Under the rose-apple tree

Under the rose-apple tree

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Nāgārjuna & Non-Doing

Yesterday on the ferry over to France I browsed through Nagarjuna, Buddhism's Most Important Philosopher, by Richard H. Jones. Finding the book to be much better than I had remembered it being, I thought of contributing on Amazon a review titled “A Step in the Right Direction.”

Last night, having cycled the 12 miles from Flers, in the rain, and lit a fire to warm up the place and air the bedding, I emailed to let my wife know that I had arrived safely.

My wife emailed back:

Hi Mike,
Otsukare sama,
Tiger come back to his den

In reply the purported tiger sent back the following selfie:


Why am I telling you this here? you may wonder.

For a start, on reflection, it occured to me that if I wrote a review on Amazon it wouldn't be out of a sincere desire to help prospective buyers of Richard Jones's book. It would be out of a desire to draw attention to my own efforts. And so this blog might be a better place to keep pursuing the latter agenda.

Second, my wife's email of last night, combined with the greater strength in my centre that I generally feel when I start to sit here by the forest, reminds me exactly what the direction of my own efforts is.


(The sound of a tiger not roaring?)

That those efforts, whether noisy or quiet, have so far not had much in the way of desired effect, was at the forefront of my mind a couple of weeks ago when I wrote to Nelly Ben-Or, an Alexander teacher who, among all the teachers I have known, stands out as being exceptionally clear in regard to the difference between doing and non-doing.

The late Marjory Barlow was another Alexander teacher who was similarly clear. Marjory often quoted the words of her uncle FM Alexander that “When you think you are thinking you are actually feeling. When you think you are feeling you are doing.” 

Lessons with Nelly Ben-Or were an invariably humbling experience in finding out that what one felt was non-doing was usually just another variation on the theme of one's habitual doing.

So the email I sent to Nelly started like this:

Dear Nelly, 
I hope the spring finds you and Roger well.

The translation I have spent the last seven years working on has been published, but nobody seems to have noticed. So far it has only sold two copies, apart from the few I bought myself.

I am afraid that the world is not ready to see the extent to which Alexander really did rediscover the secret of Zen for our time, and this grumpy old sod is not the person to cause everybody to see it -- in spite of your own sterling work.

Maybe if I had somehow included the word "Mindfulness" in the title, that would have been a better marketing ploy for the book -- given the growing popularity of the "mindfulness" movement, according to which people attend dutifully to sensory inputs emanating from their flabby extremities, in a futile effort to be present in a moment that has already passed.

When I go back to the oldest text recording what the Buddha said about mindfulness, what he said was something like, "Causing bodily doing to cease, I will breathe in" -- like this [the monk] trains. "Causing bodily doing to cease, I will breathe out" -- like this he trains.

So the emphasis is on non-doing, and the orientation is forward, into the future.

But everybody thinks the Buddha said, "Calming the breath, I will breathe in"..... 
So a teaching for non-doing, everybody turns into a doing. I wonder if that surprises you....

What I realized while reading Richard Jones's book on the ferry is that Nāgārjuna has really spoken to Richard Jones, over many years, as a philosopher. Richard Jones has clearly put a lot of effort over the years into studying Nāgārjuna's teaching and in return Nāgārjuna has spoken to Richard Jones as a philosopher. This comes through particularly clearly in the essay at the end of the book, titled “Emptiness – The Philosophy of Nagarjuna.” Reading that essay yesterday, I thought that in its own terms it was not bad. As philosophy, it was a step in the right direction.

When I first obtained Jones's book last summer, my first impression was that I wanted to ask for my money back. So reading that essay yesterday caused me to revise my opinion from “waste of bloody money” to “step in the right direction.”

The basis of the “waste of money” view was Jones' translation of MMK26.10:

Thus, the one who is subject to the root-ignorance forms the dispositions that are the basis of the cycle of rebirths. Therefore, the one who is ignorant is the one who forms a new rebirth, not the one who knows by seeing reality.

Jones (2010) thus followed Kalupahana (1986) in translating saṁskārān... saṁskaroti as “forms dispositions" -- whatever the hell that means. 
Thus, the ignorant one forms dispositions that constitute the source of the life process. Therefore, it is the ignorant who is the agent, not the wise one, because of his [the latter's] perception of truth.

Cf Michael Luetchford (2002):
Hence the ignorant produces the roots of saṁsāra, formings. From this the ignorant is the agent, not the wise, because of seeing reality.
Cf also Sideris & Katsura (2013):
Thus does the ignorant one form the volitions that are the roots of saṁsāra. The ignorant one is therefore the agent; the wise one, having seen reality, is not.
Cf also Garfield (1994), from the Tibetan:
The root of cyclic existence is action. Therefore, the wise one does not act. Therefore, the unwise is the agent.This wise one is not because of his insight.

These translations (in chronological order) of Kalupahana, Garfield, Luetchford, Jones, and Sideris & Katsura, do not speak to me of non-doing. 

These words of Nāgārjuna, in contrast, do indeed speak to me of non-doing.
saṁsāra-mūlaṁ saṁskārān avidvān saṁskaroty ataḥ | 
avidvān kārakas tasmān na vidvāṁs tattva-darśanāt ||26.10|| 
The doings which are the root of saṁsāra thus does the ignorant one do. 
The ignorant one therefore is the doer; the wise one is not, thanks to seeing reality.
Going still further in the direction of non-doing, tattva-darśana can be translated not only as “seeing reality” but also as “reality realizing itself”:
The doings which are the root of saṁsāra thus does the ignorant one do. The ignorant one therefore is the doer; the wise one is not, thanks to reality realizing itself.
It occurred to me on the ferry that Nāgārjuna for many years has been speaking to Richard H. Jones as my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima would have enjoyed talking to a person who was not interested in sitting-Zen practice, but was interested in philosophy.

If that person who was interested in philosophy subsequently wrote a book about Gudo Nishijima's philosophy of action, action being in the middle way between the two polar opposite views of idealism and materialism, such a book might be a step in the right direction. 

It occured to me that I ought to see Richard H. Jones not so much as a competitor in the Nāgārjuna translation market as somebody who is aiming to cater to a different niche in the market from the niche I am aiming at. 

The back cover of Jones's book says:
Included here are the translations from the Sanskrit of [Nāgārjuna's] most important philosophical works into plain English, so that the general educated public interested in Buddhism or philosophy can understand his thought.
And so I suppose I sensed a certain integrity there, a certain congruence between back cover and content. But the point I wanted to clarify with this post is that Nāgārjuna speaks to me, the same way that Dogen speaks to me, not primarily of philosophy but primarily of non-doing. My efforts are not directed at the educated or at those interested in Buddhism or philosophy. The point to be clear about -- the last 35 years of sitting practice have caused me to see -- is just non-doing.

"The wise one does not do," does not mean, as Garfield's translation infers, that the wise one does not act. "The wise one does not act" would mean that the wise one did not sit. For anybody who knows Dogen's teachings even a bit, the assertion that the wise one does not sit, as a teaching of a patriarch in Dogen's lineage, makes no sense at all.

The point is that the wise one sits in such a way as to allow the right thing to do itself. The right thing doing itself is, in other words, reality realizing itself.

That's what non-doing means – not that I do it, but that it does itself.

When I, believing in myself, aspire to become enlightened through my practice of sitting-meditation ...
saṁsāra-mūlaṁ saṁskārān avidvān saṁskaroty ataḥ | 
the doings which are the root of saṁsāra thus does the ignorant one do.
avidvān kārakas tasmān na vidvāṁs tattva-darśanāt ||MMK26.10|| 
The ignorant one therefore is the doer; the wise one is not, thanks to reality realizing itself.
I come here to sit by the forest in France because I know from repeated experience over the years that when I sit here the right thing tends easily to do itself. Hence my wife's reference to the tiger returning to its mountain stronghold. She knows because she is a teacher of non-doing in her own right and she has spent not a few hours herself sitting in lotus here by the forest.

The right thing doing itself has got little or nothing to do with me and everything to do with the forest. Being here to experience it happening is a kind of reward. The fact that others, beginning with Gudo Nishijima, have failed to see how FM Alexander re-discovered for our time the non-doing which is the secret of the Zen of Nāgārjuna and Dogen, is a kind of punishment.

It reminds me of a joke I remember Dave Allen telling back in the 1970s about a Catholic priest in Ireland who commited some terrible sin. He confessed to God who told him to go and play a round of golf. Preparing to drive at the first tee, the cleric looked up with trepidation, fearing that he might receive retribution at any moment in the form of a deadly thunderbolt. But far from it. The priest teed off and got a hole in one. The same thing happened for the next seventeen holes. And so at the 18th flag, the father fell down on his knees and expressed to God his bewilderment: "I do not understand, Lord. I have deserved Your wrath and yet You have allowed me to experience this miracle. Is it through Your great mercy that I have escaped punishment?" Then God boomed down: "You have not escaped punishment, my son. Your punishment is that nobody will believe you."

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