Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mindfulness Yoga Book Club: "Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind"

The "Foreward" by Robert Tenzin Thurman 

I’d like to ‘ease’ into our reading and discussion of this anthology, edited by Michael Stone, first so that we can enter into the spirit of the book and to encourage (hopefully) thoughtful dialogue. Second, I’d like to give people a few days to get the book – if they haven’t already – and to begin reading. Third, it’s good to access where we are before beginning and to orient how we’d like to proceed.

Robert Thurman’s “Foreward,” sets out the topic of the book as being “Yoga and Buddhism.” We might want to take a moment and ask ourselves just what we are referring to by these two terms. From my side, Yoga (with the capital “Y” and which I sometimes refer to as ‘the Yoga tradition’ is the large body of teachings and practices – with an emphasis on practices – coming from the various cultures of the  Indian sub-continent. The practices are what Georg Feurstein calls “psycho-physical technologies’ designed to transform one’s bodymind in a radical way such that one transcends the ‘typical’ human existential situation, from one of duhkha to one of freedom (moksha).

This leads to the further inquiry as to how does this definition differ from what we may say of Buddhism? I would argue, ‘not at all!’ Where things get interesting is when we speak of the various ‘yogas’ and then there are many differences to be uncovered. But, as I hope we shall see, there can be larger differences between two Hindu yogas then between some Hindu and Buddhist yogas!

Thurman has often insisted that Buddhism must cease to function as “Buddhism” for its various methods to have the biggest impact on modern (western) culture, and in many respects I agree with him. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said, the west is not in need of another religion! Thay has said that Buddhism can have its biggest influence on modern culture through psychology, ecology, and feminism. I would simply add that it is as a form of yoga, that Buddhist practice can perhaps influence and permeate all the other areas.

An important point Thurman makes is the necessity for one’s “taking responsibility for one’s own health, cultivating a stronger sense of meaning in one’s life, finding the inner strength to express joyful altruism, and developing artful connoisseurship toward enjoying every minute as if it is the ultimate in every sense.”

Our culture tends to support a rampant sense of ‘victimization,’ whereby we seek to blame others for our situation. This is most absurdly evidenced by a case I’ve read about where a burglar sued a homeowner for an injury the burglar sustained while attempting to break into the man’s home!

But the Dharma teaches us that we create our life’s meaning; that our response in the world determines our happiness; and that each moment is indeed ‘absolute.’ Right here and now, we can choose the actions that will determine whether we live as free people or as victims. In Zen, we chant the Gatha of Atonement (at-one-ment) as a practice of remembering (mindfulness) of this fact:

All unwholesome karma ever committed by me since of old,
Because of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance,
Born of my body, mouth, and thought,
Now I atone for it all.

With this expression, we take back any power we have given over to others to determine our happiness and freedom. With this expression of strength, we assert that we will not be victims; that we acknowledge that no one can, for instance, ‘make’ us angry.

Thurman ends his “Foreward” by speaking a bit about how during the fifty years of his teaching and practice of the Dharma, “it seemed that Americans were intently preoccupied with the pursuit of money, status, possessions, and experiences of pleasure, and unrelentingly unconscious of the impact of their lifestyle on the world around them.” He speaks of how little training in ethical consideration, and in the mind’s higher faculties of concentration, mindfulness and wisdom’s critical insight we are given. This truth points again how truly 'counter-cultural' authentic yoga is -- or 'should' be!

Thus, he says, books such as this are essential to the curriculum of ‘hopefully ever greater numbers of students’ in order for them (us) to be prepared to live meaningful, productive, self-less, satisfying lives, and in so doing, to enter fully into a positive, contributive relationship to our globalizing society.

It is my hope that this blog, and our joint investigation and discussion (of this book, specifically, and of our Daily Practice, generally) can help us all to cultivate such meaning, joy, compassion and wisdom!

Poep Sa


  1. Your comments about this book make me want to forward it to the world to stop blaming others outside of yourself for your own reactions. Is that me wanting to change the world.. Thank you for the blog, the book, and the practice! I have started reading the daily gatha and have noticed a slight shift. Just smiling to the day is delightful!

  2. The first chapter is wonderful. Stuff I've been thinking about. I am just in awe that somewhere in our evolution, someone thought of turning inward, and that as a result, we know so much more about ourselves. Not unlike psychoanalysis that developed in the West.

    “It would be useful if we could recognize that all these various disciplines – music, painting, psycho-analysis and so on ad infinitum – are engaged on the same search for truth.”
    Wilfred Bion (1978)(Psychoanlyst)