A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
— William Blake
I've been keeping J. Bronowski's published lectures, The Visionary Eye, next to my bed and taking it in a chapter at a time or until my eyelids get too heavy. After approaching it with much good will, I have to say that I don't find very much inspiring in his ideas. Mind you this is not to say that I don't find it interesting to see how a theoretical mathematician and scientist can come to claim the arts as part of his vision of the universe. Even if his book does nicely promote the necessity of visual imagination for the sciences, at least in their more creative aspects, he scarcely succeeds in healing the divide between what C.P. Snow called The Two Cultures. That's the problem Bronowski proposed to solve, and apparently believed he did solve.
Laying that aside, I do commend him for what he says about the just-quoted words of Blake. North Americans, as Bronowski points out, have to be aware that Blake intended a different bird than the one they know as the robin. More to the point, he says Blake is telling us "that to cage a [wild and] living creature is a fundamental outrage" against nature. But further, that as much as it may be about animal welfare, or the level of freedom experienced by tenured academics, it is also and more bluntly about man's inhumanity to man. This is even more clear in the couplets that come immediately afterward in Auguries of Innocence:
A dove house fill'd with doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thro' all its regions.A dog starv'd at his Master's Gate,Predicts the ruin of the State.
The doves here are the poor pigeon-holed functionaries under the control of their superiors. They are made to live lives that are not their own, and are constantly made to feel it. "White collar workers," as they are now known. The dogs are people who are as mistreated as dogs — factory workers, farm workers, household help and the like. I don't know about you, but I've been there. So take no offense when I call them the "dog collar workers." (There are those who think this last term applies only to priests, but they are mistaken.)
It is not very difficult to detect strains of social protest in some of the words of Padampa. For example, he protested women's typical social roles, telling women to "stop slaving for their husbands." This critical attitude of Padampa has been argued for, supplying evidence, in another place.
I would not suggest that Padampa's use of animal imagery is exactly the same as Blake's. And surely Padampa had no experience of those "dark satanic mills" that came with the industrial revolution. We do have our modernists with their exaggerated tendency to draw lines in the sands of times across which meaning is not permitted to cross.
I think for example of modernist theologians who want to do away with the pastoral imagery in Christianity since, they say, it can no longer speak to us. As if when the shepherds have been replaced in our liturgies by union bosses we would get the same message all the more effectively! And then who might the sheep correspond to today? I think the real sheep are the ones who are incapable of imagining why all that pastoral imagery was used in the first place.
Jesus - Orpheus - Good Shepherd - David.
And speaking of shepherds and the like, What sense do you make of no. 6 in the metaphors?
The Root Text: "Consider the actions of this sea captain of a small boat in the mouth of the makara."
The Commentary: "Stuffed into the mouth of the makara — Inexperienced sea captains who haven't first prepared well and who haven't done the checking of the signs get stuffed into the mouth of the makara, this being the very emblem of regret."
(I know it's about sea captains, not shepherds, but Hey, bear with me a moment.)
If we follow the advice of the Root Text and consider what sort of actions this sea captain might be performing, I suppose the answer would be this: Frantically trying every possible method of getting out of the makara's mouth — all those efforts ineffectual, too little too late.
Of course some of you won't have the least idea what a makara is, but it is enough to know that it is a huge and dangerous aquatic creature that threatens ship-borne merchants. You could think of it as a composite of elephant, squid, whale and crocodile. If that is too difficult to visualize, just think of it as a monster of the deep. The oceans hold out to us the prospect of unimaginable wealth. But the makara prevents us from getting it, or from getting it home.
Miniature of a whale and a sailing boat, from a Bestiary, England, 13th century, British Library, Harley MS 4751, fol. 69r. Source: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/ You might not ever stop to think it might not be land until it starts sinking and taking you down with it.
But who is the sea captain? We know that Padampa's own father was a sea captain who brought spices and jewels from distant islands. And we know that sea trade was starting to really take off between south China and eastern Indian ports, and the ports in between, already in the 4th century CE. In Padampa's metaphors he is not being so crass as to talk about his own dad. That said, the fact that his father was a sea captain could help explain why he makes such frequent reference to the sea. It could explain the unusually high proportion of sea turtle metaphors (more on that in another place.)
Here is a nice quote from another text of Padampa's, the Symbolic Speech, the 2nd of a trilogy called The Three Cycles of Symbolic Responses.
As a symbolic way of saying that for the actual practice, if you don't carry through with it, putting on the armor of the preparatory practice is unnecessary, [Padampa] said,— “There is no reason to go along with a sea captain who will not be bringing back the precious substances.” *
*You can check another English translation, if you like, in the new David Molk book, p. 186, which is really quite different. 'Precious substances' translates rinpoché (rin-po-che), which means the really top ticket items — the five most precious kinds of gemstones plus silver and gold.
Later on in the same work,
As a symbolic way of saying that without the guidance of the Lama, you will not find understanding through letters
— Lama Char (Phyar) was making some letters when Dampa said, “When a sea captain relies on the written record about going to the Gold Isle, he doesn't recognize the desired course. You need to travel with the experience of a great sea captain familiar with the seaways.”*
*Compare Molk, p. 187. Even the ordinary sand and stones of the Gold Isle are made of gold according to the legends. Self-help books can be no real help either in seafaring or in meditation.
There is a single word in Tibetan that we can translate both as 'caravan leader' and 'sea captain,' depending on whether the context is land or ocean. That word is depön (ded-dpon), which means 'leader' (a chief who is followed). It is used to translate Sanskrit sārthavāha, which means 'bearer of things of value.' The Tibetan emphasizes the idea of leader, while the Sanskrit leans more toward the meaning of 'merchant' (and not necessarily the merchants' leader!) but it doesn't really matter very much right now, since the whole range of possible meanings is useful to bear in mind.
Not to multipy examples unduly, let's review what I think we know. First of all the caravan or ship leader is an ad hoc leader of a group (typically or archetypically 500) of merchants. He must know the way. She must know about the dangers and how to avoid them. He has to be able to bring home the gold. She becomes leader precisely because of these qualities. And his leadership role comes to an end when the venture or adventure is over. (Yes, I slipped the 'she's in there just to keep that possibility explicitly open, though I haven't yet run across any examples of female sea captains in the Buddhist tales...)
Is it all that surprising, then, that the caravan or sea trading venture leader could be a symbol of the Buddha or the Bodhisattva? Dien (article cited below) quotes from the Ten Grounds Sūtra:
"The wise merchant-chief is like the Bodhisattvas, for he leads and protects great merchants and others so as to pass through a dangerous and difficult road."
In Spiritual Precepts of the All-Good Lama, the chapter on how to follow a spiritual friend starts out:
"No-one can bring back jewels from a treasure island without relying on an experienced navigator. Likewise, a spiritual friend is our true guide to liberation and omniscience, and we must follow him with respect."
We rely on experts in many fields for many different purposes. If there is a leaking faucet we look for a good plumber. And everyone knows it doesn't take long before people start to look a lot like their friends in everything they do. Ethics and the absence of ethics are both contagious. It's true, too, that being near a master of meditation can make meditation so much easier. Like they say, In the sandalwood forests of the Malaya Mountains, every tree has the scent of sandalwood.
The tradition knows all about false teachers, about narrow-minded 'gurus' with exaggerated ideas about their own highly advanced levels of Enlightenment, about mad 'gurus' who merely imitate the behavior of the Siddhas, and sightless guides who in fact do not have qualities that make them any better than their students.
And the tradition is much more aware of the dangers of committing before the investigations have been completed. This verse attributed to Guru Rinpoché (or Padmasambhava) is often quoted from memory:
If the teacher is not examined by the student,
It's like drinking poison.If the student is not examined by the teacher,It's like jumping off a cliff.
People in the 21st century have no grounds for feeling superior to people in the past. They still require help in learning meditation, avoiding psychological pitfalls and so forth, and they still often seek such help in the wrong places.
I have sometimes wondered when and where the following three-fold concept emerged exactly, and didn't come to any conclusion. There is an idea about three types of Bodhicitta (the 'thought of Enlightenment' that defines the Bodhisattva's aspiration), the shepherd, the sea captain and the king. (About the only decent discussion to be found on the web is this one here.)
We may seem to wander aimlessly, so let's turn back to metaphor no. 6, I just hope it starts to make better sense now. If you understand the sea captain to be a Bodhisattva or the kind of spiritual mentor Tibetans know as the Lama — used to translate Sanskrit Guru — that will do just fine. There are those who shudder at the very word 'guru' even though it gets used more and more — and I would add more and more inappropriately — these days. (As in "Wall Street guru," not to mention "repeating the mantra of economic growth.")
Padampa was a very old man meditating in solitude at Tingri Langkor, living off roots and dandelion greens, when people started coming to stay near him. He never intended to found anything, and had no idea while he lived that he would ever be considered the founder of anything. And even though he sometimes used methods that could be considered somewhat shockingly counterintuitive then as now, he always acted out of a motive to help his students on their way to Enlightenment. That's why they came to him. He never promoted psychological dependencies on his person, or even if he did it was a temporary phase instrumental in promoting their freedom.
Look at metaphor no. 29:
The Root Text: When the armor has formed on the chick's body, then injury from the peacock is far off.
The Commentary: 'The chick' and 'formed armor on its body' — At first without any feathers or down, it appears rather blue. For so long as it has grown no down its mother keeps it covered. This is called moulting (nesting?). After its down has grown, it is okay if it isn't covered. Likewise until the student gains independence, the guru's protection is necessary. When able to act independently, it is as if the time of moulting has arrived, and the student is sent off freely.
So that's what I wanted to put forward for now. One thing shouldn't even be necessary to say, but here it is anyway: If you are frightened of charismatic "guru" figures, stay away from them. If you are committed to a spiritual path and feel the need for assistance and guidance, take your time and choose very carefully before making commitments. As with any friendly relationship, you find out if a person is trustworthy by getting to know them gradually. Make sure they're prepared for it. And if you keep a close watch, confidence games will almost inevitably betray themselves before long. That's the "checking of the signs." It has to take place on both sides. This could hold regardless of which religious brand name you follow. And it doesn't matter whether you are comfortable using the Sanskrit word guru for this mentoring relationship or not.
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I was thinking I would try and try again to illuminate the religious and culture-based blind spots for each of the metaphors, starting at the beginning, to try and supply the best help I am able to give that might result in better insights. Overly ambitious, Yes. But I thought I would dig this one out of the comment section and place it here instead.
Well, let me give metaphor no. 1 a try again, in an attempt to answer one of the deceptively small questions from Small Person. The Root Text reads: "Fooled by [its] name and hearing the digging, at that very time the pe-ta abandons its dear life."
A few years ago the word pe-ta sent me running to the most obscure Sanskrit dictionaries to search for any animal name even remotely similar to it. I was thinking that pe-ta is a Tibetanized form of an already Prakritized form of Sanskrit bhadra ('good'), which would have been the 'original' [?] name of the creature.(In Prakrit, which is supposed to be more like 'common' or colloquial language, I believe you would lose the 'r' when it follows another consonant... Some think that literary Prakrit is not a real colloquial language at all, but just a facsimile of one made by dampening or dumbing down the Sanskrit... Today I won't judge either way...)
(It's also interesting to note that Milarepa's sister was named Pe-ta, even if I'm not sure how knowing that can help us, since I know of no explanation of her name even once being proposed. Well, I guess it looks as if it could be a humorous nickname or childhood 'pet' name (such names in Tibetan do sometimes include animal names). One biographer of Milarepa (or a scribe) fixed her name to the more familiar Pre-ta (Sanskrit preta, the hungry ghost). There is a general philological principle that says that the odd or unusual form, the difficult reading, is usually the older and more correct one... It's called by this Latin phrase: Lectio difficilior potior. The more difficult reading is more powerful. Right! We'll bear that in mind.)
(And if PETA is also the acronym of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, we'll take that as a nearly complete coincidence.)
But I have to admit, too, that this understanding of mine came very largely from Padampa and his commentator. I didn't really have a source to verify it. But then eventually, when I was excited to find (thanks to a reference in a marvelous study by Klaus Karttunen) the evidence of The Small Clay Cart by Śūdraka, I started to change my mind, thinking that bhadra and the word behind pe-ta are two parts of a single name for the moth (not the worm) that occurs in the play: bhadrapīṭha. I may still be changing my mind.(In The Small Clay Cart this moth is sent in by a burglar through a hole he made in the wall so it will put out the night lamp before he goes inside to steal all the valuables..."Sharvilaka_. One may not disregard the sacred wish of a cow and the wish of a Brahman. I will take it. But look! There burns the candle. I keep about me a moth for the express purpose of extinguishing candles. I will let him enter the flame. This is his place and hour. May this moth which I here release, depart to flutter above the flame in varying circles. The breeze from the insect's wings has translated the flame into accursèd darkness."(It's a play with a fascinating plot, but let's run through it somewhere else some other time.)
With either explanation, though, I don't think our ways of understanding the meaning of Padampa's metaphor would be very much altered.
Instead of 'fooled' in Padampa's statement, try translating 'enticed' (it works just as well as a translation of the Tibetan, which could also mean misled, led astray, etc.).
But to try and move closer to that valid and expectable question about what it really means... I think the key lies in the commentary's phye-gtor, 'flour scattering.' This is the Tibetan equivalent of the ticker-tape parade, confetti and fireworks.(Although this is a derivative or secondary meaning, phye-gtor can sometimes be simply translated as 'praise' or 'flattery'.)
I think Padampa's point is that if you have people around you praising you to the sky - 'celebrating' you - for your good qualities, the good qualities will come out and die like the woodworms (the name of the poor creature in fact being bhadra, 'good'). If you have admirers telling you how good you are, you contract spiritual pride and all the spirituality gets tipped into the bin. (Or gets drowned to death in the sweetened milk of their praise.)
I say toss it over one or two more times and see if anything falls into place. I'm not sure anything does, really. The human mind has such a strong tendency to keep searching for meaning in things until some kind of meaning is found. I could be susceptible. And so could you.
Imagine yourself stepping out of a limo onto a red carpet runway, with lots of people calling out your name, throwing confetti, saying how great you are and offering you sweet smelling stuff.
Sound good? There's a beautiful Great Vehicle practice called 'equalization,' in which you are asked to imagine something just like that. But during the same meditation session you also imagine its opposite, a huge monstrous figure holding an axe and saying terrible things about you. Then you bring up the two images together, testing your reactions to one and the other by turns, in the process equalizing them.
One general point that comes out in my own reading of Padampa's no. 1 is this simple recipe, which you can try yourself if you get a chance. Take one spiritual teacher with long years of meditative experience. Surround her with a circle of admiring disciples all singing her praises, eager to take over the mantle of their guru some day. Wait a very short while. What comes out of the oven? Remaining good qualities of the teacher = zero. Spiritual progress of the students = zero. Sum total? Zero or one big minus.
If past experience is a guide, Padampa is never nonsensical, no matter how obscure his expressions. For things that still don't make sense to me, I keep faith that they one day will. Or if they already make some sense, I imagine that someday they will make more.
More to read if you have the time or the inclination:
Aśvaghoṣa, Life of the Buddha, tr. Patrick Olivelle, Clay Sanskrit Library, New York University Press (New York 2008). This is a bilingual edition, including only the parts that are preserved in Sanskrit with an English translation (the remainder, surviving only in Tibetan and Chinese, is very briefly summarized near the end of the volume). The Clay Sanskrit Library produces uniformly beautiful books. See this review by Prof. David Shulman from The New Republic.
J. Bronowski, The Visionary Eye: Essays in the Arts, Literature & Science, MIT Press (Cambridge 1989), reprint of 1978 edition.
Albert E. Dien, The Sa-pao Problem Re-Examined, Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 82, no. 3 (July 1962), pp. 335-46. This has a rather technical discussion about words for 'merchant' and 'merchant leader' in various languages where Buddhism spread. It's in JSTOR if you can get to it.
Michel Foucault, Omnes et Singulatim: Towards a Criticism of Political Reason, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, delivered at Stanford University, October 10 and 16, 1979. No matter what you may think about the author and his influences, there is an intriguing argument here about the no not Roman, no not Greek, but Middle Eastern origins of the 'shepherding' model of leadership and its continuing influences. (Did he never hear of Orpheus? And what was this brainiac's problem with the Middle East exactly?)
Klaus Karttunen, Śalabha, Pataṅga, etc. Locusts, Crickets, and Moths in Sanskrit Literature, Cracow Indological Studies, vols. 4-5 (2003), pp. 303-316.
Peter Khoroche, Once the Buddha Was a Monkey: Ārya Śūra's Jātakamālā, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 1989). Read story number 14, on Supāraga. The English translation is beautifully done (write to UCP and ask them to reprint it if they haven't already), but if you prefer you can read it in Sanskrit or Tibetan (the Chinese is not recommended).
Jamgön Kongtrul the Great [Kong-sprul Blo-gros-mtha'-yas, 1813-1899 CE], The Teacher-Student Relationship, tr. by Ron Garry, Snow Lion (Ithaca 1999).
Johan van Manen, An Occult Law: The Pupil is Apt to Exaggerate the Teacher's Greatness, Adyar Bulletin, vol. 6 (1913), pp. 102-110. I haven't seen this piece by the well-known Dutch Theosophist Tibetologist, but it would seem to be somehow relevant. There is a brief tribute to the "now largely forgotten" van Manen by Yang Enhong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences located here.
D. Martin, The Woman Illusion? contained in: J. Gyatso & H. Havnevik, eds., Women in Tibet, Hurst (London 2005), pp. 49-82, but especially p. 74 ff., on Padampa's demand that women break free of their normally oppressive social roles by renouncing worldly preoccupations (not quite the same as most modern feminisms, of course — feminists agree about the oppression and the need to break free from it, but most are primarily preoccupied with furthering women's accomplishment of worldly aims).
Andy Rotman, Divine Stories: Divyāvadāna, Wisdom (Boston 2008), Part 1, story no. 8, on Supriya. Supriya was a former existence of the Buddha who led his life as a caravan leader.
Śāntideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, trs. by Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion (Ithaca 1997). There are several nicely done translations of this classic text. I favor this one, partly because it makes good and careful use of both the Sanskrit and the Tibetan versions and partly because it reads well.
Ani Tenzin Palmo, Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism, Snow Lion (Ithaca 2002), chapter 12: The Role of the Spiritual Master, pp. 205-221. The author, a London-born Buddhist nun, spent many years in meditation retreat in Lahul. Several months ago she underwent an enthronement ceremony at the hand of the Drugchen Rinpoché, and is now known as Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo.
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Given the centrality of the spiritual teacher or Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, it's a wonder more hasn't been written on the subject. There is an old article by Herbert Guenther, The Spiritual Teacher in Tibet, contained in: Tibetan Buddhism in Western Perspective (Emeryville 1977), pp. 178-195. There is another article by Alex Wayman, reprinted in Untying the Knots in Buddhism, Motilal (Delhi 1997), pp. 205-222. There have been several studies and translations of the Gurupañcāśikā (Sanskrit text here) attributed to Aśvaghoṣa, most recently Tsongkhapa, The Fulfillment of All Hopes: Guru Devotion in Tibetan Buddhism, tr. by Gareth Sparham, Wisdom (Boston 1999). One of the most interesting writings in English on the subject, if you can find it, is the very traditional yet concise presentation by Thubten Chodrak Yuthok, The Excellent Method for Cultivating Guru Devotion, Written for the Faithful Youth, The Tibet Journal, vol. 7, no. 3 (Autumn 1982), pp. 35-45. For a more detailed but equally traditional discussion see Chapter 6 of Patrul Rinpoche (Dpal-sprul Rin-po-che), Kunzang Lama'i Shelung: The Words of My Perfect Teacher, tr. by the Padmakara Translation Group, Harper Collins (San Francisco 1994), pp. 137-166. Notice also the chapter in the book by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, listed above. This, too, is a traditional approach, but with an additional effort to communicate with seekers in the West. Also eminently worthy of notice is an entire book on the subject by Alex Berzin. Hmm. That seems like quite a lot. I still wonder why more hasn't been written on the subject.
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If you haven't heard much about makaras before, have a look at Khandro Net. And if you have never heard of William Blake, here is the perfect place to get started. Read slowly. If you've read much of him already, you'll be amazed & craz'd by the Blake Digital Archives. The robin photo is from Rampant Scotland. There is a bit on Padampa at Wikipedia, but it needs work. You can get The Little Clay Cart for free. The sea-going vessel you see here is on a building in Venice.
For my part, may I be a protector for the unprotected,
A caravan leader for those who have set out on the road,
A boat, a ship and a bridge
For all who wish to cross to the other side.
bdag ni mgon med rnams kyi mgon | |
lam zhugs rnams kyi ded dpon dang | |
brgal 'dod rnams kyi gru dang ni | |
gzings dang zam pa nyid du gyur | |
• Śāntideva's Engaging in the Career of a Bodhisattva, chapter 3, verse 18.
When the world is swept along crooked paths,
he toils in search of the right path.
So, it's no more right to harass that guide
than to harrass a skilled navigator
while the caravan is lost...
Seeing the world plunged in the great flood of samsara
and unable to find the other shore,
This man is working to ferry that world across;
What gentleman would entertain
wicked thoughts against him?
• Aśvaghoṣa, Life of the Buddha, tr. Patrick Olivelle, p. 395.
|Another Makara and Merchant Ship Scene, |
This One from Borobudur