behaviour of short-term financial speculators, and gold as a physical metal which people in China with a longer-term view are taking into their possession in ever larger quantities as a vehicle for their savings. When it becomes clear that the buyers of physical gold (mainly in China) are going to win this tug of war with Western sellers of paper gold, then, some commentators foresee, gold will enter its bubble phase in earnest. 

I understand politics even less well than I understand economics and finance, but this tug of war between buyers of physical gold and sellers of paper gold derivatives may be part of what has been called the New Great Game

More fundamentally, for a bloke who sits, rule number one, or at least rule number two, as enumerated in Dogen's instructions for how to sit, is not to allow thoughts and words to inflate in one's own mind a bubble of intellectual conceit, so that one's head pierces the clouds but one almost completely lacks the vigorous road of getting the body out.

To have understood what Dogen meant by this metaphor might be a kind of enlightenment. There again, thus to think that one has understood might be a kind of intellectual conceit. It might be the kind of intellectual conceit that blinds one to the true role in sitting of thinking, or non-thinking – thinking, but not what people understand by thinking.

In conclusion, then, the being proud (garvitaḥ) which Gautamī describes in today's verse can be understood to be the enemy of balance, an aberration which does not show itself in nature except in psychological bubbles inflated by human thinking. Since Gautamī is here describing pride as a virtue, however, today's verse gives us pause for thought, about pride and more generally about the relation between, on one side, psychological phenomena like pride and thinking, and, on the other side, reality. 

Is it wise, ultimately, to see the two as being on opposite sides, separated by an absolute gulf? Or is the relation between thinking and reality, even in such a down-to-earth activity as sitting on a round black cushion, always liable to be reflexive, for ill or for good? 

The relation between thinking and the reality of action, it seems to me, on the basis of my more than 30 years of testing out my teacher's teaching, is not so simple as he, in his own little bubble of Japanese arrogance, opined. 

kulena (inst. sg.): n. a herd , troop , flock , assemblage , multitude , number , &c; a race , family , community , tribe ; house ; a noble or eminent family or race
sattvena (inst. sg.): n. true essence , nature , disposition of mind , character ; vital breath , life , consciousness , strength of character , strength , firmness , energy , resolution , courage , self-command , good sense ; the quality of purity or goodness (regarded in the sāṁkhya phil. as the highest of the three guṇas)
balena (inst. sg.): n. power , strength , might , vigour , force
varcasā (inst. sg.): n. ( √ ruc, to shine) vital power , vigour , energy , activity , (esp.) the illuminating power of fire or the sun i.e. brilliance , lustre , light ; splendour, glory

śrutena (inst. sg.): n. anything heard , that which has been heard (esp. from the beginning) , knowledge as heard by holy men and transmitted from generation to generation , oral tradition or revelation , sacred knowledge ; n. the act of hearing ; n. learning or teaching , instruction
lakṣmyā (inst. sg.): f. a mark , sign , token ; a good sign , good fortune , prosperity , success , happiness ; wealth, riches
vayasā (inst. sg.): n. enjoyment , food , meal , oblation ; energy (both bodily and mental) , strength , health , vigour , power , might ; vigorous age , youth , prime of life ,
ca: and
garvitaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. haughty , conceited , proud of (in comp.) (with instr.)
garv: to become proud or haughty

pradātum = inf. pra- √ dā: to give away , give , offer , present , grant , bestow
eva: (emphatic)
abhyuditaḥ (nom. sg. m.): mfn. risen (as the sun or luminaries) ; engaged in combat ; arisen , happened ; elevated , prosperous
abhyucitaḥ [EHJ] (nom. sg. m.): mfn. usual , customary
abhy- √ uc : to like , take pleasure in visiting
na: not
yācitum = inf. yāc: to ask , beg , solicit , entreat , require , implore

katham: ind. how?
sa (nom. sg. m.): he
bhikṣām (acc. sg.): f. the act of begging or asking (with √ kṛ , to beg) ; any boon obtained by begging (alms , food &c )
parataḥ: ind. from others
cariṣyati = 3rd pers. sg. future to move one's self , go , walk , move , stir , roam about , wander (said of men , animals , water , ships , stars , &c )

徳備名稱高 常施無所求
云何忽一朝 乞食以活身

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