Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Awakening To Prana" by Chip Hartranft (Part 3)

Considering that my wife and I are expecting a baby any day now, I thought I’d post as much as I can now, knowing some days may pass after labor begins before I can get back to this. But there’s no rush in “keeping up” as anyone is free to comment on any post, including the earliest ones at any time.

Today, we enter into the second half of Chip’s essay, beginning with the section entitled “The Yoga of the Buddha.”

The Yoga of the Buddha

Chip makes a strong assertion in his very first sentence, saying that “A careful exploration of the Buddha’s Yoga, both through practice and analysis, finds it virtually indistinguishable from the praxis elucidated by the Yoga Sutra. Is this so? From my own reading, study and practice, I offer a qualified agreement. I have long found much support for my practice in the model offered in the Yoga Sutra, and in many ways the meditational practice found there can be called a from of Samkhyan vipassana.

In terms of ethics, in terms of meditational approach, and in terms of many aspects of practice, the Yoga of Patanjali and the Yoga of the Buddha are indeed indistinguishable. However, one big difference in the meditational approach is that in the Buddha’s Yoga, “Samyag Samadhi” (variously translated as “Right Concentration” or “Right Meditation”) is defined as entering into the first, the second, the third and the fourth jhanas, similar to the first four samadhis elucidated in the Yoga Sutra. It was from the fourth jhana that the Buddha is said to have discovered (uncovered?) the truth of “things as they are” and thus led to realization or awakening.

For Patanjali, it most certainly seems that the process of concentrated interiorization of consciousness leading beyond the eighth samadhi and into a vision of reality he refers to as the dharma-megha-samadhi from whence liberation occurs. The import of this is that very few of us will ever likely become virtuosi of meditation, moving into such deep levels of samadhi. And the good news from the Buddha is that we don’t need to!

An important parallel between Patanjali and the Buddha, as Chip makes clear, is that for both of them, the primary means by which humans come to freedom is through “seeing,” (vidya). In this sense, both are soteriological forms of practice based upon “knowing” rather than theological forms of salvation through faith or belief. This, I believe is clear, despite those theistic yogis who interpret Ishvara as some kind of God. And what needs to be seen, is that awareness, free or empty of any characteristics is already and always free, as already mentioned in my previous post.

I really like Chip’s approach to the all-important concepts of vidya/avidya, and abhyasa and vairagya. These last two are the twin poles of yogic practice. As I point out to my students, the most basic meditation instructions point to the necessity of these two principles: “Bring your attention to the breath. Notice when the mind wanders, and bring it back to the breath.” All of this is primarily the practice of abhyasa. And vairagya is the mental stance we need to take to the wandering itself. Letting go of all reactivity (the irritation, frustration, aversion, grasping and clinging) to the mental activity, we practice this ‘non-reactive’ stance, over and over.

The Intention To Awaken

Elsewhere in this blog, we’ve discussed the importance of intention, and of grounding ourselves in the intention to awaken. The Daily Practice for this month of September, in fact, is an example of this in the morning recitation of the “Awakening Gatha:”

Awakening this morning,
A brand new day is before me.
I (vow/intent/aspire) to live each moment fully,
And to look upon all beings
With eyes of compassion.

As Chip says, the Buddha is exhorting us to keep at the forefront of our consciousness the clear intention to awaken. It is helpful to keep in mind that the word we generally translate as “mindfulness,” sati (smriti in Sanskrit) is related to the word for memory!

The Current of Prana

In this section, Chip reminds us that for the yogi/ni, the energetics of the body is of utmost importance, and it is through the breath that we gain entry into the energetic body. It may seem to some a bit pedantic to seem to belabor the point about what is meant by “the body,” but believe it or not, this has been a long-term debate within the Buddhist Yoga tradition, and has profound relevance to those of us who wish to practice hatha-yoga as an integrated practice of Yoga; which is to say, a comprehensive practice bringing the meditational stance and mind to the practice of the movements and postures of hatha-yoga.

I fully agree with Chip, who echoes completely the argument made by one of my root teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, that the “whole body” mentioned by the Buddha is indeed the whole body and not the “body of the breath,” because one has had to pay attention to the whole body of the breath in the earlier practices in order to see if the breath was long or short! After all, how would you know if the breath were long or short without paying attention to the whole breath!?

With the inclusion of the whole physical body, we who practice hatha-yoga can see how the body and the breath inter-are; how the breath conditions the body and the body conditions the breath. I write about this in great detail in my contribution to the book, so I won’t belabor the point here.

Tomorrow, if labor hasn’t already begun by then, I will conclude our examination of Chapter One and look forward to continuing with the contribution of Roshi O’Hara.

In metta
frank jude


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  6. Regarding the debate around the meaning of "whole body", in my experience I feel the energy flow within the body when I bring my whole body (head to toe) into awareness. I became aware of this spontaneously a couple months into my sitting practice simply by focusing on the breath. Now I can do it "at will" and see that the "prana and apana are indeed flowing at this very moment" as Chip says.

  7. That sounds wonderful, Matt!

    In all this, something I've not drawn real attention to is how in both the Classical Yoga and Buddhist Yoga traditions, there is often a gap between what the original texts seem to say, and what the commentarial traditions have to say. Many folk just accept the commentaries without question, which I think is a mistake. We must read the source texts (and if in translation, then many different translations) to get a sense for ourselves.

    I think many students think it 'disrespectful' to critique these traditions, but if we do not bring our critical thinking to them, rather than engaging with live texts, we simply become dead text fundamentalists!

  8. Frank Jude, which translations of the Yoga Sutra and other source texts would you recommend to start with?

  9. Matt, I would recommend the translation by Georg Feurstein, which though on the 'dry' academic side, is among the most literal. Then the translation by Chip Hartranft which is clear and a bit more readable.

    For early Buddhist discourses, I would recommend starting with a wonderful anthology called "In The Buddha's Words" by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

    That should be plenty for a start! :-)