Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Club: "Awakening To Prana" by Chip Hartranft (Continued)

Today’s post is perhaps the most challenging for me as I need to address a subject I confess I am not as clear upon as I would like to be. Michael Stone and Chip Hartranft are both better educated than I am, as well as much more subtle thinkers than I, so when we come to a point of disagreement, I want to tread carefully as I am not sure I understand their position well enough to summarize it, and therefore I’m a bit anxious about misrepresenting their perspective. I will invite both of them to comment, of course.

Discrimination and Freedom

Chip begins this section accurately describing Patanjali’s position that consciousness (citta) as part of mind and therefore of Prakriti, does not "know." Consciousness is a display known in the space or emptiness of awareness (Purusha). The discriminating insight (viveka) is recognition of the difference between consciousness and awareness, and is something that must be seen directly. Of course, this direct seeing can only occur once the agitation of mental and physical reactivity has been calmed down, hence the importance of yogic (meditational yoking) practice.

For Patanjali, freedom from the misidentification of awareness with consciousness is only possible once the distinction is clearly seen. Awareness (Purusha) is other than Nature (Prakriti). It is, as Chip translated, “of a different order than unfolding nature.”

Throughout the ages, it is this understanding of Patanjali’s that Purusha and Prakriti are of two different orders, shared with the Samkhya school of philosophy, that has been acknowledged by scholars and yoga practitioners to be of a dualist nature. While most of the Yoga tradition adheres to a non-dual (or perhaps more accurately monist) philosophical orientation, dualism is not unknown. There is even a dualistic form of Vedanta, though the non-dual form is by far more known and influential – especially upon the contemporary practice of Yoga.

For Patanjali, this direct vision sees that suffering is in fact simply an artifact of consciousness (and thus Prakriti). Awareness, Unconditioned Knowing is, and always has been, untouched by suffering! Awareness is impersonal and timeless, beyond conditions, therefore beyond suffering. As Chip points out, the yogi doesn’t really become free from anything. Awareness was always free. The whole drama of bondage and liberation is played out in the mind (Prakriti) while Purusha had been the disinterested witness all the while!

Phenomenologically, it does indeed feel like there’s a distinct difference between awareness and consciousness. Imagine yourself thinking, “I am so confused!” How do you know you are confused? Is the awareness of your confusion confused? Of course not! It clearly knows confusion is present. Awareness has no sense of “I” in it either. It is a “pure subjectivity” with no “self” in it. Thus it can never be “known” as a object of knowledge. Awareness itself simply “is.”

But, when we take this experience as an ontology, like I believe Patanjali intended, then this duality is understood to be ‘real.’ In fact, this is also the understanding of Theravada Buddhism.  Remember I said in the ocean of the Yoga Tradition, we’d find some schools of Buddhism that had more in common with schools of Hindu Yoga than with other schools of Buddhism? This is one of those cases!

The distinction between Purusha and Prakriti in Patanjali’s Yoga is similar to the radical distinction between samsara and nibanna (nirvana) of the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

Yet, Chip and Michael argue that those who make the case for Patanjali’s dualism are missing the point. I am not clear as to how they come to deny the dualism of Patanjali. In conversation with Chip, I said that unless Patanjali were to declare “Purusha is Prakriti; Prakriti is Purusha” echoing the non-dual emptiness teachings of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, we cannot escape Patanjali’s embedded dualism. He did admit that such a formulation would be alien to Patanjali.

This philosophical point, I believe is worthwhile investigating because even if one wants to argue that these are just words, metaphors, such metaphors have significant impact on the way we view the world. For Patanjali, it makes no real sense to speak of jiva-mukta, embodied enlightenment or embodied liberation. For Patanjali, full liberation is a dis-embodied, fully transcendent state of being! The state of kaivalya arises when the gunas, of no more relevance to awareness, become resolved into the unmanifest Prakriti. For Patanjali, (and the Theravadins) nature, this world, only has significance or value to the extent it serves us to transcend it! At the conclusion of this section, Chip seems to imply that Patanjali endorses the jivan-mukti position of embodied freedom, but I remain unconvinced. Of course, this  doesn’t mean we cannot re-interpret the text to give support to this idea, but let us acknowledge that that is what we are doing.

But again, the real sticking point for me is this teaching that there is a “pure awareness” that stands apart from the constructs of birth, identity, thought and experience. Even in the Buddhist tradition there has been on-going debate about the existence of some kind of “pure awareness.” For dualists, this is not a problem, as they assert that there really are two ontologically real ‘substances.’ To my mind, some ‘middle-way’ perspective that sees the two as interdependently arising seems both to make sense and to resolve the issue of dualism and/or non-dualism.

The question may arise as to what’s the big deal? For me, I want a spirituality, a spiritual practice that values the body, the world, this life rather then seeing it all as simply something to be emancipated from! For me, the liberation is in the transformative relationship to the body, the world and to life that comes from seeing directly the not-Self nature of all of it.

The Indian Buddhist yogis, for instance, used this “not-Self” doctrine as a way to devalue the conventional, relative world. Later Buddhist yogis of the Hua-yen school essentially discussed the doctrine of emptiness similarly to the Indian masters with the main difference being one of emphasis. That difference is that the Hua-yen masters chose to emphasize the point that emptiness is interdependence. AND, simultaneously, they emphasized that interdependence is emptiness. So, even for the Chinese, emptiness functioned as a way to critique the conventional mode of perception and experience, thus devaluing it. However, at the same time that the perception of emptiness abolished the clinging and grasping after independently existent selves or substances, there also emerged from this metanoia (a turning in the mind) a very positive appreciation for the way in which things relate to each other in identity and interdependence. The Hua-yen masters interpreted emptiness in a positive manner without concretizing emptiness as did some other Mahayana schools, but neither did they fall into the greater error of even greater attachment to the world, nor did they abandon the basic Buddhist understanding of conventional experience as delusive and painful. So, by “positive,” I do not mean to infer that they see emptiness as some positive force or entity. What I do mean, is that in its emphasis on interdependent being (what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘interbeing’), Hua-yen was able to retain a positive, even joyous, creative appreciation of the absolute value of each aspect of this being.


  1. Nondualist Classical Yoga?

    Ever since Ian Whicher’s book The Integrity of the Yoga Darśana (1998), it has become almost fashionable among some prominent Western scholars dealing with Yoga to attribute to Patanjali a nondualist metaphysics. Because of this popular interest, I recently produced a book entitled The Yoga-Sūtra: A Nondualist Interpretation (2010). I based my consideration on the Sanskrit commentaries by such staunch vedāntins as Vijnāna Bhikshu (16th century) and Nārāyana Tīrtha (17th cent.). Frankly, neither of these two savants makes much of an argument for a nondualistic interpretation of Patanjali`s work, though this framework is simply assumed.

    In my book, I reaffirmed my earlier position, namely that in my opinion Patanjali adopted a modified version of Sāmkhya ontology, which distinguishes Awareness (cit = purusha) from the Cosmos (prakriti)—the ultimate reals of this system. The Yoga-Sūtra is very clear about the path to liberation, which requires that one carefully discerns purusha from prakriti. The term for this is viveka, which must be applied in the ordinary waking state and then, in an intensified form, also in the diverse states of ecstasy (samādhi).

    Patanjali makes the point that there is a quasi connection between purusha and prakriti, which he names samyoga. This terms means something like “conjunction” and is often translated as “correlation.” It is evident from the Yoga-Sūtra that this is not a substantive contact between these two ultimate reals and that Patanjali uses the medium of metaphor to express what really is inexpressible.

    The dualistic ontology of Sāmkhya and Classical Yoga is admittedly not very satisfying or even convincing; no dualistic philosophy is. One of the consequences is that liberation (called kaivalya) can happen only after the demise of the physical body. (continued below)

  2. (continued from above) By contrast, nondualism offers the possibility of “living liberation” (jīvanmukti), which is more attractive, especially for modern people and more especially for those who want to be able to claim liberation for themselves now.

    It is true that the Yoga-Sūtra contains some phrases that are more appropriate in the context of nondualism rather than dualism, but Patanjali’s overall philosophical edifice points overwhelmingly to dualism. I critiques Wilber’s work when it was first published, and so I won’t repeat myself here.

    I myself would like Patanjali’s system better if it was nondualist, but I think this is not the case. The term kaivalya points us, I believe, in the right direction. It means “aloneness” or “isolation,” which beautifully describes ultimate Awareness (that is, the transcendental Self) when it is not clouded by the activities of the Cosmos (including the mind!), which occurs upon liberation.

    When the Self is realized in its own form—upon death!—then it is pristine, by itself, alone at least in terms of the empirical mind. What this means in actuality, no one knows. But there is no Cosmos, no mind, no body for the liberated being. Yet, the Cosmos as a whole continues for everyone else, as Patanjali is eager to explain in the Yoga-Sūtra.

    Now, sincere there is no mind in liberation, there also can be no confusion, which would make the state of liberation highly desirable and a welcome change from our ordinary life.

    In the end, all philosophies are inadequate expressions of what is the case. Every philosophical system contains absurdities or presumptions. I am siding with the great Buddhist teacher Nāgārjuna and with Wittgenstein’s dictum “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

    When we do open our mouths to philosophize, we ought to know that we inevitably distort reality to whatever degree. Shankara did. Patanjali did. Wittgenstein did. And so do I. It’s therefore best to consume anyone’s philosophical pronouncements with a grain of salt.

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my post, Georg. I too read with interest Ian Whicher’s book, but was unconvinced as to his conclusion. In this context, I remember the huge stir caused by our study of the Yoga-Sutra during the YREC Yoga Teacher Training. So many of the students thought they were either missing something, or completely mis-understanding Patanjali because they convinced Patanjali must be "right" and therefore "unquestioned." You looked out at us and very strongly told the group "You do not have to accept everything in the Sutra!"

    You comments above reminded me of an interesting essay on Patanjali Bob Thurman wrote for "Yoga Journal" over a decade ago, where he concludes:

    "When we think of abiding in one's own essential reality, we tend to think of floating in a blissful void, perhaps in union with all beings on the level of our/their formless essences but gone forever from the relative world of differentiations. The calculation school seems to encourage this by picturing purusha (spirit) as divinely aloof from matter. And the superscience shools also encourage this by talking of no more life, no more death, no more self and other, and so forth. In short, the essential reality is pictured as union with the ultimate disconnection from everything.

    "Here it may be better to maintain a nondualist perspective, insisting with insightful compassion that the Absolute Union must also encompass the magnificence of the myriad relative realities. The deepest, most essential reality of the here and now could not become a thing apart and still be here and now. A thing apart, even a presumed absolute, could only be elsewhere and out of time. So our deep experiencer, our divinity, our buddhahood, our Brahma-being, abides free in reality, joyfully embracing all beings and things with infinite love and skillful creativity."

    His final paragraph resonates with much of my final paragraph relating to the Hua-yen school. I would part company with Thurman only in his last sentence where I believe he lapses into the essentialist, substantialist perspective the Hua-yen avoids.

    Finally, while I completely agree with your final two paragraphs putting all philosophizing in context, those who read your comment out of the context of your life-work may be derailed into thinking you are critical of all philosophizing. All anyone need do (other than read even one of your books!) is to check out your blog to see how wrong such a conclusion would be!

  4. Thanks Frank! Two salmon swimming up the “same” river. We’re all just blowing bubbles, but some of us mistake the bubbles for the river. As my brother-in-law likes to say: “It’s all good.”