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.