Saturday, February 22, 2014

BUDDHACARITA 9.37: A Reminder to Be Present (Before It's Too Late)

⏑−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Kīrti)
yadā ca garbhāt-prabhti pravttaḥ sarvāsv avasthāsu vadhāya mtyuḥ  |
kasmād-akāle vana-saṁśrayaṁ me putra-priyas-tatra-bhavān avocat || 9.37

And since from the womb onwards,

Death in every situation is poised to strike,

How could his majesty who holds his son dear,
being there present,

Say that my giving myself to the forest was ill-timed?

An Alexander guru I was privileged to know named Marjory Barlow used to speak of “pulling the head back into the past.” At the centre of Marjory's teaching, there again, was the principle of not being afraid of being wrong. Rather, Marjory would sometimes recommend deliberately doing the wrong thing, like pulling the head back, better to understand what the wrong tendency was, and then to stop doing it.

Some of these verses about a king who holds his son dear, when I pull my head back into the past and reflect on these verses in light of past experience, are very close to the bone. To understand why I say that, you would have to understand not only the secret meaning of a verse like today's verse but also the gory details of the history of my relationship with my own Zen guru, “my benevolent father in Zazen,” as I used to call him, like a right religious twit. 

But, no. “Head FORWARD and UP,” as Marjory used to say.

I am writing this from a house in middle England, not from my preferred location by a forest in France. Still, even here, beneath too many light aircraft for the comfort of my ear, the odd tree exists. The odd tree is here present, with birds singing in its branches. From high up, the land around here looks all green, and covered with many trees – the same seems to be true, judging from Google Maps, of much of even London.

Right now I have no choice but to be here. I can't click my fingers and magically be beamed up, Scotty, to a forest in France. But I do have a choice, as I sit here, of how to sit. Fundamentally the choice boils down to the dichotomy that FM Alexander called “end-gaining” vs “attending to the means-whereby principle,” or to what in Zen philosophy might be called “trying to make a mirror” vs “being content to polish a tile.”

I regret the years I spent, before I came across the teaching of FM Alexander, reading and translating Zen philosophy about mirrors and tiles, without understanding what the dichotomy meant in actual sitting practice.

The difference in actual practice has to do with (a) pursuing “good posture” on the basis of delusory thinking and feeling, and (b) allowing nature to work, or to flow.

Yesterday I gave a first Alexander lesson to a bloke who reminded me a lot of myself 20 years ago, in terms of the wrong conception I had of "good posture." At the end of the lesson, my pupil felt that I had changed his orientation into that of a mountain gorilla, which is how I also felt in my early Alexander lessons, when the Alexander teacher stopped me from pulling my head back as grossly as I had been acccustomed to pulling the head back. 

Thus the words vana-saṁśrayaṁ me “my giving myself to the forest,” suggest to me on one level the effort to cycle my bike from the ferry port of Ouistreham to a bolthole by the Foret D'Andaines in southern Normandy. But equally those words vana-saṁśrayaṁ me “my giving myself to the forest,” suggest the effort to sit in such a way, as described yesterday, that when I direct my spine to lengthen, this direction is not achieved by sacrificing separation where I wish to enjoy more rather than less separation, not least at the atlanto-occipital joint where the head sits (poised or otherwise) on top of the spine. Vana-saṁśrayaṁ me “my giving myself to the forest,” can be understood, in other words, as expressing the principle of non-doing as opposed to doing, the principle of letting nature work as opposed to trying to be right, the principle of allowing the head go forward and up, as opposed to pulling the head back and down. 

How, in actual sitting practice, does one realize this letting, or this allowing? Primarily just by being present. Not by doing something different but by being somehow different. By being somehow more truly present. But you have to understand what that means. It is no use simply trying to be present. You have to understand what to be present to. Nothing will help you more in that regard, if you don't understand already , than an Alexander lesson with a teacher who knows the score.

Even if you think you do understand already, insofar as you lack Alexander experience, I bet you don't. My Zen teacher formally transmitted his Dharma to a whole bunch of people who didn't have a clue. But perhaps this was only natural given that, in the matter of good posture, he himself didn't have a clue.

In the 4th pāda of today's verse (in the 3rd line, regrettably, of the above translation) tatra-bhavān is, according to the MW dictionary a respectful title given, chiefly in drama, to absent persons. The MW dictionary translates as "Your Honour there”; EHJ as “His Majesty”; and PO as “His Lordship.”

In Aśvaghoṣa's writing, however, the unobtrusive everyday words tatra (“there”) and bhavat (“being” or “present”) sometimes punch far above their apparent weight and today's verse, as I read it, might be one such example, so that tatra-bhavat, “one there present,” or “being there present,” is another phrase whose secret function might be to remind us how – while Death stands before us like an enemy with sword upraised – to wish to truly be.

yadā: ind. since
ca: and
garbhāt (abl. sg.): m. the womb
prabhṛti: ind. (after an abl. adv. or ifc.) beginning with , from--forward or upward , since
pravṛttaḥ (nom. sg. m): purposing or going to , bent upon (dat. loc. , or comp.)

sarvāsu (loc. pl. f.): all
ava-sthāsu (loc. pl.): f. state , condition , situation
vadhāya (dat. sg.): m. the act of striking or killing , slaughter , murder , death , destruction
mṛtyuḥ  (nom. sg.): m. death

kasmāt: ind. where from? whence? why? wherefore?
akāle (loc. sg.): at a bad time, at a wrong time
vana-saṁśrayam (acc. sg.): m. resort to the forest
saṁ- √ śri: to join together with , furnish with (A1. " to join one's self or connect one's self with ") ; to join or attach one's self to , go for refuge or succour to , resort or betake one's self to , cling to for protection , seek the help of
me (gen. sg.): my

putra-priyaḥ (nom. sg. m.): who holds his son dear
tatra-bhavān (nom. sg. m.): " Your Honour there " , (chiefly in dram.) respectful title given to absent persons
bhavat: lit. " the gentleman or lady present "
avocat = 3rd pers. sg. aorist vac: to speak , say , tell , utter , announce , declare , mention , proclaim , recite , describe

處胎漸漸變 分分死更生
一切時有死 山林何非時

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